A tale of two bishops

From "Render Unto Caesar"
beginning of chapter 4, pages 55-58.

by Charles J. Chaput

Archbishop Joseph Rummel served the Catholic people of New Orleans from 1935 until his death in 1964. By the 1950s, he faced an increasingly ugly problem. The Archdiocese of New Orleans had the largest Catholic population in the Deep South and many thousands of black Catholics. It also had segregated schools. Rummel and previous bishops had always ensured that black students had access to Catholic education. However, segregated parochial schools had the same scarce money and poor quality as the segregated public schools.

The moral of our story is this:

First, when Catholics take their Church seriously and act on her teaching in the world, somebody, and often somebody with power, won’t like it.

Second, in recent American politics, the line that divides “prophetic witness” from “violating the separation of Church and state” usually depends on who draws the line, who gets offended--and by what issue. The line wanders conveniently.

But Catholics, in seeking to live their faith, can’t follow convenience.

After World War II, Rummel began desegregating the local Church. In 1948, his seminary welcomed two black students. In 1951, Rummel pulled the “white” and “colored” signs from Catholic parishes. In 1953, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools, he issued the first of two strong pastoral letters: "Blessed Are the Peacemakers." Pastors read it to their people at every Mass one Sunday. In it, Rummel condemned segregation. It drew a quick response. Some parishioners bitterly resented hearing from the pulpit that “there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.”

In 1956, Rummel said he intended to desegregate Catholic schools. Tempers ran hot. Most parish school boards voted against desegregation. Rummel didn’t budge. A year earlier, he had closed a parish when its people objected to their newly assigned black priest. But to compound the archbishop’s troubles, many parents had moved their children from public to Catholic schools, hoping to avoid desegregation. Members of the Louisiana legislature threatened to withhold then-available public funds for Catholic schools if Rummel went ahead with his plans.

In early 1962, Rummel said that in the following year, Catholic schools would integrate. Several Catholic politicians organized public protests and letter-writing campaigns. They threatened a boycott of Catholic schools. On April 16, 1962, Rummel excommunicated three prominent Catholics – a judge, a political writer and a community organizer – for publicly defying the teaching of their Church.

The New Orleans events made national news, covered by "Time" magazine and the "New York Times." The "Times" editorial board gushed that “men of all faiths must admire [Rummel’s] unwavering courage” because he has “set an example founded on religious principle and is responsive to the social conscience of our time.”

In 2004, another archbishop, Raymond Burke of St. Louis, drew national headlines. In his final weeks as bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin, he asked three Catholic public figures to refrain from presenting themselves for Communion. He then asked his priests to withhold Communion from Catholic public officials who supported abortion rights. The three offending politicians claimed merely to be pro-choice. In Burke’s view, though, their actions showed a material support for abortion and a stubborn disregard for their own faith. All three had voted for or otherwise supported forcing Catholic hospitals to provide abortions. In effect, they had publicly tried to coerce the Church to violate her teaching on a serious sanctity-of-life issue.

Burke’s action, though softer than Rummel’s, made quite a few enemies, even among people who saw themselves as Catholic. Unlike Rummel, Burke received no glowing praise from the "New York Times". He got rather different treatment from the news media. But again like Rummel, he hadn’t checked with the "Times" for its approval. What the "Times" thought didn’t matter. What the Church believed, did.

The moral of our story is this: First, when Catholics take their Church seriously and act on her teaching in the world, somebody, and often somebody with power, won’t like it. Second, in recent American politics, the line that divides “prophetic witness” from “violating the separation of Church and state” usually depends on who draws the line, who gets offended--and by what issue. The line wanders conveniently. But Catholics, in seeking to live their faith, can’t follow convenience.

Posted with permission from www.chiesa.



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