The Committee of 434

U.S. bishops say life is their "pre-eminent issue." How about a little action?

In a recent post here, I reminisced about the “Committee of Ten Million,” Gil Durand’s 1973 lay initiative to amass ten million petition signatures to be delivered publicly to Congress demanding a Human Life Amendment. Ten million signatures in 1973 would have been about five percent of the U.S. population, but Durand had a plan to reach such a daunting number: If the Catholic Church in the United States (which, in 1973, was deemed Ground Zero in opposition to abortion) were to use its parish network to gather those signatures, the whole project could be finished in two months. Durand dreamed of a massive, Catholic-inspired political shock-and-awe campaign that would have constitutionally protected the unborn, the ill, the aged, and the incapacitated.

His dream became a pipedream because the Church in the United States did what it does best on pro-life activities: it sat there and did nothing.

My essay [linked here] looked at that initiative from the eyes of a teenager just cutting his teeth on civics, pro-life activism, and public engagement. Would the Committee of Ten Million have succeeded? Who knows? I can say that, in 1973, not everybody was convinced Roe stood on such solid ground as it appeared to some people. The authors of The Almanac of American Politics, for example, suggested back then that a Human Life Amendment, had it reached the floor of the House of Representatives in the 93rd Congress, might have had a chance. (The Senate was another question). But, of course, we can thank another “Catholic” Democrat — New Jersey’s Peter J. Rodino — for making sure it never reached the floor.

Durand envisioned mass political resistance/opposition to Roe, which he believed only the Church could galvanize. It didn’t.

Quite independently of my memoir about the Committee of Ten Million, I learned later that week that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had circulated a proposed rule to exclude pro-life pregnancy centers from eligibility for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) grants. Some states deem those centers eligible to participate under TANF, but the HHS rule would bar them. I wrote an appeal [here] for people to send in comments opposing the rule. I concluded that essay with a vehement rant at the uselessness of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). I noted that I learned of this rule change — a rule change that affects vulnerable people and rather vulnerable crisis pregnancy centers (which, unlike Planned Parenthood, don’t get six or seven figure grants from state or federal governments) — on day 59 of a 60-day comment period.

Why was this not news in every Catholic parish since the beginning of October?

For those who think me impolite or impolitic in criticizing the bishops, let me offer this observation. As of 11 am on December 1, roughly 12 hours from closure of the comments period, the Federal Register said it had received 3,700 comments on the proposed rule and posted 249 of them. So, since the bishops proved useless when it came to the Committee of Ten Million, let me propose “the Committee of 434.”

Right now, there are 434 active or retired Catholic bishops in the United States. If every one of them sat down, wrote, and submitted his own comment on this rule, we’d almost triple the number of posted comments on the matter. The bishops said this is their “pre-eminent issue.” Discrimination against pro-life pregnancy centers (and the underprivileged/indigent they serve) ought to be a priority for those claiming their preference for the poor and those on the peripheries. Seems worth a couple minutes.

Now, having done that, let’s let the retired bishops go and take their rest and the auxiliaries go off and be helpful. Let’s focus on the 157 bishops who head dioceses.

Now, imagine if their 157 graces talked to ten people in their chanceries — don’t even have to write a long pastoral letter, just buttonhole ten other collaborators: the Vicar General, the Moderator of the Curia, the Director of Cemeteries. Let’s say each bishop even gave those collaborators his language and asked them to submit it. That would be 1,570 more comments, practically half of the current pool. Ready to live on the wild side? What would happen if those ordinaries alone kept going and sent out that appeal to their pastors? Not even their people, just their pastors? Or did something, you know, really demanding, like send a group email? In most dioceses, that’s at least 50 pastors x 157 diocesan bishops = 7,850 potential new comments.

We have now just doubled the total number of received comments and, presumably, doubled them from a pro-life viewpoint.

Please notice that even though we have doubled the numbers of postable comments and the total number of comments received, we still haven’t even forced those bishops to break a sweat, sit down, and write a “pastoral letter” to their people. All we did was ask the bishops themselves and their closest collaborators — their chancery people and their pastors — to send something that could essentially be a form letter sent out by group email with the request “do it.” Just asking select chancery folks and pastors to act would generate nearly 10,000 comments.

I’m not even going to suggest what could happen if we got the USCCB bureaucracy and state Catholic conferences involved. You’ll think I’d been smoking some of that funny-smelling stuff that’s legal here in DC.

We are not talking a major funded, well-greased political action committee here. I guarantee you, the K Street lobbyists are not going to be copying your “Super PAC.” We are talking about what could be easily done by a bishop or, more likely, a bishop’s secretary/administrative assistant in about 30 minutes. We are talking about basic civic messaging.

Gentlemen, this is not rocket science or Politics 501. And it can all be done by the “Committee of 434.” That is, if the Committee of 434 believes its own words and thinks life is the “preeminent issue” with which Catholics in the United States should be dealing.

Anybody up for an examination of conscience? Advent is a good time for that.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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