Thursday, September 3, 2009

Cardinal O'Malley Has Some Apologetics For Catholic Zealots

September 2, 2009 by Sean Cardinal O'Malley

Saturday was the 39th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, at St. Augustine’s Church in Pittsburgh by Bishop John B. McDowell, who is still going strong today. In the Church’s calendar, the feast day for August 29 is the Beheading of John the Baptist. People usually take note when I tell them that I was professed to religious life on Bastille Day, July 14, and ordained on the feast of the Beheading. Not that I am superstitious. (There were more than a few people whose anger over the Kennedy funeral, seemed to imply they wanted your head.)

On Saturday morning I attended the funeral Mass for Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Father Donald Monan, S.J., former president of Boston College, celebrated the Mass and Father Mark Hession, pastor of Our Lady of Victories in Centerville, preached the homily.

The music was outstanding with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus enriching the liturgy along with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham who later sang an absolutely striking rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Cellist Yo-Yo Ma graced us with his beautiful solo performance of Bach and later joined Placido Domingo, who sang the “Panis Angelicus.” Placido has a superb voice. I told him how much I like the Zarzuela, the Spanish classical musical theater productions. His family had a troupe that presented Zarzuelas in Mexico and he promised to arrange a performance.
The venue for the funeral Mass was Mission Church, the magnificent Redemptorist Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Senator Kennedy prayed often in this church when his daughter, Kara, was stricken with cancer. It is a church where countless faithful have gone to pray and ask for healing, grace and forgiveness.

In light of these themes, I wish to address our Catholic faithful who have voiced both support and disappointment at my having presided at the Senator’s funeral Mass.

Needless to say, the Senator’s wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publically support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn. ­­­Given the profound effect of Catholic social teaching on so many of the programs and policies espoused by Senator Kennedy and the millions who benefitted from them, there is a tragic sense of lost opportunity in his lack of support for the unborn. To me and many Catholics it was a great disappointment because, had he placed the issue of life at the centerpiece of the Social Gospel where it belongs, he could have multiplied the immensely valuable work he accomplished.

The thousands of people who lined the roads as the late Senator’s motorcade travelled from Cape Cod to Boston and the throngs that crowded the Kennedy Library for two days during the lying in repose, I believe, were there to pay tribute to these many accomplishments rather than as an endorsement of the Senator’s voting record on abortion.

The crowds also were there to pay tribute to the Kennedy family as a whole. On the national political landscape, if Barack Obama broke the glass ceiling of the presidency for African Americans, Jack Kennedy broke it for American Catholics.

As a young lad, I saw photographs of both Pope John XXIII and President John Kennedy hanging in the thatched cottages of County Mayo and heard the Gaelic greeting, “God and Mary be with you.” Three of the Kennedy brothers died in service of our country in the prime of life. And Eunice Shriver, who died just a few weeks ago, was an outspoken defender of the unborn and an apostle of the Gospel of Life. She taught us all how to love special children and to make room for everyone at the table of life. In 1992, Eunice petitioned her party’s convention to consider “a new understanding” of the issue, “one that does not pit mother against child,” but instead seeks “policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers and their children, both before and after birth.”

Much of what is noble in the politics and work of the Kennedys had its origins in the bedrock of the faith of Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. As a young woman she had a profound experience of God’s love that transformed her life. She strove to communicate that faith to her large clan. Since the time of her funeral Mass I have kept her memorial prayer card, inscribed with Rose Kennedy’s own words:

“If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would ask for faith – for with faith in Him and His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and still be happy – trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable Providence.”

There are those who objected, in some cases vociferously, to the Church’s providing a Catholic funeral for the Senator. In the strongest terms I disagree with that position. At the Senator’s interment on Saturday evening, with his family’s permission, we learned of details of his recent personal correspondence with Pope Benedict XVI. It was very moving to hear the Senator acknowledging his failing to always be a faithful Catholic, and his request for prayers as he faced the end of his life. The Holy Father’s expression of gratitude for the Senator’s pledge of prayer for the Church, his commendation of the Senator and his family to the intercession of the Blessed Mother, and his imparting the Apostolic Blessing, spoke of His Holiness’ role as the Vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd who leaves none of the flock behind.

As Archbishop of Boston, I considered it appropriate to represent the Church at this liturgy out of respect for the Senator, his family, those who attended the Mass and all those who were praying for the Senator and his family at this difficult time. We are people of faith and we believe in a loving and forgiving God from whom we seek mercy.

