Catholic Activism

Wisdom on Windshields

Catholic Activism--Is it Worth It?

By Dr. Brian J. Kopp
March, 2001
From The Wanderer, National Catholic Weekly Founded
Oct. 7, 1867 - Our Second Century of Lay Apostolate Issue Date of 3-15-2001,
pages 1, 8

          Now that George W. Bush is safely installed in the White House, we seem 
          to have a little more hope for the immediate future of the Culture of 
          Life in America. As we plan our next moves and coordinate our activism 
          based on a more sympathetic administration, it may be worth doing a 
          retrospective look at some little known Catholic activism and ask, "Is 
          activism really worth it?" If, in the course of the speculation 
          and conjecture that follows, the reader can suspend skepticism for a 
          moment, I will examine the role of lay activism and its effectiveness, 
          and collateral issues such as obedience to our bishops wishes, in the 
          unfolding of the story of some courageous and faithful Catholic pro-life 
          activists from central Pennsylvania. 

A basic premise, given the election just past, is that Bush won by keeping social conservatives, especially the pro-life vote, within the camp. Bush's long time friend and pro-abort Republican Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, was long rumored to be at the head of the field of vice presidential candidates. Had George W. Bush chosen Ridge, it should be obvious to any objective observer that enough of the base would have walked away from the Republican party to give Gore the victory.

How did Ridge fall from VP frontrunner status back to the relative obscurity where a pro abort Republican belongs? The story goes back to Ridge's days as a little known US Congressman from Erie PA.

After an Erie area March for Life delegation met with a freshman Congressman Ridge in Washington on January 23, 1984, the March 1984 issue of the Erie Echo reports Ridge responded, "Does government have a right to force a woman to be an incubator for nine months for another individual?" Ridge served in the US Congress for twelve years during which time he was able to accumulate an almost perfect pro-abortion voting record.

While the remainder of the state had never heard of him, wealthy pro-abort Republicans, including Elsie Hillman, a wealthy pro-abort PAC contributor from Pittsburgh, tired of the pro-life Republican leadership of the 1980s, saw Ridge as a Catholic family man, veteran, and ruggedly good-looking candidate who could be quietly groomed, via the State Governor's mansion, for eventual national leadership, putting an end to the control of the party by the pro-life right wing.

To this end, Ridge was pulled from his relative obscurity in Washington to become a front runner for the Governor's position. Utilizing a campaign that emphasized his moderate to conservative positions, while minimalizing if not obscuring his pro-abort voting record, Ridge was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1994. Few Catholics, even pro-lifers, realized the depth of Ridge's pro-abort sentiment. It was simply assumed that Ridge was pro-life and his campaign rhetoric, if anything, supported that misconception.

The outgoing Governor Bob Casey was a faithful pro-life Catholic even in the midst of the moral rot of his Democrat party. Governor of Pennsylvania from 1986 to 1994, Casey persevered through the 1992 Supreme Court Case, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which challenged the constitutionality of 1989's Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. The law required parental consent for minors, a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, the filing of detailed reports about each abortion and distribution of information about alternatives to abortion, and was upheld by the Supreme Court.

In his campaign, Ridge pledged to uphold the victories hard won by Casey in defending the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act. His actions once in office belied his pro-abort stance and angered many Catholics who had voted for him. His complete failure to enforce the dictates of the Abortion Control Act proved Ridge's 1994 promise to uphold it was "campaign rhetoric."

It should have come as no surprise, however. While a Congressman, Ridge had initially supported Ronald Reagan's Mexico City policy, preventing US funds from going to overseas agencies supporting abortion services, then subsequently reversed his position. Just as one of Bill Clinton's first acts as President was to overturn the Mexico City policy of the previous administrations, one of Ridge's first acts was to overturn the 14 year old policy of Pennsylvania regarding family planning services. According to The Newsletter of Planned Parenthood of the Susquehanna Valley:

"...Since 1981, Pennsylvania has been one of only a few states that did not invest funds in contraceptive health services. Governor Tom Ridge made good on his campaign pledge to support funding for comprehensive family planning services by including $2.03 million for 'women's medical services' in his first budget...(legislators) inserted language that could have prohibited medical providers like Planned Parenthood from responding to patients' requests for abortion information or referral...Governor Ridge removed the ...'gag rule' language before signing the final budget. Ridge noted that he was 'expressly withholding (his) approval of that language'."

