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Boehner’s Catholic Lessons

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Posted on May 22, 2011

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Sometimes we learn more from the dogs that don’t bark and the wheels that don’t squeak.

It’s likely you didn’t hear much about the controversy over House Speaker John Boehner’s recent commencement speech at Catholic University. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that Boehner’s critics were civil and respectful. The media, it turns out, don’t cover you much if you are civil and respectful. This would be the same media that regularly disparage incivility and divisiveness in politics.

And the story broke from the stereotypical narrative the media like to impose on Christians in general, and Catholics in particular. If the headline is “Conservative Catholics Denounce Liberal Politician on Abortion,” all the boilerplate is at the ready. But when the headline is “Catholic Progressives Challenge Conservative Politician on Social Justice,” this is something new and complicated. It’s far easier to write the 10th story of the week about Newt Gingrich.

Oh yes, and there is also a problem for those bishops who barely murmur when a Catholic politician departs from the church’s teachings on social justice but think that even the mildest deviation on abortion is enough to keep a public figure off a Catholic campus. As a result, they feed the distorted media narrative about what the church believes.

Here’s the background: This year, Catholic University invited Boehner to give the address at its May 14 commencement, and why not? Boehner is Catholic, and universities like to get famous people to give such speeches. Notre Dame was similarly proud in 2009 when it snagged President Obama as its commencement speaker.

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But a group of Catholic academics, including some leading members of the Catholic University faculty, decided Boehner’s visit was a useful moment to remind him and everyone else about Catholicism’s strong instructions about our duty to the poor and government’s responsibility to promote social justice.

The anti-abortion Notre Dame protesters shouted in fury at the university and insisted that the president should not even have had a chance to speak at a Catholic institution. Boehner’s critics, in sharp contrast, were respectful and never said he didn’t belong there. The opening paragraph of their letter welcomed the speaker—and also served as a not-so-subtle poke at the Notre Dame rejectionists and the bishops who supported them.

“We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to The Catholic University of America,” they wrote. “It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching.”

The rest of the letter was tough. “From the apostles to the present,” the professors wrote, “the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” They added: “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.”

The letter specifically condemned the House-passed Ryan budget, arguing that it “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society.” It cited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strong criticisms of the GOP plan: “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons,” the bishops wrote. Pointedly, the Catholic academics said the budget had “anti-life implications,” including its cuts to the Women, Infants, and Children program.

For their efforts, the professors got nothing like the avalanche of attention let loose by the far angrier anti-Obama Notre Dame protesters. As for Boehner, his address went off peacefully. He offered a sweet-natured, nonpolitical talk about the power of “humility, patience and faith,” complete with references to the Blessed Mother, the Hail Mary prayer, and the speaker’s intrepid Catholic high school football coach.

It was perfectly fitting that Boehner gave his speech at Catholic, just as it was appropriate for Obama to address the graduates at Notre Dame. So what should we learn?

Bishops and right-wingers should stop trying to drive speakers away from Catholic campuses. Confidence in the truth of the church’s teachings should make its institutions more, not less, open to reasoned dialogue and conversation.

The media should note that Catholicism has a lot to say, not just about abortion but also about justice and compassion. And the Catholic professors just might force journalists to ponder whether they actually punish the civility they routinely and lavishly praise.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
   
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


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By SarcastiCanuck, May 24, 2011 at 10:25 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We need Catholic professors to reiterate what we all learned in grade school.HELLO,obviously nobody in power is listening…Also,it seems to me that you are infering that belonging to a religion gives individuals some sort of moral high ground.In my life,I’ve met a lot of religous types that are extreme moral hypocrites and also secular humanists and athiests who show the noblest standards reflected by the so called Christian ideals….Another nice attempt at polarization,using both politics and religion Mr.Dionne.Hopefully your work will improve when you graduate journalism school…

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By omygodnotagain, May 23, 2011 at 8:47 pm Link to this comment

Thank you EJ Dionne for writing this, social justice has always been an important part of their mission in the US. When the Lakota Sioux were having their lands taken by a clever trick of giving individual property rights to individual members and their children taken away to schools where they would only speak English, the Jesuits and other orders opened schools many of which are still operative today. The schools, hospitals and services they offer in some of the worse parts of the inner city and poor neighborhoods, is one of the few breaks the underclass gets. Thank you again for reminding us the Catholic Church is more than 20 year old priest abuse scandals.

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By Allan in Detroit, May 23, 2011 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment

Excellent post.  Thank you for bringing this to our attenion.  It really doesn’t fit into the usual knee jerk stereotypes about the Catholic faith,  but actually Catholicsm has a very long and profound social justice tradition.  Unfortunately, there are several factors that keep the message from getting out.  Many contemporary bishops forget that they are called to reflect the teachings of Jesus rather than think as CEOs.  Secular liberals are too smug to admit that Christianity can have anything worthwhile to offer.  And then of course, there is the corporate owned media.  Anyway, keep up the good work.

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By berniem, May 23, 2011 at 12:57 pm Link to this comment

Boehner is a catholic but so were most of the Nazi hiearchy. The vatican as a state was a creation of Mussolini, another staunch catholic. John,Paul,George,Ringo 2 is being pimped out for sainthood. Where was his compassion for the rights of children abused by his priesthood? The catholic church only pipes up when its convenient in it’s attempts at relevancy and only when it has something to gain. Priests in the forefront of activism find little or no support from Rome especially if their views are liberal and contrary to the dictums of some conservative ruling class. The catholic church is nothing more than some kind of Mafia family dressed up in funny clothes and using fear and loathing as it’s weapons of extortion!

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By Tom, May 23, 2011 at 4:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

There is generally accepted moral concept that there is a hierarchy of good and evil; for
example saints and Nazis.  This is why there is a difference between the response to
abortion supporters vs social injustice supporters.  In short, the moral belief that
abortion is by far a greater evil than social injustice.  Others, of course, such as you I
take it, do not make that moral distinction. Which is understandable.  “Different strokes
for different folks”!  But, it seems you should make that point if you are interested in a
factual explanation.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, May 23, 2011 at 3:55 am Link to this comment

This is a wonderful post.  I never would have known about this event if not for Dionne.  It makes me proud that leaders in the Catholic church have moral commitments that extend to all of life and not just the dog whistle ‘pre-birth’ life issue.

I am almost proud to be Catholic now and it is one of the first of Dionne’s blogs that I have admired.

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