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Catholicism is alive and well at Boston College. For many people, Boston Catholicism is synonymous with BC; with its beautiful campus; distinguished faculty; enthusiastic alumni; talented students; wealth of tradition; and, very visible Jesuit and Catholic presence. Indeed, through a decade when the Archdiocese was selling off its churches, getting rid of its Catholic hospitals, and limping under the weight of a devastating abuse scandal, BC was a beacon of Catholic fidelity and academic and civic virtue.
The BC community, like Boston, and like the Catholic Church at its best, welcomes many people and listens to many voices. BC works hard to build on, not just preserve, the rich traditions of the Boston Irish. The people of Ireland have suffered a great deal in recent years, not least from tragic experiences of corruption in the Catholic community. That is an experience shared by the people of Boston. So it was altogether appropriate that BC invite the distinguished Prime Minister of Ireland to speak at this year’s commencement.
Yet some politically conservative Catholics disagree. They say the College disobeyed an order from the American bishops to refrain from honoring people who oppose Catholic teaching. They point to the Prime Minister’s support for legislation that clarifies existing conditions under which doctors might perform an abortion to save the life of the mother. The law responds to a recent death of a woman denied an abortion, and to meet the requirements of a binding judgment by the European Human Rights Commission. The Irish hierarchy and the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston state that this violates basic Catholic doctrine. Official Catholic teaching condemns abortion in absolutely all cases and allows no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s “clarification” of the Church’s heartlessness on this issue will shock those who admire the Cardinal’s frequent insistence that the Church is primarily a sacrament of God’s love.
Last year, allowing an abortion to save a mother’s life resulted in the withdrawal of Catholic support for a major hospital in Phoenix and excommunication of the nun who served as its president. The Church’s pastoral leader in that case sought to override the hospital’s ethics committee. A similar override over higher education is demanded by the directive about academic honors. This override claim may seem specific to medical or academic practices, but in fact it calls into question more important issues than academic freedom or medical professional autonomy. That was clear last year when the Irish Prime Minister, a practicing Catholic, was forced to denounce a Vatican letter suggesting to the Irish Bishops that they need not conform to new legislation dealing with child abuse.
Civic and professional responsibilities are not secondary to ecclesiastical interests, nor are they automatically defined and limited by anyone’s religious teachings. At BC as in Boston and most of its many faith communities, self-selected openness to diversity and commitment to dialogue about differences are virtues to be celebrated, and protected. For ordinary people and ordinary communities those virtues have nothing to do with indifference to morality, as some extremist leaders claim. No, they rest on serious moral commitments:
- to the dignity of the human person, which requires people to listen as well as speak;
- to the common good, including the well-being of women, which requires respect for democratic institutions and for government officials charged with constitutional responsibilities;
- to the truth, which requires the hard work of thinking with others about the meaning of diverse perspectives on history in the making – thinking alone is the root of what we call fundamentalism or “extremism.”
These are not just commitments of Boston College. They are – or should be – commitments basic to good citizenship and, for Christians, basic to responsible discipleship. Self-selected prophets who ignore these commitments never deserve respect.
The Boston College community puts those commitments into practice every day. When Boston Catholics experienced the painful exposure of sexual abuse and clerical cover-up, BC reached out to help. Now, once again, a word must be said not in defense of BC but in defense of the Catholic community of which BC, its Catholic friends, and Archbishop O’Malley are all a part.
Three things need to be said:
First Boston College properly treasures its relationship with Cardinal O’Malley. But that relationship is within and for the sake of the Catholic community of Boston, and at times BC must speak, not just nod in agreement.
Second, Boston Catholics might consider the possibility that the Irish experience on the question of abortion may indeed provide a needed clarification of the issue of what to do when the life of the mother is at stake. What does it say about our Church, which is so male-dominated, when it states loudly and publicly that it knows better than loving families and caring physicians and counselors what is the right thing to do when such decisions must be made?
Third, Boston Catholics should honor the representative of the Irish people because they, like many of us, have had to deal with experiences of serious corruption in the Church. Here as in Ireland the loss of trust within the Church and the loss of respect for the Church has severely damaged the entire community, not just the Church itself. Such things matter.
So worry not for BC; it will thrive because it does good work. We should be worried more for the Catholic community, of which BC is a part, as we seek to regain our bearings with regard to the meaning of human dignity, solidarity and truthfulness. As for Boston College and Ireland, they have good leaders who honor each other on graduation day. We all should be proud.
David J. O’Brien, Ph.D. is formerly the University Professor of Faith and Culture at the University of Dayton and the Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic Studies, professor emeritus of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.