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When America's bishops debated their "Faithful Citizenship" document at their annual meeting last November, a faction led by Cdl. Blase Cupich and Bp. Robert McElroy crafted a strategic ploy. Seeking to remove the depiction of abortion as the bishops' "pre-eminent" concern, they advocated reducing it to the status of one issue among many on their "social justice" agenda.
Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler objected, insisting that "pre-eminent" remain in the document. Philadelphia Abp. Charles Chaput supported him, citing the views of Pope Francis in endorsing the term's prominence in the text.
Ultimately, bishops voted 143-69 in favor of keeping the "pre-eminent" language. But the bureaucracy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wasn't listening. As David Nussman reports for Church Militant, the bishops' decision was ignored by the conference staff. The video series, purporting to reflect "Faithful Citizenship" faithfully, focuses instead on familiar social justice issues — period. References and images featuring climate change, immigration and poverty abound. Unfortunately, and clearly by design, the pre-eminence of the bishops' pro-life focus is nowhere to be found.
USCCB staff involved in the video project tell Church Militant that the project was funded through the Catholic Communications Campaign. Funds for the Campaign are raised through a special collection in every U.S. parish during the first week of June. Which means that the faithful in the pews are paying for it. Are we getting our money's worth?
Well, the deceptive videos have now been published with the USCCB's imprimatur, touted as representing the bishops' authoritative views. The series is designed for use by every parish in the country.
But wait — doesn't the videos' grievous failure even to mention the "pre-eminent" issue of abortion violate the eighth Commandment? And, now that the videos are public, who can correct the failure of the communications staff to communicate? Where is the bishops' clearly-stated position regarding the critical importance of every human life?
That vexing quandary confronts Bp. Michael Burbidge of Arlington, who assumed the Chairmanship of the USCCB's Office of Communications in November 2018.
Bishop Burbidge is not one to shrink from a crisis. He has strong views regarding the plight of the unborn. When the bishop returned to Arlington after last November's meeting, he forcefully supported the USCCB's decision. In his weekly podcast with Billy Atwell, the diocese's director of communications, he strongly defended the bishops' decision to continue Faithful Citizenship's focus on the preeminence of the Church's pro-life efforts:
There was some debate on that language [at the November meeting] but ultimately the body of bishops voted overwhelmingly [in favor of the Strickland-Chaput position, defeating the motion of Cupich-McElroy]. Of course, that letter stands as it is. The stance against abortion is the pre-eminent priority. How could it not be? We have to get it right from the beginning. Our stance on life ... that is our pre-eminent priority. We have to fight against this evil.
Bishop Burbidge then made a gracious bow to the Cupich-McElroy faction, referring to the statement of Philadelphia Abp. Charles Chaput, who had "offered a beautiful clarification on the floor, and he said I think it's been very articulated throughout the years from the bishops' conference that pro-life is the pre-eminent issue, as is our stance against abortion."
"And to say that doesn't diminish in any way the other issues that come under the umbrella of the gospel of life. To say that this is the pre-eminent priority doesn't diminish the dignity of all the other issues that deal with life," Bp. Burbidge repeated.
Well, the videos are out and the facts are in: USCCB staff blithely ignored the bishops' emphatic decision and rolled out a message that drowns the pre-eminent issue of abortion in a sea of "seamless garment" swill.
This was not a mere oversight: the videos were slick, produced at a high cost and with the input of several departments in the conference. USCCB sources tell Church Militant that a major advisory role was played by the USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church. Did the conference's Committee on Pro-Life Activities play a prominent role? Our sources didn't mention it. And they didn't mention Chairman Burbidge, either.
In their current form, the USCCB "Faithful Citizenship" videos represent a slap in the face of the majority of America's Catholic bishops. They convey a grossly distorted message that turns on its head not only the bishops' most important vote taken last November, but also the USCCB's long-standing stance that Bp. Burbidge insists has "been very articulated throughout the years."
Life — the beating heart of Catholic social doctrine — has been put on the shelf. What is to be done?
Bishop Burbidge is clearly the man in charge. Only he can demand that the videos be remade to deliver a message that is truly faithful to Faithful Citizenship. But if Chairman Burbidge makes that demand, will his staff comply?
Bishop Burbidge has a steep mountain to climb. Let's face it, the "seamless garment" legacy of the late Cdl. Joseph Bernardin and Theodore McCarrick lives on today. It thrives not only among the bishops but within the conference's permanent bureaucracy as well. And while in November the bishops voted two to one in favor of keeping abortion "pre-eminent" among the Church's concerns, the conference's deep state staff is stacked in the other direction. Even though they represent only a minority of the bishops, their power is secure. Whatever officers the USCCB's periodic "elections" might name, the McCarrick Machine still runs the show.
To correct that staff's deliberate dereliction of duty, Bp. Burbidge will have to confront the malevolent McCarrick Machine. Is he up to it?