Yesterday the Vatican appointed a new auxiliary for Washington, D.C., forty-five year old Bishop-elect Barry Knestout. This is a big feather in the cap of D.C.’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl: Getting such a young auxiliary through Rome’s sometimes arcane appointment process is not easy. Wuerl, of course, has declined the invitation from conservatives and from some of his more extreme fellow bishops to refuse communion to pro-choice Democratic politicians.
Last week, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri was a candidate for chairman of the U.S. Bishops Conference Communications Committee. Finn, it will be remembered, said those thinking of voting for Barack Obama should consider their eternal salvation. He garnered 97 votes, losing to Los Angeles’s Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala who received 129 votes. Zavala went on the record before the election to assert that Catholics need not be one-issue voters. Major committee chairmanships are rarely awarded to auxiliaries so Zavala’s victory was especially striking.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas made headlines last spring when he instructed that state’s Governor Kathleen Sebelius to abstain from receiving communion because of her pro-choice stance. At the conference, Naumann argued persistently for the entire episcopal bench to adopt his "no communion" policy for pro-choice politicians. Naumann was a candidate for the Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. He lost to Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo 165-59.
To be clear: All bishops are opposed to abortion. That is not the issue. At issue is how the bishops should conduct themselves in the public square. Bishops hate to disagree in public so you are not likely to hear more moderate bishops publicly say what must be said. But, yesterday a Vatican source said it on background and pointed out that I can say it in the light of day: These bishops who want to turn the altar rail into a battlefront in the culture wars, these clergy who wish to drag the Church’s teaching into the partisan arena, these prelates who believe that their approach to a complicated legal issue is the only approach, they are extremists and they are a minority within the hierarchy. They stand outside our American traditions of political behavior and outside our Catholic traditions of episcopal governance. They are Pharasaic in their skimpy appraisal of the super-abundance of God’s mercy and delusional in their assessment of the political landscape.
The ad limina visits have been delayed until 2010, so the Holy See will not speak comprehensively to the American hierarchy until then. But the Holy Father would be well advised to make a statement in his selection of new bishops: No Pharisees. And, the USCCB deserves credit for sending the same statement in their selection of new committee chairmen: No extremists.