The Cardinal and the Prime Minister

Cardinal O'Malley's boycott over a commencement speaker's pro-choice position exposes inconsistencies in the way the Catholic Church is responding to those who break with its teachings.

Jose Manuel Ribeiro/Reuters

On May 20, the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, will receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address at Boston College, a Jesuit university. The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, has announced he will boycott the ceremony because Kenny supports a bill in Ireland that legalizes abortion to save the life of the mother. This bill, which according to Kenny merely codifies existing law, was written after a woman named Salvita Halappanavar was denied a medical termination even as she was having a miscarriage and died. O'Malley, however, cites the church teaching that "the deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of life is always morally wrong." Generally seen as quiet, humble, and competent, the cardinal presents the decision as absolute. He precludes any possibility of dialogue or discussion -- he simply cannot bless the graduates, nor the Prime Minister, owing to Kenny's backing of the Irish bill.

But the American Catholic hierarchy has not always been so consistent in its response to politicians who break with Catholic teachings.

O'Malley's decision evokes the controversy over Barack Obama's commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009. The Bishop of Fort Wayne boycotted the event because of Obama's position on abortion. Conservative media fanned the flames. The conservative Cardinal Newman Society created an online petition asking the president of Notre Dame to cancel the invitation. It received over 367,000 signatures. Eighty-three bishops publicly objected to the choice of speaker. Ralph McInerny, who at the time had taught philosophy at Notre Dame for 54 years, opined, "By inviting Barack Obama to be the 2009 commencement speaker, Notre Dame has forfeited its right to call itself a Catholic university."

Where were they eight years earlier, when another politician implicated in life-taking spoke at Notre Dame? In 2001, George W. Bush received an honorary degree and spoke at the Catholic university's commencement ceremony. In that case, a political science professor, Peter Walshe, circulated a petition to protest both Bush's economic policies and his embrace of the death penalty. 667 people signed the petition. They marched, gained local and Catholic media attention, and generated some interesting blog posts, after which the controversy died away. Notably, the Catholic hierarchy found that Bush's opposition to fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching and the death penalty did not rise to a level that required opposition.

The Catholic position on the death penalty allows for considerable interpretation, but generally the church has supported the right of the state to act violently in just circumstances, including to protect its citizens. That said, many Catholics now speak of a seamless garment or a consistent life ethic that links the fight against war, the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion. Many critics have pointed to various cases in which serious doubts remain about the guilt of those Bush had executed, and there can be no question that executing an innocent man would create as much culpability as any other killing. Finally, Pope John-Paul II revised the Catechism to argue that circumstances permitting the death penalty are, "very rare, if not practically nonexistent." If bishops are going to condemn commencement speakers at Catholic universities based solely on the propriety of their ideas in relation to Catholic teaching, then surely there was room to question Bush. "Very rare" does not describe Bush's approach to executions.

But even if we concede that abortion is the only issue that generates blanket condemnation from the Catholic hierarchy, what about other pro-choice speakers condoned by the Church? In 2006, Condoleezza Rice gave the commencement address at Boston College. Throughout her political career, Rice has described herself as "mildly pro-choice." To Oprah, for example, in 2002, Rice said, "I call myself mildly pro-choice, meaning that I think I'm where a lot of American women are ... I mostly don't think abortion is an issue for the government." She reaffirmed this position in 2005. Still, although aware of her stance on abortion, conservative Catholics applauded the invitation. Kathryn Jean Lopez, blogger for the National Review, noted that Rice was only "moderately pro-choice" and not a major abortion advocate one way or the other. But if abortion is as heinous as Catholic doctrine proclaims it to be, then surely she is just as worthy of a boycott as Prime Minister Kenny. At the end of Rice's speech, a few liberal students, seeing her as a warmonger (another position in defiance of the seamless garment of life), turned their backs on her. On the stage, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston, smiled and applauded.

O'Malley has drawn an arbitrary line, with Rice on one side and Kenny on the other. That's fine -- we all draw such lines about what kinds of people and causes we can and cannot support, where we can compromise and where we cannot. But as a bishop, he claims an absolute moral authority to present his decisions as responses to universal truths, not carefully crafted political acts. Maybe there's another way.

If Cardinal O'Malley feels he must, out of conscience, refrain from blessing the graduating students of Boston College, lest he sully himself by being in Enda Kenny's company, so be it. But I hope he and Kenny can find time to talk. The Prime Minster can tell him the story of Salvita Halappanavar. O'Malley can explain why protecting the unborn is a higher priority than saving the life of one woman. If they listen to each other, even if they still disagree, we'll all be the better for it.

Absolutism is dangerous. It divides and discourages discussion. We live in a complex world in which new lines of division lines fall not between holders of different beliefs, but between those willing to engage in dialogue and those who descend into the silent surety of their perfect understanding. I hope that this weekend all parties embrace pluralism.