Monday, April 27, 2009

Speeches and Honors at Catholic Universities

[ Note: I apologize in advance for the length of this, but there is much to say. I hope the length will not discourage you from stating your thoughts]

In 2004, the USCCB released a document entitled Catholics in Political Life , in which they taught "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."

When Notre Dame announced the President Obama would be their commencement speaker this year and would receive an honorary law degree, my reaction was similar to Policratus'. I stated that I believe dialogue is important. We must not demonize or alienate ourselves from our interlocutors, especially those in positions of power and those who want the same results as we do - in this case, a reduction in abortions - simply because their means of achieving said reduction differs, albeit drastically and egregiously, from our means. However, I stated that I thought that Notre Dame was going too far in honoring Obama. I could not recall Jesus honoring "sinners." At the time I did not have the bishops' statement quoted above in mind. However, it now seems an accurate reflection of my intuitions.

Upon expressing my thoughts to a few wise and trusted Catholic friends, I was advised that Jesus certainly honored sinners. He honored Zaccheus the tax collector with His presence. The whole Jewish/Middle Eastern culture was based upon "honor." Pilch apparently exemplifies this well. I was told that Jesus does honor the Pharisees for what they teach, but not how they act. Can we not honor Obama's achievements while challenging his problematic views? If we wish to change the culture we must dialogue with the culture. We must be in the world but not of it. We must hate the sin and love the sinner. We cannot simply blackball all pro-choice politicians from Catholic institutions. This is what I was told. I saw much truth in it. But I was not comfortable, not at peace with it.

Since then my own Archbishop Hughes has weighed in on the Obama-ND situation. He writes:

We cannot compromise our Church's clear and unflagging opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research by providing honors and a platform for those who deny the humanity and dignity of the most frail creature in our midst.... I respect the President of the United States. I pray for him. As Catholics we need to enter into civil debate with him on the fundamental issues on which we disagree. We work with him on those issues with which we agree. But we do not supply a platform or grant an honor to someone who not only is so wrong on such a fundamental issue but is aggressively pursuing policies which exclude the human rights of the unborn.

Shortly thereafter Xavier University's plans to honor Donna Brazile at their commencement became public. She is the first African American to have directed a presidential campaign, is Catholic, and has done much for the rights and respect of African Americans. She is also pro-choice and has stated as much publicly. Hughes chose to write to the president of XULA as well as to boycott their commencement, which he usually attends. To Dr. Francis, President of XULA, Hughes writes :
I recognize that Ms. Brazile is a Catholic Louisiana native who has worked effectively in service to the poor and African Americans in particular. However, her public statements on the abortion issue are not in keeping with Catholic moral teaching. She has supported President Obama’s decision to reverse the Mexico City policy allowing federal funds to organizations that provide abortions overseas by saying that this policy will “save lives.” She has also relativized the importance of the fundamental life issues on national television suggesting that there are more important things for the American people to discuss than abortion. She has supported and worked for the election of candidates who support contraceptive practices and abortion on the basis that this stance is pro-woman.

Additionally Hughes released the following statement entitled Recognition of Public Figures by Catholic Institutions , apparently in response to ...shall we say "social-justice" Catholics. In it he explains:
We recognize that abortion and embryonic stem cell research are not the only “life issues” of concern for the Catholic Church. Some point out that capital
punishment is also rejected by the Catholic Church and suggest that a proponent of it should be denied similar recognition.
It is important to distinguish an absolute moral principle from one that is subject to different applications according to varying conditions or circumstances. Direct abortion is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances. Capital punishment is accepted in the Church as one way in which innocent life can be protected. Over the years, as viable alternatives such as life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, have become more possible, the need for recourse to this has become
less necessary. This is what has led the Pope and Bishops to recommend that as a society we move away from it. It is not in itself wrong, if the crime is heinous, people are threatened and there is no alternative available.

Meanwhile, Fr. Louis Arceneaux, c.m. of Pax Christi has written a letter to Archbishop Hughes for apparent inconsistencies. I cannot find a link to the letter, which was emailed to me, therefore I shall post it in its entirety. It is not too long.

