Here I’m Not, Lord

Today, readers, we interrupt revisiting the Seven Deadly Sins to raise a question of great significance during this eventful week. Why did Archbishop Donald Wuerl, the highest-ranking Catholic eminence in the Washington, D.C. area, attend Wednesday’s ostentatiously diverse, mega-denominational prayer service at the National Cathedral for President Obama?

Granted, the fanfare was impressive – seats for 3,200 distinguished guests, twenty especially prominent religious leaders, heart-rending bursts of song, and a liturgy ranging from the latest rewritings of the Book of Common Prayer to “Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Cherokee sources, among others,” as The Washington Post put it. It’s also true that the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington traditionally leads a prayer at these august proceedings – which may for some observers render his presence there beyond question.

But the unique visibility of this event – which was presumably foremost in the minds of the archdiocesan officials who signed on to yesterday’s arrangements – also cuts another, more radical way. It means that a non-attending Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington would be missed, were he somehow to decline to appear. And that is exactly the point. He could have.

Why? As readers of TCT know well, our new president is the most unyielding, ideologically determined, and dogmatically pro-abortion leader yet to have assumed the highest office in our land. Our new vice-president is perhaps the most conspicuous practicing Catholic in the land, certainly such by his own repeated insistence, and is almost as conspicuous as our new president in his fidelity to the metaphysics of Roe vs. Wade.

The revamped White House website already boasts of the new administration’s arguably unrivalled support of Roe’s legacy, noting for example that Obama “has been a consistent champion of reproductive choice and will make preserving women’s rights under Roe v. Wade a priority in his Administration.” Nothing apparently interferes with this president’s dedication to this peculiar institution – not even the impressive datum that African-Americans are aborted at rates far higher even than whites.

In sum, the president’s support for abortion on demand is among the most consistent features of his relatively short political record, as is the vice-president’s stance a consistent feature of his own, much longer one.

So once again: why should the Archdiocese of Washington send its highest representative to Wednesday’s prayer service for this president and vice-president, thereby submitting to the new administration yet more evidence that our newly elected leaders will apparently exact no public penalty whatsoever – from anyone – as they labor to keep abortion safe, legal, and ubiquitous?

For even as the religious pageantry unrolled under a crisp blue sky and against the backdrop of the gorgeous National Cathedral (replete with “rabbis in yarmulkes, Catholic bishops in magenta vestments, Protestant pastors in suits, and female Hindu and Muslim leaders in colorful garb,” as the Post put it); even as diversity-conscious organizers painstakingly included representatives of almost every religious persuasion (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints inexplicably excepted, along with the apparently overlooked Buddhists and Sikhs); even as all that methodically implemented religious open-mindedness may have yielded a historic first, i.e., “many prayers mentioning no deity in particular”; even as all this transpired in the nave, a different pageant unfolding in downtown D.C. might also have benefited from a few second thoughts within the archdiocese.

Across the frozen countryside, in a January ritual that does not become less moving the more one sees of it, thousands of school buses from hither and yon were en route to D.C. that same morning. They arrived as they do each year for the pro-life march, of course – as the wit P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, the one and only protest on the National Mall whose members rally for a cause that is not in their own self-interest.

And what a “teachable moment” it might have been, had anyone at the youth gathering Thursday morning been able to make the point that pro-life religious leaders were standing up already to the new pro-abortion administration – say, by pointedly refusing to take part in ceremonies where their absence might teach more than their presence. Couldn’t someone have then spun a lesson that those adolescents, Catholic or not, would never forget?

Yes, we live in an increasingly secular, neo-pagan, even a-religious age. But since when does that mean that the Church is reduced always and everywhere to what Jeane Kirkpatrick once called (in another context) “pre-emptive capitulation”?

We don’t want to retreat from the public square or to engage in needless confrontation. But any number of monsignors or parish priests chosen at random, for example, would have been perfectly able to carry out the social and religious duties expected on Wednesday at the National Cathedral. Surely, any one of them could have answered well and truly when asked why no one higher up was in attendance. In short, absence as well as presence can be a sign. You might even call it a sign of contradiction – and one that this nation, both Catholic and otherwise, badly needs right this very moment.

Mary Eberstadt is a Senior Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and holds the Panula Chair at the Catholic Information Center. Her most recent book is Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.