One Speaker is a champion of human rights and social justice, but is also an advocate for keeping the law out of women’s reproductive decisions, a position that runs contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The other Speaker supports legal prohibitions on abortion, in line with Church teachings, but has a legislative track record that often ignores the social justice imperatives of care for the poor and needy.
Catholic colleges who dare welcome the first Speaker risk being pilloried as havens of infidelity.
THE Catholic University of America welcomed and honored the second Speaker at commencement this past weekend.
What a difference a year makes.
Imagine if any Catholic university had invited the Speaker of the House of the United States last year — fire and brimstone would have rained down from the sanctums of righteousness, or at least from the keyboards of various bloggers. Nancy Pelosi incurs particularly vile personal attacks from those who disagree with her pro-choice positions even though many of her other political positions are quite in keeping with Catholic teachings.
But, apparently, inviting the Speaker of the House of the United States this year is a relatively safe gesture, given John Boehner’s pro-life politics. Social justice? Well, that seems to be something for the other side of the aisle.
If Trinity had invited our sister alumna, former Speaker Pelosi, Class of 1962, to speak at commencement, protesters would have lined Michigan Avenue, blogs would have worked in overdrive, my fax machine would have melted down with the acerbic commentaries that might have ensued — actually, all of that did ensue in 2007 when Speaker Pelosi came to Trinity for Mass as part of her inauguration activities. My ‘hate mail file’ still smokes from that episode.
So, how is it that THE Catholic University of America could warmly welcome Speaker of the House John Boehner at CUA’s commencement this past weekend? The obvious difference, of course, is that Speaker Boehner is pro-life, and Speaker Pelosi is pro-choice. The Catholic Church is very clear: Catholic colleges must not honor politicians who do not uphold the teachings of the Church, among which the teachings on the dignity of life are paramount.
But is this really only about a politician’s stance on abortion? Inconsistencies over Church teaching about social justice abound.
A group of Catholic university faculty and other prominent Catholic intellectuals sent a letter to Speaker Boehner last week in which they pointed out that his political positions frequently deviate from Catholic teachings, especially on matters of social justice. Among other things, the letter stated,
“Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policy makers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it. The 2012 budget you shepherded to passage in the House of Representatives guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society. It is particularly cruel to pregnant women and children, gutting Maternal and Child Health grants and slashing $500 million from the highly successful Women Infants and Children nutrition program. When they graduate from WIC at age 5, these children will face a 20% cut in food stamps. The House budget radically cuts Medicaid and effectively ends Medicare. It invokes the deficit to justify visiting such hardship upon the vulnerable, while it carves out $3 trillion in new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.”
Predictably, right-wing bloggers dismissed this as soft liberal pablum.
But unlike the circus of protest that the University of Notre Dame had to endure when President Obama — who is not a Catholic — delivered that commencement address in 2009, the “protest” over Speaker Boehner’s appearance at Catholic University proved to be relatively mild. Some observers suggest that there’s a clear double-standard at work when it comes to which speakers are acceptable at Catholic colleges, and it’s not just about abortion politics, but rather, about Republicans v. Democrats, conservatives v. liberals, right v. left.
I’m not that cynical, but I do see a double standard, and one that is especially pointed and painful when entwined with gender, race, political party and ideology. Virtually no politician has a track record that aligns completely with Church teaching. But a politician is not a priest or bishop, and the legislative job is very different from the pastor’s. The politician must represent the will of the constituents; the pastor must steward the will of God. The clash of power and polls, dogma and demagoguery, faith and freedom can be tumultuous and very bruising. Respecting roles and accepting the difference among many forms of responsibility often gets lost in the struggle for dominance.
There are days when I think that Catholic colleges should simply stop inviting politicians, period. But that would be too easy, and quite possibly a dereliction of our own duty to foster a healthy climate of argumentation and debate as a means to support the learning enterprise. We cannot teach if we do not allow people to speak. If we agree that all Catholic politicians who disagree in any way with Church teachings may not speak on our campuses, then silence would largely prevail.
But, as I have said and written before, this makes no sense in the academy. We cannot ban speakers or refuse to hear other voices because we disagree with their positions. That might be appropriate for a church, but it is not appropriate for a university, even a Catholic university.
Catholic University was well within its rights to have the Speaker of the House at commencement, even though many of us might well disagree with the positions of Speaker Boehner on many matters, including his clear problems with the applications of Catholic social justice teachings in public policy.
In the same way, Trinity is well within our rights when we welcome Speaker Pelosi, Secretary Sebelius, and other Trinity graduates who have exerted a great deal of leadership on behalf of principles of equity and justice in society.
Catholic colleges and universities cannot shrink from engagement with the public square, including with those political leaders whose views on the great issues of our times are different from our own. We evangelize by expressing the teachings of the Church clearly, again and again, and if a speaker’s political choices depart from Church teaching, then the teaching task is even more imperative. Every opportunity to present the teachings of the Church is good. But we cannot teach by refusing to engage, raising the drawbridge, hiding in the cellar as a defense against secular or populist views.
Our job is to teach. The social justice teachings of the Catholic Church are a complete body of belief, with no part severable from the other. The dignity of human life is the bedrock teaching, and any action that diminishes or extinguishes human life is abhorrent. Hence, abortion is anathema, but so is murder, capital punishment, unjust war. Upholding the Church’s teachings on human life require full embrace of the other parts of social and economic justice: the option for the poor, participation in community and political process, upholding the rights of workers, solidarity with those in need, treating all human beings as brothers and sisters equally, being effective stewards of God’s creation.
For more on Catholic social teachings, see this website of the Office of Social Justice of the Diocese of St. Paul.