Bishop Stowe Errs on Covington Catholic

Ramesh Ponnuru

Two days ago, Bishop John Stowe of the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., condemned the Covington Catholic schoolkids who went to the March for Life, mostly because some of them wore MAGA hats. I think it is a bad and even a disgraceful op-ed.

There is a defensible argument against wearing the hats to the march, which would basically have been the same as the argument against wearing a Bush-Cheney T-shirt to the march in 2005. The marchers go to Washington to stand in solidarity with the unborn victims of abortion, to register their dissent from the Supreme Court’s determination that they are unpersons, and to plead for laws that will offer protection against the deliberate killing of human beings at any stage of development. That is quite enough for one march without getting into the implications that arguably follow from these pro-life premises. Add in the facts that particular pro-life politicians may have non-abortion aspects of their records that are objectionable; that a significant number of people who are open to the basic pro-life case object to particular pro-life politicians because of their stances on other issues; and that several measures of the popularity of the pro-life cause show it to be higher than the popularity of this president: All of these are reasons not to wear the hats to the march, and a bishop could very reasonably suggest as much to students on their way to it. Or to put it another way: There’s a case for a border wall and a case against it, but there’s no reason to bring that debate to the march.

Bishop Stowe, unfortunately, went well beyond these defensible points.

He begins the discussion by referring to “a group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky in a confrontation with a Native American elder after this year’s march,” and then says, “As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky, I join the Diocese of Covington and other Catholic leaders in apologizing in the wake of this incident.

“I am ashamed that the actions of Kentucky Catholic high school students have become a contradiction of the very reverence for human life that the march is supposed to manifest.”

What actions is the bishop talking about? What are these shameful actions that contradict the reverence for human life and require an apology? The earlier apologies that he affirms were based on factually mistaken understandings of the confrontation. And Stowe is aware of the controversy over the facts. He continues, “Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies.”

So, to sum up the bishop’s position so far: Maybe the kids did taunt an innocent Native American veteran and maybe that’s mostly a malicious invention, but they’re to blame for wearing Trump-branded apparel. That’s what’s shameful, requires apologies, contradicts reverence for life, etc. Never mind that if that had been the entire substance of the charge against the kids, 99 percent of us would never have heard of Covington Catholic in the first place. There would have been no national controversy over some hats at the march and the bishop wouldn’t have written an op-ed. The kids have been smeared, and the bishop is effectively saying, “Who knows or cares what really happened? They shouldn’t have been wearing those hats.” (At least he didn’t say, “What is truth?”)

But then the bishop’s letter actually gets worse. He concludes,

The pro-life movement claims that it wants more than the policy change of making abortion illegal, but aims to make it unthinkable. That would require deep changes in society and policies that would support those who find it difficult to afford children. The association of our young people with racist acts and a politics of hate must also become unthinkable.

Let’s, charitably, attribute some of this language to bad writing. Ordinarily when an author claims that a movement “claims that it wants” something, the implications are that the author is not a part of that movement and that he has some doubts about its sincerity. And at this moment let’s pass over the claim that support for Trump is simply a “politics of hate” (which is a gross slander of most Kentuckians, whether or not support for Trump is justified). Here we have, at the end, the reintroduction of a claim of “racist acts” that the bishop refuses to describe, let alone substantiate. Effectively he is saying, “These Catholic children are probably guilty of all the accusations even though I can’t go into any of the questions about whether or not they were.” He won’t commit himself to a position on what offense justifies his throwing the kids under the bus.

The bishop was right about one thing: He does owe an apology; actually, several of them.

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