The Cardinals vs. the Eagles

The archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, will not be attending this year’s Boston College commencement.

The cardinal declined his traditional duty of delivering the ceremony’s closing benediction in protest over the Jesuit university’s choice of commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary degree.

The identity of this most objectionable of honored guests?  Enda Kenny, the prime minister of Ireland.

I know what you’re thinking.  How dare a Catholic institution have the gall to invite the leader of a country that is 84 percent Catholic to speak at its graduation ceremony!  Surely this decision was bound to cause trouble.  What was BC thinking?

In point of fact, the reason for the outrage over the presence of Prime Minister Kenny, such as it is, stems from a single piece of legislation currently under consideration in the Irish parliament concerning abortion.

The bill, which Kenny supports, would allow for abortion if the life of the mother hangs in the balance—including, interestingly, if there is a credible risk of suicide on the mother’s part.

Kenny and others have taken pains to point out that this legislation, known as the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill 2013, would otherwise maintain the Emerald Isle’s general policy on abortion—namely, the complete prohibition thereof—but this assurance has proved not quite good enough for the bill’s critics.

A group of Irish bishops issued a statement earlier this month that intoned, “It is a tragic moment for Irish society when we regard the deliberate destruction of a completely innocent person as an acceptable response to the threat of the preventable death of another person.”  Cardinal O’Malley, for this part, has characterized the prime minister as “aggressively promoting abortion legislation” by supporting the bill.

The question for us today, in the context of Kenny’s invite to speak at the BC commencement, is whether the university—or any university—is obligated to confer honorary degrees only upon those whose values it shares.  Is it not more honorable, as an institution for higher learning and a beacon for free expression, for such a place to invite dissenting views rather than enforcing a policy of intellectual conformity?

This year’s BC graduation is a highly imperfect test case for this debate.  Kenny was invited to give the commencement address nearly a year ago, long before the controversial abortion bill saw the light of day.  His speech will very probably not mention the radioactive issue, nor any other political hot potatoes, as college commencement addresses tend toward the bland and accommodating in any case.

More to the point:  Prime Minister Kenny hardly represents an affront to the Catholic Church in the context of the modern world.  Yes, his view that abortion is morally justified to save the mother’s life is in direct opposition to Catholic doctrine.  However, it is also the view of more than 80 percent of the American public, with whom American Catholic opinion tends to align on matters of abortion.

Further, Kenny has rightly pointed out that the Protection of Life bill exists only in order to conform to a 1992 Irish Supreme Court ruling establishing the legality of abortion when the mother’s health is in jeopardy—a heretofore legal-constitutional inconsistency that, as prime minster, Kenny is duty-bound to rectify.

Evidently, objectors to Kenny’s participation in commencement exercises would rather the Irish prime minister defy an order by his country’s highest court in order to legislate a view that is not shared by more than 80 percent of Americans and, according to a February 2013 poll, 84 percent of the Irish.

To a degree, O’Malley and company can be forgiven for their disappointment in Boston College’s open mindedness on this front.  After all, it was only a few weeks ago that the university came under fire for attempting to rid itself of a student group that was distributing birth control at various on-campus locations, precisely because doing so was contrary to Catholic teachings.  For the school to suddenly decide that we can agree to disagree on certain issues must be quite irritating to the clergy, indeed.

But Cardinal O’Malley and Boston College’s front office have different agendas, and university administrators ought to be commended for standing behind their invitation to Prime Minister Kenny, thereby honoring their most important commitment—namely, to their students.

To have caved to the pressure of clergymen such as O’Malley would have effectively endorsed the rather alarming notion—frightfully common in the American political realm lately—that one can only tether oneself to those whose views one shares 100 percent of the time.  Such a mentality of purity and political purging is poisonous in a free and open society, and we should be very thankful there are still those in power who resist it.

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