Advocating for the dignity of life is central to my role as a priest and a bishop. One of my greatest satisfactions in my ministry thus far was helping to overturn the abortion laws in Honduras. The person who answered my call for help with that effort was Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who had been a prominent leader in NARAL and the abortion rights movement. His own change of heart led Dr. Nathanson from a practice of providing abortions to becoming one of the most eloquent exponents of the pro-life movement.

Helen Alvaré, who is one of the most outstanding pro-life jurists, a former Director of the Bishops´ Pro-life Office and a long standing consultant to the USCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities, has always said that the pro-life movement is best characterized by what it is for, not against. We are for the precious gift of life, and our task is to build a civilization of love. We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them. We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people’s hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss. (We will impact the number of abortions by changing people's hearts, but we will never change the law. That is a lost battle. I believe it's a lost battle because we can not rely on the state to coerce women into making personal moral choices of this nature.)

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Jesus’ words to us were that we must love one another as He loves us. Jesus loves us while we are still in sin. He loves each of us first, and He loves us to the end. Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other. (I wonder how many deaf ears this paragraph will fall on.)

President Obama and three former presidents attended Senator Kennedy’s funeral. I had the opportunity to speak briefly with President Obama, to welcome him to the Basilica and to share with him that the bishops of the Catholic Church are anxious to support a plan for universal health care, but we will not support a plan that will include a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future. The President was gracious in the short time we spoke, he listened intently to what I was saying.

Democrats and Republicans sat side by side in the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, praying for Senator Kennedy and his family. It is my sincere hope that all people who long to promote the cause of life will pray and work together to change hearts, to bring about an increased respect for life, and to change laws so as to make America a safe place for all, including the unborn.


I'm sure Cardinal O'Malley is going to get hit with the zeal of the zealots. It seems the five non negotiable Catholic teachings: abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, human cloning, and gay marriage, are not just non negotiable, but also mandate the total denial of any form of Christian mercy, much less Catholic pastoral effort. In Ted Kennedy's case, the five actually include contraception and drop human cloning. In any event, Senator Kennedy should never have been given a Catholic funeral. Cardinal O'Malley should never have attended such, as it gives scandal and causes confusion in the Faithful.

Personally, I'm confused as to how we American Catholics have come to have five (or maybe six), non negotiable issues. I googled this and learned they were basically invented by the lay apologetics website, Catholic Answers, during the 2006 election. These were the core issues the CA group used in their pamphlet "The Voter's Guide For Serious Catholics". One was to judge one's Catholic vote in that year's election on how politicians stacked up on these five issues.

Then I wondered how the USCCB felt about this voter guide and learned they didn't like the idea of a competing voting guide. Especially because this competing voter guide seemed to be tilted to the Repbulican party platform and more or less ignored any other important Catholic issues like social justice, health care, economics, illegal wars, torture, and the death penalty. This kind of thing could seriously effect their tax exempt status. This was the official line. I have a sneaking suspicion most bishops weren't pleased a lay 'apologetics' group decided to usurp their authority and take on this voter guide thing themselves and completely distort the whole concept of a voter guide.

Apologetics is the big thing now in the 'letter of the law' Catholic. It's a major cottage industry in which certain lay apologeticists are making their mark. I find it interesting that many of these lay and clerical apologeticists are entangled with, the Legion of Christ, Opus Dei, EWTN, and Catholic Answers. Certain personalities seem to move from one to another until they finally start their own cottage industry. Where as human cloning may be a non negotiable, apparently Catholic cloning is not.

They are in fact, establishing a parallel Catholic Church in the United States, outside the authority of the USCCB, with the encouragement of select bishops who also have undisclosed ties to the same groups. Cardinal O'Malley will come under fire for attempting to apply a different standard of Catholicism. Exactly the way that Archibishop Sheehan of Santa Fe did for suggesting one issue Catholicism is a mistake which is counter productive.

This is born out in an article from Slate dealing with the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion, and Supporting Parents Act. The article documents how vocal militant pro lifers will not compromise on a meaningful attempt at abortion reduction. This in spite of the fact all major components of the 'abortion industry' did, essentially cooperatively working for their own demise.

For two decades now I've watched American Catholicism split into two parallel churches. That split has been fostered by big money, hidden connections, and overtly political religious think tanks supported by a vocal cadre of like minded bishops beholden to the same interests. The latest 'pastoral' letter on health care from Kansas Bishops Finn and Naumann are just the latest example.

My hope is that the Vatican is seeing the bigger picture here. It isn't about orthodoxy or apologetics, it's about splitting the American Catholic church to the point it has no real voice in American politics. The silent majority of our bishops need to see the bigger picture. This isn't about isolated groups that just happen to be saying the same thing. This is about a covert and overt attempt to reduce the authority of the USCCB and make others the real voice of authority and orthodoxy in the Church.

