“Catholic” or Catholic?

“Judge the Catholic Church not by those who barely live by its spirit, but by the example of those who live closest to it.” –Archbishop Fulton Sheen

Quotation marks around one word in a sentence can change the author’s meaning from “take this seriously” to “wink wink, nudge nudge” sarcasm. For example, “Yeah, I love the Twilight series” versus, “Yeah, I ‘love’ the Twilight series.” Can’t you hear the eye roll in the second one?

Or how about this one: “Georgetown is a Catholic university” versus “Georgetown is a ‘Catholic’ university.” Unfortunately, the sarcastic quotation marks are quite fitting in this example. (They were also fitting in the Twilight example—just in case anyone wanted to know.)

Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Sebelius to speak at commencement activities was disappointing (to say the least) and scandalous (if we’re speaking honestly). Georgetown’s invitation was condemned by the Archdiocese of Washington. An editorial appearing in the archdiocese’s newspaper stated that the invitation to Sebelius was a problem because her “actions as a public official present the most direct challenge to religious liberty in recent history,” referring to her unqualified support of the HHS mandate requiring all healthcare providers to provide insurance coverage of contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization. The editorial continues: The university’s invitation shows an “apparent lack of unity with and disregard for the bishops” (remember that all US bishops have unanimously opposed the HHS mandate). Also, a petition with 35,000 signatures was presented to the university to protest Sebelius’ invitation. Despite these measures, however, Secretary Sebelius delivered her address at Georgetown on May 18.

There are several articles that address in detail the problem with inviting and allowing Sebelius to speak at a “Catholic” university’s commencement exercises. This is a good one, written by a soon-to-be former Georgetown professor (he is resigning from his position as Chair of Hellenic Studies and Associate Professor of Government as a result of the Sebelius controversy). Here is a brief quote:

“What is so scandalous about Georgetown’s invitation to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is that it incontrovertibly honors the architect of a Mandate that demands that the Church cease to be itself. Georgetown is under an obligation to invite the exchange of ideas to promote an understanding of God’s Creation with an aim of the ‘salvation of mankind’; it is under no obligation to honor its persecutor or to engage in self-immolation. Indeed, as an institution of the Church—the oldest Catholic university in the United States—it ought to be in the forefront with the Bishops, the successors of St. Peter and the apostles, in standing against this latest persecution of the Church by the State.”

Georgetown’s invitation and Sebelius’s commencement statements must have seemed like a victory for “Catholics” who oppose the Church’s teachings on contraception and abortion. Perhaps by their standards it is. But it is a hollow victory that cannot really be called a victory by any reasonable standard.

Let’s take a simple analogy: A man calls himself a vegetarian but does not strictly follow a vegetarian diet because he likes hamburgers too darn much to give them up. He gives up all other meat except hamburgers. This man is not really a vegetarian but a “vegetarian.”

Just like someone who wants to call himself a vegetarian cannot selectively choose which meats he will stop eating and still truly be a vegetarian, someone who wants to call himself a Catholic cannot selectively choose which Church teachings he will follow and truly, in good conscience declare himself a Catholic.

Now, hold on just a second there, missy, you might say. Or your roommate might say. Or Secretary Sebelius herself might say. Because, you (or your roommate or Sebelius) say, no one is a perfect Catholic—we are all imperfect and we are supposed to follow our individual consciences. True—we are all imperfect, but we are supposed to follow our individual, well-formed consciences. We cannot, in other words, just do whatever “feels right” to us, but we must continually strive to learn and understand why the Church teaches as she does and render our hearts unto Christ through her.

Even if we are uncomfortable with a certain teaching, we are expected to be obedient to the Church and trust that she—as the bride of Christ and beacon of truth—wants what is best for us because she wants what Christ wants for us. This obedience can be difficult when it comes to issues about which we feel strongly, but the burden of the cross is not supposed to be easy: “The world promises you comfort but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness” (Pope Benedict XVI).

We must rest in the knowledge that the Church is bestowed with the grace to carry on Christ’s message of truth on Earth and that her bishops are the successors of the apostles. Finally, as Catholics, we are certainly called  not to create public scandal by using any position we might hold (such as “HHS Secretary” or “oldest American Catholic university”) to implement or give a platform to beliefs and teachings diametrically opposed to Church doctrine. Secretary Sebelius and Georgetown have failed on this count.

While we may never achieve complete perfection on this Earth, we are called to live as perfectly as possible. We must strive for perfection, strive to live as close to the Church’s spirit as we can. Those who would consider Sebelius’s Georgetown commencement address a “victory” must remember Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s words—that we should “Judge the Catholic Church not by those who barely live by its spirit, but by the example of those who live closest to it.” Secretary Sebelius and Georgetown do not seem to be striving to live up to their claimed faith, and both seem to be deserving of the adjective “Catholic” instead of Catholic. This may be a “Catholic” “victory” but it is certainly not a Catholic one. Do not judge the Church by those who do not remain obedient to—and in fact blatantly, publicly oppose—the Church, but by those of us who are striving—imperfectly—but striving nonetheless to be good and faithful Catholics.

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