Saturday, May 18, 2013

Can we talk?

As Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance rings out from the athletic fields and auditoriums of high schools and institutions of higher learning across the nation, it also seems to usher in what has now become a season in the Church as predictable as the blooming of the cherry blossoms – the springtime battles between bishops and Catholic institutions over those scheduled to give commencement addresses and whether or not a Catholic institution should "honor" someone who doesn't fully share our Catholic beliefs.

At issue is a policy of the U.S. Catholic Bishops that asks Catholic institutions not to honor government officials or politicians who promote abortion in their laws and policies. This has led to a series of showdowns between bishops and colleges over their choice of speakers – notably the 2009 invitation to President Barack Obama by the University of Notre Dame and last year’s confrontation between Anna Maria College, Vicky Kennedy and Worcester Bishop Robert McManus, to name just a few.  

The opening volley of this season, came here in Boston as Cardinal Sean O'Malley announced that he would not be in attendance to offer the benediction at commencement ceremonies at Boston College this year.  The reason?  BC has invited Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny to speak and receive an honorary degree and in the months since their invitation was extended, he has spoken in favor of limited abortion rights. 

“As the Culture of LIfe is at the heart of our social gospel, I cannot in conscience attend,” the Cardinal said in a statement released explaining his decision.  And that is true enough. Certainly, the solid and unwavering pro-life position of the Church cannot be denied. It is a cornerstone of our teaching.

But, as we now add this commencement to the growing line of graduations and other events, I can’t help but question how effective this strategy of non-engagement is and whether or not it might be time to rethink this position on the part of the bishops.  After all, what has the effect been?  The only outcome seems to be a lack of dialogue; a lack of openness and a lack of reaching out.  And what does it accomplish?  So far, it would seem, not much at all.

Not to mention the fact that it seems like a very unevenly practiced policy.  For example, I have yet to see anyone complain about invitations from Catholic institutions of higher learning to Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan, despite the fact that the U.S. Bishops decry his budgets year after year as being balanced on the backs of the poor and the elderly and the most marginalized in our society; despite the fact that these economic policies are regularly cited as being contrary to the same social gospel of the Church.  And before you say that the pro-life agenda takes priority, let's not forget that among the primary reasons that women seek abortions in this country are a financial inability to raise a child. Poverty is a pro-life issue; poverty is an abortion issue.  Add to that, Mr. Ryan's support for the death penalty; his eager support for war and other things.  And yet, there doesn't seem to be any objection to standing on a podium with him and offering benediction.

It seems as though we should somehow be able to honor people for the good they do, for the many ways that we are in agreement and solidarity and at the same time in charity and in fraternity, challenge them in the ways that they still need to grow or change.  If the only option available to us is to be with those in whom we can find complete agreement, we will find ourselves in a very small group indeed and may even find ourselves only staring in a mirror.  Pope Francis addressed this issue in an interview last year prior to his election, “We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age.” We can only have an effect in the world if we engage the world.

After all, this is the model that Jesus gave us. We remember the number one accusation leveled against Our Lord: “He dines with sinners and tax collectors.”  When faced with the so-called worst sinners in His culture, Jesus didn't shy from them.  He didn't say, “Given your public opposition to my social gospel, I cannot in conscience be seen to give you tacit approval.” Instead, He dined with them.  He engaged in the most public activity possible making a show of going to their house and being seen at their table and breaking bread with them. It was scandalous!  And, boy was it effective. Did that imply approval?  No. Because He also challenged them.  “Go and sin no more.” “Come and follow me.” “Leave this behind and choose my way of life.”   But, you can't challenge them; you can't invite them; you can't welcome them into the gospel if you don't show up.

It is time to rethink this policy.  It is time to realize that we will accomplish far more by being present and engaged and not by staying away.  Imagine what the Cardinal could do if he was there and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I encourage you to not abandon your country’s long, pro-life history.  I encourage you to not give in to the cultural tides that want to sweep the Emerald Isle into the Culture of Death. I encourage you to stay true to the Catholic values that have always made Ireland great; that have always made Ireland strong.  I encourage you to be true to your best self, and in the strong Catholic Jesuit values of this institution that honors you today for all of the other achievements you have made, be strong again and hold firm against those tides as Ireland has done so courageously in the past."  But, you can't say that if you're not there.

How can we engage the culture, how can we engage the other, how can we dine with them when our policy is to not show up?  Can we talk?


  1. Do you seriously imagine that if Cardinal Seán had that conversation with Kenny it would make one bit of difference in what he will do with the abortion bill?

    It's a matter of witness to the faithful, not dialogue with the errant (which needs to take place, usually privately, under different circumstances).

    1. Well, I obviously disagree, hence my blog post, but let me respond.

      Yes, I do think it will make a bit of difference. Do I think it will change the course of the bill? Not necessarily, but it will at least get our thoughts into a broader sphere. I think Cardinal Sean might be the most eloquent and effective preacher that I have ever heard, especially on the pro-life issues, so why do we keep restricting that preaching to continued preaching to the choir? Why do we keep spending all of our time converting the converted?

      Even if we don't change anything, there is still value in being there, being present and above all - being charitable and loving. Why do we keep running away?

      And aside from the Prime Minister, what about the thousands of other Catholics who will be in attendance who would benefit from hearing the Cardinal's charitable and loving words that day? They too will miss out on the conversation.

      There's another word for the "errant" by the way - they are called brothers and sisters. And, we are supposed to dine with them just like Jesus did - and it is there not in some private and hidden place that we can lovingly speak to them and with them and encourage them into the gospel of life.

      - FT