ROME – Some years ago, I was on a speaking tour of the US during a presidential election, and one day I happened to be at lunch with a bishop in a battleground state. Just after we’d ordered, the bishop got a phone call from a local reporter seeking comment on news that one of the candidates, a Democrat with a pro-choice voting record, would be appearing the next day at the city’s major Catholic university.
Completely blindsided, the bishop quickly ended the call. He then looked at me, shook his head in exasperation, and asked, “How the hell is this the first time I’m hearing about it?”
It was a great question then, and it remains a great question today.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. A Catholic equivalent might be that everyone is entitled to disagree with their bishop, but not to pretend he isn’t the bishop.
All this comes to mind in light of a controversy that erupted this week when Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington issued a stinging rebuke of a visit by President Donald Trump to the city’s Saint John Paul II National Shrine, calling it “baffling and reprehensible” that a Catholic facility would allow itself to be “egregiously misused and manipulated.”
His objection was that less than a day before, police had used tear gas to clear away protestors outraged by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis so that Trump could walk across the street from the White House to the Episcopal Church of St. John in order to be photographed holding a Bible.
Obviously, the heart of the story pivots on Gregory’s assertion that a Catholic venue shouldn’t lend itself to such a photo-op, versus critics who charged it was Gregory who politicized things by rebuking the President in a moment of national crisis.
However, there’s a critically important footnote that has nothing to do with whether Gregory, Trump, or any of the legion of commentators was right on the substance of the dispute.
It’s been widely reported, and Crux has independently confirmed, that Gregory was not informed of the visit until Tuesday night when the White House issued a statement announcing it. No one associated with the shrine, including its owners, the Knights of Columbus, apparently gave the archbishop a heads-up.
Although I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details, it defies belief that officials at the shrine weren’t contacted prior to the announcement to discuss the logistical details. In fact, a statement from the shrine indicated that Trump’s visit was originally envisioned as an opportunity to sign an executive order on religious freedom, suggesting it had been in the works for a while.
There had to be some gap of time, however small, in which Gregory could have been alerted.
To be clear, the shrine doesn’t need Gregory’s permission to host Trump or anyone else. The Knights of Columbus are the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization, and they are not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Washington.
There’s a big difference, however, between asking permission and showing respect.
If you’re a political advocacy organization or a for-profit corporation, fine, do whatever you perceive to be in your self-interest. If you’re Catholic, however, then seeking the opinion of your local bishop, and being willing to make reasonable compromises in order to accommodate it, is just part of the deal. To put the point differently, being part of the family matters at least as much as being right.
I’ve seen the opposite scenario play out time and again, and it has nothing to do with left v. right.
When Notre Dame decided to award an honorary doctorate to President Barak Obama in 2009, for example, then-Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was caught off guard, which became an important part of the subtext in what happened next. Of the dozens of American bishops who publicly objected to the Obama invitation, causing lasting heartache and anger on all sides, several told me privately they were doing it less on the merits than out of solidarity with D’Arcy.
Had Notre Dame reached out to D’Arcy, or had the Knights reached out to Gregory, things might have played out differently. Perhaps they could have found a way to package those events so that the concerns of both the sponsor and the bishop were satisfied, and conflict avoided.
Of course, in some cases a given bishop may prove to be obstinate, unyielding, or just a jerk. There are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the law of averages suggests they’re not all going to be role models of enlightenment. In those cases, an institution not dependent on that bishop is well within its rights to press ahead.
Still, you never know until you try, and no matter what happens, you’ll get points for having made the effort.
When I first arrived in Rome, back in the mists of pre-history, I became friends with a legendary scholar at one of the city’s pontifical universities, who was often called upon by religious orders and other Catholic outfits to help them negotiate their relationships with the hierarchy. My friend, a crusty New Englander, would always counsel them at least to notify the local bishop of what they were up to, and ideally to find a way to win his blessing.
“If you’re gonna swim in the Catholic pool,” he would say, “sooner or later you have to make your peace with the lifeguard.”
And here, to channel my inner Sean Connery, endeth the lesson.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.