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A Cardinal, the Pope, and the A-Word



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San Antonio — It’s often fascinating to read news coverage of an event you have some knowledge of. Tuesday night, I sat three to four yards away as Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston addressed the annual international convention of the Knights of Columbus. (I was a luncheon speaker earlier in the day.)

News stories today had headlines saying “Boston’s O’Malley: Pope prefers to talk love, not abortion,” and “Cardinal: Pope talks about love more than abortion.”

Cardinal O’Malley’s speech seems to be getting a treatment similar to the pope’s remarks on the plane ride back to Rome from Rio, when things he said were misunderstood, mischaracterized, and taken out of context.

The headlines regarding O’Malley at the Knights of Columbus convention are particularly misleading not only because they are not what the cardinal said, but also because they miss the letter sent on behalf of the pope from the Vatican’s secretary of state, read at the opening of the general session of the gathering, earlier in the day. The letter said, in part:

Conscious of the specific responsibility which the lay faithful have for the Church’s mission, he invites each Knight, and every Council, to bear witness to the authentic nature of marriage and the family, the sanctity and inviolable dignity of human life, and the beauty and truth of human sexuality. In this time of rapid social and cultural changes, the protection of God’s gifts cannot fail to include the affirmation and defense of the great patrimony of moral truths taught by the Gospel and confirmed by right reason, which serve as the bedrock of a just and well-ordered society.

That’s not a pope being coy about controversial, neuralgic, so-called social issues.

Later in the day, Cardinal O’Malley said that “the Catholic way of life . . . is increasingly alien in the secular world, where our concern about unborn children or the sacredness of marriage makes us appear quaint and even nettlesome.”

“We need mentors: parents, grandparents, godparents, teachers, youth ministers, neighbors, who are ready to pass on the faith,” he said.

Cardinal O’Malley reflected on Pope Francis’s emphasis on “tenderness” and Saint Joseph, on whose feast day the pontiff celebrated his inaugural Mass. That day, the new pope spoke “about protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.” He “is calling on us to embrace the vision of reality that is the Church’s faith and that values each and every human being, and stresses our responsibility to love and serve each other, especially the most vulnerable in our midst,” O’Mally explained.

“He points to the heart of Joseph,” Cardinal O’Malley said, “his tenderness which is not the virtue of the weak but a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern and compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.”

And as for abortion, O’Malley had this to say:

Some people think that the Holy Father should talk more about abortion. I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion. We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old-fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world. Recently I read about an American relief worker in Africa, who reported on being at a camp for a food-distribution line, it was very chaotic, even scary. He could see that they were running out of food and that these starving people were desperate. At the end of the line, the last person was a little nine-year-old girl. All that was left was one banana. They handed it to her. She peeled the banana and gave half each to her younger brother and sister. Then she licked the banana peel. The relief worker said at that moment he began to believe in God.

We must be better people; we must love all people, even those who advocate abortion. It is only if we love them that we will be able to help them discover the sacredness of the life of an unborn child. Only love and mercy will open hearts that have been hardened by the individualism of our age.

What Catholicism proposes is a completely radical way of life, of love. Opposing abortion is a piece of that, as we embrace and safeguard the gift of every human life.

This pope gets people to pay attention. How does he do it? He helps people see their dignity — and the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters, of every human life! He leads with his very own “yes” to God, in his witness of joy and prayerfulness, his faith. He doesn’t prefer to avoid talking about abortion. He wants to be sure people see the full picture, and challenge Catholics to live it, love it, and draw people into it!

And, yes, he uses exclamation points!

The letter sent on behalf of the pope to the Knights was far from the first time Pope Francis addressed the topic of abortion. When Romans marched in defense of human life in May, Pope Francis made an unscheduled stop to greet the marchers, encouraging “everyone to stay focused on the important issue of respect for human life, from the moment of conception.”

