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Catholic Conundrum


Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Washington appears to be going very well; he enjoyed the warm greetings at the White House and enthusiastic adulations of thousands of Washingtonians and people from all over.

At the White House, Pope Benedict called on Americans to use their privileges to create a more just and humane world.

President Bush replied, according to the Washington Post, that “in a world where some treat life as something to be debased and discarded, we need your message that all human life is sacred and that each of us is willed, each of us is loved.”

Today as well, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that death by lethal injection is a Constitutionally acceptable form of capital punishment. Chief Justice John Roberts, a Catholic appointed by President Bush, wrote the majority opinion, and he was joined by six other justices including the other four Catholics on the Court.

Today’s juxtaposition of the Pope’s personal presence in Washington and the Supreme Court’s opinion upholding the death penalty illustrates the often-jarring conundrum of reconciling the doctrines of the Catholic faith with American legal and public policy.

The Church’s teachings on human life include those who are living as well as those who are not yet born. Capital punishment, war, torture, violence and discrimination against the human person for any reason are all anathema to the Church’s moral teachings. Those who support capital punishment or war are quick to point out that the Church’s teachings do allow some “wiggle room” on those topics. But recent popes — JPII, Benedict — have been crystal clear in their pleas to end capital punishment and the war in Iraq.

In the last few years, the media have made much of the controversies that exist with liberal-leaning Catholic politicians, particularly on abortion. In the last presidential election, the question of whether John Kerry could receive Holy Communion because of his pro-choice stance was a source of much commentary.

Even here at Trinity, we have experienced the Catholic conundrum with regard to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ’62. Because of her pro-choice politics, some Catholics took offense last year when our famous alumna started her new life as Speaker with a Mass in Notre Dame Chapel. More recently, certain organizations that are not affiliated with the Church have harshly criticized Trinity for expressing pride in Speaker Pelosi’s achievement as the first woman Speaker of the House, the highest ranking woman ever in the American political establishment.

Those same critics seem quite silent on the death penalty opinion of the five Catholics on the Supreme Court.

This week, I have spoken with numerous reporters, and there’s been a clear theme in the questions: will the “liberal” or “conservative” Catholics prevail, will the Pope listen to the opinion polls, will one “branch” of Catholicism emerge as stronger than another? As I’ve explained to each, there are no “branches” of Catholicism, we are one Church. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are political labels that simply don’t apply to moral teachings. And the Pope does not act according to opinion polls. Period.

The American Catholic conundrum is how to live the faith in its entirety, without division, while also reconciling the “seamless garment” of our faith with the deep diversity of the American culture, especially our legal and political systems.

Tonight in a meeting with bishops, the Pope spoke about the tension between faith and culture in this country. According to the New York Times, he said, “Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem,” he told American bishops here. “It allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the churches, but at the same time can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. The result is a growing separation of faith from life.”

The Pope will be back in Rome on Monday, but the debate in the United States will go on. Americans care about the rule of law, both religious and secular, but we have a very hard time reconciling the hard places where law and morality seem at odds. The Pope’s visit sparks this debate anew. Perhaps the best thing his visit is doing is forcing us to talk about it.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: