On Monday, May 20, 2013, Boston College will hold its commencement exercises, but it will do so without the participation of the archbishop of Boston, Sean Cardinal O'Malley. O'Malley, who normally imparts a final benediction at the commencement ceremonies at the Jesuit school, decided that he could not do so this year after Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenney, who had been invited to speak at the graduation a year ago, endorsed Ireland's "Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013," which was introduced in the Irish parliament in May.
The name of the bill hides its true intent. The National Catholic Reporter, which is all too often latitudinarian in its discussions of abortion legislation, has in this case published a sober and balanced piece on the bill by Phyllis Zagano, who makes it clear that rather than clarifying current Irish law, it opens the door to something closer to abortion on demand.
While the Irish constitution continues to prohibit abortion, current Irish law allows an exception to save the life of the mother. Kenney, a Catholic, insists that his government, in advancing the new legislation, is only complying with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that ordered Ireland to broaden the circumstances under which that exception would apply. Zagano's excellent summary of the proposed legislation makes it clear that the exception would be broadened to the point where the constitutional prohibition would be all but meaningless, and abortion could be performed throughout all nine months of pregnancy.
Even allowing, however, for differences in interpretation, and assuming that Prime Minister Kenney, who is also scheduled to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the commencement ceremony, is sincere in his contention that he is trying to comply with the ruling in the narrowest possible way, Cardinal O'Malley's action has struck some critics as odd or even hypocritical. O'Malley has been willing to appear with Barack Obama, the most rabidly pro-abortion president in the history of the United States, as recently as April 18, and he presided at the funeral of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who did more, perhaps, than any other American Catholic politician to advance the cause of abortion on demand in the United States. Why the seemingly sudden change of heart?
The answer being offered by Cardinal O'Malley's critics is that he is essentially a cynical and ambitious man, who enjoyed all of the attention he received before the recent papal conclave, and who is using the Boston College situation to bolster his chances of succeeding Pope Francis. Setting aside the fact that such cynicism and ambition have never been obvious traits of Cardinal O'Malley, this narrative ignores some rather important points:
- Cardinal O'Malley joined the protest against the University of Notre Dame's decision to honor President Obama back in 2009.
- President Obama wasn't being honored at the interfaith prayer service for victims of the Boston Marathon booming on April 18.
- O'Malley himself seems to have insisted that the funeral for Senator Kennedy be a low-key affair, to attempt to avoid any impression approval for Kennedy's pro-abortion views.
Still, the critics do have a point: It feels like something is different in this case. And I think it might indeed have something to do with Pope Francis, though not with any desire that O'Malley might have to succeed him on the Throne of Peter.
Throughout these first two months of his pontificate, especially in his homilies at daily Mass, Pope Francis has struck a rather Pauline note regarding the standards to which Christians are to be held. Saint Paul told the young church at Corinth that her members did not strictly have to avoid those outside of the church who violated Christian morality; the brethren, however, needed to be held to a higher standard, and those who acted like their pagan neighbors were to be removed from the Christian community, and shunned.
Pope Francis, while not speaking of shunning, has stressed the need for Catholics to adhere to a higher standard, and, by implication, for their fellow Catholics to expect them to do so.
That is what is at stake in Boston College's decision to proceed in honoring Prime Mister Kenney, despite his support of pro-abortion legislation. If it was wrong for Notre Dame to honor President Obama, a non-Catholic, because of his pro-abortion views, it is even more wrong for Boston College to honor a Catholic who (even if we grant Kenney the best of intentions) is promoting legislation that will lead to the destruction of more unborn babies.
Far from being hypocritical, Cardinal O'Malley is following the teaching of both Pope Francis and Saint Paul, and holding Catholic institutions and Catholics generally to a higher standard. His action in this case is consistent with his action in the case of Notre Dame, and his decision to insist on a low-key funeral (with a private guest list) for Senator Kennedy.
It might be best if Cardinal O'Malley were to explain his decision in this way, though, were he to do so, I wouldn't expect those who are calling him cynical and hypocritical to understand. But if the Church is to be a beacon to the wider world, it is necessary to hold her members to a higher standard—and that is clearly what Cardinal O'Malley is trying to do.