In May of 1995, Ridge emphatically stated that Pope John Paul II's new encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, would not cause him to reassess his position on the issue. In 1996, Governor Ridge joined other pro-abortion republican Governor in calling for removal of the pro-life plank from the Republican National Platform. Then during 1997, his Department of Health waived a requirement of the Pennsylvania Abortion Control Act that requires an abortion clinic to obtain a written transfer agreement with a local hospital, allowing a new abortion clinic to open in State College. Newspapers quoted the clinic's director as saying the waiver allowed the clinic to open early, and the first abortion clinic ever in the central Pennsylvania Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown was open for business.

On January 20, 1998, the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare mailed a Planned Parenthood brochure to all PA Medical Assistance recipients. According to the Pro Life Union Inc. of Southeastern Pennsylvania News Bulletin, Respect Life Sunday 98:

"State of PA Caught Marketing For Planned Parenthood: This past January, PA residents who receive medical assistance from the Pa. Dept. of Welfare (DPW) received a brochure in the mail promoting Planned Parenthood. It was titled, "We're More Than You Think." It listed the "services" offered and advised the recipient they could come to PP without a referral or insurance . . . Although the brochure arrived in an unmarked envelope, recipients recognized it as typical of mailings they receive from DPW. . . "

"On further investigation, it was learned that the postal meter numbers used for the mailing belonged to DPW. . . Finally, on April 10, a letter was written admitting that DPW had made an "arrangement" with PP of Chester County, whereby PP supplied the brochure, but DPW stuffed, addressed and paid the postage . . . Another interesting fact, not previously known, emerged in the newspaper accounts. Frances Sheehan, Exec. Director of PP of Chester County, stated that "the actual text of the brochure was reviewed and approved by the governor's office prior to printing."

In January 1998, Ridge was entering into his 1998 reelection campaign full swing, his greatest challenge coming from a pro-life Catholic independent, Peg Luksik. Already he was telling political allies and members of the press of his intention to be the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2000. It is against this clearly defined backdrop, of an ardently and publicly pro-abort, ambitious "Catholic" politician, that our tale of heroic Catholic activism develops.

In early 1998, in the same Diocese where an abortion clinic had opened seemingly unnoticed by local diocesan offices, the faithful pro-life Catholics who had been picketing that new abortuary in State College learned, to their horror, that the Governor who had made that clinic possible was coming to Altoona. This was not just a secular appearance, or even a personal meeting with Catholic leaders.

The Foundation for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, made up of prominent businessmen throughout the diocese, invited Ridge to be honored as the key-note speaker at the gala $125 per plate Sixth Annual Dinner on May 8, 1998 in Altoona, to raise money for their Foundations projects. Under the leadership of Frank J. Pasquerilla, now deceased, the Foundation failed to consider Ridge's pro-abortion stance. In their defense, they were simply looking for a speaker who would draw the most attendees. Pasquerilla was a friend and supporter of Ridge and had donated $43,000 to his campaign. Furthermore, one of Ridge's agenda items was vouchers for school choice, a concept that stood to alleviate the crisis facing Catholic schools in the dwindling population of rust belt central Pennsylvania.

The invitation had not yet been made public when spouses of Foundation members, also involved in the pro-life cause, became alarmed and alerted other Catholic pro-life activists who wrote to and met with members of the Board of the Foundation. They also pleaded for Bishop Joseph Adamec himself to intervene, to disinvite Ridge. Given the scandal to the faithful of his Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that having a pro-abort speaker at this prestigious dinner would engender, this was not an unreasonable request. The public was unaware of this brewing controversy. No face would have been lost, early in January 1998, if it had been quietly handled in the appropriate manner by Foundation members and the bishop himself.

Yet this initial effort was met with rationalization and outright refusal, on the part of the Foundation and the bishop, to reconsider. More letters and meetings ensued, with appeals to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon Law, the writings of Pope John Paul II, other American bishops, and Vatican II documents. Despite logical, cohesive, intelligent appeals, the diocese was steadfast in its resolve, and Ridge's invitation stood.

Led by Tom Forr, an attorney, George Foster, an advertising executive, and Mark Chuff, a counselor, the group was driven by the demands of conscience to continue their efforts. After all the normal channels available to lay Catholics for the correction of the situation had been exhausted, including appeals to other hierarchy, the group was at a crossroads, and the months until the dinner were slipping away.

