Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wash. Times: Bishop to shun Steele's address

Interview in magazine triggers snub

Ralph Z. Hallow
Sunday, March 22, 2009


A Roman Catholic bishop in Indiana will shun a pro-life banquet if Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele addresses the sold-out event, The Washington Times has learned.

The other honoree at the April 16 Vanderburgh County Right to Life (VCRL) banquet is Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and the snub by Bishop Gerald Andrew Gettelfinger of Evansville over Mr. Steele could embarrass Mrs. Palin, a hero to pro-lifers, and reverberate throughout the movement.

"At this point, the bishop's intention is not to attend the dinner he would normally attend," Paul Leingang, communications director for the diocese and editor of its weekly newspaper, the Message, said. "The bishop has had a conversation with Mr. Steele and has informed [VCRL Executive Director Mary Ellen] Van Dyke that his early decision not to attend still stands."

Mrs. Palin, an evangelical, is twinned with Mr. Steele, a Roman Catholic, as the featured attractions at the banquet, billed as the biggest such event in the nation and expected to attract more than 4,500 people.

Nor will Bishop Gettelfinger be the only prominent area pro-lifer to shun the banquet over Mr. Steele. Evansville Catholic Charities Director Jim Collins also plans to boycott the gathering, saying he was "shocked" by Mr. Steele's answers on abortion during a recent interview.

In an interview with GQ, published in the latest issue of the magazine, the reporter asked, "Are you saying you think women have the right to choose abortion?" According to GQ, Mr. Steele said, "Yeah. I mean, again, I think that's an individual choice." The reporter then said, "You do?" and Mr. Steele said, "Yeah. Absolutely."

However, he also said the Supreme Court "wrongly decided" the 1973 case that struck down state limits on abortion and made it a matter of individual choice. And on the day after GQ posted the article on its Web site, Mr. Steele backtracked, saying "I am pro-life, always have been, always will be" and reiterating his statement that the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling was flawed.

"No pro-life person could have answered the way he did," Mr. Collins said. "I don't care how he dances around it afterward, he is not a pro-lifer," he added, contending that Mr. Steele's presence would thus tarnish the event.

"The banquet has always been the high point because the speaker was always someone who had impeccable pro-life credentials - who had actually accomplished something to protect human life in the womb," Mr. Collins said, adding that he has "not found one credible achievement by Michael Steele" on pro-life issues.

The expected attendees have yet to learn of the decision by Bishop Gettelfinger, 73, to shun the banquet as all sides have labored to keep secret the decision, and private negotiations were held involving the banquet organizers, the bishop and the local Catholic Charities director.

But the talks collapsed after a Thursday afternoon meeting of the Vanderburgh County Right to Life board when the panel secretly voted, after contentious debate, to honor the speaking contract it had made with Mr. Steele, which predated not only the GQ remarks but even his Jan. 30 election as chairman of the Republican National Committee, the GOP's 168-member governing body.

"Mr. Steele was contracted to speak last fall," Mrs. Van Dyke said.

A last-ditch conversation between Mr. Steele and the bishop failed to reach an agreement, making final the bishop's decision to avoid the gathering.

Bishop Gettelfinger had written a warning letter to Mrs. Van Dyke that laid out his objections to Mr. Steele's scheduled appearance at the banquet. The bishop has repeated publicly to politicians in his own diocese Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 worldwide warning to Catholic politicians that they risk excommunication from the church and should not receive Communion if they support legal abortion.

When Mr. Steele learned his planned appearance had become an issue, he telephoned Mrs. Van Dyke and convinced her that he was genuinely pro-life.

"We have done our due diligence," Mrs. Van Dyke said. "Michael Steele has made the board of directors more than satisfied with his response regarding the GQ article. He told us he always has been and will be pro-life and against abortion in all cases."

Having publicly stated his intention to try to heal differences between pro-life and pro-choice Republicans, Mr. Steele has belonged to two pro-choice groups - the Main Street Republican Coalition and the Republican Leadership Council. He has variously maintained that he has been unintentionally imprecise on the abortion issue, that GQ distorted his answers and that he supports the GOP platform's call for a constitutional ban on abortion.

But Bishop Gettelfinger said in his letter to VCRL that "the principled answer for us is that there can be no equivocation: Intentional abortion is an act of killing the unborn. There is no room for choice in this deadly matter. Mr. Steele assiduously avoids such strong language."

The bishop's letter, parts of which were read by Mr. Leingang to The Times, balances condemnation with some praise for other things that the GOP leader said in the GQ article, including highlighting his mother's decision not to abort him.

"Mr. Steele is to be applauded for drawing attention to the other side of a woman's choice in detailing for us his mother's choice to put him up for adoption," the bishop says in his letter.

Mr. Leingang also said he has told VCRL that he is "writing an article in our diocese's weekly newspaper opposing Mr. Steele's appearance."

The deadline for articles is Wednesday morning, and the newspaper will be printed and distributed Friday.

The banquet, which had Cal Thomas as its main speaker last year, is testimony to the drawing power of Mrs. Palin among pro-lifers. Almost immediately on the announcement that she would appear, tickets promptly sold out, even though a majority of them are not in the banquet room.

"We expect 2,180 people to attend the banquet," Mrs. Van Dyke said. "Another 2,500 tickets are available for a live feed broadcast in the auditorium."

Pro-life Republicans informed by The Times of the developments in Vanderburgh County agreed Mrs. Palin's appearance could tie her to a fuss in which she played no part. They also called the bishop's boycott an indication of how both the church and the pro-life community might continue to react to Mr. Steele's leadership of a political party with a platform that stands firmly against abortion.

But at least one pro-life conservative opposed Bishop Gettelfinger's no-show plans.

"The bishop would be foolish to a fault if he carries through with his threat to boycott because it has never been clearer how committed the Democratic Party's leadership is to opposing the pro-life community," said Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, which describes itself as a public policy group promoting traditional values. "While the bishop and others may be unhappy with what Michael Steele has said, the bishop and other Steele critics are profoundly naive if they think dividing the pro-life community is a good idea."

Besides, said Mr. Hanna, "I am not sure Steele's unfortunate phrasing quite constitutes the support for abortion that would warrant the bishop's staying away from the banquet."

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