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Cardinal O’Malley to skip Boston College commencement

'Tis the season for Catholic commencement clashes. Does preventing Catholic institutions from recognizing the good work done to promote social justice in one area because of divergent views on abortion do more harm than good in advancing the common good?

Cardinal Sean O’Malley. (From flickr user BostonCatholic).

Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston informed the Boston College community this week that he will not attend commencement exercises because of a controversial honoree.

O’Malley, head of the Catholic bishops’s committee on life issues, said that conferring an honorary degree on Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny was inappropriate for the Jesuit institution given the lawmaker’s vocal support for abortion rights. Ireland is debating expanded access to legalized abortion after a woman died last year when doctors refused performing an abortion, a procedure that may have saved her life.

On his blog, O’Malley wrote:

Since the university has not withdrawn the invitation and because the Taoiseach [prime minister] has not seen fit to decline, I shall not attend the graduation. It is my ardent hope that Boston College will work to redress the confusion, disappointment and harm caused by not adhering to the Bishops’ directives.

Boston College said the invitation was “independent” of Kenny’s support for abortion legislation. US bishops have directed Catholic institutions not to honor those who support abortion rights in the public square.

Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny (from flickr user MayoToday).

Battles between Catholic universities and bishops are but another sign of spring these days.

In 2009, Notre Dame University, the nation’s flagship Catholic university, conferred an honorary degree on President Barack Obama. The decision drew ire from conservative Catholics and the Bishop of Fort Wayne, the diocese in which Notre Dame is located, declined to attend. The school’s president said at the time that the invitation:

“should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research,” said Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame. “Yet, we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.”

Vicki Kennedy (from flickr user Martha Coakley).

Last year, a small Catholic college in Massachusetts, Anna Maria College, invited Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, to speak at commencement. The local bishop, Robert McManus, asked the school to rescind the invitation, given Kennedy’s views on abortion, and it complied (though Kennedy spoke on campus later in the year). Kennedy expressed her hurt:

I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office, nor am I a candidate for public office. I have not met Bishop McManus nor has he been willing to meet with me to discuss his objections. He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith, yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College, he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.

The right-wing Cardinal Newman Society, which tracks Catholic colleges and universities for signs of unorthodoxy, reports that in 2013, “there appear to be fewer scandals than in past years with Catholic colleges giving places of honor or inviting speakers who oppose Catholic teaching,” but offers a list of “speakers of concern.” Joining Ireland’s Kenny on the list:

  • the wife of Rep. John Dingell, Debbie;
  • the director of San Francisco’s Department of Health, included because of her sexuality;
  • and former director of the CIA Leon Panetta. Interestingly, Panetta is included not because of issues related to war, drones, or torture, but because of his support for abortion rights as a member of Congress in the 1980s.

At Religion & Politics, Catholic writer John Gehring wonders what happened to the common goal of reducing instances of abortion, an ideal once shared by both pro-choice and pro-life activists. It’s worth asking, are bishops who boycott commencement activities because of abortion politics advancing this goal, or simply drawing a line in the sand? If they’re not at the table, so to speak, how can Catholic prelates influence the conversation? And finally, does preventing Catholic institutions from recognizing the good work done to promote social justice in one area because of divergent views on abortion do more harm than good in advancing the common good?