National Catholic Register


Contrasts of 1998: Light and Darkness

BY Joseph Esposito

December 27, 1998-January 2, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/27/98 at 2:00 AM


WASHINGTON—1998, a year tainted by a president, found hope in a Pope.

President Clinton's misconduct in office fueled debates at every level of public and moral discourse, polarizing the nation and bringing him to the doorstep of impeachment.

Life issues kept in the spotlight, as Congress struggled but failed to override presidential support of partial-birth abortion. While pro-life advocates worked diligently on a number of initiatives at the state and national levels, a major network saw fit to broadcast a videotape of an assisted suicide on prime-time television.

The author of the Gospel of Life, meanwhile, marked the 20th anniversary of his pontificate with a vigor that seems undimmed with time. Pope John Paul II continued his extraordinary pace of pastoral work, making a historic visit to Cuba in January. In October he published his 13th encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason).

Yet, at year's end, the media spotlight was not on the accomplishments of the 78-year old pontiff, but on the impeachment process in Washington and the American air assaults on Iraq. Clinton said he ordered the assaults because Iraq refused to let U.N. inspectors determine whether it had destroyed its stocks of biological and chemical weapons. Skeptics, however, believed the timing of the raids was influenced by the imminent impeachment vote.

December's constitutional showdown arose out of a titillating soap opera involving the president and a White House intern that first surfaced in January. Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, said of the drama, “Perhaps the remarkable thing was the maddening gyrations of whether character matters.” In an interview with the Register, he likened it to whether “breathing of oxygen matters” to humans.

Pro-Life Efforts

Congress had little to show for its pro-life efforts in 1998. Once again, an effort to override Clinton's veto of a ban on partial-birth abortion failed. It pained and outraged many pro-lifers that 10 Catholic senators—nine Democrats and a Republican—supported this procedure which has been likened to infanticide.

Nevertheless, Helen AlvarÈ of the Office of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Catholic Conference, said, “It was a year in which education continued to move the ball on the pro-life effort. We were able to convince more and more members of the House and Senate.”

Father Neuhaus said he believes these efforts will eventually bear fruit: “The pro-abortion forces are on the defensive. That should be taken as encouragement.”

For now, victories are hard to find. Time and again, so-called moderate Senate Republicans helped to bottle up pro-life legislation approved by the House of Representatives. The Child Custody Protection Act, for example, passed the House by 126 votes but was killed by a procedural vote in the Senate.

The House, which had a 19-member Republican margin in the outgoing 105th Congress, also voted to curb federal testing and approval of the abortifacient drug RU-486. The effort died in the Senate. The House held a hearing on the Hyde-Oberstar bill, which would have halted physician-assisted suicide, but neither the full House nor Senate voted on it.

This hearing, which brought attention to the new Oregon law on assisted suicide, showed that end-of-life issues were surging to the forefront of public attention. The debate then grew as three events took place.

The most personal and agonizing for many was the so-called euthanasia death of 44-year-old Hugh Finn in Manassas, Virginia. Finn, badly injured in an automobile accident three years earlier, had a feeding tube removed by his wife while he was in a nursing home.

Finn's case attracted the attention of Virginia's governor as well as vocal advocates on both sides of the question. It prompted sharp dialogue on what means are medically and morally feasible to keep alive people in or near a persistent vegetative state.

Finn died after feeding was withheld, and groups such as Human Life International, the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force, and Not Dead Yet were enraged.

At the time of Finn's death in early October, an intensified effort was under way in Michigan to defeat a ballot proposal to allow physician-assisted suicide. Acoalition of 32 groups, including the Michigan Catholic Conference, formed the organization Citizens for Compassionate Care.

Michigan is the home state of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a high-profile advocate of assisted suicide. The referendum was a serious effort to overturn a state law which would have prohibited his techniques. The coalition, with strong support from Adam Cardinal Maida of Detroit and other state bishops, helped to defeat the initiative by a 71%-29% vote.

Three weeks after the vote, on Nov. 22, Kevorkian appeared on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Here the suspended medical pathologist was shown giving a lethal injection to a 52-year-old man suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. Kevorkian's ploy was designed in part to force the issue; he wanted to be charged with murder. And he got his wish.

Another key event in 1998 for life issues was the appointment of ethicist Peter Singer to a chair at Princeton University. Singer, an Australian, champions animal rights, defends abortion and infanticide, and questions the value of physically handicapped people. Singer's presence at Princeton, Father Neuhaus says, will sharpen the battle lines between the cultures of life and death.

Meanwhile, with the support of a coalition of Catholic and Christian activists, voters in Alaska and Hawaii approved ballot initiatives which prohibit so-called same-sex marriages and reinforce traditional marriage.

The Arts and Media

In another area, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and its president, William Donohue, helped to cripple the ABC series Nothing Sacred. More than 37 advertisers opted out of the show as the result of low ratings and pressure from the League and other opponents. Donohue said his was the “first Christian organization to effectively use a web site to accomplish a boycott.”

