Moral Relativism and Commencement Politics: Cardinal O'Malley's Boycott of a Prime Minister at Boston College

BOSTON - MARCH 24: Cardinal Sean O'Malley speaks to the media, after Mass on Palm Sunday in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross,
BOSTON - MARCH 24: Cardinal Sean O'Malley speaks to the media, after Mass on Palm Sunday in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, on March 24, 2013. This is his first appearance since returning from Rome. (Photo by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For Catholics it has become a rite of spring in the past decade: the commencement speaker controversy involving a U.S Catholic bishop and a prominent Catholic political figure upon whom an honorary degree will be bestowed by a Catholic college. The controversy is a result of the bishop's judgment that the speaker lacks a sufficient degree of Catholic worthiness based upon the speaker's position on a narrow range of partisan political issues. Their diocesan authority aside, Catholic bishops certainly have the right to boycott the ceremony. Their right to censor the college's choice is another matter. In either case, let's not be mistaken -- this is a public action and display of their authority with a public end in mind. The message is clear although inevitably counterproductive -- be warned, this person is a bad Catholic. And the long-term, adverse consequences for both the Church and our democratic process can already be seen. It marks a new moral relativism within the Catholic hierarchy, a shift in priorities related more to politics than pastoral care.

The most recent case is the decision of Cardinal Sean O'Malley, Archbishop of Boston, to boycott the commencement ceremony at Boston College because the Prime Minister of Ireland (the Taoiseach), Enda Kenny, is the commencement speaker. At issue for the cardinal is the fact that the Irish government, under Kenny's leadership, is proposing legislation to codify a 1992 Irish Supreme Court decision -- the X Case -- that would allow for abortion in cases where the life of the mother is substantially at risk, even due to suicide. In his brief statement, Cardinal O'Malley regrettably asserts that the Taoiseach -- who is self described as "pro-life," ran on a "pro-life" platform, and with a political base of support from parts of Ireland akin to that of a Red state in the U.S. -- was "aggressively promoting abortion legislation" while using the charged rhetoric that describes abortion as a "crime against humanity." As the rubric for his decision, he refers to a U.S. bishops' 2004 statement entitled Catholics in Political Life that states that Catholic political figures should not be honored if they "act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

But this is only part of the story.

Yes, there is abortion legislation on the table in Ireland. But the reasons for it are complex. They date back to a 1983 constitutional amendment, supported by the Catholic Church, intended to prevent Ireland from experiencing a Roe v. Wade-type Supreme Court decision. Instead, the law of unintended consequences resulted in the X Case decision expanding abortion rights. Since 1992, the country has unsuccessfully sought to address the unfinished legislative business of putting a legal mechanism in place for the X Case. In the process, two constitutional referendums to eliminate the controversial provision that allows suicide as a risk condition for the mother have failed. More important, the European Court on Human Rights issued a legally binding judgment in 2010 requiring Ireland to establish a legal framework for the 1992 court decision.

Enter the proposed legislation. It is based on the recommended options of the November 2012 report of the "Expert Group" that was established as part of a compliance Action Plan submitted to the Council of Europe in June 2011. Polls show that 70 percent to 85 percent of the Irish public -- deeply divided over abortion for several decades -- supports this legislation.

All legislation is not created equal, affected by a myriad of moral, social, legal, legislative, political and practical factors. In Ireland, a country with among the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, abortion legislation is particularly messy sausage making, even when confined only to preserving the life of the mother. Pope John Paul II envisioned situations similar to this one. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae [73], he said that an elected official could "licitly" support abortion legislation if it limited the harm done by the legislation. Nonetheless, while the language of the bill has yet to be finalized, to characterize Prime Minister Kenny and such mandated legislation as the cardinal has distorts both beyond any reasonable context -- considerably.

How could he possibly believe this?

While the moral principles of the Catholic Church have not changed, the U.S. bishops' worldview, focus and behavior, representing their attitudes and values, have gradually changed in the past 15 years. This change has given effect to their own hierarchical brand of moral relativism that has emerged at the expense of a diminished role as pastors. Unfortunately, it has also reduced the advancement of the core of the Catholic Social Justice Tradition in the hearts of lay Catholics: helping the poor. It is attributable to a confluence of overlapping Church and politically related factors including: the elevation of more conservative priests to bishops, beginning under John Paul II; the emergence of the not-so-subtle Evangelical-Catholic (bishops)-Republican alliance starting in the mid 1990s; and the need of the U.S. bishops to regain their moral authority squandered as a result of, and too often in response to, the clergy sexual abuse crisis. To this last point, it is a notable coincidence that the U.S. bishops' assertion of their authority over Catholics in political life followed the news cycle of the crisis.

In the context of this hierarchical moral relativism, Cardinal O'Malley's boycott of the Boston College commencement can be viewed as a reflection of a collective mindset that entraps too many of the U.S. bishops today.

I sympathize with many of the good Catholic bishops within our Church and count Cardinal O'Malley among those. However, what the Catholic Church needs today is love -- not more enforcement. Perhaps if we all asked ourselves why the selection of Pope Francis has, by all accounts, animated the hearts and imagination of Catholics, and people of good will throughout the world, we might find a consensus direction for building the culture of a more caring Church and society that will put the matter of both politicizing the Eucharist and boycotting ceremonies of such venerable Catholic institutions as Boston College behind us.