Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Naumann Wins – In Bench Shocker, Cardinal's Pro-Life Bid Combusts

BALTIMORE – Just as it did on another Tuesday seven years ago this week, the Floor shook a bit first thing this morning.

Upending the last ironclad tradition of the Stateside bench, the USCCB denied its most prominent chairmanship to a cardinal, choosing Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas as its next Pro-Life Czar in a 96-82 vote over Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

The result represents the most surprising major conference vote since this week in 2010, when the Kansas prelate's fellow St Louis native, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, bested the sitting vice-president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, to take the body's helm. Now, Naumann will succeed Dolan as chair of Pro-Life Activities in late 2018 after the usual yearlong transition. Having served as auxiliaries together in the "Rome of the West," in what was viewed as a stealth sign of support, Dolan tapped Naumann to fill in for him as the life committee's representative at yesterday's lunchtime press conference.

Aside from the conference president and his deputy, the Pro-Life chair is essentially the only prelate whose national duties require daily contact and coordination with the bench's Washington headquarters, reflecting the church's marquee public square concern in the era since abortion was legalized nationwide in 1973. While scores of advocacy letters, pastoral materials and action alerts are issued through the year in the chairman's name, the post's visibility reaches its annual peak on the eve of the January March for Life, when the chair leads hundreds of the US hierarchy in celebrating Vigil Mass in Washington's Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for tens of thousands of pilgrims on-site and a global TV audience.

Giving Naumann his first chairmanship after nearly two decades as a bishop, today's result flips that of 2008, when the archbishop lost the Pro-Life post to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo by a 165-59 vote. Long devoted to a robust defense of the unborn – to the point of publicly calling on Kansas' then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius (later an Obama administration Cabinet Secretary) to refrain from receiving the Eucharist due to her support for legal abortion – the incoming chair is the US church's first Pro-Life Czar to have pursued that degree of open friction with a pro-choice public official. As with the choice of a non-cardinal for the seat, this thread defies a long-standing history of relevant conference votes; in the most evocative example, after becoming the bench's most prominent advocate for sanctions, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke lost the chair of Canonical Affairs and Church Governance by a 60-40 margin in 2007. (Just over six months after that vote, the Wisconsin-born canonist was brought to Rome by Benedict XVI as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the church's "chief justice," then given the red hat.)

While rhetoric surrounding today's ballot portrayed the faceoff as a kind of Armageddon on the nature of the church's pro-life witness – which, by longstanding tradition, has placed the unborn at the center – with abortion policy currently at a de facto stalemate, the prime challenge arguably facing the national life-desk is a burgeoning push at the state level for the legalization of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, the practice now permitted in six US jurisdictions (led by California and the District of Columbia) and under consideration in several others. Backed by a well-funded lobbying effort with a formidable messaging component, the way the issue has begun to track has been compared to the gradual advance of same-sex marriage in the early to mid-2000s.

All that said, as the run-up to today's election saw no shortage of invective and sensationalism hurled by activists and commentators across the ecclesial spectrum, finding one dominant thread in reading the result doesn't hold water. To recall the conference's time-honored moniker, a "flock of shepherds" might come to a shared conclusion, but in this case, 96 voters likely had just as many reasons for bucking a decades-old custom. In other words, with the ink still dry, parse the result at your own risk – at least, for now.

In that light, the pro-life vote was the most-watched of seven ballots for conference slots from which no overarching interpretations can be drawn – indeed, looking at each, the traditional key factors of seniority, prominence or geography went heeded in some races and dispensed in others, with little to no ideological pointers likewise to be found.

Even more than the respective national portfolios today's winners will take up in the leadership of the nation's largest religious body, with their selections, the incoming committee chairs will each have seats on the 30-man Administrative Committee – the USCCB's steering body, which meets four times a year to guide the conference's agenda and oversee its work outside of the June and November plenaries.

As previously reported, this meeting's major snapshot of the body's mind will come in Wednesday's closed-door executive session, when the bishops elect the four-man US delegation to next October's global Synod on Young People.