Also targeted was Corpus Christi, a play whose homosexual protagonist is portrayed as a Christ figure. Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists were among the 2,000 protesters who demonstrated against the play at its Oct. 13 opening night in New York. “An unmistakable message was sent to the theater community,” Donohue said. The play's scheduled run ended in November.

Papal events

Pope John Paul's Fides et Ratio was widely and swiftly hailed as a landmark document. Three months earlier, in July, the Holy Father issued the apostolic letter Dies Domini (The Day of the Lord), on keeping the Lord's day holy.

On March 16 the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews released We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. Coming after 11 years of discussions and four years of active drafting, the document calls on Catholics to reject antiSemitism, reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust, and repent for not doing more to save Jewish victims.

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, a prominent adviser on the document, had told the Register: “There has been a fundamental change in Catholic-Jewish relations. But this still has to siphon down in the Catholic and Jewish communities; it is a three-generational matter.”

That slow process might account for the Jewish criticism of the canonization of Blessed Edith Stein on Oct. 11. Some Jewish leaders complained the Vatican was insensitive to Jewish feelings by honoring a woman who converted from Judaism and became a Carmelite nun.

Not so, said Father Neuhaus: “In raising up Edith Stein, the Holy Father has done an exemplary thing, he has done what he should have. The Church has shown an admirable clarity in advancing and elaborating the spirit of Nostra Aetate,” a key 1965 document on relations with Jews.

He added, “A few parties in the world of organized Judaism—particularly the Anti-Defamation League—have tried to throw a wrench in Catholic and Jewish relations. They have failed.”

While also strengthening ties with other religious denominations, notably the Lutheran and Muslim faiths, the Pope continued to interact with U.S. Catholic bishops. He held 13 ad limina meetings with the American hierarchy and discussed a variety of issues with them; one was a restatement of his pro-life views to Western bishops in early October.

As the new millennium approaches, the Vatican continued to announce guidance for the celebration of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. A papal bull, Incarnationis Mysterium, was announced Nov. 29, and it discusses pilgrimages, the holy door (which opens Dec. 24, 1999), and indulgences.

The Holy Father's most visible role in 1998 continued to be his pastoral travels. He has now visited 119 countries. The year's most significant trip was the several days he spent in Cuba. There he raised the banner of Catholicism and continued his longstanding rebuke of communism.

His January 1999 trip to the Western Hemisphere will include a visit to St. Louis.

The Church at Home

In the United States, bishops were involved in drafting documents with important influence on the direction of the Church. Perhaps the most significant was the adoption of Living the Gospel of Truth: A Challenge to American Catholics, a pro-life manifesto adopted at the bishops’ November meeting in Washington, D.C.

According to Helen AlvarÈ, who was involved in preparing it, “The work on this and the final debate marked a new clarity, a new strength, and a better voice on pro-life matters. It's a document we're really looking forward to implementing in the coming years.”

At that same meeting, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston was elected president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference. He replaced Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, who completed a three-year term.

Bishop Fiorenza was succeed as conference vice president by Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the first African-American to be elected to that post.

A few weeks later, the Holy Father named Colombian Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, a veteran diplomat, as the new pro-nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States. He succeeds Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, who had served in the position since 1990 and will now head the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See.

Meanwhile, other Catholic organizations continued to sprout and grow. Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, editor of Ignatius Press, launched his Catholic Radio Network on Oct. 30. After some delay, radio stations were initiated in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, Mo., Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Philadelphia.

Estimating that the new network will reach 50 million people, Father Fessio has said, “This is a momentous opportunity to have an authentic Catholic voice in the major media.”

In May, Catholic Twin Circle became Catholic Faith & Family, a magazine assisting parents in forming true Catholic families. In June, the Catholic Press Association recognized that the National Catholic Register had become “a leading ‘newspaper of record,’” and gave it the top award for “general excellence.”

In December, “Register News Weekly,” a half-hour program of news and commentary, a service of the National Catholic Register, aired for the first time on EWTN shortwave radio.

Also growing was Human Life International, the world's largest pro-life organization, which opened another overseas office, this one in Rome. The Cardinal Newman Society, committed to reinvigorating Catholic higher education, held its annual conference at The Catholic University of America and continued to prosper.

The March for Life marked a milestone by observing its 25th march on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Perhaps as many as 200,000 pro-life advocates peacefully called attention to the idea that “the right to life is vested in each human being at fertilization.”

1999 will heighten attention on the new millennium. When the Holy Father issued the apostolic letter Tertio Millennnio Adveniente in 1994, he outlined preparations for the last three years of the millennium. After focusing on Christ in 1997, the faithful were called to center attention on the Holy Spirit in 1998, and finally on the Father in 1999.

In one passage especially appropriate for year's end, the letter says: “The approaching end of the second millennium demands of everyone an examination of conscience. Christians need to place themselves humbly before the Lord and examine themselves on the responsibility which they have for the evils of the day.”

Joseph Esposito writes from Washington, D.C.