Sunday, November 15, 2009

Comments on Time magazine's nonsense

Since it's stirred up a lot of controversy lately, and since I want to do a series of posts on mis-reportage of Catholicism in the secular press, I've decided to do a Fr. Z-style (for those of you familiar with the What Does the Prayer Really Say blog) parsing of Amy Sullivan's piece from Time magazine "Priests Spar Over What It Means to be Catholic."

As I've done before, I will use [Bracketed Blue Italics] to show my comments


The leaders of the Roman Catholic Church traditionally couch even the harshest disagreements in decorous, ecclesiastical language. But it didn't take a decoder ring to figure out what Rome-based Archbishop Raymond Burke meant in a late-September address when he charged Boston Cardinal Seán O'Malley with being under the influence of Satan, "the father of lies."   [False.  Archbishop Burke did use the phrase "Father of Lies," but not in specific reference to Cardinal O'Malley.  He said that "One sees the hand of the Father of Lies at work in the disregard for the situation of scandal or in the ridicule and even censure of those who experience scandal. "  This is hardly the same thing as implying that Cardinal O'Malley has a secret pact with Satan.] 

Burke's broadside at O'Malley was inspired by the Cardinal's decision to permit and preside over a funeral Mass for the late Senator Ted Kennedy. And it has set the Catholic world abuzz. [Really?  I was unaware of all this buzz, and I'm usually pretty up on my Catholic news.] Even more than protests over the University of Notre Dame's decision to invite President Barack Obama to speak, disputes over the Kennedy funeral have brought into the open an argument that has been roiling within American Catholicism. The debate nominally centers on the question of how to deal with politicians who support abortion rights. Burke and others who believe a Catholic's position on abortion trumps all other teachings have faced off against those who take a more holistic view of the faith. [Ah.  I see.  Those who oppose Archbishop Burke have a more holistic view of things.  Because, ignoring certain core teachings of the Church is "holistic."] But at the core, the divide is over who decides what it means to be Catholic.

A Bull in a China Shop
It strikes no one as surprising that the 61-year-old Burke is at the center of the current fight. The former Archbishop of St. Louis made national headlines in 2004 when he became the first Catholic leader to say he would deny the Eucharist toDemocratic presidential candidate John Kerry. He led an unsuccessful drive to bar Communion for politicians who support abortion rights. And as Election Day approached in 2004, Burke issued a warning to Catholics in the key swing state of Missouri that they should not present themselves for Communion if they voted for pro-choice candidates. [While I overall support Archbishop Burke, I will admit that I don't really see that voting for a pro-choice candidate in itself removes someone from communion with the Church.  While I would not vote for a pro-choice candidate myself, I think that it is theoretically possible that in some instance one could believe that it was the right thing to do even if they were solidly pro-life.  That said, if you've been voting for pro-choicers, please give heavy consideration to the prime importance of the abortion issue.]

The Archbishop's outspoken comments did not go unnoticed in Rome. In June 2008, Burke was unexpectedly transferred to the Vatican. The move was widely interpreted as a way to put some distance between Burke and the political contest in the States. [I don't buy this idea] "It was not unrelated to issues of political timing," observes Mark Silk, a professor of religion at Trinity College.  [And obviously Mark Silk is the unquestionable authority on the Vatican's motives.]

Burke's new assignment came with an impressive title: Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura — essentially chief justice of the Vatican's highest court. But the job, which involves hearing appeals of lower-canon-court rulings on issues like annulment requests, did not stop him from commenting on American politics. [Is there something wrong with that, Ms. Sullivan?  Bishops should not be silent on moral issues, and as an American citizen, Burke has every right to express his views on American politics, anyway.]  In January he charged that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was responsible for Obama's victory because it overwhelmingly approved a document suggesting that Catholics could consider issues besides abortion when deciding how to vote. The conference's in-house news service, he added, failed to highlight Obama's moral failings in its campaign coverage. And he called Health andHuman Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a pro-choice Catholic, a "source of deepest embarrassment to Catholics." [I'm embarassed...]

