There is a certain dogmatism when people start speaking about rights. Rights lend themselves to questions such as “What can I do?” Obligations bring a similar dogmatism and a similar question: “What ought I do?” Being in a society that has largely eschewed protocol, “Is it my place?” is often a question left unasked. Many would claim rights and obligations are a claim to place or competence. They reason that if you have the ability to do something by virtue of being given a right that you must act upon it.
Actions have consequences greater than their immediate impact. When a chaplain at an event took it upon himself to deny Professor Kmiec communion, his action was more than an expression of his judgement of Kmiec. The action was also a judgement that Kmiec’s pastor was incompetent for not recognizing what is supposed to be self-evident. The action was also to a degree a judgement that Cardinal Mahony was incompetent for not having previously advised a semi-public figure not to approach communion. The analysis up to this point was assuming that the chaplain’s judgement was correct. If secular media reports are to be believed, Cardinal Mahony did not share this chaplain’s judgement and offered his own judgements on the chaplain.
Given the relative universality of the opinion that the chaplain’s actions were without warrant, I’m doubtful he will be held up as acting bravely. There are other instances where priests (and deacons) have taken it upon themselves to publicly address a prominent member of the diocese, and they are held up as having acted bravely, despite the bishop having to offer an apology to the prominent member and the priest being reassigned to some other ministry. Recognizing the political reality is seen as cowardice, although I dare say most of us embrace this cowardice with two hands many times in our lives. While there was a time where picking one’s fights carefully was seen as a sign of prudence, when it comes to the law our remedies must be immediate and quick. I’m afraid there are more than a few people wondering why police don’t descend upon Dave Matthews concertgoers and start writing tickets and confiscating marijuana.
Power isn’t everything. “I have to work with him on Monday” is an excuse that should be more understandable than what many people are willing to grant. There are a number of people quite upset that Archbishop Wuerl hasn’t gone with whip in hand and removed all the bad Catholics from that sacred place, Congress. His statement that he presumes the bishops of the home diocese are in consultation with the various members of Congress is greeted by people pointing to the law saying that he doesn’t need their permission. Of course, Archbishop Wuerl is not saying he lacks the authority. As someone will snidely point out, he lacks the will to address it. And he will say he wasn’t put on this earth to address every problem in the world. He will claim quite rightly that he doesn’t have a particular obligation to make sure Cardinals George, Rigali, Egan, and O’Malley are offering correct pastoral guidance to politicians coming from their respective dioceses.