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'Catholic unity... not politics'

N.J. Knights of Columbus State Convention
Wildwood, New Jersey
Saturday, May 14, 2005
Keynote speech by Raymond L. Flynn

"Catholic unity... not politics"

This past week, I was interviewed on NBC national news regarding a Saturday New York Times front page story entitled, "Vatican is said to force Jesuit off Magazine. Officials cite concerns over critical articles about church in the media". While the action taken by the Vatican drew a lot of the criticism by many toward the church hierarchy the controversy is certainly not new. Open criticism and dissent by Catholic clergy in the media against the church and its teachings has been going on for a long time. While dissent is quite normal in politics and a healthy thing in a democratic society, I don't believe it helps provide the unity that is critical which our Catholic Church needs today. Declining church enrollment was raised in the media as an example of a dysfunctional Catholic church.

They used this recent crackdown by the Vatican against some in the Catholic press as a reason why Catholics have been staying home for years. Certainly church attendance figures bear this out, but a careful review of attendance figures demonstrated that church attendance was higher when Catholic unity was present. Church attendance began to drop off when Catholic doctrinal values were ignored by clergy and kicked around in the media. Even certain secular journalists now think that they have every right to try and change Catholic teaching though intimidation and ridicule. Maybe if the media started reporting the news once again, instead of trying to make it, people would start reading newspapers once again.

Unfortunately, too many Catholic's have been afraid to stand up to these constant outrageous attacks. If you can't defend the message, attack and diminish the messenger; that's what the strategy has been by the critics and enemies of the Catholic Church. Catholic politicians especially have been afraid to stand up and be counted. They are afraid of the money and media interests and who will certainly come after them politically.

We must understand that it was division, dissent and confusion that drove many Catholics out of the church - not faithful priests and nuns. Now there is not much we can do to change the aggressive, sometimes anti-Catholic secular media culture, but there is something that Benedict XVI can do to reign in runaway theologians who appear regularly in the Catholic press. Make it clear that they don't speak for the Church; they are expressing their own opinion. They are entitled to their own opinion, but not their own truth.

Pope Benedict XVI is attempting to do something that is essential - bring unity within the ranks of Catholics. I'll bet you the more successful Benedict XVI is in achieving this unity; the more traditional young men will want to join the priesthood. "The more you present Christ faithfully, they're going to come", as Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said. Young people want to be part of something meaningful and true. For the good of the church, we must support the new pope's effort to restore Catholic unity.

His appointment of Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco to head up the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith sends a clear and important message to Catholics throughout the world. Unity will be a top priority. Archbishop Levada is a priest of enormous courage, compassion and ability. He will be clear in protecting and promoting the church's teachings on faith and morals. I have worked with him over the years in encouraging lay Catholics to get more involved in the civic life of their community. He prayed with us and he marched with us.

Upon my return from the Vatican recently, I participated on a panel sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington, D.C., entitled, Pope Benedict XVI and World Affairs. This distinguished group was asked to discuss Pope John Paul II's dramatic global influence and how Benedict XVI will carry forward this legacy of leadership. Specifically, the key question was, "How will the new pope position the Catholic Church as an actor on the world stage, particularly with respect to global issues such as the rise of militant Islam and Europe's dramatic secularism, as well as U.S. foreign policy priorities such as combating terrorism and promoting democracy?" These and other topics provided the audience insight into what other likely challenges the new pope may face.

I had been in Rome before Pope John Paul II died and was there for his funeral, the mourning period, the conclave, and finally the inaugural Mass of Benedict XVI. Most of the media gave Pope John Paul II's death, funeral, and legacy extensive positive and respectful coverage. Those who claim that the legacy of Pope John Paul II would be distorted and attacked after his death were proven wrong. The media and people of all political persuasions and faiths paid the highest public tribute to Pope John Paul II in hearing of his passing.

Even those who disagreed with him on certain important issues recognized that he was a man of deep moral conviction and was not afraid to speak the truth, even if it was not politically popular.

The political labels that people often place on moral leaders like Pope John Paul II, such as a conservative hardliner, are just plain wrong. The teachings of Jesus Christ are not liberal or conservative; not Democratic or Republican. They are rooted in the truth.