Burke's confrontational approach doesn't always mesh with the more discreet diplomacy favored by his Italian colleagues. "He's seen as a bull in a china shop," says an American priest and longtime Rome resident. "I've seen Italian bishops roll their eyes."  [Who is this "American priest?"  Given the dishonesty Ms. Sullivan employs in this piece, I wonder if he even exists.  Plus, what's the significance of his opinion, anyway?  And, whoever may "roll their eyes," Burke was recently appointed to the powerful Congregation for Bishops... so he's hardly being marginalized at the Vatican.]

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the funeral plans for Kennedy would reignite a lingering dispute within the church. The question of whether the Senator should even be described as a Catholic because of his support for abortion rights and his checkered life history was hotly debated on Catholic blogs and religion websites like Right-wing Catholics lobbied the Boston archdiocese to refuse the Kennedy family a church funeral. [Most of the objections I heard were to the tenor of the funeral, not its occurence.]  Robert Royal of the Faith & Reason Institute called O'Malley's decision to go ahead with the Mass a "grave scandal" on a par with the sexual-abuse crisis.  [Mr. Royal claims he never said such a thing here]

But it's one thing for partisans and bloggers to disparage a Mass for a dead Senator; it's quite another for a Vatican official to do so. Even some leading conservative Catholics may find they cannot support Burke's latest salvo. When told of the Archbishop's assertion that pro-choice Catholics should not be permitted funeral rites, Princeton professor Robert George was taken aback: "That's a very different, and obviously graver, claim than that with which I would have sympathy. I haven't heard before any bishop say that pro-abortion politicians should not be given a Catholic funeral." [Professor George claims that his quote here was misrepresented.]
Friends of O'Malley's say the cardinal was stunned by the criticism. [I don't know how Cardinal O'Malley feels about much of anything, having never met the man, but after a long series of lies, I'm disinclined to take seriously the alleged claims of Ms. Sullivan's anonymous "friends"] The 65-year-old O'Malley is temperamentally Burke's opposite, a shy man who dislikes celebrity and shuns politics — a major reason he was appointed to the sensitive post in Boston. With his full beard and preference for wearing the brown robe of a Capuchin friar, the man who goes by "Cardinal Sean" is not easily identified as a Prince of the Church. When O'Malley received his red hat in 2006, he persuaded some friends to go out for a late-night snack in Rome after a long day of ceremonies. But he ran into some trouble when he tried to return to his quarters. The Vatican guards didn't believe that the casually attired man who smelled of pizza was a newly minted Cardinal. [So, you see, Cardinal O'Malley likes pizza, and the media has determined that he and Archbishop Burke are at loggerheads.  Therefore, we should all disagree with Archbishop Burke.]

Though he has presided over the difficult task of closing parishes and schools within the archdiocese, O'Malley is well liked in Boston and the broader Catholic community. He celebrated his inaugural Mass in Boston at a Spanish service, and he once joked that his scarlet Cardinal's robes would come in handy if Dick Cheney ever invited him to go hunting. O'Malley, however, should not be mistaken for a liberal member of the hierarchy. He is a conservative on matters of doctrine, and for the past few years, he has been the face of the church's opposition to Massachusetts' gay-marriage law.

But O'Malley did not hesitate to push back against the uproar that surrounded the Kennedy funeral. In a Sept. 2 post on — he is the only Cardinal with a blog — O'Malley wrote, "In the strongest terms I disagree" with those who believe Kennedy did not deserve a funeral Mass. "We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief," he continued. "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."