Throughout the exchanges Bishop Adamec steadfastly insisted that it was his "determination" as bishop that having Ridge speak was simply not scandalous, and because no honors were being bestowed, technically no Canon Laws were being broken. Between the lines, in personal meetings and letters, a refrain emerged from the bishop's statements, that the laity themselves could become the cause of scandal in refusing to obey and abide by the bishop's "determination."

On the other hand, it can only be said that the pro-life group proceeded with caution, charity, and humility, in a true spirit of prayerfulness. These were not right wing "kooks and cranks" shooting from the hip at some perceived wrong. They were well educated lay men and woman fully versed in the teachings of their Church and the Canon Law and moral theology principles that guided their actions. Most importantly they were guided at every step by solid, competent spiritual direction. In all things they acted with a clear conscience.

When it became clear that the diocesan path of rationalizing Ridge's presence could not be altered by their efforts, a difficult decision was made to publicly oppose Ridge's appearance, despite the bishop's wishes. Once this decision was properly made and started to become public, a groundswell of grassroots support built quickly.

Utilizing his advertizing experience Foster organized a unified media blitz, posting pro-life bill boards, placing full page ads explaining the principles involved in local and regional newspapers, and getting Chuff and Forr as much media exposure as possible. As the event neared, regional newspapers reported on the controversy until it became a statewide story, eventually making it into the AP and UPI wires as well as the Washington Times. Chuff and Forr appeared on numerous radio broadcasts, making it quite clear that the problem did not lie with the local Church so much as with politicians like Ridge claiming to be both Catholic and pro-abortion, and being given the opportunity to speak as a Catholic at Catholic events. This was the primary focus behind the peaceful prayer protest that was being planned the evening of Ridge's appearance. Numerous small donations come in first from their own diocese but eventually from all corners of Pennsylvania. What began as a Catholic effort quickly became a broad ecumenical movement. The owner of the park adjacent and surrounding the posh restaurant where the event was planned even donated the use of the park for the prayerful protest.

Lamenting this course of events, Bishop Adamec wrote in his Random comments Column in the diocesan Catholic Register:

"WHAT ABOUT THE GOVERNOR? It would have been my preference to leave this issue for after Easter. However, it has been thrust upon me by certain individuals of Altoona going to the mass media (both television and newspaper) on the eve of Palm Sunday. I regret that these Catholics chose such a holy time in which to air a disagreement with their Bishop. However, when I reflect on the fact that similar things happened to Jesus during that first holy Week, when He was asked to defend himself, the matter takes on a more meaningful perspective. . . Some are raising concern due to the fact that the Governor's stand on pro-life issues is not consistent with that of the Church . . . I do not share the same concern over the Governor's visit . . . it is incumbent on us to differentiate between the person and his/her actions. The Governor is not being given an award of recognition or distinction. He has been invited simply to speak as the head of state . . . The Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently responded to criticism of Cardinal Bevilacqua for allowing the Governor to speak on Archdiocesan property. A written policy of the Archdiocese states that if the 'voting record or public expression is contrary to the teachings of the Church, he or she should receive no award, honor, or endorsement of any kind." But, the person may be invited to speak . . . In all of this, of course, there is the consideration of confusion and/or scandal. It is my belief and determination as Diocesan Bishop that there is very little danger of either. There are those who would rather not have the Governor present. However, the reason is not based on confusion, since the Church's pro-life teaching is very clear, nor on the possibility of scandal, since the event in itself will not be the cause for others to do evil . . . The freedom given those who live in Christ not to obey laws that are contrary to the moral order does not exempt them from showing the respect due persons in authority . . . "

In their resolve to follow the dictates of their consciences, Chuff, Forr, Foster and the growing pro-life coalition found solace in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"907 "In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of the persons."

The best response to their bishop's lament could be found in the text of the pro-life groups paid newspaper ads themselves:

" Let's start speaking up for the unborn in our own state against politicians who call themselves Christians but betray their faith by their actions . . . Governor Ridge has been spending a lot of time and money in our area. Perhaps he knows we are people with a conscience. He attempts to buy the votes of Christians by proposing tax cuts, school choice or jobs in exchange for the life issue. This selling of the life issue for monetary gain has been termed "the taking of the thirty pieces of silver . . . As people of God we must not allow ourselves to cooperate with today's Holocaust."

