This article first appeared on Beliefnet in November 2000.

Two years ago, a Catholic priest in Rockford, Ill., drove his car into a building that houses an abortion clinic, then emerged from the car with an ax and started chopping at the building. The building owner drove off the 32-year-old Father John Earl with a shotgun, and Fr. Earl was eventually arrested. Both his own diocese in Rockford and the neighboring Archdiocese of Chicago issued statements condemning his actions.

That strikes me as odd. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines abortion as tantamount to murder: an "abominable crime" that entails the taking of an "innocent" life. If you subscribe to that view, you should regard Fr. Earl as a hero, not a thug. If a young German soldier had tried to torch the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944, would not people today remember him today as a hero? If abortion is a holocaust of the unborn, as many in the pro-life movement contend, why should the Rockford priest not receive acclaim? How can bishops who denounce abortion as homicide not praise his bravery?

The Catholic hierarchy in America talks about abortion as if it were a ghastly crime. But most of the time acts as though abortion were just a minor problem. This gross inconsistency means either that the bishops secretly believe that abortion is as serious a sin as official church teaching says it is--or that they know in their heart of hearts that were they to practice what they preach, few in their flocks would follow them. I think the latter is more likely the case. The majority of lay American Catholics believe that abortion should be legal under most circumstances. If the bishops were, say, to praise Fr. Earl rather than condemn him, they would be ridiculed by the very Catholics they claim to lead. So, with a few notable exceptions, most bishops quietly accommodate the secular culture's abortion views.

The supposedly pro-life Catholics of New York ought to denounce Archbishop Egan to Rome on the grounds that he is publicly consorting with a killer, and they ought to demand his removal. Come to think of it why has Egan not told Catholics that it would be a grave sin to vote for Hillary Clinton, another pro-choice politician?

Am I not being unfair to the bishops? Is it right for me to demand consistency from them on such a difficult, unpopular issue? Well, I don't expect consistency from bishops, so maybe I am being unfair. Still I'm reminded of the saying from the Book of Revelation: "Would that you were hot or cold, but since you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of my mouth."

So the charade goes on. Even the Pope meets with Bill Clinton, who has twice vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion, and by the standards of the pro-life movement is no better than Hitler. How do all these prelates make sense out of their behavior? Isn't Fr. John Earl of Rockford more consistent more consistent and more virtuous on the issue of abortion than the hierarchs of his church?

Like I say, it beats me.

For example, Archbishop Edward Egan of New York happily sat next to Vice President Al Gore at this year's Al Smith Dinner in October, the traditional New York City showcase for presidential candidates. Gore is staunchly pro-choice. Does that not make him tantamount to an abortionists? Doesn't he indirectly encourage abortion by refusing to endorse restrictions on the procedure--and thus bear some of the guilt for America's 1.3 million abortions annually?

How can any archbishop sit down at a table with or even speak to a pro-choice politician? When Chicago's pro-choice mayor Richard M. Daly, walks into a room, shouldn't Chicago's Catholic Cardinal Francis George walk out? Why don't the bishops stand up for their principles? Why don't they follow the church's teaching on abortion to its logical conclusion and shun those who freely permit it? Bishop James T. McHugh of Rockville Centre, New York, forbids pro-choice politicians to speak on church property: Shouldn't all his brother bishops follow his example? Whey don't they encourage their flocks to go into open revolt against our abortion culture?

Most bishops will probably tell you privately that in a pluralist society, you must respect the rights of others to disagree with you. You don't tear society apart by engaging in acts of violence, even when your targets are those whom you believe to be mass murderers. This may be a logically tenable position. But you won't hear any bishops voicing it publicly, for fear of getting into deep trouble with Rome, which denounces abortion at every opportunity.

Doesn't it appear that the U.S. bishops are talking one line (which Fr. Earl of Rockford took literally, understandably enough) and practicing another? How would they explain their seeming inconsistency? Why didn't Archbishop Egan simply get up and walk away when Al Gore sat down next to him?

Beats me.

The truth is that the bishops know that such a gesture would be futile.

The American bishops cannot bring their pro-choice flocks into line behind them on abortion; they cannot even deliver their own membership on this supposedly critical issue. They have only themselves--and Rome--to blame. Thirty-two years ago, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical banning most forms of birth control, the bishops, like the Vatican itself, lost all credibility with lay Catholics on reproductive issues. They cannot, of course, admit that either, lest Rome be offended. So they have to pretend that their flocks are listening to them when in fact lay Catholics are paying no attention to official church teaching on everything from premarital sex to in vitro fertilization. Moreover, the bishops' denunciations of abortion, while at the same time being civil to, even eating with, men who are logically monsters of mass murder weakens the bishops' credibility even more.

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