Boehner's Catholic Lessons

Boehner's Catholic Lessons

By E.J. Dionne - May 23, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes we learn more from the dogs that don't bark and the wheels that don't squeak.

It's likely you didn't hear much about the controversy over House Speaker John Boehner's recent commencement speech at Catholic University. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that Boehner's critics were civil and respectful. The media, it turns out, don't cover you much if you are civil and respectful. This would be the same media that regularly disparages incivility and divisiveness in politics.

And the story broke from the stereotypical narrative the media likes to impose on Christians in general, and Catholics in particular. If the headline is "Conservative Catholics Denounce Liberal Politician on Abortion," all the boilerplate is at the ready. But when the headline is "Catholic Progressives Challenge Conservative Politician on Social Justice," this is something new and complicated. It's far easier to write the 10th story of the week about Newt Gingrich.

Oh yes, and there is also a problem for those bishops who barely murmur when a Catholic politician departs from the church's teachings on social justice but think that even the mildest deviation on abortion is enough to keep a public figure off a Catholic campus. As a result, they feed the distorted media narrative about what the church believes.

Here's the background: This year, Catholic University invited Boehner to give the address at its May 14 commencement, and why not? Boehner is Catholic, and universities like to get famous people to give such speeches. Notre Dame was similarly proud in 2009 when it snagged President Obama as its commencement speaker.

But a group of Catholic academics, including some leading members of the Catholic University faculty, decided Boehner's visit was a useful moment to remind him and everyone else about Catholicism's strong instructions about our duty to the poor and government's responsibility to promote social justice.

The anti-abortion Notre Dame protesters shouted in fury at the university and insisted that the president should not even have had a chance to speak at a Catholic institution. Boehner's critics, in sharp contrast, were respectful and never said he didn't belong there. The opening paragraph of their letter welcomed the speaker -- and also served as a not-so-subtle poke at the Notre Dame rejectionists and the bishops who supported them.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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