Cardinal Sean O’Malley. (From flickr user BostonCatholic).

Cardinal Séan O’Malley of Boston informed the Boston College community this week that he will not attend commencement exercises because of a controversial honoree.

O’Malley, head of the Catholic bishops’s committee on life issues, said that conferring an honorary degree on Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny was inappropriate for the Jesuit institution given the lawmaker’s vocal support for abortion rights. Ireland is debating expanded access to legalized abortion after a woman died last year when doctors refused performing an abortion, a procedure that may have saved her life.

On his blog, O’Malley wrote:

Since the university has not withdrawn the invitation and because the Taoiseach [prime minister] has not seen fit to decline, I shall not attend the graduation. It is my ardent hope that Boston College will work to redress the confusion, disappointment and harm caused by not adhering to the Bishops’ directives.

Boston College said the invitation was “independent” of Kenny’s support for abortion legislation. US bishops have directed Catholic institutions not to honor those who support abortion rights in the public square.

Ireland’s Prime Minister, Enda Kenny (from flickr user MayoToday).

Battles between Catholic universities and bishops are but another sign of spring these days.

In 2009, Notre Dame University, the nation’s flagship Catholic university, conferred an honorary degree on President Barack Obama. The decision drew ire from conservative Catholics and the Bishop of Fort Wayne, the diocese in which Notre Dame is located, declined to attend. The school’s president said at the time that the invitation:

“should not be taken as condoning or endorsing his positions on specific issues regarding the protection of human life, including abortion and embryonic stem-cell research,” said Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame. “Yet, we see his visit as a basis for further positive engagement.”

Vicki Kennedy (from flickr user Martha Coakley).

Last year, a small Catholic college in Massachusetts, Anna Maria College, invited Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Senator Ted Kennedy, to speak at commencement. The local bishop, Robert McManus, asked the school to rescind the invitation, given Kennedy’s views on abortion, and it complied (though Kennedy spoke on campus later in the year). Kennedy expressed her hurt:

I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office, nor am I a candidate for public office. I have not met Bishop McManus nor has he been willing to meet with me to discuss his objections. He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith, yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College, he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.

The right-wing Cardinal Newman Society, which tracks Catholic colleges and universities for signs of unorthodoxy, reports that in 2013, “there appear to be fewer scandals than in past years with Catholic colleges giving places of honor or inviting speakers who oppose Catholic teaching,” but offers a list of “speakers of concern.” Joining Ireland’s Kenny on the list:

  • the wife of Rep. John Dingell, Debbie;
  • the director of San Francisco’s Department of Health, included because of her sexuality;
  • and former director of the CIA Leon Panetta. Interestingly, Panetta is included not because of issues related to war, drones, or torture, but because of his support for abortion rights as a member of Congress in the 1980s.

At Religion & Politics, Catholic writer John Gehring wonders what happened to the common goal of reducing instances of abortion, an ideal once shared by both pro-choice and pro-life activists. It’s worth asking, are bishops who boycott commencement activities because of abortion politics advancing this goal, or simply drawing a line in the sand? If they’re not at the table, so to speak, how can Catholic prelates influence the conversation? And finally, does preventing Catholic institutions from recognizing the good work done to promote social justice in one area because of divergent views on abortion do more harm than good in advancing the common good?

Categories: Beliefs, Culture, Institutions


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Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O'Loughlin

Michael J. O’Loughlin writes about religion and politics from Washington, D.C., paying close attention to the role of the Catholic Church in public life. His writing has appeared in Religion & Politics, the Jesuit magazine America, on, and in Duke Divinity School’s Faith & Leadership.


  1. At the moment of conception, that first cell has the DNA of homo sapiens that is different than that of the egg producer or the sperm donor. When that fertilized egg implants itself, it is, in effect, a foreign object surrounded by her body. And because it has the DNA of a human, it is entitled to respect.

    Common Law has historically given priority to the value of human life over most everything. Shoot a burglar in the back as he is running away, and the law will hold you responsible for the burglar’s death. That is to say that whatever the value of the property which was stolen from you does not give you the right to value property over the life of the burglar who stole it from you.

    The archaic phrase “with child” does great job of defining what is going on. The word “with” infers proximity, but not incorporation. One does not say “with liver,” or “with lung” because those are organs that are incorporated into your body. So, to be “with child” is to be distinct from it but very proximate.

    Catholic politicians have faced a dilemma with regard to the question of abortion. They wanted to keep the Catholic vote and at least not alienate the secular vote. A typical politician might say “I personally am pro-life, but I respect the right of a woman to choose.” And they got a pass
    In the early days after the Roe v. Wade decision. there were various criteria for determining if a fetus was a human being., i.e., “with a heartbeat,” “when the baby quickens,” “brain waves.” were mentioned at various times.

    However, with the gain in knowledge of DNA, the question of being human becomes moot. The first cell that is formed when the sperm and egg merge has the DNA of homo sapiens, and when the fertilized egg implants itself, then the mother-to-be is said to be “with child.” The child’s rights have to be respected; They were in history, and it is only fairly recently that they were ignored.

    The elephant in the room with regard to abortions is the money involved. The latest available figures from the CDC estimate that there have been 55 million abortions since the aberrant Roe v. Wade decision. The peak was in 1990 when there were 1.6 million. It has allegedly leveled off at 1.2 million. Price of abortions range from about $200 to $4,000. I haven’t been able to why the higher number, but assume it has to do with complications. I have actually observed first-trimester abortions a couple of decades ago. As by surgical definitions, simple abortions are not considered invasive–the bloodstream is not compromised.

