Over the next several days three exemplars of Christian discipleship -- two of whom have been formally canonized as saints and the other, beatified -- will be commemorated on the Proper Calendar for the Dioceses of the U.S.A.
Essays in Theology
It has been 25 years since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then archbishop of Chicago and the incoming chairman of the U.S. bishops pro-life activities committee, delivered the Gannon Lecture at Fordham University in New York, where he called for a consistent ethic of life approach to moral issues, an approach that some bishops resist today, as was evident in the recent presidential election.
With few exceptions over the course of more than 42 years, this column has offered an annual meditation on the meaning of Christmas. Each is accessible to anyone with the requisite interest -- and patience -- to download them from my Web site (www.richardmcbrien.com).
Every year, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with something new and fresh that links the approaching feast of the Nativity with the Christian life, or with some current situation in the Church and the world.
Last month, a pastor in South Carolina announced to his parishioners that, if they had voted for Barack Obama in the recent presidential election, they should not present themselves for Holy Communion until after they had repented and sought forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance.
The administrator of the diocese promptly “repudiated” the action taken by the priest (see Diocese: Priest wrong in Obama condemnation). The story attracted the attention of the national and international media.
One suspects that there were several instances of this type of pastoral behavior in other parts of the country, given the highly charged nature of the abortion issue for many Catholics, including clergy.
As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ semi-annual meeting in Baltimore moved toward final adjournment last month, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago and conference president, was commissioned by his brother bishops to draft a statement on behalf of the entire Conference, expressing the bishops’ hopes and fears about the incoming Obama administration.
Cardinal George did so, and the conference approved the statement in executive session the next day.
Regardless of how individual Catholics voted in this year’s historic presidential election, there are at least three important lessons for their pastoral leadership to absorb.
First, Catholic voters are paying less and less attention to the urgings of the most theologically rigid and politically partisan bishops of the U.S. bishops’ conference. Catholics this year returned to their traditional allegiance to the Democratic Party by a margin of 53 percent to 45 percent. And Hispanic voters, most of whom are Catholics, supported the Democratic ticket by an astonishing margin of 66 percent to 31 percent.
Readers may wonder why this column focuses some weeks on saints or popes rather than on ecclesiastical issues that are of particular interest to Catholics.
One reason is that saints and popes offer an opportunity to dip into history and draw lessons from it. I have found over the years that many readers react favorably when the column takes an historical turn.
This week I write about a saint or a pope -- better still, a pope who happens also to be a saint. That would be Clement of Rome, generally regarded as the leading figure, if not also the head, of the local church of Rome for some 10 years, that is, from about the year 91 until about the year 101.
When I was growing up in Hartford, Conn., many years ago, it was still a time when, as in other U.S. cities with a large Catholic population, neighborhoods were defined by the parishes you belonged to. If asked where you lived, you would answer, “St. Justin’s” or “the Cathedral.”
Most parishes had their own baseball teams in the CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) league. During Holy Week, following the Holy Thursday services, the custom was to visit -- on foot, no busses or cars -- seven churches in order to gain a plenary indulgence.
Some parishes even had full-scale bands that marched in city-wide parades. St. Augustine’s on the south side of Hartford was a prominent example. One of the curates strode proudly at the head of the group.
Four years ago I did a column marking the feast days of two of the church’s most important saints: Charles Borromeo (1538-84; feast day, Nov. 4) and Leo the Great (pope from 440 to 461; feast day, Nov. 10).
Leo was still only a deacon when elected to succeed Pope Sixtus III. Indeed, he was not even present at the conclave that chose him, having been away from Rome on a diplomatic mission.
As pope, Leo became a strong advocate of papal authority, but he himself was not interested in power for power’s sake. He used his authority to root out abuses in the church, to resolve disputes, to insure unity in pastoral practices, and to help clarify the church’s teaching about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ.
When another bishop, Hilary of Arles, presumed to exercise authority over neighboring French dioceses, Leo ordered Hilary to confine his pastoral activities to his own diocese.
Unlike another column that appears in many diocesan papers across North America, this column has never endorsed or opposed a candidate for public office. It will not break that tradition this year, nor any other year in the future.
Let two points be stated here at the outset in the clearest and most unequivocal terms: First, the official teaching of the Catholic church on the morality of abortion is not in question (see, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 2270-75); and second, it is morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden for president and vice president respectively.
Needless to say, it is also morally permissible for a Catholic to vote for Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin for president and vice president, or, for that matter, for such minor-party candidates as former Congressman Bob Barr and perennial candidate Ralph Nader.