Several dozen professors at Catholic colleges have written a blistering letter to Rep. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, in advance of his commencement address at Catholic University on Saturday. The New York Times‘ Laurie Goodstein highlighted the letter and compared it to the outcry over Notre Dame University’s invitation to President Barack Obama last year.
The letter asserts that Boehner’s record is among “the worst” in Congress and he’s failed to uphold basic Catholic moral teachings:
The letter writers criticize Mr. Boehner’s support for a budget that cut financing for Medicare, Medicaid and the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, while granting tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations. They call such policies “anti-life,” a particularly biting reference because the phrase is usually applied to politicians and others who support the right to abortion.
It’s worth noting that the story doesn’t mention how much more important it is for Catholics to assent to the Church’s teaching on abortion — which is always wrong according to the church — versus other social issues. Even opposition to the death penalty, for instance, doesn’t hold that stature as a teaching since the church does concede exceptions. When you’re getting down to whether a particular federal program should be expanded or trimmed, it’s not in the same ball park, right?
The closest the story comes to noting this discrepancy isn’t very close. We learn:
As for the issues the professors raised in their letter, [Catholic University spokesman Victor] Nakas said, “There are diverse viewpoints on these questions not only within our university but also within the Catholic community.”
But what does that mean? To be a Catholic in good standing you must assent to the church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life (which, as I said, goes unmentioned in this story). But do you have to have a particular stance on the size and scope of the federal budget? How particular? Are you not a Catholic in good standing if you support a more fiscally responsible federal government with less bloated entitlement programs? I doubt it. The article does mention — as does the letter — that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a letter expressing concerns about budget cuts in programs that aid the poor.
So the story does a good job of sharing the concerns of the letter-signers. The article quotes a Boehner spokesman responding that the commencement address won’t be political in any case. Then this:
The choice of graduation speakers at Catholic universities has grown more fraught in recent years. The bishops advised that Catholic universities should not honor Catholics who had publicly disagreed with church teachings. But the resulting controversies so far have mostly been about more liberal-leaning Catholics who have taken positions in favor of access to abortion or gay rights, in opposition to the church.
Not quite. Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame was opposed not because he’s a Catholic who publicly disagreed with church teachings. He’s not. Rather, as the Bishops put it in 2004:
The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.
And on that note, I definitely understand why the Times story is framed as it is. I’d probably have chosen the same framing. But it’s worth pointing out that this Boehner scenario really is different from the Obama kerfuffle because in this case the letter signers aren’t mad at Catholic U. for inviting Boehner. They’re simply exploiting an opportunity to call on a coreligionist to adopt a shared understanding of church teaching on budgets.
And that leads me to the biggest question this story raised, that wasn’t answered. Namely, did this same group of professors (or some subset of same) send a similar letter to previous Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Now I don’t know if Catholic social teaching takes a particular stance on, say, the importance of quality education for poor D.C. kids any more than it does on the proper size of Medicaid. But assuming it does, I’m wondering what this group said to her about her role in the termination of the D.C. voucher program.
Or, considering how much vastly more important the abortion issue is when it comes to teaching that Catholics must assent to, what did this group say to her about her strenuous support for abortion rights? I’m assuming that they did, but it’s not mentioned. And if they didn’t, the story should really point that out as partisanship. It’s just a bizarre piece of information to fail to mention. Particularly since I’m pretty sure Nancy Pelosi isn’t just a coreligionist but an alumna of Catholic.
In any case, this is an interesting story and it’s nice to see the concerns of these letter-signers highlighted in such a major publication. We just need some more details.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.