Yesterday and today, I am attending the "Washington Briefing" sponsored by the National Catholic Reporter and Trinity College. The event brings together prominent Catholics to discuss the role of the Church in the life of the nation at this moment of history and it is well worth the effort that was put into it by both organizations.
In the morning sessions yesterday we heard a panel on the Vatican’s relations with the U.S. government, with remarks by two former U.S. ambassadors to the Holy See, Tom Malady, who served President George H. W. Bush and Jim Nicholson, who served George W. Bush. Then NCR’s John Allen and Tom Roberts spoke about the sex abuse crisis and Helen Alvare, former head of the USCCB’s pro-life activities rounded out the morning with a talk about abortion and the significance of the law. At lunch, John Zogby discussed the results of a recent poll of Catholic attitudes and then the sessions adjourned to Capitol Hill where we heard from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, Rep. Dan Lundgren of California and Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Congressman Paul Ryan stuck his head in to apologize for the fact that the votes ran late and he had a plane to catch. Columnist E. J. Dionne also addressed the afternoon session. For more detailed reports, check out "NCR Today" where Joshua McElwee has some good posts on the presentations.
I can hear the gasps. How could loyal Catholics meet with pro-abortion Speaker Pelosi? From the other side of the spectrum, how could loyal Catholics meet with Cong. Lundgren who opposed health care? Many lefties in the audience shook their heads at what Ambassador Nicholson said, just as I am sure conservatives will be upset with whatever Sister Carol Keehan says tomorrow. But, there is something wonderful about the fact that Catholics have risen to places of prominence in both political parties, that Catholics of good conscience and sound mind can reach different conclusions about the dictates of their conscience relative to the administration of justice, the application of laws, and the structures of government. Indeed, as E.J. said to the group, it is an altogether good thing that the Catholic Church makes some liberals squirm on the abortion issue and makes some conservatives squirm on social justice issues. The claims of faith should make us all squirm. Those claims come from the one who never fails and are given to us humans who know that original sin is our birthright. Already, Speaker Pelosi's comments about the religious justification for immigration reform are causing some controversy.
I can’t say I agreed entirely with all that was said by any of the speakers, nor that any of them failed to say something that had me nodding in agreement. This is why these kinds of seminars are important and useful. The Church must transcend the narrow concerns of partisanship and speak to both those with liberal hearts and those with conservative hearts. In both cases, we are called to pay attention to the kind of wisdom found more easily by the kind of heart we did not receive. What Dr. Alvare said of the conjugal act can also be said of a truly engaged argument: It calls us to recognize that someone else is the center of the universe. It is a thing too easily forgotten in D.C. and NCR and Trinity deserve credit for a symposium that reminds us.