Cardinal Dolan’s Unfortunate Lapse


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Cardinal Dolan’s book, True Freedom, is available from Amazon. Actually, it’s not a book but an essay, followed by an excerpt from journalist John L. Allen Jr.’s book about the Cardinal, A People of Hope, together totaling 37 pages. The Allen excerpt sets aside journalistic detachment, referring to the Cardinal as “Rome’s go-to guy in America,” “the new media darling of the Church in the United States,” “larger than life,” “relentlessly upbeat,” and “Affirmative Orthodoxy on steroids.”

The Cardinal’s essay is a commentary and a tribute to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which argues that human life is sacred, people have an inherent dignity, and these truths are affirmed not only by Christian theology but also by reason. The encyclical goes on to contrast the culture of life, which affirms these truths, with the culture of death, which John Paul describes as “a war of the powerful against the weak.”

It is not clear whether the Cardinal’s essay is intended as a pastoral letter or a scholarly analysis. Because it seems a little of each, the appropriate way to assess it is by the intellectual standards common to both genres. Among the most basic of those standards are acknowledging complexity, affirming distinctions where they exist, and treating with charity those who hold opposing views.

For the most part, the Cardinal’s essay observes these standards. He reasons that because every person is created in the image and likeness of God, we have an obligation to treat all individuals with “respect, love, honor, and care.” This is solid Catholic teaching and he presents it clearly and well. However, when he cites cases to which he claims the obligation applies directly, he violates all three intellectual standards. A child in the mother’s womb, he writes, “ought to be cherished and protected by law,” an immigrant “ought to” receive “welcome and protection,” and a man on death row “ought not” to have his life taken by the state.

His first error is to ignore crucial distinctions among the three cases. A child in the womb is innocent of any wrongdoing—in other words, has violated neither God’s law nor human law. An illegal immigrant, on the other hand, has violated the laws governing entry into and residence in a country. (Though careless commentators may assume that such laws are non-binding, responsible ethicists and moral theologians acknowledge that the matter is not nearly that simple.) Finally, a man on death row has committed a grave offense against both divine and human law. Conflating such very different cases constitutes a logical fallacy.

But the Cardinal’s violation of intellectual standards goes beyond ignoring distinctions, all the way to demagoguery and denigration of people whose only offense is disagreeing with him. I make this claim on the basis of his wording of the case of the illegal immigrant. (It should be noted that though he does not say he is referring to illegal immigrants, the context makes that reference unmistakable. He speaks of “a candidate,” and the most obvious people who fit that description are Jan Brewer and Mitt Romney, neither of whom has uttered a word about legal immigrants.) Here is the Cardinal’s paragraph in full.

“If an immigrant from Mexico is a child of God, worth the price of the life of God’s only begotten Son, then we ought to render him or her honor, a welcome and protection in law, not a roar of hate, clenched fists, and gritted teeth in response to the latest campaign slogan from a candidate appealing to the nativistic side of our nature.”

“A roar of hate?” “Clenched fists?” “Gritted teeth?” “Nativistic side of our nature?” Such intemperate, accusatory language is not only unfair but also defamatory, and more suited to a political diatribe than to either a pastoral or scholarly essay by a cardinal of the Catholic Church.

Compare that paragraph with Pope John Paul’s remark on World Migration Day in 1996:

“Illegal immigration should be prevented, but it is also essential to combat vigorously the criminal activities which exploit illegal immigrants. The most appropriate choice, which will yield consistent and long-lasting results is that of international co-operation which aims to foster political stability and to eliminate underdevelopment.”

Or compare the Cardinal’s words with Pope Benedict’s comment about illegal immigration in May, 2012:

“This is clearly a difficult and complex issue from the civil and political, as well as the social and economic, but above all from the human point of view. It is thus of profound concern to the church, since it involves ensuring the just treatment and the defense of the human dignity of immigrants.”

What differentiates John Paul’s and Benedict’s comments from Cardinal Dolan’s is their acknowledgment of the complexity of the issue, their inclusion of deeper considerations, their measured and temperate tone, and their avoidance of inflammatory or partisan rhetoric.

