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Issue Date:  December 23, 2005

Extremists drive church agenda

Much attention has been paid in the past several years to what is going on in the church in Boston, and it is worthwhile to return there one last time before this year ends. For what is going on in the Boston archdiocese is, in many ways, a case study of what is occurring in the larger body of the church in the United States and elsewhere.

Boston’s special place amid church and culture wars and the seemingly intractable divisions in U.S. Catholicism were especially on display in the recent controversy over the Catholic Charities of Greater Boston Christmas Dinner.

In the most recent controversy, criticism was raised of the decision of Catholic Charities to honor Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, a Catholic, because as a politician he has supported gay rights and the right of women to choose abortion. The critics also slammed Catholic Charities for allowing 13 children to be adopted by gay or lesbian couples during the past 20 years.

But things are never so simple when the worlds of religion and politics collide. For Menino is also, apparently, an outstanding (and increasingly rare these days) advocate for the poor and the downtrodden.

Boston has exposed the depth of the sex abuse scandal and the degree of complicity in criminal activity that occurred at the highest levels of the church. It has bared the frustration as well as the determination of the laity. While all of that has gone on internally, the church in Boston has conducted a highly public confrontation with the wider culture on the hot button issues of abortion and homosexuality.

If, as we suggest, Boston serves as a kind of bellwether on these issues, one can take courage from the independent spirit that Boston Catholics are displaying in so many ways. Simultaneously, we can lose heart at the realization that we may face the future as a church more split and divided than whole.

Much depends on how bishops handle the controversies, on what voices are given credibility, on how broadly or narrowly they construe the church and those who constitute the church.

In the end, Catholic Charities, headed by Fr. J. Bryan Hehir, stood firm and honored Menino. On the matter of adoptions by gay couples, Hehir explained that Catholic Charities, a faith-based organization that uses government money, must abide by state laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Boston Archbishop Sean O’Malley stayed away from the dinner, basing his decision on a policy of the U.S. bishops prohibiting Catholic organizations from honoring those in public life who oppose church teaching. Of course, as we all know from other matters, bishops are autonomous and can interpret and apply such directives as they see fit -- or simply ignore them.

Obvious as the point may be to some, it is worth noting here that such scrutiny is likely not to be applied to politicians who advocate slashing benefits for the poor and/or the ill; who vote for preemptive war and the development of weapons of mass destruction; who argue for exemptions to allow torture; or who support the death penalty. They will avoid scrutiny not because it is patently stupid to expect the activities and votes of a politician to match up line by line with church teaching but because gay issues and abortion, unfortunately, have become for many the only proof texts of Catholic orthodoxy.

That is unfortunate because in areas where the government actually makes great demands of its citizenry -- in the billions we are required to pay for war and other military adventures, in our acquiescence to state-sponsored killing on death row, in votes on budget priorities that further marginalize the marginalized -- the Catholic voice has grown weak.

Reasonableness and rationality dissipate when the absolutes of religious teaching are applied in an arena where compromise is key. So, while O’Malley stayed away, his spokesperson fairly gushed about the mayor and the speech he gave at the gathering, which was closed to the press. “Mayor Menino’s remarks clearly demonstrate this is a person who loves his city and is dedicated to helping others,” said Terrence C. Donilon, according to a report in The Boston Globe. “We appreciate his many good deeds on behalf of the needy. In fact, the archbishop is very thankful for the efforts of so many who contributed to the support generated tonight for the programs that Catholic Charities runs to serve children and families in need.” The $500 per plate event was sold out and raised $200,000 for Catholic Charities. It is money, we can only presume, that was not too tainted by its association with Menino to be used by the archdiocese.

If this were merely a little Boston politics, it would be easy to overlook. It is, however, indicative of the kind of befuddled approach to the public arena that has become the Catholic hallmark in too many places.

Church leaders are being pushed and bullied by bands of extreme zealots who may refer to themselves as “authentic” Catholics but who have no bona fides beyond their small circles of discontent. One Boston area extremist who fomented opposition to the Catholic Charities dinner had this to say about Hehir on her Web site: “This man is pure unadulterated evil. He literally sends shivers up my spine. … If he and his cronies think we’re going to tolerate he [sic] and the archbishops’ material cooperation in abortions -- we’ll chase them out of town faster than you can say Voice of the Faithful.”

Brian Hehir is a priest of distinguished intellect and long, outstanding service who commands broad respect in church and academic circles and in the wider culture. He is an example of a diminishing breed of priest that once walked securely throughout the culture, bringing the wisdom of the Catholic tradition, authentic Catholicism, to all areas of society.

There is, of course, nothing authentic or Catholic about the extremist’s slander and character assassination. But it exists in abundance out there and in too many places it is driving the agenda.

We can become the absolutists, the literalists who keep cutting off limbs and poking out eyes to fend off that which we find disagreeable. Or we can rediscover the robustness of true Catholicism. We can recognize that politics is not religion. We can rejoin the fray, making our points by persuasion and example, not by ultimatums, sulking and walking away.

National Catholic Reporter, December 23, 2005

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