by Richard M. Doerflinger
December 11, 2000
I am looking at a photo taken January 21, 1993, at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, just after that year's Vigil Mass for Life. Bishop James McHugh, then Bishop of Camden, is holding our 7-month-old son Matthew, and both are smiling. (Actually Bishop McHugh is smiling; Matthew is looking very pleased with himself, and staring with fascination at the gold chain holding the cross on the bishop's chest.)
I found the picture after learning of Bishop McHugh's untimely death from cancer this month. It is a personal reminder of a Church leader who loved children and worked tirelessly to defend the irreplaceable role of the family. To the Church, the pro-life movement, and the nation he left a legacy more permanent than any photograph.
Father McHugh became the founding director of the Family Life Bureau at the Catholic bishops' conference in 1965. When legalized abortion became the central threat in our society to Catholic convictions on human life, he became the first director of the Conference's office for pro-life activities. Later he directed the U.S. bishops' Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, and continued to supervise that program throughout his life as a bishop. For a third of a century, he embodied the Church's commitment to life and family.
It is difficult today for us to imagine how unformed the pro-life movement was thirty years ago, and how many decisions were needed to give even the Church's efforts a sense of direction. Father McHugh was an indispensable source of wise counsel in those critical times. When the Supreme Court handed down its abortion decisions in 1973, and many declared the abortion debate over, he prepared immediate statements critiquing the decisions and calling for their reversal – and he saw the need for planning in the much longer term as well.
With his guidance the bishops' conference prepared a Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities that did justice to the magnitude of the problem dramatized by the Court's decisions. The plan called for organized efforts in the areas of education, public policy, and pastoral care -- care for families, and for pregnant women in need of help and support. The bishops of the United States approved the Pastoral Plan in 1975, unanimously reaffirmed it in 1985, and use it as their blueprint for pro-life efforts to this day.
During these early years of the bishops' conference, Father McHugh confronted issues in Congress that set the stage for all later pro-life debates: The "population bomb" scare of the 1960s and 1970s; the first federal program on family planning in 1970, and its ban on treating abortion as a "family planning" method; the Hyde amendment preventing federal funding of abortion; congressional hearings on a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's rulings. Once he became a bishop in 1988, he was the one bishop that no new chairman of the bishops' pro-life committee would think of leaving off the membership list.
Father McHugh played a key role on a still larger stage, as advisor on population issues to the Holy See's United Nations delegation and as participant in several U.N. conferences. Always he was calm, self-assured, courteous to those who disagreed, and deeply knowledgeable on any issue he addressed. Even in recent years he could enlighten meetings of the U.S. bishops by citing new research findings supporting the Church's goals -- research found only in scholarly journals that he still somehow found time to read after taking on the duties of a bishop.
In pursuing these issues, of course, he was helped by a dedicated staff. As one indication of the dedication he inspired in others, two of those assistants are now pro-life leaders in their own right – Gail Quinn as director of the U.S. bishops' pro-life office, Michael Taylor as director of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment.
They and others were much closer to Bishop McHugh than I. But from the time I began working at the bishops' conference in 1980, I came to see him as a mentor – a model of professionalism, deep love of the Church, absolute dedication to the pro-life message, and a readiness to bring that message to the highest levels of reasoned debate. His lack of pretension was equally absolute – long after being named a monsignor, and for some time after becoming a bishop, he would call our office to discuss the latest critical issue identifying himself as "Father McHugh." On first impression, people could be intimidated by his strong intellect and no-nonsense style; those who knew him better saw integrity, humility and a wonderful sense of humor.
That night at the National Shrine in 1993, our son Matthew wanted to stay on Bishop McHugh's arm and play with that shiny chain of office long after pictures were taken and other people wanted the bishop's attention. When we offered to take our son off his hands, Jim McHugh declined and said he was no trouble at all. Pointing to the gold chain on his chest, he laughed and said, "Now I know what this thing is good for."
Bishop McHugh, in my image of heaven a long line of children patiently waits to see you, led by the Christ Child himself, to play with that chain for a moment and to say thank you. This Christmas season and always, watch over the Church in our nation as it struggles to build a culture of life and love. Help us meet the goals you envisioned for us.
(Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director for Policy Development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)