Randy Engel
The unborn child as a casualty of Catholic ecumenicalism -- a reflection on Assisi III (Part I)
By Randy Engel
November 8, 2011

The Rabbi Brickner Scandal2005

On September 2, 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Office of Media Relations issued a statement by Dr. Eugene Fisher, Associate Director of the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and a consultant to the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, praising the life and works of New York Rabbi Balfour Brickner, who died on August 29, 2005.

Fisher claimed that Brickner was "one of the great leaders of Reform Judaism and one of the greatest American religious leaders of the second half of the twentieth century." "He was a man of social vision and moral courage who never backed down from the good fight for the rights of others, whether the cause was civil and religious rights or labor and Jewish-Christian relations. He was a mentor and a guide in these matters not only to many in his own community but equally to many within the Catholic community," said Fisher. "We in the Catholic community involved in interreligious and social work have lost a great friend. And the world has lost one of its most important voices. May he rest in peace with the Lord, and may his name forever be a blessing," Fisher concluded.

Unfortunately, Fisher, as a spokesman for the USCCB representing the Catholic hierarchy of the United States had a very disingenuous and warped concept of what it means to be "a friend of the Catholic community."

Rabbi Brickner — The Personification of a
Pro-Abortion Zealot

As the National Director of the U.S. Coalition for Life (www.uscl.info) and a former New Yorker, my recollection of Rabbi Brickner was quite different from that of Fisher. You see, I remember Brickner as a rabid and vicious enemy of the unborn child and a defender of unnatural vice.

As I pointed out in the USCL September 10, 2005, USCL press release on Fisher's laudatory eulogy of the late rabbi:

  • Brickner served on the boards of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), the PPFA Board of Advocates and the PPFA Clergy Advisory Board, Planned Parenthood of New York City.

  • Brickner was a founder of Religious Leaders for a Free Choice, a New York-based pro-abortion organization.

  • Brickner was a founding member and board member of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), renamed NARAL - Pro-Choice America.

  • Brickner served on the board of the New York affiliate of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCAR). In the mid-1970s, Brickner, testified on RCAR's behalf before the U.S. Senate in favor of abortion rights. He stated that in Judaism the fetus in the womb is not considered a person and has "no juridical personality of its own." In fact, he stated, "a fetus did not acquire legal standing until thirty days after its birth."

  • Brickner frequently expressed his pro-abortion opinions in PPFA's publication Clergy Voices. In an article titled "Bush Administration Alchemy Would Turn a Fetus into a Child," Brickner charged that by making the fetus eligible for health care, the Bush Administration was turning "a fetus into a child and a woman into a vessel." He stated that the unborn fetus "is not a child" and "it is not a living soul"

  • Brickner, whom Fisher painted as a friend of Catholics, is quoted by Women's e-News as stating, "The media has played and pandered to the Roman Catholic Community and their position as though it is in some ways definitive toward reproductive choice."

  • Brickner helped draft the 2000 SEICUS (Sex Education and Information Council of the United States) "Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing," which upheld contraception, abortion and homosexual rights including the right to the blessing of "same sex unions," cradle-to-grave sex instruction, and population control.

In addition to his anti-life, pro-homosexual track record, only one year after his ordination and appointment to Temple Sinai in Washington D.C., the young Brickner, denied the Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and consequently the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. The incident occurred in 1952 following the publication of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible which translated Isaiah I7:14 as "a young woman shall conceive" while the Septuagint and Vulgate translates this text as, "a Virgin" shall conceive. Brickner lauded the new translation declaring, "I am delighted to know that, at last, this great error of translation has finally been corrected and that at least some segments of the Christian world no longer officially maintain that Isaiah 7: 14 is a prediction that Jesus was to be born from the Virgin Mary."

Bishop Sklba Responds to
Brickner's Anti-Life History

On February 6, 2006, six-months after the Brickner scandal broke into the news, the USCL received a response from Bishop Richard J. Sklba, the new Chairman of the Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs which oversees the USCCB Secretariat and staff for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Bishop Sklba responded that it was a general practice and simple courtesy of the Holy See and the USCCB to acknowledge the death of important people in the field of interreligious affairs regardless of their differences on Church doctrine and morals. He also stated that neither Dr. Fisher, nor the staff of the Secretariat, nor the bishops serving on the Committee knew of Brickner's past anti-life record going back more than thirty years. Had they known, said Sklba, these facts would have been acknowledged in the USCCB release on Rabbi Brickner.

The problem, of course, was that Fisher's public eulogy praising Brickner, which appeared (and was never corrected) in Catholic diocesan papers across the country, went far beyond a simple statement of courtesy and condolences to the rabbi's family.

