GAVIN & HONJIYO: Cowering From Criticism Weakens Church’s Stance
Published: Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 02:09
Mass, at times, seemed too much like Fox News this summer. This was an unpleasant turn of events, for sure. Sunday mornings are better without thinly veiled political rhetoric.
In early July, many American parishioners ended Mass with a prayer for religious freedom published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The prayer was a ham-handed commentary on last spring’s U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate, a government requirement that some religious institutions refer their employees to insurance plans that cover preventive health care, including contraceptives. The prayer started with hackneyed references to the Declaration of Independence and went on to talk about threatened freedoms and the current “decisive moment in the history of our nation.”
The bishops’ response was clear and certain: They oppose the HHS mandate entirely, a position that their loud and persistent rhetoric certainly conveys. Their words and actions made national news, drawing Cardinal Timothy Dolan into the spotlight and providing a soapbox for other prominent Catholic leaders to voice their opposition to the Obama administration to a large American audience.
But this issue also hit close to home for Catholics at Georgetown. The controversy catapulted our university into the political spotlight last spring, when Law Center student Sandra Fluke‘s (LAW ’12) criticism of Georgetown’s insurance policy (and Rush Limbaugh’s subsequent criticism of her) made national news. Soon after, University President John J. DeGioia came under fire for allowing Kathleen Sebelius to come speak on campus, the HHS secretary who played a large part in the mandate. The entire issue proved to be a media draw as much for Georgetown as for the bishops.
But although the HHS mandate drew attention to both entities, the university and the bishops reacted entirely differently. DeGioia, in response to criticism about Sebelius’ invitation, said, “We are a university committed to the free exchange of ideas. We are a community that draws inspiration from a religious tradition that provides us with an intellectual, moral and spiritual foundation. By engaging these values, we become the university we are meant to be.” This call for nuance and dialogue is far more admirable than the bishops’ high-flying, one-sided rhetoric.
DeGioia’s response demonstrates the type of approach that Catholics must take in our modern world. Instead of single-mindedness, we must embrace nuance; instead of forcing focus-group-tested one-liners into prayers at Mass, we must vigorously pursue the type of dialogue that leads to understanding. Furthermore, we must be confident enough in our own beliefs that we do not fear debate. Instead, we must embrace discussion, engaging the tensions of disagreement in a way that emphasizes Catholicism’s long-held emphasis on care, service and social responsibility, rather than our equally characteristic penchant for single-mindedness and surety.
To be clear, the bishops are certainly correct to fight for Catholic institutions’ right to religious freedom. Religious freedom is a fundamental virtue in the United States and across the globe. For the Catholic Church in America today, these historical examples should serve as a guidepost: Catholic individuals and institutions must be allowed to act, or not act, in accordance with their conscience, despite what the government orders, and this is a cause worthy of significant attention from Church leaders.
Yet even if the bishops are correct to protect Catholic institutions’ right to act in line with their collective conscience, this does not mean that the tenor of their defense must be so belligerent. Instead, the Church would be well advised to adopt the approach to Catholicism that animates Georgetown. We must embrace tension, seek out dialogue and bring our emphasis on serving others to the forefront of these discussions.
Alex Honjiyo and Pat Gavin are seniors in the School of Foreign Service and the College, respectively. AGGIORNAMENTO appears every other Tuesday.