The real threat to ecclesial authority isn't coming from progressives. They're not organized or loud enough, don't have the resources, certainly aren't openly supported, and are forced to operate externally. No, the real threat is coming from the right, and for all the reasons it's not coming from the left.


  1. "They are in fact, establishing a parallel Catholic Church in the United States, outside the authority of the USCCB, with the encouragement of select bishops who also have undisclosed ties to the same groups."

    I can only reiterate that the entire message of Jesus Christ is being destroyed by these right wing political fascist groups who want to dictate to the Magisterium and the Vatican and all Catholics, defining faith as a political agenda which is not pastoral, nor reflects Pope Benedict's latest encyclical Charity in Truth in which they have no sense in even what the concept of Charity is. Their arrogance precedes and hinders their ability to get to the Truth.

    There is ample evidence mounting that these fascist groups in the Church are trying to create a parallel Church. They have no sense of Charity, and do not have or reflect the Truth of Jesus Christ's teachings. It becomes evident when these same people are desirous of burning a Church to the ground to purify it from the Kennedy family funeral as reported in NCR from a Pro-Life blog, and also with regard to issues of the need for health care reform in the USA, as was reported in NCR by Michael Sean Winters in this article:

    Progressives have been pointing out certain issues that the Magisterium needs to look into, within the context of the message of Jesus Christ, to love one another. That is not what these right wing fascist groups are doing. Their message is to hate others who do not agree with them, punish them, deny communion, deny a funeral and otherwise have no compassion for others even as they mourn their loved ones. Progressives know that this is not in the spirit of the Jesus Christ who consistently taught about having mercy and forgiveness and to not judge others.

    The fascist zealots who are "going beyond" the USCCB, such as Finn and Frack-Naumann, are dividing an already beleaguered and suffering Church, suffering from the hierarchy's own mistakes in leadership and losing sense of Christ's teachings. Not only are the fascist tactics unproductive, they are an insult to people with true faith in Jesus Christ.

    I hope that the Vatican is seeing the bigger picture here too. May God help us.

  2. Well said. I've seen this discussed in the context of Protestant churches and "steeplejacking," taking over a church congregation so that it drives more progressive members out and keeps the more conservative ones winning. I also suspect that many of the zealots have many personal issues that they don't want to admit to.

    One of the most dubious things JPII did was to encourage groups like Opus Dei, Focolare, Communion & Liberation, the Neocatechumenate Way, and the Legionaries of Christ to gain a strong presence in the church and allow them to contribute lots of money to the church, while ignoring what was known about the groups' tendencies to authoritarian leadership under charismatic leadership.

  3. Question: why do progressives give up to easily? The wingnuts are well organized, well-funded, unscrupulous and very successful at what they set out to do.

    Progressives, on the other hand, wring their hands a lot and then give up. VOTF, Call to Action, etc. are shadows of their former selves.

    I'm sure that the aging of progressives have a lot to do with it, but unless they bear the cross, they can't wear the crown.

    In other words, learn to pee or get off the pot. Whining won't make it any more.

    Jim McCrea

  4. Jim, you have a very valid point. Sometimes I think it has to do with progressives being somewhat shell shocked at the zeal and the emotionalism, which leads to constant repetition of the same mantras.

    When I read the NCR now I have to admit I'm befuddled by the continuous repetition of the you're a heretic, there's the door, the Pope is infallible, blah blah blah.

    Catholics have been arguing with each other my entire life, but in the bad old days we actually listened to what each ther said. We could agree to disagree and still share the same Mass. There was unity in diversity, at least at Mass. Not now.

    I think money has made all the difference. Political money. The right has it, and the left must be spending it somewhere else.

    There is no real liberal voice outside the NCR, and no liberal television or radio media at all.

    The 'spirit of the law' folks could really use a Mother Angelica of their own. Even the USCCB resents the fact EWTN and Remnant radio are the only show in town.

    The percentage of liberal blogs vs conservative blogs is like 1-100. Maybe the moral of the story is progressives just won't put the effort into what they see is an overwhelming task.

    The sad thing is everything else is conspiring to set progressives up to win--at least demographically. Now is the time to push, not retreat.

    I'll say this, things would be a lot easier if I could concentrate on one issue (or invent 5 non negotiable issues) like the right does. That's a whole lot simpler. Trouble is it's boring.

  5. If the right wingers get their way in this country it will turn into a 3rd world country very quickly.