As for the alleged blanket ignorance by the entire administration and staff of the Committee and Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, this appeared to be highly improbable in light of the fact that Brickner was notorious for his public anti-life and anti-Catholic diatribes.

As late as April 25, 2004, at the March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C., Brickner told the National Council of Jewish Women gathered in the nation's capitol that the battle for "choice" was a battle against "plain, damn-fool ignorance," and that it was "immoral" to prohibit same-sex marriages. ... and to deny women health care.

In February 2005, just months before he died, Brickner gave a ringing endorsement to Sacred Work — Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances by Rev. Tom Davis. The rabbi praised the book as one which "puts in proper spiritual context the supportive role of America's mainstream clergy in the struggle for women's reproductive freedom."

The real question, however, was not who knew what about Brickner's anti-life career, but rather, whether or not high-ranking staff members of the USCCB representing the Catholic bishops of America have a right to be so ignorant and so "careless" on matters of such critical importance to Catholics and the life of the Church?

It is a matter of public record that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference (later reorganized and renamed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) the official national episcopal bureaucracy of AmChurch created in 1966-67, has never been a friend of the unborn child. Any action it has ever taken to defend the Catholic Faith, much less the unborn child, has been purely coincidental.

So it is not surprising that, in the end, no apology/clarification for the Fisher statement was ever forthcoming from the USCCB Secretariat, nor did a single American bishop demand such an apology/clarification at the annual USCCB Washington, D.C. meeting held in November 2005. By his own admission, Fisher was never reprimanded for his role in the Brickner scandal. And why should he be? He was merely carrying out the orders of his superiors at the USCCB. Nor did the Vatican see fit to terminate Fisher's advisory membership on its Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Fisher retired with accolades from the USCCB in June 2007. It was business as usual at the USCCB and at the Holy See.

A Replay of the Brickner Scandal — 2011

On Sunday, January 30, 2011, at a special Mass and "Manifesting the Kingdom" ceremony held at Saint Paul Cathedral in Oakland (Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, Bishop David A. Zubik presented Rabbi Aaron B. Bisno of Temple Rodef Shalom in Shadyside with two awards in recognition of the spiritual leader's dedication to the enrichment of "interfaith dialogue and respect between Catholic and Jewish communities" and for, in the words of Bishop Zubik, "his dedication to peace and justice as a living part of our community."

In addition to the local Church Alive! Award from the Pittsburgh Diocese, Rabbi Bisno received the Benemerenti Medal from Pope Benedict XVI in recognition of his "outstanding contributions to interfaith relations."

Originally instituted by Pope Pius VI in the 18th century for military merit, in recent years the beautiful Benemerenti Medal which hangs on a papal ribbon of yellow and white is intended to honor friends of the church, both Catholic and non-Catholic. In accepting the award, Bisno applauded those who "join together as partners in the sacred work of pursuing peace and world repair."

Bishop Zubik Honored Earlier by Rodef Shalom

Seven months earlier, on June 27, 2010, the Congregation of Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh's oldest synagogue held its first "Pursuer of Peace Gala" with the proceeds benefiting Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the pro-abortion Squirrel Hill Health Center, and other Pittsburgh-area non-profits.

It was on this occasion that the "Pursuer of Peace Award" was presented to Bishop Zubik. Upon receiving the award, the bishop reminisced about his 2007 visit to Auschwitz and remarked how the Second Vatican Council ushered in a new era of "true reconciliation that, despite our differences, continues to grow today" between the Catholic and Jewish communities.

In October-November 2010, in remembrance of their friendship and desire to bolster interfaith relations, Bishop Zubik and Rabbi Bisno embarked on an eight-day "Pursuer of Peace Pilgrimage" to the Vatican and the Holy Land.

Reminiscing about his papal audience with Pope Benedict XVI, Bisno said:

    As I turned to take my leave, I marveled at how far we have come, such that a rabbi, rather than coming before a pope to plead on behalf of the Jewish people, had instead the privilege of praising a new generation of religious leaders, and rather than coming before a pontiff to beg for opportunity, was able to proudly boast of the ways in which Jews and Catholics are working together to bring healing, blessings and peace to our world here and now.

Perhaps, Bisno was recalling the bitter-sweet words of Saint Pope Pius X spoken at a different papal audience in January 1904 with Theodore Herzl, head of the World Zionist Movement who was seeking the Holy Father's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine: "The Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people. ... This very day the Church is celebrating the feast of an unbeliever who became converted in a miraculous manner — on the road to Damascus. And so if you come to Palestine and settle your people there, we will be ready with churches and priests to baptize all of you." But that was a different pope, a different time, a different theology, and, dare I say, a different Church.

