John Cardinal O’Connor Lecture at Georgetown University
Thank you! It is an honor and a joy to be with you this morning.
Especially do I savor this chance to salute a towering prophet in our beloved nation’s pursuit of the civil rights of the baby in the womb, John Cardinal O’Connor, after whom this lecture is entitled.
Just last Monday we celebrated his 99th birthday, but he remains ever-young and timeless in so many souls, especially for his daring pro-life witness.
On the sidewalks of New York to this day will I encounter women and men whose eyes moisten and whose throats lump as they recall stories to me, his unworthy successor; hundreds of cops will show me his picture enshrined on the inside of their uniform hats; waiters or bartenders – – not that I meet that many – – will recall a word of spiritual encouragement he gave them; only recently did I have breakfast with a philanthropist – – no, Dr. DiGoia, I’m not giving you his name! – – who recalled an invitation to breakfast from His Eminence. At the time, he tells me he was living a rather immoral, scandalous life. As breakfast began he brashly told the cardinal, “I know you only invited me to ask for my money. How much do you want?” Cardinal O’Connor looked him in the eye and calmly replied, “Keep your money. I want your soul!” To this day this prominent benefactor could not relate the story without choking up, for that Christ-like rejoinder from John Joseph O’Connor was the spark to his conversion.
Then there was the twenty-two year old senior at Fordham – – the premier Jesuit university in America (Father McShane, its president, told me would give my niece a scholarship if I said that here at Georgetown) – – who introduced himself as “John Joseph,” telling me his mom was considering aborting him until she heard the cardinal speak so tenderly and compellingly about the sanctity of pre-born life at a Sunday sermon. Thus did he bear the cardinal’s name.
“If all the marches, all the prayers, all the vigils, the lectures,
articles, debates and encyclicals saved but one tiny, fragile life,
would not the Lord of Life say to us, ‘Well done, good and
faithful servant. For you not only fed me and clothed me,
encouraged and consoled, visited me in prison and welcomed
me a stranger. You saved my life.’”
So he wrote only months before brain cancer took him nineteen years ago. Thanks for dedicating this lecture to him!
It is humbling to be with you, genuine confessors of the faith, courageous apostles who year-after-year, in the capital of the nation built to serve a republic founded on certain inalienable rights, with that to life put first, a nation so big in power, might, influence, prestige, and cash, stand-up for the tiny, fragile, helpless, innocent infant in the intended sanctuary of the mother’s womb.
Thank you, courageous students of Georgetown University!
Just two years ago, I had the privilege of addressing the Rose Dinner, held again last evening, and I commented how but a month prior, the world had paused to recall that, at the center of history, at the very moment when B.C. became A.D., stands a pregnant woman, that brave woman of Nazareth, who exclaimed to her cousin, Elizabeth, both with what we would today term a “problem pregnancy,” “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord . . . for He has looked with favor on his lowly servant . . . He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”
The “mighty” may mock, as they do from academia, Hollywood, media, congress and courtroom, but we today acclaim “The power of one . . .”
“Even the smallest can change the course of history,” to quote Tolkien, as we salute “the power of one” . . . one baby in the womb of His mother, born at Bethlehem; and the civil rights of the tiniest today, the baby in the womb, to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I look out in admiration this morning at a hall of “ones” who have become one, inspired by one woman who believed the one true God had lifted her up to give a human nature to one who would be called the Son of God. The power of one.
When we more seasoned adults have the cherished chance to speak to those younger, as I do this morning, we’re usually expected to urge them not to repeat our past mistakes. One such that I made in college was to ignore philosophy, to concentrate not on wisdom and normative ideas, but on more “practical” courses. I regret I did not take philosophy more seriously. Oh, I’ve since tried to compensate by reading the classics of philosophy which we back then refused to do, but I still regret that eclipse of philosophy in my own academic formation.
To be sure I wish I were better versed in the wisdom of Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas; but I also wish I better comprehended the empiricism of Comte, the utilitarianism of Bentham, the pragmatism of Mill and James.
Because, folks, ideas have consequences. Those philosophers we thought irrelevant, both those who had given us the moral, political, economic, and spiritual coherence we call “civilization,” and those who were dismantling it, were expounding ideas that would shape what we today think of the true nature of a human person.
I had the gift of graduate study in history across town at The Catholic University of America. In his lectures on the French Revolution, the venerable John Tracy Ellis would recount the conversations of the elite thinkers in the mid-18th century salons of Paris, who tossed around ideas and theories to overthrow ordered culture of faith and reason, ideas, Ellis commented, then taken up by the crowds, the mobs,hanging around the streets outside those salons. Those ideas had profound consequences in the decades ahead, up until right now.