And in June, Pope Francis preached at a Mass concluding a major Vatican event sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization celebrating Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the encyclical issued by John Paul II:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us look to God as the God of Life, let us look to his law, to the Gospel message, as the way to freedom and life. The Living God sets us free! Let us say “Yes” to love and not selfishness. Let us say “Yes” to life and not death. Let us say “Yes” to freedom and not enslavement to the many idols of our time. In a word, let us say “Yes” to the God who is love, life, and freedom, and who never disappoints (cf. 1 Jn 4:8; Jn 11:2; Jn 8:32); let us say “Yes” to the God who is the Living One and the Merciful One. Only faith in the Living God saves us: in the God who in Jesus Christ has given us his own life by the gift of the Holy Spirit and has made it possible to live as true sons and daughters of God through his mercy. This faith brings us freedom and happiness. Let us ask Mary, Mother of Life, to help us receive and bear constant witness to the “Gospel of Life.” Amen.

Can you see how he tries to draw all in, while telling the truth about what the Church believes?

In his Angelus address that day, closing the Evangelium Vitae event,  he remembered the life of Odardo Focherini, who died in a concentration camp at the hands of the Nazis: “Let us turn now to Our Lady, entrusting all human life, especially the most fragile, helpless and threatened, to her motherly protection.”

And to the English Pope Francis sent a “Day for Life” message in July: 

Calling to mind the teaching of Saint Irenaeus that the glory of God is seen in a living human being, the Holy Father encourages all of you to let the light of that glory shine so brightly that everyone may come to recognise the inestimable value of all human life. Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live for ever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect. His Holiness prays that the Day for Life will help to ensure that human life always receives the protection that is its due, so that ‘everything that breathes may praise the Lord.’”

Some of the press coverage of what Cardinal O’Malley said serves to bolster O’Malley’s point about the urgency of communicating with a secular world that sees real Catholicism as somewhat foreign.

The Knights convention here was far from the first time Cardinal O’Malley talked about what I often refer to as leading with love, opening doors. (This is a little bit of what I was talking about at the Napa Institute over the weekend. In previous remarks, Cardinal O’Malley has encouraged the Catholic Voices effort, of which I’m a director, including during a catechesis in Rio; at the annual pro-life Mass in Washington, D.C., in January; as well as at a conference on the Church in the Americas we both participated in, partially sponsored by the Knights, at the Vatican in December.) At the March for Life Vigil Mass, he said:

We must never abandon our commitment to the unborn child, a precious human being made in the image and likeness of God.  But we must learn to focus more on the woman in crisis. We must listen with empathy to be able to communicate the Gospel of Life. Pregnancy crisis centers, Project Rachel, and an aggressive advertising campaign that communicates greater understanding of the situation of women facing an unwanted pregnancy are of paramount importance.  The media can be a powerful tool in communicating a pro-life message. . . .

We must never lose sight of the fact that we must work to change the laws, to overturn the Roe vs. Wade decision, but we must work even harder to change people’s hearts, to help Americans understand that abortion is evil and unnecessary.

Spielberg’s film, Lincoln, shows the monumental struggle against slavery and Lincoln’s resolve to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, but the law was only part of the struggle. The evil of racism perdured for over a century and the civil-rights legislation and sacrifices of so many are contemporary realities in an ongoing struggle to live the ideals of our country. Changing hearts is always the hardest part. The laws will change. Hearts are harder to change.

We must never tire of clarifying misunderstanding and shedding light where there is myth and confusion, demonstrating empathy and compassion and a deeper vision. That is the method being presented by Catholic Voices. It is not just about the lucidity of our arguments; it is about the effect that our words have on others. Our task is to present the truth with civility, empathy, and clarity. Being champions of the Gospel of Life is about building a civilization of love. 

As it happens, the head of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson, has written extensively on building a civilization of love (as we’ve discussed here). That means something. And that’s what the pope, the cardinal, and the largest Catholic fraternal-service organization in the world are trying to reintroduce, explain, and witness to. They’re trying to guide us out of what Cardinal O’Malley has described as a miserable “desert.” And the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations only underscore how fundamental and urgent a task it is.



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