Monday, July 22, 2013

Testing the Cardinal's Guts

God give me the strength to explain this clearly.

Cardinal O’Boyle was an extraordinary man, but one of his best moments is generally forgotten, and when it is remembered, it is more often than not by people who resented what he did.  In August, 50 years ago, he threw away a large portion of his fan club, because he had to get a job done.  The civil rights movement was wrestling toward real strength, but could still be undermined and destroyed from within.  He saw the threat, confronted it, and prevailed – pretty much alone – and he was reviled for it.

The problem was violence within the civil rights movement.  To this day, after the world has seen nonviolence prevail in Gandhi’s India, in the American civil rights movement, in Solidarity’s Poland, in Aquino’s Philippines, in Mandela’s South Africa – still! still! after a list of stunning victories – most people are blissfully ignorant about how this thing works, totally unaware of the fragility of a campaign of nonviolence.  A huge campaign of nonviolence can be destroyed from within, by violence within.

Years ago, there was a great movie produced about Gandhi, entitled simply Gandhi.  In it, there’s a scene in which the British governor is confronted by civil disobedience all over the country, and asks a subordinate if there has been any violence.  The officer goes over a very short list of incidents in which the police had cracked a few heads.  No, stupid, the governor responds contemptuously, I’m asking about violence on the Indian side!  The officer responds with some embarrassment that there has not been a single incident of violence among Gandhi’s followers.  This is a disaster for the British rulers.  A little violence amongst the Indians would justify a military response.  They didn’t need much violence, but they needed a little, and Gandhi’s campaign had maintained discipline nationwide.  One incident of violence on the Indian side would have been a sweet gift to the British rulers, a bitter defeat in India’s drive toward independence.

One generation later, O’Boyle showed that he had absorbed the lessons from India.  When the March on Washington was taking shape, there was a broad coalition making things happen, and some of them were ready for riot – or at least ready to threaten riots.  One of the speakers for the event was a young hero, a courageous leader, articulate and fiery John Lewis.  He had led lunch-counter sit-ins in Nashville in 1960, and he had been one of the Freedom Riders in 1961.  In 1963, Lewis became the chairman of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  Now he was on his way to Washington, and he had earned a spot on the program.  But in the speech he had prepared, he seemed to threaten that if nonviolence failed, civil rights activists would move on to violence.  (And in fact, in 1969, after King’s assassination, SNCC changed its name, replacing “Nonviolent” with “National.”)

O’Boyle confronted the challenge, and demanded that Lewis tone his words down.  O’Boyle had desegregated the Catholic churches of Washington, and he understood how poisonous a threat could be.  O’Boyle had the credibility to intervene, and he prevailed.  Had he not done so, it is possible that Lewis would have dominated the event.  It was possible that Lewis’s threat would have overshadowed King’s dream.  If O’Boyle had not made Lewis back off a little, the whole event, King’s speech included, could have disappeared into the sands of history.  Sure, historians would remember that there was a march, but no one would remember or celebrate the transformative spirit of that great day.

Years later, Lewis was still annoyed at the arrogance of that white guy who demanded moderation in the middle of a revolution.

But the list of nonviolent campaigns that have failed is far, far longer than the list of campaigns that have succeeded.  A campaign of nonviolence cannot be destroyed from outside; you can kill every single participant, and still their blood cries out eloquently from the grave.  But from within, it doesn’t take much violence to poison the whole body.

I make this claim based in part on personal experience.  I helped to build a campaign of civil disobedience that was larger than King’s, if you measure by arrests.  But the campaign I was in turned sour and failed.  I helped build the rescue movement, protecting unborn children and their vulnerable mothers by a campaign of nonviolent action.  Gandhi said that nonviolence is never a failure: it is measured by fidelity, not results.  And even judging by the results, it had measurable success.  Not a total failure: we saved many lives.  Not a total failure: the story is not over yet.  But it was a campaign that involved hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands – and then disappeared. 

Many observers and even participants and even leaders would argue that the rescue movement was defeated by FACE, which increased the penalties for rescues dramatically.  That’s nonsense.  Are Americans congenitally weaker than Indians, Poles, Filipinos, South Africans?  We could have continued a campaign in the face of long jail terms.  But we could not continue when the violence in our midst scrubbed our claim to nonviolence.  In the 1990s, across the country, rescue leaders blurred the difference between violence and nonviolence. 

When one well known activist shot and killed an abortionist, pro-lifers tut-tutted; but not one leader had the grit, the guts, the self-sacrificial determination, to demand a solid front movement-wide against the drift into violence.  And the rescue movement sank into obscurity.

My hat is off to O’Boyle.  He was smart and tough and effective.  And when he was tested, he held his ground.

On August 28, remember Cardinal O’Boyle’s work, and celebrate his courage.  Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech fired the nation, and King deserves the credit he gets.  But remember that we met him astride the shoulders of giants, including Cardinal O’Boyle.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Remember Cardinal O’Boyle, and Celebrate!

Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle:
Stand firm in the faith!
Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle was a civil rights pioneer, and a strong voice for personal morality. In a time when the nation is so bitterly divided that we don’t expect Congress to pass a budget, let alone any other significant bill, we need a Church that is capable of love and justice.  It’s crazy when the right (pro-family, pro-morality) and left (pro-immigrant, pro-justice) wings of the Church attack each other!  Every single healthy bird on the planet has two wings!  Every single prophet in the history of the Church has called for morality and justice, both!  How did we get so polarized?  Can we stop it?

Recall Cardinal O’Boyle, and celebrate his work!

On August 28, the nation will mark the 50th anniversary of a great event in our history, the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  It was a great event in the midst of great change.  Understanding the speech matters.  It was about America, not about African Americans.  It was grounded solidly in Scripture (particularly Amos and Isaiah), not neutral secularism.  And it was a culmination of decades or labor, as well as a call to a new future.  It had roots – including the work of Cardinal O’Boyle.  When King spoke, honest observers across the country knew that desegregation without violence was possible – because O’Boyle had done it in his archdiocese. We should celebrate King’s speech, but not forget Cardinal O’Boyle!

O’Boyle was a civil rights pioneer.  After he was appointed as the first archbishop of the newly independent archdiocese, one of his first initiatives was to de-segregate the churches.  He worked hard to avoid publicity, because he thought the glare of cameras tempted people to adopt rigid postures, but he never stopped pressing.  He was a strong voice for justice.

He is also remembered for his determination to protect the Church’s clear teaching about human sexuality and family life.  In 1968, after Pope Paul VI published his encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, O’Boyle fought fiercely to ensure that Catholics in his archdiocese heard the teaching proclaimed without ambiguity or apology.  If sex and babies are unrelated, if sex is merely a game and babies are optional, then a deep aspect of human life is downgraded, women can become toys, and families can be smashed apart.  He saw clearly that the work of King could be undermined completely by a new assault on family life.
O’Boyle was a far-left liberal in 1967.  He was an ultra-right conservative in 1969.  Without moving.  Or (maybe) he was just an honest and consistent Catholic leader in a time of deep divisions.  

In August, remember his work!  Celebrate his life!  Embrace his vision!