Ah, Bishops. “We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them”. Well, maybe. But they do often cause head scratching. It’s good to give conscientious thought to what they say and do, because they are leaders of a local Church. But sometimes it can be very difficult to discern if their message is based on faith or on politics.
Two years ago it was announced that President Obama had been invited to be the commencement speaker at the graduation ceremonies of the University of Notre Dame and, as is the custom, to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate. This upset the then local bishop, and he announced that he would not attend the ceremonies. His reasoning was that in one important aspect of Catholic teaching - that of abortion- the President has repeatedly stated that he does not support criminalization. The bishop’s position was that a Catholic University should neither invite as a speaker nor honor anyone who holds a position contrary to Catholic teaching.
Even though President Obama is not a Catholic, the bishop had every right to absent himself from the ceremonies for this and perhaps, any, reason. Notre Dame is located in the diocese he headed. He had a responsibility to give witness to the Gospel. He felt obligated to speak out, and was within his rights. He had no authority with regards to the University, but was responsible to uphold Catholic teaching within his diocese.
Soon,82 of the 450 US bishops made public statements criticizing the Notre Dame offer to the President. They based their authority on an earlier statement by the US Bishops’ Conference that Catholic institutions should not honor politicians who hold views contrary to church teaching, a provision that many bishops felt Notre Dame violated. None of those bishops had even the remotest authority in relationship to Notre Dame. The Vatican stayed silent on the matter, but the 83 bishops suggested that Notre Dame forgot what it means to be Catholic.
Advance two years—to the present. The Speaker of the House, John Boehner, a Catholic, is invited to be commencement speaker and honored with a doctorate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Catholic University was founded by the US Bishops and is the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States. Rep. Boehner is in full agreement with the Church’s teaching on abortion. He does not uphold any other Catholic teaching on Justice and Peace and, in fact, is committed to doing all he can to make sure those teachings do not become law or, if they already are law, they be rescinded. Not one Catholic bishop had anything to say against this selection.
A tale of two politicians, one Catholic, one not: The one not a Catholic, President Obama, has repeatedly said he is against abortion and committed to doing all that can be done to get rid of the reasons for it but is against changing the law and making it illegal. This is clearly not the position of the Catholic Church. The other, a Catholic and Speaker of the House John Boehner, agrees with the Church’s position on abortion but has one of the worse records in Congress when it comes to voting on Catholic social teachings and care of the poor. Eighty-three bishops protest the first case loudly, which is happening at a University over which they have no authority. They have nothing to say about the second, happening at a University that is their own. Who forgot what it means to be Catholic?