At the nation's Roman Catholic universities, controversy over the choice of commencement speakers has become almost as regular an annual ritual as graduation itself.
Two years ago, conservative Catholics made a major issue of President Obama's speech to the University of Notre Dame's graduating class. Their argument was that no Catholic institution ought to honor anyone who favors abortion rights. This spring's contretemps is a bit of a mirror image of that one: More than 70 leading Catholic scholars sent a pointedly critical letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who delivered Saturday's commencement address at the Catholic University of America. The signers charged that the budget the Republican leader recently pushed through the House ignores the church's social teachings.
"Your voting record," they wrote, "is at variance from one of the church's most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor. Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress. This fundamental concern should have great urgency for Catholic policymakers. Yet, even now, you work in opposition to it."
The letter went on to describe the GOP budget's proposed abolition of Medicare and Medicaid, while at the same time cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy, as "anti-life."
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Boehner happens to be Catholic, and the fact that both he and his Democratic predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, have been attacked by their co-religionists as insufficiently Catholic reflects the American church's ongoing civil war between those (mainly Republicans) who want to elevate abortion and same-sex marriage above all other social and political questions and those (mainly Democrats) who subscribe to the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's view that the church's teachings on life and society are a "seamless garment."
The scholars' letter was a subtle riposte not only to Catholic conservatives but to the growing number of bishops who suggest that Catholicism and membership in the Democratic Party are incompatible.
To understand why, you need to start by recalling that Catholic University was founded in 1887, with the approval of Pope Leo XIII, whose great encyclical Rerum Novarum is the foundation of the modern church's social teachings. The school is the church's only American institution of higher learning founded by the bishops, and many leading prelates serve as trustees and, therefore, approved the invitation to Boehner. In other words, to chide the speaker is to chide them. The signers of this letter, unlike the bishops in the Obama controversy, also were at pains to say they welcomed Boehner to Catholic University, though they disagree with him.
Even so, what this controversy brings into fresh focus is just how distasteful it is in the American context to turn politics into a kind of inquisition into any officeholder's religious conscience — or, for that matter, to allow religious conviction to blindly dictate political decisions.
Not long ago, scholar and commentator Michael Sean Winters, writing in the Jesuit magazine America, summed up the dangers inherent in this manner of weighing political judgment and religious conviction. He wrote: "The disagreement that is most necessary is not between Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals. . . . The social doctrine of the church, and specifically its humanism, its emphasis on an integral appreciation for human dignity, is the necessary tonic for the excesses of both left and right in American political life. . . . Precisely because the church concerns herself first with the human person and derivatively with politics, her teachings transcend the debates of the day in compelling ways."
The seductive aspect of reductionism, whether in politics or religion, is the false promise of clarity. But just as meaningful politics can't really be reduced to a series of nonnegotiable demands or single-issue litmus tests, neither can genuine religion be reduced to mere ethics or a series of legislative votes. Church and state are separate in America not simply through constitutional tradition but because the tradition recognizes that politics and religion are distinct aspects of human experience. They often inform and, sometimes, challenge each other, but when they merge, the result is harsh and unlovely. There's a reason we deem "theocracy" a term of opprobrium.
Few rhetorical exercises are as forgettable as the average commencement address, but the controversy surrounding this one ought to be an occasion for sober reflection.