On the evening of the Foundation dinner, Governor Ridge arrived in Altoona via a turnpike lined with pro-life billboards. Every possible approach to the Casino at Lakemont Park in Altoona was highlighted with more pro-life billboards. At a dinner with 325 attendees paying $125 a piece to hear a pro-abort speaker, 1000 pro-life protesters showed up for the peaceful prayer rally outside in the rain, lining the roadway into the Casino with hand signs and quiet prayer. Television crews from throughout central Pennsylvania covered the peaceful event, and attendance outstripped the organizers' wildest expectations.

Subsequent news cycles gave this event even broader coverage, and overall the objectives set by the organizers were exceeded. The state now knew Ridge 's pro-abortion views. The Republican party had been put on notice that their pro-life base would no longer tolerate pro-abort candidates. And the hierarchy knew that to allow them to speak at Catholic events was, simply, wrong. The story could easily end there. Just getting out 1000 protesters, and garnering the media attention and saturating the following news cycles with the pro-life message, all of which were accomplished by the rally, would be enough for any small, local pro-life group. And it was.

Yet later that year, things happened that take on a new significance when viewed through the lens of the events related above. Ridge won reelection in Pennsylvania, to the disappointment of pro-life groups across the state. An AP news clip from the New Orleans, Louisiana, The Daily Progress, November 21, 1998, showed Ridge's continued ambitions for national leadership:

"Tom Ridge may be one of 31 Republican governors produced from this last election "who wake up every day, look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States .... Ridge asked at least one fellow governor to support him as a potential vice presidential pick when the time is right"

Unfortunately, developments later that fall, summarized by a brief December 4, 1998 National Catholic Reporter article, "Pennsylvania governor warned on abortion stand," by Teresa Malcolm, cast a cloud over Ridge's hopes:

"Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Catholic, has been informed by the bishop of Erie, Pa., that if he continues to support abortion rights, he will no longer be allowed to speak at Catholic-sponsored events."

"Bishop Donald W. Trautman issued the warning to Ridge, who also supports the death penalty, and to other Catholic politicians after release of the U.S. bishops' document "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics." Approved at the bishops' general meeting Nov. 16-19, the pastoral statement is intended to direct American Catholics to better incorporate the church's pro-life teaching into public life."

"No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life," Trautman told the Erie Daily Times."

"Ridge's press secretary, Tim Reeves, said the governor has already begun to decline speaking invitations at Catholic functions. Reeves said that decision was made last spring, after abortion opponents demonstrated at a diocesan dinner in Altoona. "He decided that it puts some of his Roman Catholic friends in an awkward position and he would rather not put them into that situation," Reeves said."

Further, the Montgomery County Observer, 12/2/98, reported:

"Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who is Catholic, says he accepts the decision of Erie Bishop Donald W. Trautman to make him and other pro-choice politicians persona non grata at Catholic-sponsored events.

" . . . However, Mr. Ridge does not believe that the abortion issue should preclude him from being considered for the GOP vice-presidential nomination in 2000. "Well, whatever the profile the vice president is in the year 2000, that has not been written yet. It'll be the presidential candidate that writes it. And if it fits in the profile, then I guess I may be considered. If I don't fit into the profile, I won't be considered," Mr. Ridge said Saturday on CNN's "Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields."

Throughout the rest of the year 2000 presidential campaign trail, Ridge's name was frequently mentioned as a top contender for the VP slot. Typical of the coverage was a 12/13/99 Philadelphia Inquirer article, "Vice-presidential buzz caps a big year for Ridge":

"NEW YORK - In late October, the politician-turned-journalist Chris Matthews was asked by interviewer Charlie Rose to pick the likely Republican vice presidential nominee.

"I think it's Ridge," the Philadelphia-born Matthews replied without hesitation on the PBS broadcast. "I'll bet money on Ridge. ... He's a regular kind of straight-arrow guy. He'd fit in pretty well." "

" . . . The Los Angeles Times singled him out as early as January as "one name to watch" for vice president. In late November, the New York Times featured him prominently . . . The story, which included a picture of Ridge jogging with Bush along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg during the Texan's June visit, noted that the Bush campaign purchased a Internet domain name . . . "

" . . . USA Today, in a recent story about Bush's closest advisers, identified Ridge as one of three governors who have Bush's ear, along with Michigan's John Engler and Montana's Mark Racicot. Ridge has been close to the Bush clan since 1980, when, as an assistant district attorney, he served as Erie County chairman of the elder George Bush's 1980 presidential campaign. . . "People say [Bush] likes Ridge; [that] they're friends, [that] they're copacetic," CNBC's Matthews said last week."

