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Cardinal Sean and the Catholic Conundrum



Sean Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, (photo above from is one of the great Church leaders of our time, a strong advocate for Church teachings.   So, why is Cardinal O’Malley getting grilled, sliced & diced in some of the more vociferous Catholic circles?  He presided at the funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and took the further step of answering those who criticized him for doing so on his blog.  You can read his full statement here.

Cardinal O’Malley courageously confronted the core conundrum for the American Catholic Church today:  upholding the Church’s teachings on the dignity of human life while eschewing extremist tactics.   He wrote,

“We are for the precious gift of life, and our task is to build a civilization of love.  We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them.  We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people’s hearts.  We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss.

“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.  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.  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.”

Other bishops are also beginning to speak out about the divisive, dangerous tactics of the extremists.   In a recent interview in the National Catholic Reporter, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe candidly discussed the challenge faced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when extremist tactics undermine effective moral teaching.   The punitive use of sacraments — i.e., withholding Holy Communion from pro-choice politicians — runs counter to the concepts of charity, forgiveness and mercy that are also Catholic values.  While the bishops do not wish to give public scandal by airing their differences through the media, it’s obvious to many observers that there is great disagreement among them when it comes to tactics.

Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired of San Francisco, has an excellent piece on this controversy in America magazine this week and Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend also writes in America about what happened at Notre Dame and issues for Catholic universities today.

The Catholic conundrum of the 21st Century threatens the very integrity of our Church.  The conundrum is this:  whether defense of the faith requires scorched-earth tactics against those who disagree with us (or those who refuse to condemn those who disagree); or whether the values of charity, mercy, humilty and forgiveness (as well as a firm belief in the effectiveness of teaching versus condemnation) have a rightful place in responding to disagreements on matters of faith and morals.

This conundrum beleaguers the bishops and causes considerable consternation among Catholic college presidents as well.  By our very nature as universities, we are places of openness and broad expression, engaging with the culture in some of the most complex issues of our time.   As Catholic universities, we also must uphold Catholic teachings (see Ex Corde Ecclesiae) — and this is the rub:  our critics would have us censor and condem any source of disagreement, withdrawing from serious engagement with our social and political culture in favor of a life removed from the messy business of human difference.   As universities, we cannot take this course, we must remain open to the human condition; we cannot be effective teachers for our Catholic values if we are disengaged from the world in which we live — and this includes engaging in dialogues with political and social leaders across the spectrum.  Such engagement is also what Ex Corde Ecclesiae expects of its universities  (Ex Corde is the Church’s foundation document on Catholic Higher Education).  Effective evangelization cannot occur in a closet or on a remote island removed from the very people we are trying to engage in social, political and moral change for the better.

I have written frequently on this topic, including most recently in the Trinity magazine, in my remarks at Commencement this year, and in the Washington Post last spring.   I have a small but toxic collection of hate mail to show for my efforts — but also a clear majority of affirming messages from readers who have thanked me for expressing what was on their minds as well.   What’s clear to me from reading my own mail, and the “comments” sections appended to the stories about Cardinal O’Malley and other Catholic articles, as well as the various blogs on Catholic topics, is that the Catholic condundrum is more serious than ever, and as Cardinal O’Malley says so clearly, a great threat to the communion that is our faith.


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