May 5, 2009
Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien
Archbishop of Baltimore, MD
The seeds were probably sown
centuries ago in a hostile atmosphere for Catholics in the New World. In 1633,
as the earliest colonists were about to set sail for “Mary Land”, Cecil Calvert,
the second Lord Baltimore, instructed “his said Governor and Commissioners” that
while sailing and upon arrival at their destination “they instruct all the Roman
Catholics to be silent on all occasions of discourse concerning matters of
Had the intimidation begun?
From those days and even to
the present, many Catholics have too often felt that we have still to prove
ourselves as truly American. Nothing has seemed capable of persuading the
Protestant majority that Catholicism could be compatible with American
democracy. It has been said that Catholics’ participation in World Wars I and II
brought Catholicism a new acceptance. But the rejection of Al Smith, the
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate in 1928 and the first Roman Catholic to
run for President, largely on religious grounds, and the compromise of faith
that John F. Kennedy felt it necessary to make in becoming the first Catholic
president, gave evidence of a viral anti-Catholicism, a low-grade prejudice the
famed American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., once called “the deepest
bias in the history of the American people.”
I think that a good case can
be made that the subtle effect of such bias has often been to intimidate us
Catholics. And now and then the subtle intimidation seems to work.
Is that why Georgetown
University, founded as a Catholic institution, recently yielded to the White
House and removed a crucifix and other religious symbols from behind the stage
where the President spoke during a recent visit there?
Was it a fear of being “too
Catholic” and a hankering to be “mainstream America” that prompted the
University of Notre Dame’s invitation to our President not only to give this
year’s Commencement address but also be awarded an honorary doctorate from the
The response of many
Catholics to the Notre Dame case is not a slight on the Presidency or an attack
on our President, nor should it be seen as such. It is about a flagship Catholic
institution singling out for unique honor an undoubtedly dedicated and popular
figure who unfortunately happens to be a most powerful leader in supporting
abortion and threatening the conscience rights of medical professionals who
refuse to cooperate in the killing of innocent human lives.
Bishop John M. D’Arcy of
Forth Worth-South Bend, Indiana, spoke out swiftly and forcefully against the
University’s decision in announcing his decision not to attend the commencement.
He said his choice was consistent with his responsibility as a bishop to “teach
the Catholic faith in season and out of season,” adding that a bishop “teaches
not only by his words, but by his actions.”
I applaud Bishop D’Arcy for
his stance and also for his words urging “all Catholics and others of good will”
to avoid “unseemly demonstrations” on a day that belongs to Notre Dame’s
graduates and their families.
The teaching responsibility
that Bishop D’Arcy cites was at the heart of the 2004 guiding statement of the
U.S. Bishops, “Catholics in Political Life,” which states: “The Catholic
community and Catholic institutions” should not honor those “who act in defiance
of our fundamental moral principles” with awards, honors, or “platforms which
would suggest support for their actions.”
I do not think Notre Dame
will withdraw its invitation. And I am not sure what good would be accomplished
if they did, beyond fueling the prejudices of conscious or unconscious
anti-Catholics. The damage has already been done.
The fact is that this
debacle need not and should not have happened. It is unknown at present, what
really prompted Notre Dame’s invitation – and then its awkward attempt to have
the staunchly pro-life former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon
somehow justify that invitation in a five minute acceptance speech for her
reception of the University’s highest honor, the Laetare Medal. Whatever the
rationale, it cannot undo the confusion it has caused among Catholics who
rightly look to their bishops and to the leaders of major Catholic institutions
for moral guidance and for a consistent application of Church teaching.
Hopefully, when it’s all over, the administration of Notre Dame will reassess
that decision, be willing to bear the traditional and inevitable burden of being
solidly Catholic and fully return to the Catholic fold.
But let’s not fool ourselves
into believing that there are not a good number of our fellow citizens – and
some of them intimidated Catholics – who would be modern-day Lord Baltimores and
wish us to be “silent on all occasions” in our secularist culture when our most
fundamental beliefs are at stake.