Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Catholic Faith and the Vocation of Public Service: Helen Alvare's Casey Lecture

Professor Helen Alvare of Catholic University delivered on March 7th an excellent speech on the occasion of the Archdiocese of Denver's Third Annual Robert P. Casey Lecture, named for the shunned pro-life Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, of happy memory.

Professor Alvare began with a description of the events which led her into public life. She began as a consultant on theological matters for political campaigns and the television networks, somehow finding herself invited to represent pro-life Catholics. She soon became the NCCB's secretary of pro-life affairs, and she is now a professor at Catholic University School of Law.

In the first half of her talk Professor Alvare described an engaging autobiography, and I was particularly struck by her reasons she could progress no further in media or politics: In televised pundit-circles she couldn't come up with an opinion on the spot for the issue of the day, and so could not rise, or rather, descend, to the opinion-a-minute flurry of television commentary. In politics, the pro-life groups she was assisting tended to absorb more and more the political attitudes of their poltitical allies. This phenomenon not only diluted their cause for the sake of political success, but it ended up connecting issues whose connections are not obvious and in some cases counter-productive, especially since they alienated Mrs. Alvare, who would have been a very typical Democrat thirty years ago.

I recorded her talk on a hand-held digital voice recorder, which has enabled me to make transcriptions of parts of her talk. They are not edited or transcribed particularly well, but Professor Alvare's remarks are blogworthy nonetheless. She notes:
"There are fundamental ethical requirements that we need to address... There are things that are not at all sectarian, we often think of these things that arise out of natural law... We should also not just be condemning when things are problematic, in these ethical spheres, but also positively sharing our moral, our intellectual, our spiritual riches of the church, and find ways that they can infuse the culture. My entire modus operandi in my scholarly writings--plain old law reviews--is to take some insight that I find in the faith, that derives from natural law, some insight that I did not see being used in family law. Some thorny issue, and they're at an impasse, and I ask "how could some particular insight the Church relies on help solve it?" And I bring it in a secular way, I don't even cite Christian sources at all. This is how I've written about reproductive technology, or about the basis of marriage, or about marriage strengthening, or about other bioethical issues.

She advocated a necessary resistance to the separation of one's spiritual self from one's public and political self, and made many thought-provoking reflections on the nature of the Catholic Church in public life. Some may strike readers as triumphalist, but I think that to dismiss them as such would ignore some very real insights. Her talk continued:
I don't think you all realize how unique is the church's status as a public voice, and there isn't really another like it, and what it would mean if we weren't there. It wasn't until I started doing work in the UN, and participating in delegations to foreign countries, that I began to see how respected the church was in an international way. Or to go to interfaith meetings, and for other groups to say wow you Catholics have *really* been strong on... and they name something: pro-life, or immigration issues. We're not monolithic, but we have a unified voice. We're transnational. We have millennia of international relations skills--millennia! We don't speak out of political considerations. We're large, we're old.

And here's something that makes us really unique now: we explicitly claim to be seeking truth. Do you know how unique that is? Think about other institutions that are going out to speak on issues, and aren't hearing it from maybe some more vested interests: to win the next election, or for monetary reasons. We actually say we're in this debate, either because we have a truth we think we'd like to share, or because we'd like to join the search for the right thing, the good thing to do. To be explicitly truth seeking is so unique. This is out of step with much of our time, but what it's in step with is the desire of people's hearts. People are looking for things that they can base their life on, things that are worth living for, that are as Cardinal Dulles says, because they are worth dying for.

In a relativistic age, truth-seeking is indeed unique. My question below raised some concern that perhaps the church shouldn't be this unique, but should rather have more allies in this area.

Professor Alvare again continued:

Peggy Noonan noticed, after JPII's death, how many people who had no knowledge about the church, really, who had never really read any of our teachings, but really went with what they had read in the NYTimes, expressed an opinion about the church.[See Pierce Bush, -kjj] In a way, she said, this is a really really back-handed compliment. In a way, it is an affirmation of what the Church says it is, which is a universal, a catholic institution. And people innately respond somehow to this claim or maybe even to the reality of that fact, by feeling like it is the patrimony of all of us, and we can take shots at it. That somehow it does speak to all of us, and it actually makes an attempt to speak for all of us, and because of that all of us have a legitimate interest.

I actually think she has a point there. It's one of the last transnational institutions that claims that its answers not for a limited ethnic group, not for a limited country, not just for people born into that religion, but for everybody. Another sign of this universality, this attraction to truth-seeking, is the fact that in most of the leading hot-button issues of the US today: abortion, immigration, marriage debate, poverty, the Catholic Church is the one in the middle of the debate. And we are often the one to answer. I don't know if you heard about the 55 Catholic members of congress who were all in favor of abortion, so they had to put out a document to say "We are great Catholics! We are for the vulnerable, we just happen to support abortion, including partial birth abortion, and that's just fine, that's great." They feel the need to answer the church. They feel the need to criticize her and to answer her.

Even after decades of negligent bishops, woeful catechesis, and the laity's significant abdication of their duties, Alvare's remarks do ring true.

These are just the passages I found most interesting and easy to transcribe. Doubtless the Denver Catholic Register will have an article on her lecture, which will be linked when available. An admirable talk given by an admirable woman.

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