When Should Catholics “Call a Spade a Spade”?

Deal W. Hudson
September 7, 2009

“To call a spade a spade,” a phrase whose origin can be traced back to Plutarch, is defined by Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as to be “outspoken, blunt, even to the point of rudeness.” The question of when Catholics should be outspoken, in this sense, has arisen over the heated reactions to the funeral of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

A number of commentators took issue with the funeral, specifically over the participation of Sean Cardinal O’Malley of Boston and Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, retired, from Washington, D.C., who read from the letter written by Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI.

But Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison thinks some of the negative comments were sinful. As he wrote in his diocesan newspaper, “I’m afraid, however, that for not a few Catholics, the funeral rites for Senator Kennedy were a source of scandal – that is, quite literally, led them into sin.”

Bishop Morlino does not locate the sin in the public criticism of the funeral, however: “From the earliest days of the Church it was defined as sinful to enjoy the thought that someone might be in Hell.”

I went back to reread the three toughest statements I knew about the Kennedy funeral – those from Raymond ArroyoJudie Brown, and Phil Lawler. Nowhere could I find anything close to the sin described by Bishop Morlino.

Phil Lawler writes, “We cannot know the state of Ted Kennedy’s soul when he finally succumbed to brain cancer.” From Judie Brown: “Not a single one of us knows the state of Senator Kennedy’s soul at his death.” And finally Arroyo: “Judgment remains the exclusive domain of God, and no one should presume to know Senator Kennedy’s eternal destination.”

Perhaps I missed something, but all of the critiques I read were concerned with the way the funeral honored Senator Kennedy as a Catholic, thus creating confusion for Catholics who have repeatedly been told that it is a mortal sin to advocate abortion. As Lawler described it, “From the first greeting to the final commendation, the ceremony was a celebration of Kennedy’s life and his public career. There was never a hint that Ted Kennedy might need prayers, that his eternal salvation could be in question.”

As Arroyo summarized,

What most in the media and the public fail to recognize is that this entire spectacle – the Catholic funeral trappings and the wall-to-wall coverage – was only partially about Ted Kennedy. It was truly about cementing the impression, indeed catechizing the faithful, that one can be a Catholic politician, and so long as you claim to care about the poor, you may licitly ignore the cause of life.

Brown – who, like Arroyo, knows well the long-term impact of events like the Kennedy funeral on political dispositions of Catholics – put it this way:

Now millions of Americans are totally confused about what it means to be Catholic. The words that were uttered by these prelates prove that they did, in fact, ignore the dead babies in order to give glowing words of praise to the man who sanctioned their killing.

My only comment was to say that watching two princes of the Church praising the pro-abortion Kennedy on national television made me think that it’s sometimes very hard to take our bishops seriously on the issue of abortion. I added that I found Cardinal McCarrick’s reading “a letter from Senator Kennedy praising himself to the Holy Father… well, mind-boggling.” None of the above, as far as I can tell, falls under the category of sin as described by Bishop Morlino.

Anyone who knows Bishop Morlino knows he is a smart and tough leader who can call a spade a spade. He was one of the first to correct then-Senator Joe Biden after his appearance one year ago on Meet the Press when the now-vice president pontificated on abortion matters. So why would he make the point of so strongly cautioning those who have taken offense at the spectacle of Kennedy’s funeral?

Toward the end of his column, Bishop Morlino writes,

In the seminary I was taught to speak like a lion from the pulpit – certainly there are those in the diocese who believe that perhaps I do that all too well – but that in the confessional I should be a lamb, reflecting the face of the Lamb of God, who died so that there might be mercy. The funeral rites for Senator Kennedy challenge all of us to question ourselves as to whether we are less eager to grant mercy than God Himself is (emphasis added).

Who among us is not grateful for the priest who exhibits mercy in the face of our sins? None, I would imagine, including those who expressed their concern for the funeral service. In fact, there is a further agreement between critics like Arroyo, Brown, and Lawler with Bishop Morlino.

It’s Bishop Morlino’s hope that “our Catholic homes and families re-emphasize their role as schools of mercy, not at the expense of justice, and not at the expense of truth.” What else spurred the criticism of Kennedy’s funeral than a distortion of the truth about the Catholic Faith? What I have read was certainly not motivated by any pious delight in the certainty of Senator Kennedy’s damnation.

Anyone who uses Bishop Morlino’s words to scourge those who fear for the public witness of the Church should read the bishop more closely.

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