All of these "ecumenical" events including Bishop Zubik's and Rabbi Bisno's close personal friendship, and various co-operative and exchange religious programs between the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Reform Judaism Congregation of Rodef Shalom and have been faithfully recorded for posterity on the pages of The Pittsburgh Catholic and Pittsburgh's secular media since 2007. Everything appears to be all sweetness and light with no downside.

So where's the scandal? Read on.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno's Anti-Life Track Record

Ordained in 1996, Rabbi Bisno was a graduate of the pro-abortion Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the oldest existing Jewish seminary in the Americas and the main seminary for training rabbis in Reform Judaism. Additional degrees were obtained from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania.

Following his appointment as Executive Director of the Hillel Jewish Center at the University of Virginia from 1996-1998, Rabbi Bisno served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia until 2004.

While in Philadelphia, Bisno was one of 729 rabbis who signed a letter in support of President Clinton's veto of H. R. 1122, the "Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 1997. Most Renew America readers are acquainted with the grizzly late abortion/infanticide procedure whereby the abortionist delivers the baby's body, feet first, all but the baby's head. At this point, a sharp object is plunged into the back of the baby's head which provides an opening for the baby's brains to be sucked out with a vacuum aspirator. The skull of the baby implodes, facilitating the delivery of a dead child through the woman's cervix.

The pro-abortion/infanticide letter of September 10, 1998 defending "partial birth" killing to which Bisno affixed his signature stated in part:

    The debate surrounding reproductive choice speaks to one of the basic foundations upon which our country was established — the freedom of religion. It speaks to the right of individuals to be respected as moral decision makers, making choices based on their religious beliefs and traditions as well their consciences. ...

    Abortion is a deeply personal issue. Women are capable of making moral decisions, often in consultation with their clergy, families and physicians, on whether or not to have an abortion. We believe that religious matters are best left to religious communities, not politicians.

Rabbi Bisno "Marries" Two Male Homosexuals

In August, 2000, the Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia held its first "Gay Marriage Ceremony." Two men, ages 62 and 55 were "married" under the traditional wedding canopy in the synagogue's main sanctuary in Center City. The ceremony was conducted by Rabbi Aaron Bisno and Cantor Jenny L. Eizenstadt.

Rabbi Bisno Joins "Rabbis for Obama"

In June of 2004, Bisno and his wife Michelle relocated to Pittsburgh, where he took over the leadership of the 1,100 member-households of Temple Rodef Shalom.

It is not without a touch of irony, that in September of 2007, Bisno was one of twelve rabbis selected to serve on the Advisory Board of the Rabbi Balfour Brickner Rabbinic and Fellows Program dedicated to Brickner's commitment to "social justice."

In the fall of 2008, Bisno was one of 300 rabbis from across the nation to climb aboard the "Rabbis for Obama" presidential train. A portion of the September 10, 2008, letter reads:

    We know that Barack Obama's longstanding, stalwart support for Israel is a testament to his own principles as well as the strong bi-partisan pro-Israel movement in America, ...

    Senator Barack Obama inspires in us the hope for an America once more called to its best values. We know him to be a man of incredible integrity, born of a deep and abiding spiritual faith based on the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets, and committed to achieving a world of peace with justice for all people. ...

Bet Tikvah Worships at Rodef Shalom

Since 1994, Bet Tikvah ("House of Hope), the "alternative" synagogue for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered Jews in the Pittsburgh, has met for shabbat services and high holiday services at Temple Rodef Shalom.

The Bet Tikvah has been actively involved in the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and is a member of the World Congress of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Organizations which is currently promoting the Brit Ahava, a "covenant of love" adapted from the forms of Jewish tradition for the union between two women or two men.

As part of its "interfaith" activities, members of Dignity, a "Catholic" national pro-homosexual organization have been welcomed to Bet Tikvah's Passover seder. The Bet Tikvah website carries a banner with the words "Homophobia is an Abomination."

It hurts to even ask the question, but, how in God's name did Rabbi Aaron Bisno ever merit the prestigious Benemerenti Medal from Benedict XVI? How has he advanced ecumenical dialogue by promoting abortion and supporting the unnatural vice? Why isn't abortion and homosexuality a mandated priority of the Catholic Church's ecumenical/religious dialogue equation? These are some of the questions I will attempt to answer in Part II of this reflection on the unborn child, ecumenicalism and Assisi III.

(to be continued)

© Randy Engel


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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Randy Engel

Randy Engel, one of the nation's top investigative reporters, began her journalistic career shortly after her graduation from the University of New York at Cortland, in 1961. A specialist in Vietnamese history and folklore, in 1963, she became the editor of The Vietnam Journal, the official publication of the Vietnam Refugee and Information Services, a national relief program in South Vietnam for war refugees and orphans based in Dayton, Ohio... (more)


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