Saturday, January 27, 2007

AmChurch dysfunction encapsulated

A reader sends the following story from Buffalo, NY. What is most striking about it, as he observes, is "the reaction of Catholics – people who supposedly believe that abortion and misuse of fetal stem cells is gravely sinful – who were nonetheless more scandalized by a deacon's rather brave exercise in fraternal correction than by the behavior of a putatively Catholic congressman. If you want a perfect capsulization of what is wrong with the Catholic Church in America, this is it."

The story is reported in an article by Mark Sommer, "Pulpit barb prompts walkout by Higgins," in The Buffalo News (January 24, 2007) [the story is archived after ten days].

Text of the original story follows, with commentary by the reader blocked in bold:
A deacon upbraided Rep. Brian Higgins [pictured right] during Sunday morning Mass in St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church for voting in favor of embryonic stem cell research, prompting the congressman and his family to walk out during the sermon.

The Rev. Art Smith, pastor of the South Buffalo church, said he felt "horrible" about the Higgins family's departure on "Respect Life Sunday" and offered an apology from the pulpit after the congressman had left.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo later issued a statement also criticizing Deacon Tom McDonnell's action.

"I can't tell you how terrible I felt," Smith said Tuesday. "While we have to always uphold the church's teachings regarding life, I don't think it's ever fair to publicly criticize someone who serves our community and our parish so well."
[The performance of Fr. Art Smith is painful to watch: he feels "horrible", he feels "terrible", he feels "so bad": he is practically bawling with shame – why?? Because a deacon did what he should have had to courage to do?]
Added Kmiec: "The pulpit is not the appropriate place for confronting a member of the congregation. 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."
[So how many one-on-one conversations with Higgins has Kmiec had on the subject of Catholic moral and social doctrine? Maybe the subject will come up at the next cocktail party.]
Higgins, who was baptized and married in that church, apologized for walking out with his wife, Mary Jane, and son John.

"I want to apologize to the good people of St. Thomas Aquinas Church," Higgins said. "They should not have been subjected to that, and they deserved much better."
[Perhaps he should apologize for his voting record on life issues.]
Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, said the family was on hand primarily because the Mass was being said in memory of Shirley Higgins, the late wife of close friend and former Erie County Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins (emphasis added).
[What else would a good Catholic be doing on Sunday mornings?]
"People were there because of Tom and his family and his wife," Higgins said. "And to use this as a forum to ruin that remembrance Mass was very, very unfortunate. I apologized to his family."
[What evidence does Higgins have that McDonnell spoke with the specific intention of "ruining" what Higgins apparently regards as a Higgins family affair under the auspices of St. Thomas Aquinas parish? Did the Higgins family rent out the parish, like a fire hall, or a VFW post, for a family function?? What does the word "remembrance" mean on Pro-Life Sunday?]
The congressman was less conciliatory toward the deacon.

"What he was doing here was trying to drive a wedge, and it was a cheap shot," Higgins said. "But it's what I do. I take hits [as a politician], and I accept that."
[Is the very idea that moral rectitude is not a matter of personal preference a "cheap shot"?]
McDonnell declined to comment on the incident.

Noreen Curr of South Buffalo was among the congregants who considered the criticism out of bounds.

"I thought what was said was inappropriate, because [Higgins] was there for other reasons," Curr said. "I felt bad that he left."
[How many reasons are there for a Catholic to attend Mass on Sunday?]
McDonnell's sermon called attention to a Jan. 11 vote in Congress, which Higgins supported, that would authorize research using embryonic stem cells. McDonnell noted that Higgins was in attendance and suggested that congregants could talk with him about his vote.
[Public accountability: what a "cheap shot"!]
The bill would allow federal funding for research involving stem cell lines derived from surplus embryos created in fertility clinics, of which 400,000 are frozen and otherwise would be thrown away as medical waste, Higgins said. Instead, he said, they can be used to promote potentially lifesaving research.

Smith, pastor of the Abbott Road church, said that there have been several phone calls expressing "disappointment and embarrassment" over what happened.

Smith said he spoke with McDonnell and planned to talk with him again. "I'm hoping the deacon will somehow express his regret . . ."
[Uh oh, dust off the iron maiden . . .]
. . . "He could have done the whole [sermon] without publicly embarrassing Brian."
[Which would have been far less effective and far less hypocritical, but fiddle-dee-dee to that.]
However, the deacon also took a swipe at Higgins over the same stem cell vote the day before in a 4 p.m. Mass, with Smith in attendance.

Smith said he felt uncomfortable over the deacon's remarks then, too. But he said he didn't expect McDonnell to repeat his criticism with Higgins in attendance Sunday.
[Fr. Smith is clearly in over his head as pastor -- he apparently thinks it would have been better to have spoken against Higgins behind his back.]
"This is not my way of doing things. It really isn't. I feel caught in the middle . . ."
[My career! My glorious career!]
". . . because I want to be supportive of both [Higgins and McDonnell]. I just feel so bad that it happened."
[If I were McDonnell, I would not bet the farm on Fr. Smith's "supportiveness."]
At a reception in Thomas Higgins' house after Sunday Mass, Smith was turned away at the door. "What happened was atrocious," Thomas Higgins said. "It wouldn't have done any good for him to come into the house, because people's feelings were so hurt." Smith said he regrets that the congressman was not treated the way Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., was when she attended a Labor Day Mass in the church in 2001 and was warmly welcomed by Bishop Henry J. Mansell despite her pro-choice position on abortion.
[Oh yes, we were so supportive and toadyish, she may even come back when she runs for president!!]
"What happened is so painful, so hurtful," Smith said. ". . . I wish that [spirit] would have prevailed on Sunday."
A few days after the foregoing incident, the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee recovered from the shock of this horrible, unconscionable breach of decorum and defended the deacon's actions, as reported by Mark Sommer, "Deacon hailed for pulpit blast at Higgins," The Buffalo News (January 25, 2007) [archived after ten days].
"God bless the deacon a thousand times. He did his job. If every bishop, every clergy member of all faiths did their jobs, we wouldn't have the shedding of innocent life in our country," said Stacey Vogel of the Buffalo Regional Right to Life Committee.
[Hat tip to R.D.D.]


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