How can the Cardinal’s violation of intellectual standards of discourse be explained? If he had made the comment solely in a speech, it might be excused as excessive passion for his view. But it is presented in book form and was therefore read by an editor and a proofreader and then revisited by the Cardinal in galleys. In other words, he had several opportunities to reconsider and revise his words. Any one of them would have led him to wonder: “Am I oversimplifying? Do not many responsible Catholics and other Christians want illegal immigration stopped? Is it reasonable or fair to imply that all of them are mindless racists? Should I rephrase my remark to make clear my respect for such people’s honesty and integrity?”

Not to have taken one of those opportunities clearly rules out the possibility that the passage was the result of impetuousness or carelessness. What, then, can we conclude about it?

The explanation that seems inescapable is that, consciously or unconsciously, the Cardinal has embraced the common stereotypes of liberals as virtuous people who see Jesus in the poor and disenfranchised and do everything in their power to overcome their plight, and conservatives as contemptible rich people so lacking in regard for the less fortunate that they would push every granny and welfare recipient off the proverbial cliff.

These stereotypes have tempted American Catholics, notably those of Irish and Italian ancestry, for generations. (Being half Ryan and half Ruggiero, I have first-hand knowledge of the mischief this temptation has worked in both ethnic groups.) But stereotypes are by definition caricatures. And in this case, there is clear evidence that they are not only distorted but also false. Here is a small sampling of that evidence:

1. Studies show that conservatives at every income level contribute considerably more to charity than do liberals, both in total dollar amounts and in percentages of income. To cite but one example, often-maligned Mitt Romney gives 15% of his income—that is, three million dollars a year—to charity. (Catholic pastors, presumably including the pastor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, would fall on their knees in thanksgiving if they had even one such congregant.) Thus, it cannot be said that liberals care and conservatives don’t. The real difference is that liberals see charity as a government obligation and conservatives see it as a personal obligation.

To put it biblically, conservatives believe the Good Samaritan’s virtue lay in caring for the injured man himself and promising to pay the innkeeper himself. In contrast, liberals believe it would have been equally virtuous, if not more so, for the Samaritan to have demanded that others do something for the injured man and then to have castigated them if they expressed reservations.

2. The conservative argument to end illegal immigration is not based on hatred of immigrants or racism but instead on justice and fairness to citizens, a group that includes both people born in this country and legal immigrants. Illegal immigration not only creates a danger to citizens who live near the border; it also drains community, county, and state resources and creates a substantial tax burden. The conservative view is based on common sense and biblical truth—we are called to love and respect not just those who cross our borders illegally, but also the legal residents of the states where the crossing occurs and those who wait patiently for a chance to enter the country legally.

3. The Progressivism that today calls conservatives uncaring is the same Progressivism that a century ago branded and southern and central European immigrants “morons” and blocked their legal immigration to the U.S. Those progressives were also the principal supporters of the Eugenics movement that forcibly sterilized people deemed “unfit,” including many black Americans. There is irony and more than a little hypocrisy in progressives’ claim that conservatives are uncaring.

Incidentally, in the process of its resurgence, Progressivism has gained considerable influence over the Democratic Party. The clearest indication of this influence was the otherwise-puzzling conversion of many democrats, including Al Gore, John Kerry, and Ted Kennedy from pro-life to pro-choice. Many traditional liberals have failed to recognize this sad transformation of the Party because it has occurred over time and without fanfare. As a result, these individuals do not appreciate the fact that liberalism is no longer what it used to be and today’s conservatism is more reflective of the social and religious values they hold dear.

Cardinal Dolan is an intelligent and capable man who has been entrusted with not one but three important positions in the Catholic Church. In addition to being Archbishop of New York, he is the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a member of the newly formed Vatican Council to promote the “New Evangelization.” In all three positions, as well as in his informal role of ambassador for Catholicism, he has the opportunity to be of great service to the Church and to the world. My hope and prayer is that he will learn to be less dismissive of the thoughtfully conceived views of millions of conservative Catholics, not only on the subject of illegal immigration, but also on the broad range of social and economic issues facing our country.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved