Catholics challenge Boehner on faith and morals

Brendan Hoffman BLOOMBERG House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, departs the podium after speaking to reporters during a … Continued

Brendan Hoffman


House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, departs the podium after speaking to reporters during a news conference following a Republican House Conference meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.

The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington has invited Speaker of the House John Boehner to deliver a commencement address and receive an honorary degree. Anyone with functioning brain cells can remember the flack created upon a similar invitation by the University of Notre Dame to President Barack Obama. Put simply, inviting political celebrities to graduation ceremonies at Catholic institutions almost always opens up the political divisions in Catholic America. Thankfully, those reacting to this latest invitation have the good sense and maturity in the Catholic faith to welcome the Speaker rather than call for the withdrawal of the invitation. Unlike the spasm of close-minded censure against the president, Speaker Boehner’s visit has been greeted as an expression of Catholic freedom of thought.

Academics with Catholic ties have written to the speaker, himself a Catholic:

“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. We write in the hope that this visit will reawaken your familiarity with the teachings of your church on matters of faith and morals as they relate to governance.” This is an obvious left-handed (pun intended!) compliment because the writers clearly place the recent legislative record of Speaker Boehner at variance with the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. Opposing voices have entered the fray, notably Fr. Robert A. Sirico, head of the Acton Institute dedicated to the study of “Free Market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes.” Fr. Sirico writes for the National Review Online and repeats the classic premise for Cafeteria Catholics: the principle of subsidiarity states that social justice legislation is not a proper agent of public attention to poverty and material need.

This blanket statement is flawed because the principle of subsidiarity requires that the injustice is already being addressed at local levels. In other words, Catholic teaching does not allow subsidiarity to be an excuse to do nothing at all. In the United States, the federal government has taken a major role in initiating social programs that were not in force at local levels and these actions have long been strongly supported by the church, especially since the Great Depression.

In contrast with generalizing of Cafeteria Catholics on the right, the CUA letter to Speaker Boehner lists specific items he has voted for that are at variance with USCCB statements criticizing the Ryan Budget and other radical cuts in the social welfare safety net. To escape this challenge to debate, the speaker’s office issued a statement that his speech will be “a personal, nonpolitical message” that he hopes “will speak to all members of the graduating class, regardless of their backgrounds or affiliations.”

As an academic who has attended countless commencement ceremonies, I think that the speaker may well accomplish this non-political messaging. However, institutions will never escape the conflicts generated by inviting political figures to graduations. I remember at Brooklyn College the time we spent in debate to reverse a previous decision to revoke an Honorary Degree to the then Bishop Francis Mugavero. The faculty senate debate involved Catholic bans on active homosexual activity contrasted with the bishop’s role in creating the Campaign for Human Developement. Of another sort is the heated controversy at the City University of New York (CUNY) about a similar flip-flop on an award to playwright Tony Kushner, this time all about his criticism of the State of Israel. Sadly, the Catholic League has supported the denial of the degree, adding charges of anti-Catholicism.

In my experience, virtually every person who has accomplished something noteworthy in their life has also offended someone else with differing values. When it comes to a graduation speaker, therefore, it is relatively easy to use guilt by association to call for censure as frequently does the Cardinal Newman Society. Such closing of minds at our universities should be reversed in favor of the dialog promoted in this case at CUA. Sentiment from the Catholic America, moreover, prefers that speaker deliver a few good lines addressed to the graduates and keep them brief so the family can celebrate the event apolitically.

  • Elohist

    I am glad to see someone take on Donohue and the loud mouths of the right whose whole idea of Catholicism is to condemn people who disagree with them. Boehner is so much in the pocket of the oil corporations and Wall Street that no one takes him seriously any more. I expect he will talk to the graduates about where to get the best tan.

  • lynnlm

    What would Jesus have done if he were in Boehner’s position?
    I am sure that he would have taken actions to help the children in poverty, not to deprive them of assistance.

  • willemkraal

    oh jezus maria what a hokus/pokus this religion is what a fraud what a scam we all know by now that the ritewing only cares about the wealthy.

  • alance

    The German pope prefers Democrats. He gives his blessings to attack Muslim nations for oil. He supports the war against global warming. He supports taking down the wall at the border. At least he says birth control is OK under some circumstances.

  • MarkfromPA

    Good thoughts here. Especially notable is the quote, “Virtually every person who has accomplished something noteworthy in their life has also offended someone else with differing values.” This is very true. It also shows how important it is to be tolerant of others with differing viewpoints.

  • usapdx

    With the plus fourteen trillion dollar national debt, congress should REPPEL the TAX EXEMPT LAW so that those that like to tell congress how to spend money and speak out on political matters would then be correct by PAYING TAX and then have total freedom of speech like every one else account they do not under the tax exempt law’s rules. They need to put their money where their mouth is. What are they worth? PLENTY!

  • Dominicus1

    It is quite true that the principal of subsidiarity does not excuse Catholics from helping the poor — no one disputes that, I think. However, it seems a bit cavalier to say (or imply) that Catholic doctrine requires that the federal government retain certain social functions which might be exercised at a lower level of organization. This is a matter of policy, on on which men of good will can disagree. As Pope John XXIII wrote in Mater et Magistra (cited by Fr. Sirico, by the way), “When it comes to reducing these teachings to action, it sometimes happens that even sincere Catholic men have differing views.” The position of Catholics of the Boehner stripe is simply that entities lower down the social chain than the federal government might be capable of handling the functions now assumed by that government. Further more, they hold that the cost of these programs is damaging to the economic health of the country, or will be in future, and that they should therefore be reduced for the good of all, especially the poor. They may be wrong, or they may be right, but for them to say this does not contradict Catholic doctrine by itself, because it is a prudential matter which concerns uncertain future events, not unchanging dogma. By contrast, a politician’s support for abortion (or abortion funding), for example, is in clear contradiction to moral doctrine. The two issues are therefore quite qualitatively different.