Cardinal O'Connor used the pulpit at St. Patrick's Cathedral

New York Times
"Public & Private" column, by Anna Quindlen 2/17/93


It was not much of a surprise Sunday morning when John Cardinal O'Connor used the pulpit at St. Patrick's Cathedral to congratulate members of the New York City Board of Education who had voted to ditch Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez.

The Cardinal's pronouncements on matters civic that he defines as matters moral have become so commonplace that his sermons are often bona fide news events. The Cardinal had long been critical of the Chancellor, who lost his job because he believed that it was never too early to teach kids tolerance and never too late to offer sexually active kids condoms.

Cardinal O'Connor expressed satisfaction with the consciences of those who voted for the ouster, even though there is some not insignificant evidence that political alliances had as much if not more to do with several votes than did the finer workings of the human soul. And with his oh-so-public pat on the back, the Cardinal succeeded in doing what he has done consistently since he became the head of the New York archdiocese -- he blurred the lines between politics and religion, church and state.

In fact what America expects of its citizens and what the Catholic Church expects of the faithful are sometimes so different that they lead to an enormous ker-KLUNK between democracy and theology. Such a one has presented itself in the case of the St. Patrick's Day parade.

The Cardinal likes to say that the parade is a religious event, and perhaps he is the one person left in New York who believes so. The truth is that for many years the parade has been a polymorphous civic function with lots of bands, lots of bagpipes and a party-hearty atmosphere the likes of which you customarily encounter at the Theta Meta Beta house on Saturday night. It is about as prayerful as a darts tournament.

Mayor David Dinkins, tripped up by notions of inclusion and fairness, was democratic enough to believe that gay Irish people should be permitted to march in the parade. Parade organizers, with the Cardinal in their corner, argued that they had a constitutional right to exclude marchers who offend what they say are the religious underpinnings of the event.

This is probably true, although the right to do something does not always mean it is the right thing to do. It also happens to be true that the Cardinal is as free as any other American citizen to speak his mind. Some members of the American Catholic clergy have cobbled together the enormous freedoms we enjoy and the strictures of the faith they lead into an arrangement that allows a prelate to freely intervene as a moralist in the political arena and then to attack critics of that intervention as Catholic-bashers.

The critics of the church in recent years have not bashed Catholicism. I hear no bashing of the Eucharist, the Virgin Mary or Jesus. It is of church leaders who shield pedophile priests and thereby trade a facade of probity for the safety of Catholic children. It is of church officials who clearly overstep the bounds between moral guidance and politicking, acting more like lobbyists than spiritual leaders.

A speech I was scheduled to give this evening at St. Peter's Medical Center in New Jersey was canceled in October in a letter that included the following explanation:

"It seems the heat is on from the Bishop regarding several so-called "pro-life" issues; there's a local watchdog group that has appointed itself the arbiter of Catholic values and keeps the Bishop apprised of what they perceive as infractions of those values."

The disinvitation was no surprise. What was surprising was that the organizers who blithely arranged the speech got blindsided. American Catholics are so steeped in the tradition of free speech that some forget that free discourse frequently ends where church doctrine -- or at least the "local watchdog group" -- begins.

The clergy have a right to speak freely. Yet many of them believe they are not obliged to extend that right within their own institutions to anyone they consider unworthy. This is the curious relationship between an authoritarian church and a democratic state. But the price you pay for free speech is the free speech of others, coming back at you in kind. This should not be surprising, and it should not be dismissed as Catholic-bashing. It's the American way, a way that has benefited the American church richly.

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