Archbishop Joseph Naumann, a former chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, recently noted that he was “sad” with the Vatican’s seeming insensitivity to the controversy surrounding Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Joe Biden. Both public officials describe themselves as Catholic, and both have vigorously supported a “right” to abortion and other issues directly opposed to Catholic belief.
Archbishop Naumann’s comment was both admirable and generously diplomatic. He also warmly applauded Pope Francis’s subsequent remark that President Biden’s support for permissive abortion was “incoherent.” Unfortunately, merely acknowledging Mr. Biden’s “incoherence” on abortion doesn’t begin to capture the real sentiments of many faithful Catholics and other good people who worked long and hard to overturn Roe v. Wade. Many are frustrated with their leaders, both political and ecclesial.
It's important to remember that the Holy See is unique. The Vatican has a duty to seek and maintain contact with a very wide range of governments and public leaders, some less savory than others. But political discretion on the world stage can never be an excuse for local bishops to avoid speaking the truth, and—worse—to decline to provide counsel and encouragement to faithful Catholic public officials seeking their support. Therein lies a story.
Earlier this month, I received the email below from two elected local officials in a major diocese west of the Mississippi. I share it here with their permission. I’ve eliminated any identifiers from the text; otherwise, aside from a modest edit for readability, it stands as I received it. And it invites some useful reflection:
We are writing to you as two committed Catholic officials who are sincerely seeking to maintain fidelity to the Catholic faith that defines us while serving in the midst of a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to the very notion of carving out space for practicing Catholics to do so.
We both currently serve in full-time elected office here in [withheld]. Over the past couple of years, we have noticed the increasing and open hostility toward those of us who will not compromise our deeply held Catholic convictions in the area of Pride Month and celebration of the LGBTQ agenda, as well as our stance on the sacredness of all human life from conception to natural death. We have been increasingly pressured to advocate for and celebrate the LGBTQ Pride agenda in June for the past couple of years. Our stance in this area has consistently been that we will advocate for anyone, whether a member of the LGBTQ community or another, to have the same rights, protections, and opportunities that everyone is entitled to. Additionally, we have publicly advocated for the importance of every person’s dignity and the necessity of completely respecting everyone in our respective jurisdictions—including, certainly, those of the LGBTQ community.
What we won’t do, however, is celebrate or advocate for the lifestyle choices that this movement is pressing for so forcefully in our community and nationwide. Before the past two or three years, this seemed to be acceptable; but that is no longer the case as those in this LGBTQ community, as well as the politicians who are advocating for their agenda, now insist on us checking our faith at the door of the public square and joining in celebrations, proclamations, and other avenues of approval for Pride Month along with the agenda that it is promoting. Our refusal to do so has been met with a stiff and very hostile response from this loud minority within our jurisdictions. The situation is similar in regards to uncompromising pro-life stances, particularly in the current atmosphere post-Dobbs.
We are fine taking the political heat for these stands, though it is quite uncomfortable at times, but we had sincerely hoped for dialogue along with guidance and support from [our bishop]. We believe that things are only going to get more difficult for those of us in public office in this area of the country who are seeking to maintain our fidelity to our faith while serving in elected office. Before going further, we want to stress that we are in no way seeking to denigrate [the bishop] here in [our diocese]. We respect him as God’s ordained authority at this time in [our diocese], and we respect the office that he holds.
With that said, we made a concerted attempt to reach out to [our bishop] through a staff member whom we know with the desire to meet and gain some clarity on how practicing Catholic politicians should navigate these situations within his jurisdiction, and were hoping as well for some level of support, as one of the problems we face is that a certain Catholic hospital near us within this [diocese] flies a gay Pride flag, making it more difficult for us to reconcile our stands to a secular world that sees our own Church leadership moving in the other direction in many ways. The written response that we recently received [from our bishop] was that he refused to meet with us, citing, among other things, his desire to stay out of the political arena. We were extremely discouraged with this response, as were some laity aware of our situation and several priests, one being our parish priest. These individuals, and particularly our parish priest, have been especially strong in standing with us and standing up themselves for these issues—for which we are very grateful.
In the absence of any desire for dialogue, support, or direction on the part of our [own bishop], we were hoping to gain some insight from you. We realize that time or other circumstances may prevent this, but we thought we would at least try.
[Remaining text deleted]
Critics might argue, of course, that the situation as described in the email is misrepresented, or exaggerated, or entirely made up. Maybe so; such things are possible. But an honest reading of the text suggests something quite different: a reasonable appeal for counsel from prudent civil servants with no desire to publicly embarrass their bishop.
So what’s my point? Simply this. It’s “incoherent,” and worse, for the Church to urge her people to be leaven in society—to be real disciples and gospel witnesses; to stay faithful to her teachings in their public lives and public service, despite the cost—if her own pastors lack the courage, or the common sense, to offer them encouragement and support.
To put it another way: We have leaders like Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Biden because we deserve them.
Charles J. Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, is the archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia.
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