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Issue Date:  February 17, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

A fitting honor for Mrs. King

The caption at the bottom of the TV screen the day after the politician, preacher and star-studded, six-hour funeral for Coretta Scott King, said something like: “Rude comments?” The question was whether some of the talk, particularly from politicians, was impolitic, even impolite.

I suppose the answer depends on what one thinks a funeral should be and what anyone might expect with four presidents and a planeload or so of members of Congress under one roof in these politically charged times.

What I saw in it was a church-state collision of biblical proportions and temperament, moderated not a little by great music and humor, all-in-all a deeply human and fitting honor for someone so intimately tied to the struggle for simple justice and human dignity.

This was, as I see it, religion different from the public pieties parading today, the upwardly mobile sanctimony that has captured the language and symbols but so little of the substance of religion. The religion on display in the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church just outside Atlanta was, while politically savvy, at the same time a faith that called in its debts, as former President Jimmy Carter would say, always on behalf of the other. This is not a religion of checklists of orthodoxy or the gospel of prosperity. It’s messier than that, understandably, so recently connected as it is with the outlandish acts of compassion and courage that marked the civil rights era.

It was easy to note that Coretta Scott King’s funeral was far different from that of her husband who was still, at the time of his assassination, viewed as an enemy of the state in so many quarters.

In fact there were a fair number in that sanctuary who at one time or another would have been considered enemies of the state, people who, while nonviolent, had been less than polite in their insistence that the state was wrong.

It is no small irony that decades later, the powerful would want to gather and be seen -- and hear preaching not lacking a certain edge -- in a circumstance that once would have been toxic to their careers. No small irony and no small sign of hope.

~ ~ ~

While it may not be usual practice to turn our readers’ heads toward other publications, I call your attention this week to an important editorial in Commonweal magazine about Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a figure of considerable influence in some Catholic circles.

As a matter of background, Fr. Neuhaus has had a kind of Forrest Gump ability to show up at important moments of contemporary church history, though with far greater certainty and intellectual flair, of course, than the movie figure. He was certain, for instance, of what was most Christian at the start of his public life when he was nearly as far left on the spectrum of things as he is now far right, back in an era when he was cofounding Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam with Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan. While Berrigan remained somewhat more single-minded than his friend of the time, the Jesuit also landed in jail and since has had far fewer invitations to the White House and papal palace than his counterpart.

Fr. Neuhaus was just as certain as a Lutheran cleric, when he was advising everyone what was best for all Lutherans as that community in the United States was evolving into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as he is now certain what is best for all Catholics, since his conversion in 1990 and subsequent ordination to the priesthood in this denomination.

He is a self-appointed arbiter of orthodoxy and is even now certain, as the editorial points out, of what is best for the new Pope Benedict XVI, whose election he has unceasingly praised. Seems Benedict, however, may not be as fully with Fr. Neuhaus’ program as he should be. But the editorial illuminates that detail and much more eloquently, with wit and insight. It can be found at

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, February 17, 2006

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