Dear Archbishop Hughes:
I am writing you regarding your decisions and public declarations regarding President Obama and Donna Brazile, receiving honorary degrees at Catholic universities. Let me be clear. I am as opposed to abortion as you are. I long for the day when few, if any, women and men choose to have abortions. Where you and I disagree is our approach to getting there.
For example, I do not think that your publicly stating that you will not attend Xavier’s graduation because someone who is being given an honorary degree and will speak at the graduation is pro-choice is going to help the cause of reducing and eliminating abortion. In my opinion, all you are doing is giving people who agree with your approach a reason to boast. You are also antagonizing many other people who might be open to dialogueabout ways to reduce abortions in the country. Did you read what Sarah Comiskey gave as an explanation for the reason President Obama was allowed to attend and speak at the Al Smith dinner in New York? She is quoted as saying “They are recognized as candidates, but not honored.” Do you not agree that this is yet another example of a distinction without
a difference, so often used as an explanation, that most people will not find helpful?
I think that there are ways that you and other American bishops would better promote your goals. Why could you not have spoken positively about all the good that President Obama has done already and all the Catholic social values he shares with us and urge him to speak out more often on his specific proposals to reduce the number of abortions in the country since we are opposed to any abortions. You could have taken the same approach with Donna Brazile. I think that kind of approach will be more helpful in reducing the number of abortions than blanket statements against universities and politicians. There can be and ought to be a different way to deal with this issue in the political arena than the way we deal with it in Catholic schools and churches.
I also think you and other Catholic bishops would get a more positive response and greater respect if you spoke out more consistently for the human life and dignity of all persons. These distinctions that are made about “just wars” and the permissibility of the death penalty do not help the full pro-life cause of our Church. When I speak of pro-life in retreats and parish missions, I make it clear that we need to be for the life and dignity of every human being from conception to death. I have been criticized by a minority for that stand, and yet I truly believe it is the position we ought to take as true followers of Jesus Christ, despite the distinctions that Catholic theology has made over the years. Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus Christ would not support war the way it is waged today, not with bows and arrows, but with bombs that destroy innocent men, women and children. Don’t you also think that He would not support the death
penalty when we can incarcerate criminals for life, without parole, if they are found guilty of heinous crimes? And yet, so many so-called “pro-life” Catholics and evangelicals hold that Jesus Christ would support modern warfare and the death penalty, including the governor of Louisiana, whom you will honor by your presence at the Loyola University graduation.
My point is that the narrow “pro-life” focus on the unborn is probably detrimental to the very cause of reducing and eliminating abortions and that we are not doing a very good job of helping Catholics to be truly pro-life from conception to the grave.
As we used to say in the seminary, those are my thoughts on the subject. I would be happy to have a fuller discussion with you on these thoughts.
Sincerely yours in St. Vincent DePaul,
Louis Arceneaux, c.m.

So, locally, Archbishop Hughes is boycotting Xavier's graduation because the university is inviting and honoring a Catholic who wholeheartedly supports and advocates for the Democratic Party Platform on abortion and ESCR, which are contrary to Catholic teachings. On the other hand, he is apparently not boycotting Loyola's graduation, although it is inviting and honoring Bobby Jindal, a Catholic and the Governor of Louisiana who has advocated for and signed legislation enacting the death penalty or chemical castration for child rapists. The Archbishop has, rightly I think, exhibited the difference between abortion/ESCR and captial punishment. However, in my understanding, there is no acceptable prudential reason which Jindal can cite in defense of his stance. That abortion and ESCR are intrinsically evil tells us that they can never be justified. Similarly, capital punishment cannot be justified in our circumstances, even if it is not intrinsically evil. Therefore, it is not clear to me why Archbishop Hughes must boycott Brazile but not Jindal. Certainly more are killed through abortion and ESCR than capital punishment, but if we are to propose a consistent ethic of life to this culture of death, can we afford to compromise?

The issue has been further complicated by Mary Ann Glendon , who is currently the first female President of the Roman Catholic Church's official Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and is has been nominated for Notre Dame's prestigious Laetare Medal. Despite being counseled by some of the US bishops, including Notre Dame's own Bishop D'Arcy who has not at all approved of Obama's invitation, to accept the award and attend the graduation, she has decided to reject the award and abstain from attending. This seems to be a complex and divisive issue as is evidenced by reading the comments on the previously linked post.

Several questions arise from all this, which I think are preliminary to any sound judgment on the matters as hand. I ask for your insight and discussion on these preliminary questions.

1. What is the role of Catholic universities in dialoging with and forming the culture?
2. How can we properly bear witness to a culture of life, which presupposes a consistent ethic of life, without being consistent?
3. What is the role of scandal in this? Would American Catholics be scandalized by Obama's presence at ND? By the Bishops' presence at the commencement? By Hughes' presence at Xavier? Should Catholics be more
scandalized than are likely to be by Jindal's presence at Loyola? Why was Obama's presence and honor at Xavier in 2007 not worthy of Hughes' boycott? Did he slip under the radar? Was Senator Obama somehow less important then than Brazile is now?
4. How are we to dialogue with the culture while being in the world, without compromising ourselves or our own institutions, without being of the world? On the personal level this is difficult enough; how can we do it on the institutional level when so many of our Catholic institutions are becoming more and more secular and less Catholic?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Fr. Benedict Ashley on Science and the Fall

I just returned from a talk given by Fr. Benedict Ashley, OP. It focused on science as an avenue leading us to a greater knowledge and understanding of God and the Trinity. The talk was pretty good, interesting if nothing else. However, I wish to focus on a brief comment he made in a Q&A session following the lecture.

