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Truth in Advertising: Bishops Are Not Leaders in Fight for Civil and Human Rights

May 20, 2010

Late yesterday afternoon, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meekly followed the marching orders it had received from conservative Catholic advocates and withdrew from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, made the announcement, claiming that the decision was made because the Leadership Conference “took one more position in opposition to USCCB policy, this time taking a stand on a Supreme Court nominee.”

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights had previously announced its support for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan—a nominee who some argue supports a prochoice position on abortion.

Bishop William Murphy, the chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Peace claimed that the LCCR had adopted an “expanded and broadened agenda.” He continued, “The interests of the Leadership Conference and those of the USCCB have diverged as the LCCR has moved beyond advocacy of traditional civil rights to advocacy of positions which do not reflect the principles and policies of the bishops’ Conference.” Bishop Murphy cited specifically the Leadership Conference’s decision to advocate for or oppose nominees for the Supreme Court, a practice that Murphy claimed “clearly contradicts USCCB policy and compromises the principled positions of the bishops.” But the Leadership Conference has been doing this since at least the nomination of Samuel Alito, whom the group opposed. So why the sudden decision to withdraw from the coalition?

In a statement, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, “It is clear that the USCCB is now completely beholden to the extreme conservative wing of Catholicism. Earlier this year, the bishops sought to defeat the healthcare reform proposals that came before Congress because they felt that their demands on the rejection of funding for abortion had not been met fully. Now they have decided that their work on human and civil rights may also be jettisoned because of a nominee’s supposed position on abortion. I say supposed, because we know little about Kagan’s views on abortion. In fact, all that is public so far is that in 1997, when she was an adviser to President Clinton, she encouraged the administration to impose restrictions on late abortions. This position, which Clinton accepted, was opposed by prochoice advocates. This is hardly the work of a prochoice zealot.”

O’Brien continued, “The bishops are abrogating their responsibilities to US Catholics. Theirs is a powerful position, one from which we expect them to lead in favor of civil and human rights and in favor of healthcare reform. In recent months, they have shown that it is more important to them that they placate the demands of a few loud conservatives than to promote civility, human rights and social justice.”