Reflections on Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley’s Letter

One of the more interesting side stories to the recent death of Senator Edward M. Kennedy funeral has been the furor occasioned by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley’s decision to preside over the Senator’s funeral.

A number of Catholics have had strong responses to the Cardinal’s decision to preside, attend, or even allow the Senator a Catholic funeral. Some take more or less gentle issue with the Cardinal and/or his decisions, while others decry or denounce either or both.

In response to his critics, the Cardinal posted an elaborate, thoughtful, and touching response that struck a chord in me, and moved me to comment on it.

First and foremost, I think the Cardinal did the gracious, Christian, and (most importantly for me) pastoral thing in “allowing” Kennedy to have a Catholic funeral. The Cardinal also expressed these virtues in abundance through his decision to attend as well as preside.

However, I have to take issue with the Cardinal when he says that:

“The thousands of people who lined the roads as the late Senator’s motorcade travelled from Cape Cod to Boston and the throngs that crowded the Kennedy Library for two days during the lying in repose, I believe, were there to pay tribute to these many accomplishments rather than as an endorsement of the Senator’s voting record on abortion.”

Here I have to say that the Cardinal doesn’t speak for me, one of the throngs. I came to honor Kennedy for his many accomplishments on behalf of our nation, but especially his courage to stand up to Catholics who make membership in the Communion contingent upon agreement with the criminalization of abortion.

While the Cardinal does not come out and say “you can’t be a Catholic unless and until you work to make abortion a crime,” he veers quite closely with statements like these:

“Needless to say, the Senator’s wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publically [sic] support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn. Given the profound effect of Catholic social teaching on so many of the programs and policies espoused by Senator Kennedy and the millions who benefitted from them, there is a tragic sense of lost opportunity in his lack of support for the unborn. To me and many Catholics it was a great disappointment because, had he placed the issue of life at the centerpiece of the Social Gospel where it belongs, he could have multiplied the immensely valuable work he accomplished.”

For me, the “lost opportunity” was not in Kennedy’s failure to show enough support for a cause that likes to call itself “pro-life.” The lost opportunity was for others — especially but not exclusively Catholics — to see, through the example of the Senator’s life, how one could be an outstanding Catholic without being of one mind with regard to the criminalization of abortion.

And if when the Cardinal says “issue of life” he means “agreement that abortion should be made into a crime,” I have to disagree once again. I think it does inestimable harm to the Communion to reduce the Catholic or Christian message to a political one, be it for or against a procedure (although I don’t know anyone who is “pro-abortion”), a set of laws, a particular candidate, or party.

This, you see, is what happens when Catholic prelates equate a stance on abortion with membership in the Communion, thereby reducing the Good News to membership in a political party.

Now I couldn’t agree more with this part of the Cardinal’s response:

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.

I just wish this message could take root among the more judgmental of the faithful.

Jesus’ words to us were that we must love one another as He loves us. Jesus loves us while we are still in sin. He loves each of us first, and He loves us to the end.

Again, I wish more Christians showed some of this love towards the people they disagreed with theologically or politically.

This, I think, is especially important:

Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other.

All I would add to this is that the ability to “increase love” is important not just for the Church, but for the wider society as well. You can, but don’t have to be evangelical to see that modeling love, acceptance, and compassion does more to promote the general welfare than shouting, yelling, or denouncing.

In sum, I think the Cardinal’s remarks understandably privileged the outlawing of abortion at the expense of his more pastoral – and morally compelling – comments on love and demonstration of graciousness. It is up to contemporary Catholics who oppose the criminalization of abortion to stand up for their faith as Teddy did.

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