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It is St. Patrick’s Day, and almost everywhere in American Catholicism where the Irish have clout, which is almost everywhere, an episcopal indult permits an exception today to the rule of no meat on Fridays in Lent. Abstinence from meat is the least of it in New York. As former governor Hugh Carey explained the grand old day to me some years ago, “All day it’s marching up Fifth Avenue, and all night it’s staggering down Third Avenue.” Third Avenue is not alone in having an Irish bar about every hundred feet or so, about the distance that some can make it between drinks.

In truth, the day in honor of New York’s patron saint has become somewhat less rowdy in recent years. Although nobody manages to throw a city-wide party quite like the Irish. They come in from all the surrounding counties to remind the world that when one says “Church” he’d better mean the one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and Irish Church.

And then there is the 222nd annual dinner of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. A business friend who bought a table has invited me, so I’ll be there, quietly pondering deep thoughts about what it means for Christians to be in but not of the world on St. Patrick’s Day in New York.

And possibly wondering what the saint himself would think of it all. Through the Irish mist of myths of legends, we have a clear enough line on the man (c. 389- c. 461). Born in Britain, the son of a Romano-British official named Calpurnius, Patrick was captured by raiders when he was about sixteen and carried off to pagan Ireland. After six years of herding sheep, he escaped to Gaul, was in due course ordained priest and bishop and sent to Ireland to succeed Paulinus, who had died the year before.

A man of extraordinary faith and energy, he traveled the island from top to bottom, contending against hostile tribal chiefs and Druids. (The latter being a cult into which Rowan Williams was inducted upon becoming Archbishop of Canterbury.) He and the gospel triumphed again and again, often by spectacularly miraculous means. He visited Rome in 442 and 444, and established the primatial see in Armagh.

During his three decades in Ireland, he brought the country into close relationship with the universal Church, enhanced scholarship, encouraged the study of Latin, and laid the foundations of a Catholic Ireland that was for centuries a powerhouse of evangelical zeal reaching out to all the world, and not least of all to the United States. I warmly recommend the reading of his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus . The latter is a lively condemnation of a slaughter perpetrated by raiding Welshmen, who were also Christians. St. Patrick made a strong case against Christians slaughtering Christians, which might seem somewhat obvious, but obviously was not obvious then, and is not now. Witness the world wars of the past century, and the still-simmering hostilities in Northern Ireland.

St. Patrick, pray for us.

Catholicism in Ireland has in recent years come upon hard times. For the first time in recorded history, Dublin did not ordain even one priest last year. The mother of Catholic missionary endeavor around the world has herself become a mission territory. Catholic World Report notes that for St. Patrick’s Day, the great saint’s successor all these centuries later, Archbishop Sean Brady of Armagh, issued a statement. It concludes with this:

Next week, Intercultural Week is being celebrated. It is being organised by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland in conjunction with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism in Ireland. The week will focus on encouraging a greater involvement and a greater sense of belonging for people from minority ethnic backgrounds. The civil law lays down the basic standards but something more is needed to build a society that is truly inclusive, a society that is welcoming and respectful of people of different cultures, languages, and traditions.

Admittedly, it is something less than a bracing call for the renewal of the faith. I don’t know what St. Patrick would have made of the contemporary Church’s campaign to make the Druids feel at home.

The effort to pit the Church’s teaching against the Church’s teaching proceeds apace. E.J. Dionne’s Washington Post column, reprinted in Commonweal , hailed as remarkable and encouraging the statement by 55 of the 73 Catholic Democrats in the House who protest what they view as the Church’s inordinate attention to the protection of unborn children. The statement was coordinated by Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the former director of EMILY’S List, which raises millions of dollars to support pro-abortion politicians.

The signers say they respect the Church’s teaching but also must follow their conscience. Most of them have a solid pro-abortion record, including support for the killing of children in the process of being born. Nonetheless, Dionne joins them in arguing that they are “closer to the Church’s teaching” on concern for the poor, seeking peace, and other good things on which liberals presumably have a monopoly. “You’re for protecting unborn children; I’m for funding more low-income housing; so we’re equally Catholic in our way.” It’s the old moral equivalence song they’ve been playing for years.

The conference of bishops responded to the statement of the 55 and some critics, including Joseph Bottum in this space, thought the response a bit too limp. I thought the response—signed by Cardinals Keeler and McCarrick, and Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who head pertinent committees of the conference—was very much to the point.

Of course there was the usual palaver about welcoming the statement of the House members and the importance of continuing dialogue, and so forth. What would you expect? But the message of the bishops was clear enough. They said, for instance, “As members of the Church, all Catholics are obliged to shape our consciences in accord with the moral teaching of the Church,” and they underscored that abortion is “a grave violation of the most fundamental human right—the right to life.”

The signers said they deemed abortion to be “undesirable” and favored various social programs that might reduce the incidence of abortion. That is all very well, responded the bishops, but: “While it is always necessary to work to reduce the number of abortions by providing alternatives and help to vulnerable parents and children, Catholic teaching calls all Catholics to work actively to restrain, restrict, and bring to an end the destruction of unborn human life.”

It seems to me that the bishops, in responding to the disingenuous statement by the 55 House members, were admirably clear about the teaching. Of course, that does not address the question of what should be done about Catholic politicians who publicly and persistently defy that teaching, a question much agitated in the 2004 political season and much discussed in the pages of F IRST T HINGS . In this connection, it must be admitted, Cardinal McCarrick has been particularly unhelpful in the effort of some bishops to develop a coherent approach that joins teaching to pastoral care in a way that makes it clear to Catholics and others that persistent rejection of the Church’s teaching has consequences for one’s communio with the Church. 2006 and 2008 are now upon us, and the bishops seem no closer to a common approach that might help to repair their badly battered credibility.

In addition to which :

In the April issue of F IRST T HINGS , Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna responds to both critics and supporters of his critique of neo-Darwinism as a philosophy in his earlier essay, “The Designs of Science.” There is, for instance, this: “Darwinism provides no easy answers for theology, unless one incorporates evolutionary thinking into theology, using Darwinistic and heterodox ‘process theology’ to absolve God from the responsibilities of His all-encompassing providence . . . As with so many mysteries, orthodox Christianity must accept completely and unequivocally two truths—in this case, that God is all good and all powerful—and humbly shoulder the difficult burden of fitting those two truths together without diluting either of them.” Isn’t it time for you to become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS ?

Avery Cardinal Dulles says of Catholic Matters :

"It would be difficult to find a guide so knowledgeable, so theologically astute, and so engaging as a writer. Father Neuhaus presents the ‘high adventure’ of a Catholic orthodoxy that stands firmly against the winds of adversity and confusion."

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