" . . . For all the positive national press, Ridge knows his vice presidential chances may be imperiled by his support of abortion rights. Not only will that provoke howls of outrage from the GOP's right wing, but also, Ridge, a Roman Catholic, may draw particular enmity from the staunchly anti-abortion church hierarchy, Matthews and others say. In fact, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, in a July article that was read closely in Pennsylvania political circles, argued that the threat of heated Catholic Church opposition already had disqualified Ridge as a vice presidential prospect."

In the end, although Ridge did indeed seem to be one of Bush's front runners, Cheney was chosen as the Vice Presidential candidate, and Bush is in the White House.

But what if? What if?

What if a handful of faithful Catholic activists had abided by their Bishop' s "determination" that Ridge's appearance in 1998 at a Catholic Foundation dinner was not scandalous, and no protest had been launched. Would Bishop Trautman have subsequently made his determination that pro-abort politicians would no longer be allowed to speak at Catholic-sponsored events? For that matter, what role, if any, did the Altoona protest play in prodding the snail paced bureaucracy of the NCCB into releasing "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" at their fall 1998 meeting?

Had no censure been placed on Ridge by Bishop Trautman (partly as a result of the debacle his brother Bishop Adamec endured in Altoona), thus allowing Ridge to maintain a low pro-abort profile, would Bush's campaign have chosen his long time friend after all? And if so, in such a close race, would Gore be our president today, after the pro-life base walked away or stayed home?

In other words, "Is Catholic activism worth it?" The only answer to this is are the words attributed to Mother Theresa, "We're not called to be successful. We're just called to be faithful." It is this author's opinion that small group of Catholic pro-life activists, through perseverance, courage and prayer, were not only faithful but also successful beyond any human expectations.

Which brings us back to 2001. Were do we go from here? If Catholic activism does indeed work, then what is to be our current objective? A good place to start would be to continue the fine work begun in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in 1998. The focus then was pro-abort politicians who persist in wearing the name "Catholic" and the failure of some of our hierarchy to do the right thing. Today there are grassroots efforts springing up independently in multiple areas across the country, primarily as a result of the blatant anti-Christian bigotry displayed by New England "Catholic" Senators in the Ashcroft hearings, calling for the formal excommunication of politicians like Ridge and Kennedy that vote to kill babies during the week then walk up to receive the precious Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord in Catholic Churches on Sunday. Its well beyond the time to give these politicians "the benefit of the doubt." Its time to apply the medicine prescribed by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, para 62:

"By this reiterated sanction, the Church makes clear that abortion is a most serious and dangerous crime, thereby encouraging those who commit it to seek without delay the path of conversion. In the Church the purpose of the penalty of excommunication is to make an individual fully aware of the gravity of a certain sin and then to foster genuine conversion and repentance."

Its time for lay Catholics to take the lead in demanding our Bishops and prelates enforce that medicine prescribed by Pope John Paul II, for the good of the souls of those individuals as well as the soul of society at large.

There are many groups already working towards that end. One, the Saint Stanislaus Council, has already laid the groundwork, establishing the Canonical and theological underpinnings of such an endeavor. Their progress can be assessed by visiting their web site at

Another group, Yankee Samizdat, has already established a site petitioning for the excommunication of these politicians at Although small, this organization recently collected several thousand Internet signatures on a petition in support of Ashcroft. The petition accused senators of subjecting Ashcroft to an "unconstitutional religious test for office." This particular angle had not made its way through news cycles until the Yankee Samizdat petition made its way around the Internet. During the closing statement of Senator Patrick Leahy, On The Nomination Of John Ashcroft, February 1, 2001, he stated, "I will say it once again, as clearly as I can, that no Senator during these proceedings has sought to apply any religious test to John Ashcroft."

If a small group in Altoona could have had an effect on a national election, if a small Internet apostolate could garner thousands of signatures on a petition to support the Ashcroft nomination and help stop an "unconstitutional religious test for office," how much more could an enlivened and emboldened Catholic laity across this nation and around this world accomplish?

Is Catholic activism worth it? Certainly. Lets begin anew right now.

Dr. Kopp can be reached at:

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