Bishops Elect Moderate to Lead Pro-Life Committee

Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has been elected as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities, beating out Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit.

You may remember that Cardinal O’Malley—who regularly attends the national March for Life and has called it a “tragedy” any time abortion restrictions are lifted—nevertheless drew criticism in 2009 from some in the anti-abortion movement for not only permitting, but presiding at, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s funeral mass, given the late senator’s voting record on abortion. Cardinal O’Malley particularly raised the hackles of Archbishop Burke of St. Louis, who reportedly intimated that O’Malley was under the influence of Satan. In response, Cardinal O’Malley called for civility. In a lengthy blog post about the funeral, O’Malley warns against being nasty in the name of a cause one believes in:

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.

Likewise, it was Cardinal O’Malley who took to his blog in 2010 to defend the decision to allow children of same-sex parents to attend Catholic schools in his archdiocese, while also taking care to praise the priest who had acted to remove the child from school.

Looking at these and other moments in Cardinal O’Malley’s recent career, it seems clear that he sets out to uphold and expound official Catholic teaching but prefers—indeed, considers it his calling—to do so kindly, and not to unduly alienate anyone in the process. Amy Sullivan, who wrote about the Burke/O’Malley dustup for Time, recently speculated that O’Malley’s leadership of the Pro-Life Activities Committee would likely be characterized by a “less partisan approach.”

Assuming this will be the approach O’Malley takes, though, how will it track with the USCCB’s more partisan elements? Will his conciliatory demeanor run him afoul of the more zealously partisan? Or could it be, rather, that this was the very reason for his election? Michael Sean Winters’ observations of the Baltimore meeting are potentially instructive here. Winters suggests that while there are some pugnacious bishops spoiling for a public fight, many have other, more pragmatic, goals:

There are some bishops who would like a “war” with this White House. These are the same bishops who used some highly charged words about President Obama, who repeat GOP talking points about Obama being the most pro-choice president in history, and who slammed the University of Notre Dame for inviting him to give the 2009 commencement address. But, in speaking to bishops at lunch and over coffee breaks, you get the clear impression that most of them do not want a war on issues like conscience protection, they just want to win.

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