When the announcement was made that Joseph Cardinal Ratzigner of Germany was elected the new Supreme Pontiff, however, it was met with disappointment, surprise and even outrage by some in the media. I personally monitored the many international media accounts. Why were they surprised? Cardinal Ratzigner went into the conclave the leading candidate and came out a pope. But why the disappointment, and even outrage? If they had understood the mood of the people they would have realized that the extraordinary tribute and respect paid to Pope John Paul II by millions was a message to continue his policy for the next several years by Benedict XVI.

It was a perfectly logical and understandable decision even for those cardinal electors who earlier thought of voting for someone else. While some in the media tried to exploit the Hitler Youth story and called Pope Benedict XVI the "Panzer Pope," largely because he grew up in Germany during the Nazi regime, several prominent Jewish leaders effectively defused the situation with thoughtful and responsible public statement.

I told my fellow panelists in Washington, D.C., as I told the national TV audience from Rome, of a personal experience that I had in 1993, which I felt needed to be heard.

The last thing that President Bill Clinton said to me at The White House before I left to become U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See in 1993 was, "Peace in the Middle East is very important to our government." In fact, he even wrote it in a letter I would hand to Pope John Paul II in the next few days.

He said, "The Holy See does not have diplomatic relations with Israel. The pope and the Catholic Church can play a very important role in the peace process. The U.S. government encourages that these decades and generations of mistrust and division be ended."

Pope John Paul II personally told me that he agreed. Soon thereafter, the Holy See and Israel finally signed a formal agreement of diplomatic trust. The Holy Father informed me then that I should work with my counterpart, now Jean Louis Cardinal Tauran, at the Vatican Secretary of State's office. But what the Holy Father said next to me was something I reflected upon greatly while watching some Ratzigner critics trying to tear him down immediately after he was chosen pope.

Pope John Paul II said, "Raymond, Cardinal Ratzigner is also very concerned about this issue," (i.e., Catholic-Jewish relations) "you can talk with him. He'll be helpful." Well I did and he was, just as Pope John Paul II said. Cardinal Ratzigner told me, "We must build bridges of respect with our Jewish brothers." In fact, when I was honored by the American Jewish community later, I mentioned to them the encouragement and support the U.S. Government received from Joseph Cardinal Ratzigner. They also thanked Cardinal Ratzigner.

Some call Benedict XVI a conservative hardliner, but I found him to be a humble, holy, intelligent priest. A traditionalist, yes, but a fair man who will work hard to be everybody's pope. While witnessing the remarkable historic events recently, a question I kept asking myself was why are faithful Catholics always on the defensive?

Why, when millions of people were willing to stand in line for 18 hours for a six second view of John Paul as he lay in state, do we Catholics not recognize the important moral influence we could have on world opinion?

Why do we not take pride in the great charitable works we, both clergy and lay Catholics, perform daily throughout the world? The largest private provider of services for the poor in many parts of the world. Why do 1.6 million men follow the lead of Father Michael McGivney as Knights of Columbus and defend the faith and give of their time and money to assist the poor and needy? Many of these critical services benefit non-Catholics.

The reason I say this is while we have a life long pride in being Catholic yet today, because the media and the dissidents and yes, even some rogue clergy, we hide our pride and pretend like Peter that we don't know Christ.

Ladies and Gentlemen-Brother Knights, it is time we stood tall and recognize who we are, what we believe in and announce to those critics that we are not going to fall over and play dead any longer.

Like the Knights of old, we must fight the good fight and show the world we are loyal Catholics and that we have the courage and will to not tolerate the Catholic bashing any longer.

Remember, our efforts must be about Catholic unity... not politics.

Legendary coach Bud Wilkenson often said, "the best defense is a good offense."


Raymond L Flynn is former Ambassador to the Vatican, former 1st year President 'Your Catholic Voice', Mayor of Boston and best-selling author of The Accidental Pope and Pope John Paul II: A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man.

Phone- (617) 269-0909
Cell- (617) 817-0909
Fax- (617) 268-9113


Raymond L. Flynn CA, US
Raymond L. Flynn - Former Ambassador to the Vatican, 617 269-0909



Flynn, Catholic, Unity, Knights, Politics

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