Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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Location: 3103 Arlington Avenue,, Bronx, NY 10463, United States

April 9, 2009


In Canada in the 1970s,the abortion debate between pro-choicers and pro-lifers heated up. But, curiously, a rift developed within the Catholic camp. A group, termed "revivalist Catholics" by the media, bitterly attacked not only pro-choice doctrine but also the personages who favored it as evil. They also attacked the Canadian bishops, who favored a different tactical approach. Some responses to my last posting about Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama, indicate that Catholics are similarly divided today.

My post said nothing about whether it was wise or prudent for Notre Dame to have invited Obama. It questioned what to do about the invitation already extended. I proposed some answers to the questions of retired bishop John Quinn. Would retracting the invitation reduce the number of abortions? What would be the effect on the image of the Church? I think the answers are quite obvious.

The issue comes down to the legitimacy of dealing with a thoroughly pro-abortion Obama. Our bishops in their "Faithful Citizenship" document explain how a Catholic, clearly opposing the "pro-choice" position, could in light of other considerations vote for such an individual. Obama holds many positions in thorough accord with Catholic social justice doctrine. Pax Christ,a Catholic organization headed by Bishop Gabino Zavales, auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, has just commended Obama for his Passion Sunday address in Europe,in which he said we will seek US ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

A couple of responses I received chastised me for sharing Obama's views on abortion, which I certainly do not, and for other items unworthy of a priest. I have written articles condemning abortion in several publications.(Two that I can cite off hand: AMERICA magazine for 1-12-1991 and 6-21-2001.) In 1969, abortion-permitting legislation failed in the NY legislature by one vote; in 1970, it succeded by one vote. Assemblyman Al Blumentahl, the bill's sponsor, campaigned in early 1970 to win public support for his bill. At a "town hall" forum near St. Joseph's, where I was pastor,Blumenthal held forth. I was able to take the floor and debate calmly and effectively with him. A couple of extremist anti-abortion chaps screamed and yelled. They made a bad impression on the crowd; my approach received respectful attention.

Example of a pro-life tactical mistake: Prior to the 2000 election, pro-choice Hillary Clinton and pro-life Rick Lazio were campaigning for the NY seat in the US Senate. Catholic Charities of Rockville Centre arranged for nineteen Candidates' Nights throughout that diocese. Pro-choice Clinton and pro-life Lazio or their representatives would contend at these Candidates' Nights. Bishop James McHugh, the then RVC bishop and the Chair of the Pro-Life Committee of the USCCB,scuttled the arrangements because he did not want pro-choice advocates speaking on church premises. An opportunity was lost for voters to hear where each candidate stood and thus add to the prospects of Lazio.

Another example: In that 2000 election, politically astute Michael Brown and his Conservative Party endorsed Lazio and threw him their votes. The not-so-politically-astute Right-To-Life Party put up a John O. Adepope as its unwinnable candidate, thus siphoning off its voters who otherwise probably would have voted for Lazio.

Another example: In the two pastorates that I was privileged to serve, St. Joseph's on East 87th Street, and Epiphany on East 22nd Street, Candidates Nights were a regular feature, open to the entire neighborhood. In, I think, 1978, big hatted Congresswoman Bella Abzug, said to have been "born screaming", was unseated by Bill Green. At a Candidates' Night" at St. Joseph's, she bitterly attacked a tuition tax credit pending before Congress that would have benefitted parents of parochial school students. Green, spoke in support of the bill. I had become friendly with Bill and had discussed the bill with him. He clearly gathered votes that evening. For many reason, probably including his support of the tax credit bill, he prevailed over Lady Abzug in the election. (I will check details and dates.) Bella and Bill were both pro-choice. But it was helpful to have them present. The audience, heavily parishioners, came to know where each stood on the tax credit and other bills.

Final example: In 1992, Congressman Bill Green faced a challenge from Carolyn Maloney. At Epiphany, we held a Candidates' Night. A third minor candidate, whose name I do not recall,was on hand. All were pro-choicers and they knew where we stood. In the middle of the evening's discussion, the doors burst open. A group of extremist right-to-lifers rushed in, brandishing jars containing fetuses! We had to call the police in order to continue the evenings discussion. The well-intentioned intruders succeeded only in bringing discredit on the cause that we shared with them. Outsiders and parishioners were appalled at their behavior. Maloney prevailed in the election.,

As we face the Notre Dame situation, we can well reflect on the questions posed by Bishop John Quinn, which were summarized in my previous posting.

April 5, 2009


The President of Notre Dame has kicked up more than a dust storm by inviting President Barack Obama to give this year's commencement address. A Virginia-based Catholic watchdog group has announced that 54,000 on-line signatures have been collected, urging that Notre Dame rescind the invitation and not confer on him an Honorary Degree. This is not the first time that extremist abortion opponents have shot themselves in the foot. But this time they are shooting our Church in more than its foot.

Retired San Francisco Archbishop John R.Quinn has posed a number of significant questions to be reflected upon by the petitioners and those puzzled by the controversy. Quinn's questions, in summary, are these: If President Obama is forced out, will that diminish the number of abortions in our country? Will it further our pro-life efforts? Will it increase cooperation between the Catholic Church and the administration or will it create tensions and deepen hostility? Will it cause more people to join the pro-life effort? How will it impact on the image and mission of the Church? Might the banishment of the first African-American president from Catholic college campuses be seen as grossly insensitive to our nation's heritage of racial hatred? Will it be used to paint our bishops as supporters of only one political party? Will our Church be seen as not sincerely seeking dialoge but only acquiescence?

The obvious answers to these questions indicate the grave consequences of how this issue plays out. Until recently our bishops have resticted themselves to making judgments about policy, but not about political personages. That has changed. Some bishops have banned pro-choice candidates from Holy Communion; other bishops have told them not to approach the altar. This moves our bishops from confronting issues to confronting personalities. It is an historic move. It neglects the role of the personal conscience of candidates, most of whom are good people, but who erroneously give a priority to the freedom of women over the right to life of the unborn. It is a practice that is the basis of the charge that the Church puts a "don't vote" label on a pro-choice candidate by putting this public spiritual penalty on them without any inquiry process whatever. It is also contrary to our bishops' "Faithful Citizenship" document that counsuls broad consideration of many issues, not a narrow focus on one.

Despite radical differences on "pro-choice", NY's Cardinal Egan invited Obama, the then presidential-candidate, to speak at the 2008 Al Smith dinner. Cardinal O'Connor was a personal friend of pro-choice Mayor Ed Koch. He even wrote a book with him! Soon to be NY's archbishop, Timothy Dolan, has invited President Obama to his installation on April 15. Obama recently said it well: "We do not govern out of anger." We may well understand the outrage of the extremist anti- abortion people, but we Catholics cannot permit their anger to shape our relationships and the relationships of our Church.

Archbishop Quinn's questions, mentioned above, might well be suggested reading for those petitioning for the exclusion of President Obama from Notre Dame's 2009commencement exercises.

(My next post will review some counterproductive actions by extremist right-to-lifers that I have personally experienced.)