We think, for instance, of a Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution was sadly reduced to a social strategy of “survival of the fittest,” leading to a victory of the most lethal, where the weakest were left behind in a grand march of progress; of Frederick Nietzsche’s “death of God,” with its emphasis on regeneration through destruction, and a celebration of the will to power;
Of Ludwig Feuerbach’s subjectivism, that God is a mere projection of ourselves, that we individually define the good, with no objective truth to protect others;
Of Karl Marx’s materialism, that the spiritual is only an illusion, that economics is the new code to understanding history and the human person, that ethics and belief needed to be steamrolled by the will of the proletariat;
Of a utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mills, that reduces the valuable to the useful, of a pragmatism that claims the worthwhile is only what works for us.
Behold what the British historian Owen Chadwick calls the “secularization of the Western mind, with the biblical understanding of the human person, and of good and evil, on the run.” Behold the “dictatorship of relativism” Pope Benedict grieved; behold a Senate hearing that could question the suitability of an acclaimed jurist for a higher appointment because “dogma rings loudly in her,” or another candidate labeled an extremist because he belongs to the Knights of Columbus! Or a third term governor who insists that those questioning abortion on demand, paid for by all, up to the moment of birth, are retrogrades holding back progressivism; behold the “throwaway culture” regretted by Pope Francis.
George Weigel posits that Pope St. John Paul believed that every problem we today face comes from a faulty understanding of the human person, what he called a “flawed anthropology.” Is it any wonder St. John Paul, himself a philosopher, would commence the project to reclaim the truth of the dignity of the human person and the sacredness of human life, as revealed by God, evident in our nature, discoverable by enlightened reason, a project advanced by his successors, Benedict XVI and Francis, a project of which we are part, as this flawed understanding of the human person reached a tragic but logical outcome in Roe v Wade.
For if, my friends, you believe that what is true is only what can be verified in a laboratory; that what is good is only what is useful, functional, and productive; that what is beautiful is only what I want, what I need, what I find convenient, what I consider helpful to reach my goals; that the divine is no longer “Thee” but “me,” well, it is no surprise that an innocent baby in the womb could be deemed useless and inconvenient, that grandma dying slowly yet naturally would be thought a burden and annoyance, that a refugee would be caricatured as a rapist, a terrorist, a drug-runner.
To reclaim the truth of the human person, with its liberating and uplifting logical corollary of human dignity and the sacredness of all life, let me hold up the example of a man who displayed the “power of one,” Detective Stephen McDonald, whom all of New York mourned as we buried him from St. Patrick’s Cathedral just two years ago.
In September 1986, Stephen, a handsome, strapping twenty-nine year old third generation New York cop, passionately in love with his beautiful wife of six months, Patty Ann, three-months pregnant with their first baby, was shot three times in the back by a fifteen-year old boy who had stolen a bike in Central Park.
For months he struggled to live. When finally removed from ICU after three months, he was told he was paralyzed from the neck down, never again able to breathe, eat, drink or move on his own. His first public words, proclaimed by his wife Patty, since Stephen could only whisper, were addressed to his assailant, “I forgive you!”
Three bullets did not kill his body; those three words showed that neither would it kill his soul. He would later explain, in classrooms, assemblies, dinners, to cops, criminals, and families angry at those who had taken the life of one they love, that anger, violence, resentment, hatred, and revenge would kill more effectively than those three bullets. When his assailant went before the parole board, guess who testified on his behalf? When the shooter admitted he had no place to stay if he were granted parole, it was Stephen and Patty who spoke-up, “He can live with us.”
In the eyes of a purely pragmatic, utilitarian, empirical, economically driven world, Stephen McDonald was useless, unproductive, inconvenient, a burden to himself, his family, to society. Stephen would himself confess that he was tempted to conclude this in his first months of helpless struggle to recover, at times wishing he would die.
But, in the eyes of his wife, he was her husband, whose love did not depend upon the physical but upon a bond not verifiable under a microscope;
To Conor, his son, who never knew his dad without a wheelchair, and who is today a police officer, his love for his dad did not depend upon his ability to throw a baseball, cut the grass, or bring home the bacon, but came from an identity based on who he was, – – his dad, – – not what he had or could not do.
