Cardinal O’Malley, Doing Ecumenism Right

by Michael Potemra

The Quincy, Mass., Patriot-Ledger reports that on Sunday, Boston’s Seán Cardinal O’Malley asked a Methodist minister to bless him in remembrance of his baptism:

As part of Sunday’s anniversary service, the 500 who filled Sudbury United Methodist to overflowing were invited to receive a drop of consecrated water on their forehead and be told, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” The ritual resembles the ceremonial receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday, but isn’t a formal United Methodist sacrament..

Cardinal O’Malley and New England United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar led the ritual in the sanctuary. The Rev. [Anne] Robertson and a Catholic priest were on their way with small bowls of water to a side room, for others watching the service on a large-screen TV.

She paused with the priest at the cardinal’s pew, so they could receive the baptism water from Cardinal O’Malley. The next moment, the cardinal quietly asked the Rev. Robertson to administer the water for him.

“My heart immediately went to my throat,” she said. “To be asked that by the man who might be pope someday — I was stunned. I was choking back tears for hours.”

After the service, she told Cardinal O’Malley how much the gesture meant to her. “He was very gracious,” she said. . . .

I learned about this from some conservative Catholic blogsites, which disapprove strongly of what O’Malley did. (One even commented snidely on Reverend Robertson’s “choking back tears,” saying: “Same here.”) I think it’s important to understand why these critics are wrong, even on their own premises of Catholic orthodoxy. O’Malley was not denying any doctrine of his Catholic faith whatsoever; he was not saying that he believed that the Methodist Church has the same amount of truth as the Catholic Church, nor was he saying that in his opinion women should be priests of the Catholic Church. What he was saying was that all baptized Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that this remains true despite the unfortunate divisions within Christianity. And on the question of women, specifically, I think he did a service to those Catholics who agree with the official teaching that women shouldn’t be priests — by suggesting that their opposition to women’s ordination is based not on reactionary misogyny, a sense that women are somehow “less than,” but on a genuine belief that Jesus established an all-male priesthood and that to change this practice would be disobedience of an especially high order. O’Malley was showing that he believes that the prohibition of women’s ordination does not entail any disrespect for women. (Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of misogyny to go around, all across the global religious spectrum, Catholicism included; but Catholicism is less guilty of it than some other religions that come to mind, notably ones that flog and/or stone women for having sex outside of marriage.)

Rather than a lack of faith, or a dogmatically suspicious “indifferentism,” O’Malley’s action bespeaks a self-confidence on his part in the truth of Catholicism. The Catholic faith is so true, in his view, that it need not fear conceding — and even celebrating — the truths that are shared by other Christian groups. If he had less faith, he might worry more about what this might do to the Catholic “market share”: If we don’t attack the competition at every opportunity, won’t the competition steal a march on us? But he obviously thinks the Catholic Church should be above the attitude that characterizes the struggle of Coke vs. Pepsi, and of Burger King vs. McDonald’s.

That such a close adviser to the new pope has such a strong, comfortable faith says very good things about Catholicism. He is of course very similar to the pope in this regard: One of the first photos that emerged when Pope Francis was elected was of him, back when he was a cardinal, bowing to be blessed by Protestant ministers. He showed respect for his fellow Christians, but I think people wait in vain for him to stop being a Catholic or to deny Catholic doctrines.

Last month, Ann Coulter phrased the other understanding of religion — the Coke-vs.-Pepsi approach, if you will — quite pithily (as is her custom):

The statement by the pope that I find most surprising was his statement that you don’t have to be a Christian to go to heaven. Look, you may think that. Maybe there are a lot of people who think that. But if you’re head of the RNC, you’re not supposed to be saying, ‘Oh, don’t bother voting Republican.’ That isn’t supposed to be your position. . . . If you’re the head of the Catholic Church and your position is, ‘Ah, join any church. In fact, you don’t even have to be a Christian.’ Maybe, you know, you can get a show on CNN, but maybe you shouldn’t be the head of the Catholic Church.

The conservative Catholic bloggers at Creative Minority Report said that Coulter was “way off” on this, and explained why: “The job of the pope isn’t some tribal leader whose job is to increase the numbers in the tribe through any means necessary.”  

I think Pope Francis and Cardinal O’Malley know exactly what they’re doing. Good for them; they are a wonderful advertisement for religion in general, and for Catholicism specifically.

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