Homilist Names Names

New York Deacon Tom McDonnell lambasted a pro-stem-cell congressman from the pulpit.

BY David Freddoso

February 11-17, 2007 Issue
Posted 2/6/07 at 8:00 AM

BUFFALO, N.Y. — U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., hardly expected to become the topic of a Sunday homily when he brought his family to St. Thomas Aquinas Church. But he did, and he and the homilist have been thrown into the national spotlight.

Deacon Tom McDonnell, delivering a sermon on Jan. 21 for Respect Life Sunday, upbraided Higgins before the south Buffalo congregation for his recent vote in favor of federal funding for research that destroys human embryos.

In his homily, the deacon noted Higgins’ presence at Mass, talked about his vote, and suggested that parishioners ask their representative about that vote.

The Buffalo News reported that Higgins walked out of the church with his wife and two children rather than endure such a public tongue-lashing. The congressman later expressed regret that the people of the parish had been “subjected to this whole, unfortunate and avoidable mess,” he told the Register.

He also told the Buffalo News that he thinks the Church “has enough problems, and should take greater care before allowing non-priests to use the Church as a forum to advance what clearly was a political agenda.”

A spokesman for the Buffalo Diocese referred the Register to Bishop Edward Kmiec’s written statement on the incident. “The pulpit is not the appropriate place for confronting a member of the congregation,” read the statement. “It is my belief that in situations like this, we are more effective when we have substantive, one-on-one conversations with individuals, outside the context of the Mass.”

Deacon McDonnell has refused media requests to discuss the incident.

Raymond Flynn, chairman of the group Catholic Citizenship, agreed with the bishop. He praised Deacon McDonnell for raising the embryonic stem-cell issue — but not for singling out the politician.

“The clergy has not only the right, but the responsibility, to inform Catholics of the Church’s position on moral issues,” said Flynn, former Democratic mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican under the Clinton administration. “They can’t really go around telling people which party to support or which candidate to vote for, but they certainly have the responsibility of highlighting the issues and the positions of the Catholic faith. An informed Catholic is a good citizen.”

Canon Law gives bishops the authority to rebuke offenses like Higgins’, in certain ways. Canon 1339 says: “When someone is in a proximate occasion of committing an offense or when, after an investigation, there is a serious suspicion that an offense has been committed, the Ordinary either personally or through another can give that person warning. In the case of behavior which gives rise to scandal or serious disturbance of public order, the Ordinary can also correct the person, in a way appropriate to the particular conditions of the person and of what has been done. The fact that there has been a warning or a correction must always be proven, at least from some document to be kept in the secret archive of the curia.”

“Historically, the pulpit has often been effectively used to reprimand the common vices of the congregation, but it is an inappropriate venue for correcting the specific errors of an individual,” said Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University. “Pastoral prudence and charity would suggest that a preacher refrain from making references to specific persons, regardless of whether the individual is present or not.”

Austin Ruse, president of C-Fam (The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute), agreed. “There’s no question that ecclesial pressure must be brought to bear on Catholic politicians who vote against human life — private pressure and public, if necessary,” he said. “But singling him out for a rebuke from the pulpit seems a little preposterous, especially coming from a deacon. I suspect that the deacon’s actions did more harm than good to the cause of life.”

Killer Research

Higgins defended his vote for a bill that would take tax money withheld from Americans’ paychecks and send it to doctors who want to create and kill human beings in laboratories.

On Jan. 11, Higgins voted along with 252 other congressmen in favor of federal funding for the embryonic stem-cell research. In doing so, Higgins was making good on a campaign issue several candidates — mostly Democrats — had highlighted during the 2006 election.

“Embryonic stem cell research has the life-giving potential of one day helping to alleviate human suffering in treating and curing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease,” he told the Register Feb. 1.

But microbiology and embryology show that a human embryo is, from the moment of conception, a boy or a girl with his or her own unique DNA and normal human life expectancy. The Church teaches that “from the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (Catechism, No. 2270).

Embryonic stem-cell research has so far had no success in treating illnesses, but has only caused tumors in patients.

Higgins continued, “Approximately 400,000 surplus embryos are currently frozen in fertility clinics, the vast majority of which will eventually be discarded as medical waste. H.R. 3, which I support, would allow federal research funding for additional stem-cell lines to include these surplus embryos for responsible and potentially life saving medical research.”

But many “surplus” embryos who would otherwise have been destroyed as “medical waste” have been adopted by surrogate parents who gave birth to them, and they are now leading normal lives, attending grade schools throughout the country.

Other Catholic clergy have recently held Catholic politicians accountable for votes they take that are in opposition to Catholic doctrine — but they’ve named names in the press and stuck to the issue itself in the Mass.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver criticized now-Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., during his election race in 2004 because Salazar trumpeted his Catholicism but also opposed the Church’s doctrine that abortion is the killing of an innocent human life. In an April 2004 column in the diocesan newspaper The Denver Catholic Register, Archbishop Chaput wrote, “Candidates who claim to be ‘Catholic’ but who publicly ignore Catholic teaching about the sanctity of human life are offering a dishonest public witness.” This began a public feud between the archbishop and Salazar that has lasted beyond the election.

In New Jersey, Archbishop John Meyers of Newark penned a pastoral statement in May 2004 calling on pro-abortion Catholic politicians “to admit in the public forum that they are not in full union with the Church. One who practices such dissent, even in the mistaken belief that it is permissible, may remain a Catholic in some sense, but has abandoned the full Catholic faith.”

In response, State Sen. Bernard Kenny, D-Hudson, announced that he was leaving the Catholic Church.

Some Catholics, like Flynn, see these and other bishops returning to a tradition of Church-state feuding that extends back beyond the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket in 1170. Becket was killed after he defied King Henry II of England, who wished to exercise control over the Church and the clergy.

“Many of the moral issues are decided in the political arena,” said Flynn. “I served as U.S. ambassador to the Vatican for 4 1/2 years, and I frequently heard John Paul II talk about faithful Catholic citizenship, about the importance of Catholics getting involved in the civic life of their community. That’s what this is about.”

David Freddoso is based in
Washington, D.C