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Thoughts for New York’s new archbishop


Already New York’s archbishop-designate, Edward Egan, is being praised for his unswerving loyalty to the Vatican. Singled out for mention are his condemnation of abortion, homosexuality and any discussion of the ordination of women. These are significant issues, but we do not have a single recorded word from Jesus on any of them.

If, however, loyalty to Jesus and his explicit message and concerns were the preferred criteria, then the new archbishop would find his mandate in the gospel and especially in its message of good news for poor people.

Jesus is presented in Luke’s gospel as inaugurating his ministry with a text from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Never before was there such need to use the pulpit of St. Patrick’s to make the prophetic message espoused by Jesus heard locally and globally than today.

In a Jubilee year, the new archbishop might declare his overriding concern to be justice for poor people and solidarity with them in their struggles.

In New York City, poor people include the homeless, the people who are forced to go each day to a soup kitchen for their one decent meal, the single mothers with children who are forced to go from welfare to demeaning work without training for better jobs, without adequate day care for their children, without means of transport to better jobs. They include the sweatshop workers who are treated worse than slaves.

They include the kitchen workers and others in the food trade who often work for $2 per hour, 11 hours per day, seven days a week. They include the farm workers who live in conditions that would be condemned for animals and who work for less than the minimum wage while harvesting the food for the richest, most sumptuous tables in the world. They include all workers who are underpaid and exploited. Jesus’ condemnation of such injustice, blind to human need and suffering, was clear and uncompromising.

In his frequent meals and associations with poor and oppressed people, he was empowering them to start the dangerous but deeply humanizing work of their own liberation.

The new archbishop may wish to pursue an analogous ministry in the third millennium. He will put at the top of his agenda full co-equal rights for women in public life and in all church offices and ministry. The alternative is to sanction continuing decline in vocations and denial of Eucharist to Catholics in deference to human laws that cry out for change.

His preaching will constantly be informed by the social teaching of the church. He will ask not how can we give charity to poor persons, but why are there poor people in the first place. And if the systemic causes of poverty are kept in place by capitalism’s corporate managers, then does not taking handouts from poor people betray the demands of the gospel and social justice?

He will address the concerns of inmates from New York City incarcerated near the Canadian border, separated from their families, suffering often from untreated addictions and often on the way to being released to inner cities where few low-level jobs await them and where desperation may drive them back to violence and crime.

The archbishop will recognize that to preach justice credibly the church must itself be just.

Loyalty to the Vatican today may not be altogether a virtue, especially since the Vatican often operates in an authoritarian fashion. It has sought to stifle theologies of liberation with their gospel-based commitment to social justice. The Vatican rides roughshod over the collegial functions of worldwide conferences of bishops who are denied their legitimate role in collaborating with the pope in teaching and guiding the church. Fidelity to papal teaching on a list of sexual issues discussed without reference to their socio-economic dimensions is made a litmus test for being a loyal Catholic, including a loyal bishop.

In these circumstances, loyalty to the Vatican may well represent disloyalty to gospel values. After all, when the Apostle Peter reneged on his commitment to the Council of Jerusalem and its conclusion that converts to the Jesus movement required baptism only and not adherence to all the ceremonial and dietary laws of Judaism, Paul the apostle tells us that he withstood Peter to his face.

In doing so, Paul opened the way for dynamic expansion of the Jesus movement and gave what should have been an enduring example of the validity of loyal opposition based on the deepest religious values, in contrast to what would have been a destructive “loyalty.”

Fr. Paul Surlis is associate professor of social ethics at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, May 26, 2000