452 Word of the Week: "L'Chaim"
"I wish I could tell you that Church leaders were brave, countercultural and prophetic," I can still hear him say, "but that would not be the truth."
"With very few exceptions," he went on, "Catholics in the United States did little or nothing to condemn the dramatically moral evil of slavery, and demand its end. And that is to our shame to this day."
Those words came from my mentor, friend and teacher, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the legendary professor of the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, during his sobering lecture on the Church and slavery, when I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps we have learned our lesson, for Catholic leaders—committed laity, religious sisters and brothers, clergy, bishops—have been on the front lines of the premier civil rights issue today, the right to life. And that is to our credit. And that's good to ponder during October, Respect Life Month.
The comparison of abortion to slavery is an apt one. The right of a citizen to "own" another human being as property—to control him/her, use him/her, sell him or decide her fate—was, prior to 1865, constitutional, sad to say.
That "right" to own a slave was even upheld by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (whose Chief Justice at the time, Roger Brooke Taney, was a Catholic, "personally opposed" to slavery!) in the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Decision, declaring that a slave who had escaped and claimed freedom had to be returned to his "master," because he had no rights at all.
Tragically, in 1973, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court also strangely found in the constitution the right to abortion, thus declaring an entire class of human beings— now not African-Americans, but pre-born infants—to be slaves, whose futures, whose destinies, whose very right to life —can be decided by another "master." These fragile, frail babies have no civil rights at all.
Our faces blush with shame as we Catholics admit we did so little to end slavery; but we can smile and thank God that the Church has indeed been prophetic, courageous and counter cultural in the right to life movement....
Many issues and concerns in addition to protecting the baby in the womb fall under the rubric of the right to life—child care, poverty, racism, war and peace, capital punishment, health care, the environment, euthanasia—in what has come to be called the consistent ethic of life. All those issues, and even more, demand our careful attention and promotion.
But the most pressing life issue today is abortion. If we're wrong on that one, we're just plain wrong.
When our critics—and their name is legion—criticize us for being passionate, stubborn, almost obsessed with protecting the human rights of the baby in the womb, they intend it as an insult. I take it as a compliment.
I'd give anything if I could claim that Catholics in America prior to the Civil War were "passionate, stubborn, almost obsessed" with protecting the human rights of the slave. To claim such would be a fib. But, decades from now, at least our children and grandchildren can look back with pride and gratitude for the conviction of those who courageously defend the life of the pre-born baby.
I well remember being in Baltimore two years ago for the installation of their new archbishop, Edwin F. O'Brien, a native son of this archdiocese in whom we are very proud. He gave a stirring homily, recounting how his predecessors had often been on the forefront of promoting issues of justice in our country: Cardinal James Gibbons came up, of course, for his defense of the rights of labor back in the 1880s; Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, who was jeered at a City Council meeting in 1965 for speaking on behalf of open housing for African-Americans; Cardinal William Keeler, criticized for advocating the rights of immigrants. And now, the new archbishop concluded, the tradition has to continue, as the Church must be on the front lines of the premier justice issue of the day: the protection of the right to life of the baby in the womb.
First, completing a handoff in the works for some years now, it was announced this morning that Dolan will succeed Baltimore's retired Cardinal William Keeler as the US bishops' chief for Jewish relations next month.
Named to the national Jewish-Catholic dialogue in 2004, Dolan's eventual emergence as head of its church contingent became a fait accompli on his February appointment to New York, home to the world's largest Jewish community outside Israel.
Cherished by the elder brethren in his prior assignment of Milwaukee -- where he calmed the waters after the Williamson debacle in the days prior to the Gotham announcement -- the archbishop's already begun making significant inroads into the Big Apple's Jewish circles. Clad in a black cassock and simple surplice, Dolan's first major Manhattan address beyond the church's walls came at a Holocaust Remembrance Day service less than a week after his April installation, he's already made several visits to the Midtown headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League, and early November brings a public dialogue on the state of Catholic-Jewish relations at Fordham University.
For Keeler, the appointment caps a quarter-century of building bridges to the temple; regarded as a beloved brother by Jewish leaders and a "great pioneer" of Christian-Jewish relations, the 78 year-old cardinal had been looking forward to his first pilgrimage to Mount Zion this month, but was forced to cancel after suffering a fall on an en route stop in Rome.
Chair of the US bishops' ecumenical efforts from 1984 to 1987 and president of the conference from 1992-95, Keeler has served as the bishops' lead Catholic-Jewish liaison since 1983.
In the coming weeks, the cardinal's likewise handing over the keys to Stateside Catholicism's "White House"; home to Baltimore's archbishops since 1829, O'Brien acceeded to Keeler's request to remain at 408 N. Charles Street on the former's 2007 arrival. Now, however, seeing the import of the place to his effective ministry as archbishop, O'Brien will soon become the 11th head of the Premier See to take up residence within its walls.
Moving to a suburban retirement home, Keeler will find himself in good company; among his neighbors-to-be is his predecessor, Archbishop William Borders, still well and kicking after turning 96 earlier this month.
While no single front-runner has risen to the top, the interregnum's birthed a lake's worth of speculation, the most common and credible of which has narrowed the field to a Pack of Four: Bishops Gerald Kicanas of Tucson (currently vice-president of the US bishops), Blase Cupich of Rapid City, Jerome Listecki of LaCrosse and Milwaukee's administrator, Auxiliary Bishop William Callahan OFM Conv., a close confidant of Dolan's who attended last week's Al Smith Dinner in New York as the archbishop's guest.
Home to 700,000 Catholics in Wisconsin's southeast corner, the next Milwaukee archbishop will be the 11th since the diocese's 1843 founding.
More as it emerges... as always, stay tuned.
PHOTOS: AP(1); Gregory Shemitz/3VPhoto(2,3); Cathedral of St John the Evangelist, Milwaukee(4)