Archbishop Thomas Wenski was installed yesterday as the new Archbishop of Miami. He is known largely for two things, the fact that he drives a motorcycle and the fact that he is fluent in Spanish and Haitain Creole, having worked with those communities all of his life. At the Mass in which he took possession of his new see, Wenski delivered a powerful sermon in all three languages but the text’s power came from its theology not from its linguistic acumen. Soon, he will be known for a third thing, as a forceful and balanced voice within the U.S. hierarchy. In the section that concerned itself with the issues of politics and religion that most concern me, Wenski said:
"While this understanding expressed in the Church’s social teachings can seem to be quite complex, I believe it can be summarized in one simple phrase: no man is a problem. This is why as Archbishop of Miami I will continue to proclaim a positive and consistent ethic of life: no human being – no matter how poor or how weak - can be reduced to just a problem. When we allow ourselves to think of a human being as a mere problem, we offend his or her dignity. And, when we see another human being as a problem, we often give ourselves permission to look for expedient but not just solutions. The tragic history of the 20th Century shows that thinking like this even leads to ‘final solutions’."
"For us, Catholics, therefore, there can be no such thing as a ‘problem pregnancy’ – only a child who is to be welcomed in life and protected by law. The refugee, the migrant –even one without ‘papers’ - is not a problem. He may perhaps be a stranger but a stranger to be embraced as a brother. Even criminals – for all the horror of their crimes – do not lose their God-given dignity as human beings. They too must be treated with respect, even in their punishment. This is why Catholic social teaching condemns torture and advocates for the abolition of the death penalty."
These words, with their explicit invocation of the phrase "consistent ethic of life" called to mind the effort of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to articulate the Church’s social teachings in such a way as to ensure that both political parties are made to squirm. He called his approach "the seamless garment." Bernardin’s approach fell into disuse as other powerful prelates let it be known that they thought such a construction undervalued the primacy of abortion among the Church’s political concerns. Those inclined to cynicism argued that many rising stars in the hierarchy opposed Bernardin’s construction because they did not want to make both parties squirm, only the Democrats. As my mother used to say, priests are Democrats but bishops are Republicans.
The principal value of Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless garment approach was not that it made both parties squirm, although there is value in that. The principal value is that it is true, profoundly true. The Church’s various teachings on a multitude of issues must all derive from, and be seen to derive from, our beliefs about the human person. Put differently, our political beliefs are secondary to, and derivative from, our anthropological beliefs. There are not five, or twenty, "non-negotiable" issues as some suggest. They are all related and we must understand that anything that de-humanizes is an affront to the Church’s teaching, torture as well as abortion, anti-immigrant bigotry as well as the death penalty.
Of course this does not mean that abortion is the same thing as unemployment, although both rob a person of dignity, nor that the Church should at any given time refrain from prioritizing her interventions in the public sphere. But, the "consistent ethic of life" demands more than either political party is willing to offer these days, and so we Catholics, especially our bishops, are especially wise to point out that the Church’s teachings transcend the political realm. Even if there was a political party that followed the Church’s social justice teachings to the letter, that would not be the eschaton either.
There is a bit of chutzpah in Archbishop Wenski’s delivery that a text does not capture. I admire a bit of chutzpah and think that it is not to be confused with sinful pride. Cardinal John O’Connor had some chutzpah, too, but it was combined with a great humility, as well as a profound commitment to the comman man that was not just an intellectual commitment but a deeply emotional, even existential bond. During a strike against CBS, the network sent a scab crew to a press conference being given by O’Connor and he threw them off his property. One can fancy Archbishop Wenski doing likewise, perhaps not to a scab crew, but I suspect any Arizona legislators would get a piece of his mind were they to show up on his doorstep. And, if he can help restore the sense that our teachings are interwoven and inter-connected, all the better. Buckle up, Miami. Me thinks you are in for a ride! Perhaps on the archbishop’s Harley.
Michael Sean Winters