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US/ Graduation Wars

May Thu 10, 2012

Georgetown's Healy Hall  Georgetown's Healy Hall

I have had difficulties with the USCCB’s document “Catholics in Political Life” since it was published in 2004. The bishops were worried, understandably and appropriately, that the specter of prominent Catholics in public and political life dismissing the Church’s commitment to human life, or paying lip service to that commitment while actively abetting its demise, might suggest that the Church’s teaching in this regard was somehow optional. It is not. But, the core of our Catholic identity is doctrinal, not moral, a belief in the Trinity not a belief in the need to get one more conservative justice on the Supreme Court. Our morals are linked, bound, especially in the case of abortion, to our doctrines: Only in the light of Christ does the mystery of human kind become enlightened (cf. Gaudium et Spes 22), and in that light, we see that every person counts and that abortion is thus not merely a crime against a person but an insult to the Creator.

The key, controversial stipulation of “Catholics in Political Life” as it applies to the commencement wars is this: “The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.Now, as is often the case, some on the left unfortunately accepted at face value the interpretation of these words offered by those on the right, feeding the narrative that an ascendant rightwing faction was taking over the Church. But, the words are more careful than some on the right suggest. I would submit that the qualifying phrase “which would suggest support for their actions” is more of a hurdle to the advocates of censorship than they would like to admit. In what way does having on campus someone who disagrees with the Church necessarily connote “support” for their views?

I would also point out that these sentences, no matter how frequently cited, applied not at all to the appearance of President Barack Obama at Notre Dame in 2009: The document is entitled “Catholics in Political Life” not “U.C.C. members in Political Life.” I do think there is a difference, and an important one, in recognizing and honoring those who are not Catholics from those who are. The latter are a counter-sign to Catholic identity in a way that a non-Catholic can’t be.

But, what I fail to see is how the document does not necessarily feed the idea that religion can be reduced to ethics, which is the first step towards secularization of culture. I do not see how we can say that it is fine to have a Baptist who denies the Real Presence at commencement but not a Methodist who supports abortion rights. Nor do I think we can draw neat lines of causality from people’s public actions to their motivations. I know a gay couple that lived in accordance with the Church’s teachings but nonetheless had to register for a civil partnership because one of them worked for the government and had great health care coverage and the other was self-employed and could not afford insurance.



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