Cardinal O'Connor served as chairman of the USCCB's pro-life committee in the early 1990s. His efforts set the direction of the USCCB's approach to pro-life activities over the past 20 years, in part because of the partnership he formed with the Knights of Columbus, which has provided much of the funding for the bishops' pro-life efforts. Although Cardinal Roger Mahony, a proponent of the "seamless garment," chaired the pro-life committee subsequently, the bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, which guides the work of the pro-life office, reflects the views and methodology of O'Connor, and serves as a kind of link to his memory and legacy.
Certainly, O'Connor's vision seems to have directly shaped the approach of Archbishop Joseph Naumann. As a young priest, Naumann oversaw the pro-life office of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Under his leadership, the archdiocese began the Project Rachel ministry, a post-abortion healing ministry of the kind O'Connor championed. Naumann worked to support pregnancy centers and homes for mothers and children, also projects important to O'Connor. As Archbishop of Kansas City, he's challenged pro-choice Catholic politicians, spearheaded efforts to restrict abortion in Kansas, and prioritized abortion in his teaching ministry.
Like Naumann, Cupich has spoken directly about the moral issue of abortion, and strongly criticized politicians whom he believes take pro-choice advocacy too far. This year, he expressed "disappointment" when Illinois' governor signed a bill expanding taxpayer-funded abortion in the state.
But Cupich has contextualized these efforts in the memory of Bernardin's "seamless garment." In an essay this May in Commonweal, Cupich wrote that Bernardin "deserves a fresh hearing," and highlighted the importance of "efforts to engage and persuade" by public advocacy of the Church's "comprehensive commitment to respecting life."
The effect of this approach is Cupich's broadening of what might be understood as a "pro-life" issue, or, at the USCCB, what might be understood as "pro-life activities." Cupich has said repeatedly that gun control, for example, is a "pro-life" issue. In a 2015 column in the Chicago Tribune, Cupich wrote that "we should be no less appalled" by poverty, immigration policy, racism, the state of health care, unemployment, or gun violence, than we are appalled by abortion.
Emphasizing the relationship between these issues is at the heart of the "seamless garment" approach. Supporters argue that this emphasis enhances the Church's credibility, and allows her to eschew partisanship.
Critics argue that Cupich's take on the "seamless garment" diminishes the significance of abortion, and seeks to minimize abortion-specific advocacy and pastoral work. Those critics note that in 2016 the pro-life office of the Archdiocese of Chicago was folded into a new office, called the Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity. They also point to Cupich's 2011 directive to the priests and seminarians of Spokane, where he was then serving as bishop, which discouraged them from praying at abortion clinics during the annual 40 Days for Life campaign. In 2016, the pro-life office of the USCCB honored the founder of 40 Days for Life, Fr. Bill Carmody.
At issue, fundamentally, is how the bishops understand what it means to be "pro-life." While Naumann's election would signal continuity with the current approach, Cupich's election would likely represent a remaking of the pro-life office in the model of the "seamless garment."
Over the centuries, the Church has learned that important conversations often take place across decades. Debates surface, seem to settle, and then surface again. The "seamless garment" debate has not raised its head in a serious way among the American bishops in nearly 20 years. Next week, as the bishops consider 100 years of the unity of their conference, they'll also revisit one of their long-standing points of disagreement.