To the New York Police Department, which kept him on fulltime, Stephen’s value was hardly reduced to his ability to pull a pistol or write a ticket, but to be a true “justice of the peace” in his accompaniment of wounded fellow cops, his encouragement to families of police officers killed in duty, his lectures to new recruits on how desire for revenge or the motive of anger never works, in his hours of reconciliation sessions between victims and perpetrators, in his prison visits, he accomplished more than many others on the beat wearing badges.
And to a world tempted to believe religion an opiate, and faith a superstition, Stephen showed a hope and love which he insisted only came from a soul in daily union with the Lord, nurtured by prayer, the sacraments, and the fortification of his Catholic faith. So often would Stephen call his parish priest at 2 a.m., telling him he couldn’t sleep, and asking if the pastor could go over to open the church so he could be driven up by Patty to pray, that the priest finally gave him the key!
Behold the “power of one.” Behold the consequences of ideas translated into beliefs, grounded in faith; behold a life many today would consider a waste, an inconvenience, a burden, transformed into an icon of reconciliation and love.
As Detective McDonald often remarked, “The value of life depends not on what you have or what you can do, but on who you are: A child of God, made in His image, destined for eternity, put here for a purpose, an identity made the stronger the more it is tested.”
Perhaps it was Stephen whom Cardinal O’Connor had in mind when he wrote, “Each one of us is an unrepeatable act of God, each one brought into being for a specific purpose, a purpose that will not be carried out by anybody else. It is this person’s mission. This makes every human being, at every inch of life’s journey, sacred and inviolable.”
Am I perhaps being too theological, too spiritual, too “Catholic” here?
The patriarch whose birthday the nation will observe Monday would tell me, “No Brother Timothy, you are not.”
About a year ago, on the Amtrak back to New York, I sat next to the Reverend Jesse Jackson. I asked him about Martin Luther King. He was happy to tell me.
“Martin’s preferred title was not ‘Doctor’ but ‘Reverend.’ He saw himself first as a pastor, a preacher, a minister. His civil rights crusade did not come just from the law or from economics, but from what God had revealed to us about Himself [God] and ourselves. We are made in His image and likeness. We thus treat ourselves and others with reverence, justice, equality, and respect.”
The cardinal again: “We have to keep an appreciation of being, of the fact that we are. All being is made in the image and likeness of God. Today there seems a contempt for being, a preference for having and doing. The genuine reason we have this pro-life movement is because we have an awesome sense of the sacredness of being, which cannot be trumped by the exigencies of having and doing.”
His pro-life credentials, like those of the Reverend King, did not exclude a burning solicitude for the sick, the poor, the underpaid laborer, the immigrant, the dying, the person on death row, the minorities, the oppressed, the war-torn. You may know that he was of the earliest advocates for those afflicted with AIDS, urging a compassionate and non-judgmental approach, opening the first and now largest AIDS treatment facilities at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Center, and himself spending Wednesday afternoons caring for them.
But he would insist that, if we get it wrong in ignoring the civil rights of the pre-born, we’ll sure have a tough time promoting the others with integrity and forcefulness.
Pope Francis would agree. In his letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life of just two weeks ago, the Holy Father describes what he calls “the paradox of ‘progress.’ ”
How can those who consider themselves “progressive,” or “humanists,” he wondered, advance a cause that would trample the right to life of the baby in the womb? As he asked elswhere, “How can an act that suppresses an innocent and helpless life as it blossoms in the womb be thought therapeutic, civil, or simply humane.” This is hardly progress. A genuine progressivism always advocates for the weakest, the most vulnerable, those with no one to defend them. A sincere progressive, in our American tradition, would accompany and support a pregnant woman and new mom, and advocate for the baby.
Pope Francis has often expressed anxiety that, the older we get, the more fatigued we become in what St. Paul calls “fighting the good fight.” Weariness sets it . . .
Such can be the case for those of us who have been fighting for the human rights of the pre-born baby since January 22, 1973. The antidote Pope Francis prescribes? You!
As he said to the youth in Rio de Janeiro, and as most likely he will repeat to the youth of the world gathered this week in Panama, “Do us a favor; do your duty! Keep the dream alive.”
The journalist David Brooks holds that a humane, prosperous, vibrant culture has to have both memory and dreams.
John Cardinal O’Connor had a dream; Reverend Martin Luther King had a dream; I have one; so do you. Mine might fade a bit at times. Not this morning. Not as I look out at you.
For as the prophet Habakkuk encourages, “For the dream awaits its appointed time. It hastens to the end – – it will not let us down; if it seems slow, await it; it will surely come. It will not disappoint.”