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Three cheers to the bishops!

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 10/10/2008

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Hats off to Bishops Robert Morlino (Madison, Wis.), Charles J. Chaput (Denver), Francis Cardinal George (Chicago), and Edward Cardinal Egan (New York). These and many more bishops are speaking again with moral authority, which had been muffled amid the clergy abuse scandals. In any case they have spoken out forcefully about the misinformation over Church teaching pronounced by a few politicians.

Many of us were shocked by comments made by Nancy Pelosi about when life begins. In case you missed the telecast, Speaker of the House of Representatives Pelosi, appearing on “Meet the Press” with Tom Brokaw, spoke inaccurately about the Church’s position on the beginning of life. She said she was a devoted Catholic who has carefully studied the issue for years. She then went on to claim that the Church’s teaching has varied over the centuries about when life begins and is still unsettled. Too bad she didn’t check with her bishop rather than her party staffers before her pronouncements. To further inflame the issue, Sen. Joe Biden, claiming to be a practicing Catholic, spoke in defense of, and in agreement with, Speaker Pelosi.

We happened to be in Chicago Sept. 8 when Francis Cardinal George’s statement was read from the altar and copies given out at the end of Mass. His letter read in part: “While everyone could be expected to know the Church’s position on the immorality of abortion and the role of law in protecting unborn children, it seems some profess not to know it and others, even in the Church, dispute it.”

The Cardinal goes on, “The Catholic Church, from its first days has condemned the aborting of unborn children as gravely sinful.” Further he said “the Church does not endorse candidates for office, but she does teach the principles according to which Catholics should form their social consciences.”

Cardinal Egan said he was shocked to learn that the speaker of the house would make the kind of statements that she made Aug. 24. “What the speaker had to say about theologians and their positions regarding abortion was not only misinformed; it was also, and especially, utterly incredible in this day and age.”

Further his eminence said the Church defends life of unborn babies from the earliest stages. In the letter he went on, “In simplest terms, they are human with an inalienable right to life, a right that the speaker of the House of Representatives is bound to defend at all costs for the most basic of ethical reasons. They are not part of their mothers, and what they are depends not at all upon the opinions of theologians of any faith. Anyone who dares to defend that they may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.”

Enter Kerry Kennedy. While not an active politician, she is from a high-profile political family. Ms. Kennedy, a social justice lawyer, edited a collection of interviews with various Catholics; among them Bill Maher, a professed agnostic, and Frank McCourt, an acknowledged “former Catholic.”

When interviewed by the Boston Globe and National Public Radio, Ms. Kennedy claimed that when she went to church she heard “positions anathema to my values.” Last time we checked, “anathema” means one banned or cursed by ecclesiastical authority; someone or something intensely disliked or a ban solemnly pronounced by ecclesiastical authority and accompanied by excommunication. Doesn’t this stance of claiming to be a Catholic, but publicly denouncing her teaching smack of trying to have it both ways?

Some of these political types have made overturning Church teaching a part of their political rhetoric. Speaker Pelosi: “The point is that [the Church’s historic teaching on abortion] shouldn’t have an impact on a woman’s right to choose.” Perhaps these people are not speaking to their fellow Catholics, but rather to those who fund their election campaigns.

While many politicians have championed the separation of Church and state, are they not overstepping here? Biden and Pelosi claim to honor the principle that religion and politics should be separate, yet they were addressing Church doctrine in their statements. As Bishop Morlino said “They are stepping on the pope’s turf and mine. Plus they are wrong.” He added in his statement: “The catechesis [i.e., one’s education in the faith] they received after Vatican II left them confused.”

American Catholics are moving into an era where there will be increased conflict with programs of the state and the teachings of the Church. We have already witnessed this here in Massachusetts with the clash over child adoption by homosexual partners. Waiting in the wings are discord and disputes over whom a Catholic school can hire, euthanasia, artificial “life” and a host of other issues.

These are teaching moments for Catholics and it is encouraging to hear the strong voices of our bishops. Archbishop Chaput has recently written an important book, titled “Render Unto Caesar: Catholic Witness and American Public Life,” in which he coolly addresses many of these issues. He finds no incompatibility between Catholicism and the American system, properly understood. One problem he sees is that too many Catholics have imagined that they have to cut and trim in order to accommodate their Catholicism to their Americanism. We give him the last word. “This is a problem that urgently has to be overcome by a return to the authentic sources of the faith.”

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan edited “Why I Am Still a Catholic” [Riverhead Books, 1998] and live in Chestnut Hill, Mass.