    Comparison to a tooth extraction would probably be valid. Such procedures do not require as extensive a clean-up as more involved procedures. While I was observing, they were able to perform 5-6 per hour..

    Performing abortions is extremely lucrative. After some research, I concluded that a conservative estimate of average cost would be about $450. Simple multiplication for 1.2 million of them leads us to the figure of $540,000,000–more than half a billion dollars. I am not sure where the taxpayer money that goes to Planned Parenthood fits in.

    In the current atmosphere where the word “trillions” is bandied about, half a billion may sould like chump change, and indeed, in comparison to the money that flows for normal delivery, it is relatively small.

    But consider that the half-billion is divided among a relatively small number of people; The profit margins are really good. Abortions require very little equipment, may be performed in an office, minimal staffing requirements, relatively low malpractice insurance. In short, high turnover with big profit margins. A competent can make a very healthy living, and still make his 1 o’clock tee time.

    And, of course, abortionists are capable of making health contribution to the campaign funds of friendly politicians. ,

  2. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh

    As a Catholic physician, I believe that abortion is the taking of a vulnerable human life.

    Although I am pro-life, I also believe that I must respect a pregnant woman’s decision to have an abortion. It is a very personal decision made between a woman, her doctor, her God, and the man who made her pregnant (if he is still around).

    I may be considered pro-choice because I believe that only the pregnant woman should have the final say on whether to have her pregnancy terminated. I also believe that a pregnant woman’s threat of suicide needs to be taken seriously in all circumstances.

    Life is messy and Cardinal O’Malley is standing up for the church’s position, which is to be respected.

    Prime Minister Kenny of Ireland is standing up for the woman’s position, which is too often ignored. Prime Minister Kenny’s position is also to be respected, in my view. I thank Prime Minister Kenny for his courage in standing up for the rights of women to have a voice in a matter that mainly concerns them and their future.

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, Illinois

    • Your position is theological, not scientific. Obviously, there is a built-in conflict between the ancient mythologies of religion and the massive realties of scientific knowledge, but you are totally disregarding the difference and the conflict when you choose theology over the science of your income-earning profession.

  3. Sean O’Malley must side with the dictated theology of his church, even when it comes to a Jesuit college recognizing with due admiration the superb work Enda Kenny for exposing the filthy sexual abuse of Irish kids by the clergy of O’Malley’s Catholic church. The Irish situation was every bit as bad as that of O’Malley’s predecessor in Boston, Bernard Law, who was whisked away from U.S. justice by John Paul to the legal safety of Rome. Proving his contempt for U.S. justice and the raped kids even more, and ignoring the outrageous sins of Law, John Paul then honored him by installing him as archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome.

    There should not a a single lay person warming a pew of any Catholic church because of the sins and crimes of their clergy. O’Malley has now joined the Vatican in virtually defending those sins and crimes of Catholic clergy. What is most obnoxious about all this is that O’Malley prostrated himself in the Dublin cathedral with the archbishop of that diocese in a pretense of concern for the sins of the clergy of his church. What a hypocrite! What a forked tongue! The lay people of Boston should have the authority to remove O’Malley for this hideous hypocrisy!

    Is O’Malley any different than John Paul and Benedict who bestowed all kinds of honors on him? Those men certainly knew their choices when they advanced clergy in the hierarchy. The Vatican and its clerics are all talk, all show, but they continue to prove their duplicitous contempt for the sanctity of lay people, especially innocent, defenseless, young people who were raped by priests and bishops. O’Malley is a hypocrite, no different than the sexual abusing clergy, because he defends their sins and crimes by snubbing Boston College and Enda Kenny! You can be sure there was thorough communication between O’Malley and the Vatican before he made his disgusting choice. Good that such a cleric will not be there to stain the commencement exercises!

  4. It is disastrous for a Catholic institution of higher learning such as Boston College to honor and give a platform to Prime Minister Enda Kenny who is currently forcing abortion on the Irish nation. For shame. Sign your protest to Boston College now — here:

  5. As for the Cardinal Newman Society tracking the orthodoxy of Catholic higher education, it’s nothing but a partner of the male antiquity of the Catholic clergy, so many of whom, like Sean O’Malley, seem to be convinced that they have a right to dictate everything that members of the church think and believe when it comes to faith and morals. That makes nothing more than automatons out of all “believers.”

    Those days are gone forever, whether the Vatican, its popes, any hierarchy, or the Cardinal Newman Society want to recognize or accept it. It’s a throwback to a Dark Age mentality when wealthy, politically influential males bossed everyone else. It has nothing to do with Jesus, “The Model of the Holy.”

    The Cardinal Newman Society is a remnant of catechism days, and it has nothing to do with Henry Newman. That Anglican priest who moved over to Rome was a thinker, and it was his independent thinking that led him along the road of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England from which he ended up in Rome. The Vatican saw a chance of making religious notoriety out of that, hoping to attract more, by dressing that good, independent thinking Anglican/Roman priest in red. That’s plain religious/church politics.

    John Paul and Benedict followed suit after many Anglicans became disgruntled over the ordination of women and openly gay people. They enticed Anglicans to move over to the Catholic Church with all kinds of indults like married clergy and their historic rituals. Admirable practice of ecumenism, right? Almost like street walking.

    On the other hand, it’s a charade of the recognition of the sacredness of conscience and the respect it deserves as declared by Vatican II. Those two popes who worked so hard at “reforming the reform” were very ready to respect independence of thought and the subsequent formation of beliefs that they refused to their own. John Paul even had a “Catechism of the Catholic Church” produced. Enticements to “convert,” other than the saving grace proclaimed by Jesus–which Newman and later members of his church already possessed–did seem like payment to “women of the night.” By celibate clergy yet!

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