He was asked to discuss the physical (as opposed to moral) evil of death and the like as it relates to the fall, and how that entrance of suffering into human life at the fall can be reconciled with evolution. Fr. Ashley explained that science now shows us that human life began in eastern Africa, in a garden-like place. He posited that had we not fallen, perhaps the intimacy of our relation to God would have enabled us to develop technology at an incredibly accelerated pace, sparing us from physical evils such as toil, painful childbirth, possibly even death (?), by cultivating the surrounding desert with technology for our use.

Thus he stated: science can help us overcome some of the effects of the fall.

I ask you, faithful readership (all 4 of you), could science have made the advances it has without the Incarnation? We know the important role Christian thinkers have had in the development of philosophy, anthropology, psychology, etc. Is it possible that only redeemed man, participating in He who is Truth, could have brought together all the various truths of the ancient world to develop the worldview(s) which have enabled us to build up to the modern depth and breadth of scientific thought ?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cool Quotes 2

Ratzinger on Holy Saturday and the apparent death of God in modernity

On Good Friday our gaze remains fixed on the "death of God," the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God no longer is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him but can simply overlook him. "God is dead and we have killed him." This saying of Nietzsche's belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, "descended into hell."

This article of the Creed always reminds me of two scenes in the Bible. The first is that cruel story of the Old Testament in which Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to implore their God to give them fire for their sacrifice. They do so, and naturally nothing happens. He ridicules them, just as the 'enlightened rationalist' ridicules the pious person in response to his prayers. Elijah calls out to the priests that perhaps they had not prayed loud enough: 'Cry aloud, for he [Baal] is good, either he is musing, or has gone aside, or he is one journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened' (1 Kings 18:27). When one reads today this mockery of the devotees of Baal, one can begin to feel uncomfortable; one can get the feeling that we have now arrived in that situation and that the mockery must now fall on us. No calling seems to be able to awaken God. The rationalist seems entitled to say to us 'Pray louder, perhaps your God will them wake up.'  'Descended to hell'; how true this is of our time, the descent of God into muteness, into the dark silence of the absent.

But alongside the story of Elijah and its New Testament analogue, the story of the Lord sleeping in the midst of the storm on the lake (Mk 4:35-41), we must put the Emmaus story (Lk 24:13-35).  The disturbed disciples are talking of the death of their hope. To them, something like that death of God has happened: the point at which God finally seemed to have spoken has disappeared. The One sent by God is dead, and so there is a complete void. Nothing replies anymore. But while they are speaking of the death of their hope and can no longer see God, they do not notice that this very hope stands alive in their midst; that 'God', or rather the image they had formed of his promise, had to die so that he could live on a larger scale. The image they had formed of God, and into which they sought to compress him, had to be destroyed, so that over the ruins of the demolished house, as it were, they could see the sky again and him who remains infinitely greater...

Thus the article about the Lord's descent into hell reminds us that not only God's speech but also his silence is part of Christian revelation. God is not only the comprehensible word that comes tous; he is also the silent, inaccessible, uncomprehended, and incomprehensible ground that eludes us. To be sure, in Christianity there is a primacy of the logos, of the word, over silence; God has spoken. God is word. But this does not entitle us to forget the truth of God's abiding concealment. Only when we have experienced him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence. Christology reaches out beyond the Cross, the moment when love is tangible, into death, the silence and eclipse of God. Can we wonder that the Church and the life of the individual are led again and again into this hour of silence, into the forgotten and almost discarded article, 'Descended into hell'?
Introduction to Christianity, 294-297.

Good stuff!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cool Quotes 1: Ratzinger/Plato - Good Friday and the Just Man

I read a few apropos sections from Ratzinger's Introduction to Christianity to aid my Holy Week reflections. An except from Ratzinger reflecting on Jesus' Crucifixion:

The Cross is revelation. It reveals, not any particular thing, but God and man. It reveals who God is and in what way man is. There is a curious presentiment of this situation in Greek philosophy: Plato's image of the crucified 'just man.' In the Republic the great philosopher asks what is likely to be the position of a completely just man in this world. He comes to the conclusion that a man's righteousness is only complete and guaranteed when he takes on the appearance of unrighteousness, for only then is it clear that he does not follow the opinion of men but pursues justice only for its own sake. So according to Plato the truly just man must be misunderstood and persecuted in this world; indeed Plato goes so far as to write: "They will say that our just man will be scourged, racked, fettered, will have his eyes burned out, and at last, after all hte manner of suffering, will be crucified." This passage, writting four hundred years before Christ, is always bound to move a Christian deeply.
- pg 292, quoting Republic book 2, 361e - 362a.