It was the first time a Cardinal had directly and publicly challenged the Burke position. O'Malley's statement was followed by another from Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis., who lamented that "the death of Senator Kennedy has called forth at least an apparent rejection of mercy on the part of not a few Catholics." [Is Sullivan honestly trying to pretend that Bp. Morlino, of all people, is against taking a hard line on the abortion issue?  Bp. Morlino got national attention when he berated Joe Biden and Kathleen Sebelius "because they claim to be Catholic," for "confusing God's good people."  He's not exactly encouraging of pro-abortion "Catholics."]  It was inevitable that Burke would emerge to fire back. At a Sept. 18 dinner in Washington sponsored by the conservative media outlet Inside Catholic, Burke declared that "neither Holy Communion nor funeral rites should be administered to [pro-choice] politicians." [Note that she edited Burke's statements to use the word "pro-choice," since that suits her political sensibilities.  Lifesite covered what he REALLY said] The audience gave Burke a prolonged standing ovation. 

Silence from Rome
The American hierarchy has been divided before, most recently in the 1990s by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's argument that abortion is not the only issue in the "seamless garment of life" that Catholics are called to promote. [That, too, was a rather contrived controversy.  Contrary to the picture some would like to paint, Cardinal Bernardin was not denying the moral significance of the abortion issue.] But the current debate, which is expected to surface again when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) holds its general meeting later this month, is the bitterest yet. [And boy is it bitter ] A minority faction of bishops had hoped Pope Benedict XVI would lead the way in punishing those who dissent from church teaching.  His preference for avoiding the political fray has both frustrated them and emboldened them to act on their own. 

The question now is whether the Vatican will move again to muzzle Burke. [Because the Vatican has "muzzled" him in the past?]  When he criticized Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl last spring during a videotaped interview, he was forced to apologize less than 24 hours after the video aired.  [Forced to apologize?  He made the mistake of trusting Randall Terry (of Operation Rescue).  Terry interviewed him and misrepresented the context of his remarks to make it sound like he was condemning Archbishop Weurl when he never intended to do so.  He apologized for the confusion.  Why, exactly, should we assume that the apology was forced?]  In early September, the bishop of Scranton, Pa. — a Burke protégé — abruptly resigned after a stormy tenure and was not reassigned.  [While I don't really know the details of Bp. Martino's resignation, he claimed he was resigning because he was sick.  That would explain why he wasn't reassigned.  It's very unlike the Vatican to kick a bishop to the curb over a few anti-abortion remarks...] Veteran Vatican watchers took it as a sign that some Burkean antics — such as threatening to refuse Vice President Joe Biden Communion and disparaging the USCCB — would not be tolerated. [Was that a consensus among "veteran Vatican watchers?"  Wait?  It wasn't!?!?!  I'm shocked... SHOCKED, I tell you... that Amy Sullivan would try to mislead us!]

Rome has been silent about Burke's most recent public statements. [Sometimes, silence is not a statement.] In late September, O'Malley was named to the Pontifical Council for the Family, a minor and expected appointment, but also a reminder that the Boston Cardinal has friends in high places. [And, as I mentioned before, Archbishop Burke recently got a major appointment to the Congregation for Bishops.  The Vatican doesn't care about stupid media-fabricated faux-feuds.]   "From the point of view of doctrine, Benedict has absolute firmness," says a Vatican insider. "But he does not want to see it play out in a confrontational way."

There are other signs that the word has gone forth, at least for now. In years past, the annual Red Mass held the Sunday before the U.S. Supreme Court's term opens has been so heavily steeped in pro-life rhetoric that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg now declines to attend. This year's service, however, featured a homily by the new chair of the bishop's pro-life committee that included only the subtlest of references to abortion. [This new chair, Archbishop DiNardo, was the first bishop to criticize Notre Dame over the Obama debacle... so, don't think that he's averse to speaking strongly on these matters.]   More striking was the image of Biden taking Communion without incident.


While I'm sure that each bishop has their own preferred way of dealing with controversial matters, it looks to me like the bishops are, if anything, more united now than they traditionally are.  You can see it in the widespread calls from our bishops against Notre Dame's honors for President Obama.  You can see it in the unprecedented effort they've undertaken against abortion in healthcare.

Cardinal O'Malley and Archbishop Burke might have very different personalities, and might have differing opinions on how an isolated incident here or there should be handled.  Our bishops, however, seem unified in their increasing call that we reaffirm our Catholic identity and embrace what it really means to be a part of the Church.  

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