Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Contemporary Reflection on the Becket Controversy

The shrine in Canterbury
Cathedral that marks the
place of Becket's martyrdom
 The posting on Becket raises a contemporary question that perhaps should give us some thought.  Catholic University School of Theology and Religious Education Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics, Dr. John Grabowski, concluded his class on Christian Marriage this past week with a thought attributed to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.  Cardinal George reportedly said that he expects to die in his bed but he expects his successor to die in prison and his successor to die a martyr.   Professor Grabowski’s point is, of course, that the Catholic Church and American society are on a collision course which will require Catholics of twenty to thirty years hence to face a choice between martyrdom and apostasy.  Dr. Grabowski is not the only Catholic voice—nor is Cardinal George—to raise this possibility.  And while I find the prophecy glum, even morbid, I do not think it is an impossibility.  My only objection is that if we are to die for our faith, let us make sure that it is the Truth of Jesus Christ and his Gospel that is the price of our blood.
Becket died a martyr—but for what principle?  He did not die for the Gospel nor for faith in Jesus Christ.  He did not die in defense of the Trinity or the Real Presence.  He did not die protecting his virginity or defending the poor.  Becket died defending the “right” of the Church to shelter its clergy from due process of the King’s justice.  He died to preserve clerical privilege.  At the time this was thought to be a legitimate reason for his canonization.  At the time many agreed with Becket that the Church should protect its clergy from the King’s Law.  Today, of course, no one believes that.  Only an eccentric of institutionalization quality would claim that a priest or religious who had broken the criminal law should not be tried in a criminal court and punished in the same manner as a member of the laity guilty of the same crime.  We can only judge Becket’s integrity by the standards of his day, but at the same time we cannot judge him to have been right in attempting the shield the clergy from due process of law. 
So what will be the reason that the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago of 2055 will be required to shed his blood?  Will it be his defense of the Eucharist?  Will it be his defense of the Trinity?  Will it be his refusal to deny the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Christ?  Most likely not.   It may be his attempts in some way to interfere physically with the continued slaughter of the unborn, a trespass perhaps on an abortion facility or an attempt to physically bar a woman from entering a clinic.  That would probably bring an imprisonment.  Perhaps he will shoot an abortion provider or bomb a clinic.  That would conceivably bring a death penalty.  It may be his refusal to accord the rights bestowed by the civil law to people of same-sex orientation or his attempts to block the rites of the civil law to the same.  Perhaps he will incite hate crimes against LGBT people from his cathedral pulpit.  That would bring imprisonment.  Perhaps he will engage in some act of mortal violence against the LGBT community—that could bring a death penalty.  Perhaps it will be an act of treason to overturn our Constitution and the rights it grants our citizens in favor of a set of rights limited to Catholic moral principles.  I think all this is highly unlikely.  It is not impossible, of course, but it is unlikely.  What is likely and seemingly more and more so with each new wave of seminary graduates—the people that Professor Grabowski is teaching by the way—is that we will have a clergy (and eventually a hierarchy) that is determined to force praxis based on Catholic doctrine on the larger population.  Shrill voices in the Catholic community are demanding that the laws of our land be written to reflect Catholic moral teaching regardless of the fact that these principles are not shared by the majority of the population.  And so if the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago in 2055 is put to death for our “faith” the question historians in the future will ask is—should he have been attempting to force Catholic doctrine on society or has he exceeded the mandate Christ has given to his Church?    
This has, I believe, been our mistake for the past forty years or more.  We want the law to reflect and enforce our religious beliefs.  Christ never gave us a mission to change laws.  He has given us a mission to change hearts.  And in our misguided zeal to force the law to conform to our values, we have in fact alienated hearts from the truth. 
Twenty years ago Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago called for “common ground.”  We need, he said, to sit down with those with whom we disagree and discover on what we agree before polarizing over those points of disagreement.  I believe that conversation with those who defend a woman’s “right to choose” would have opened our ears and hearts to the plight of women who find themselves “trapped” in an “inconvenient” pregnancy.  That does not mean that we would end up embracing abortion policies—it means that we would have to wrestle with how do we effectively help women not to be held back from realizing their potential and striving for their happiness when they find themselves in a problematic pregnancy.  Would there be anything wrong with looking for strategies that would help women?  Frankly we need to hear the stories of women who do not know where to turn.  At the same time such a conversation would have permitted us raise the perspective of the unborn child and his or her future.  My own experience of conversations about abortion is that while I am talking about a child, my interlocutor is speaking about a woman.  In other words, we are not even on the same topic.  Conversations open the path to changing hearts.  It is not done overnight but we would certainly have made more progress in preserving the lives of the unborn than we have with our posters of aborted babies and our rant-chants in front of abortion mills.  Of course Cardinal Law of Boston—you remember the fellow who wanted to protect his priests from criminal law though no Becket he—and Cardinal Hickey of Washington beat the drums of hysteria to make sure that no dialogue ever happened. 
I think we are facing the same question and challenges about same-sex unions.  Frankly we need to sit down and have honest conversations with men and women whose sexual orientation leads them to become emotionally bonded with members of their own sex.  I think we have serious questions and even challenges for their positions.  But I also think we have much to learn in order that some of our preconceptions can evolve from reflecting bias to being based in experience.  Experienced confessors and spiritual directors are discovering that the issues of sin and grace are not as black and white as some think.  As we discover the physiological elements of same-sex bonding our moral theology is faced with new questions we had not asked before.    
If we continue to claim the privilege of writing the laws to reflect our religious beliefs we will turn our society against us—and rightfully so.  I say “rightfully so” because we are not being faithful to Christ and to his mission.  Any use of power by the Church over those who do not freely subscribe to its doctrines is an abuse of power. And it is not martyrdom when you bring down the roof on your own head.  

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