Saturday, March 6, 2010

Bishops and Kennedys

A while back NBC's Chris Matthews interviewed Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island on "Hard Ball". The topic was allegedly a letter from several years before which Patrick Kennedy had made public, in which the bishop advised him that he should not receive the sacrament of Communion while he was not in communion with the church. Instead, Matthews opened with a speech given in 1960 by John F. Kennedy, and used it to batter and attack the bishop repeatedly. Bishop Tobin, of course, was unprepared to answer to the words of John f. Kennedy, and the interview did not start or go well (IMHO).

Like most Americans of my generation I was taught to revere president Kennedy, and to be proud that "one of us" had become a great president. However, over the years, I see Kennedy (and his family) more and more as CINOs (Catholics in Name Only) in their political lives. I wished Bishop Tobin hadn't been blind-sided and had more to say on the subject.

Fortunately, I came across an article by Bishop Charles Chaput (pictured above) today, that tackles the issue head on. The article, "The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life",  is the text of a speech he gave at a Baptist conference in Houston. It wonderfully expresses the teachings of the church as they apply to civic duty and public life. I highly recommend you read it, even though it is a long read. Go on, I'll wait. OK, here's some excerpts:

According to Bishop Chaput:
[Kennedy's speech] was sincere, compelling, articulate—and wrong.  Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation's life.  And he wasn't merely"'wrong."  His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation.  Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage.
...Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute."  Given the distrust historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were shrewdly chosen.  The trouble is, the Constitution doesn't say that.  The Founders and Framers didn't believe that.  And the history of the United States contradicts that.
...America's Founders encouraged mutual support between religion and government.  Their reasons were practical.  In their view, a republic like the United States needs a virtuous people to survive.  Religious faith, rightly lived, forms virtuous people.  Thus, the modern, drastic sense of the "separation of Church and state" had little force in American consciousness until Justice Hugo Black excavated it from a private letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association.   Justice Black then used Jefferson's phrase in the Supreme Court's Everson v. Board of Education decision in 1947.
...[Kennedy] warned that he would not "disavow my views or my church in order to win this election."  But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that.  It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.  It also divided a person's private beliefs from his or her public duties.  And it set "the national interest" over and against "outside religious pressures or dictates."

...Fifty years after Kennedy's Houston speech, we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before.  But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.  The life of our country is no more "Catholic" or "Christian" than it was 100 years ago.  In fact it's arguably less so.  And at least one of the reasons for it is this:  Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience.  Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy—the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance.
The rest of the article is just as good, but I highlight these segments because they speak to what Bishop Tobin was not given a chance to in that interview. Namely, just because a beloved popular figure says something doesn't make it true. Bishop Chaput concludes:
I listed all the urgent issues that demand our attention as believers: abortion; immigration; our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled; questions of war and peace; our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from this confusion; the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection; the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health-care debates; the content and quality of the schools that form our children. 

The list is long.  I believe abortion is the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime.  We need to do everything we can to support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of unborn children.  We may want to remember that the Romans had a visceral hatred for Carthage not because Carthage was a commercial rival, or because its people had a different language and customs.  The Romans hated Carthage above all because its people sacrificed their infants to Ba'al.  For the Romans, who themselves were a hard people, that was a unique kind of wickedness and barbarism.  As a nation, we might profitably ask ourselves whom and what we've really been worshipping in our 40 million "legal" abortions since 1973.
All of these issues that I've listed above divide our country and our Churches in a way Augustine would have found quite understandable.  The City of God and the City of Man overlap in this world.  Only God knows who finally belongs to which.  But in the meantime, in seeking to live the Gospel we claim to believe, we find friends and brothers in unforeseen places, unlikely places; and when that happens, even a foreign place can seem like one's home.
The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label.  John 14:6—"I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me"—which is so key to the identity of Houston Baptist University, burns just as hot in this heart, and the heart of every Catholic who truly understands his faith.  Our job is to love God, preach Jesus Christ, serve and defend God's people, and sanctify the world as his agents.  To do that work, we need to be one.  Not "one" in pious words or good intentions, but really one, perfectly one, in mind and heart and action, as Christ intended.  This is what Jesus meant when he said, "I do not pray for these only, but also those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (Jn17:20-21).
We live in a country that was once—despite its sins and flaws—deeply shaped by Christian faith.  It can be so again.  But we will do that together, or we won't do it at all.  We need to remember the words of St. Hilary from so long ago: Unum sunt, qui invicem sunt. "They are one, who are wholly for each other."   May God grant us the grace to love each other, support each other and live wholly for each other in Jesus Christ—so that we might work together in renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.


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