Cardinal Farrell defends the faith

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Former bishop of Dallas, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, speaks at the Dallas March for Life on Jan. 16, 2016. Photo by Anthony Mazur.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, the Voices of Faith will be holding their annual conference, this year titled “Why Women Matter,” in the Aula of the Jesuit Curia just outside Vatican City, instead of in the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, where it has been held every March 8 since 2014.

The move is not inconspicuous; articles appearing in news publications reported that the reason for moving the event was Cardinal Kevin Farrell’s refusal to allow three speakers to give addresses at the conference, most prominently the keynote speaker Mary McAleese, the former president of Ireland.

When a prominent public figure gives a speech at an event hosted by the Vatican, it reasonably follows that the speaker should adhere to the conditions of respectful dialogue as practiced by the Church.

“A keynote speaker at an event taking place at the Vatican does not hold a particular magisterial authority because of the event, but the pope and his representatives have a serious duty to avoid the development of misunderstandings about Church teaching that might arise from the event,” John Norris, University of Dallas associate provost, wrote in an email.

“Yet, as Pope Francis has demonstrated in his career as priest, bishop, cardinal and pope, the church has the obligation to go out into the world to meet not only the faithful, but all human beings, where they are. This duty to enter in dialogue requires an openness to hear
what the other thinks and believes.”

This is a difficult balance to strike. On one hand, the Church should not authenticate speech that is antithetical to its teaching. On the other hand, the Church can and should listen to
myriad perspectives.

Francis has written eloquently on the subject of dialogue in his book “On Heaven and Earth” that records conversations he had when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires with Abraham Skorka, the rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires and the rabbi of the Jewish community Benei Tikva.

“Dialogue is born from a respectful attitude toward the other person, from a con-
viction that the other person has something good to say. It supposes that we can make room in our heart for their point of view, their opinion and their proposals. Dialogue involves a warm reception and not a preemptive condemnation. To dialogue, one must know how to lower the defenses, to open the doors of one’s home and to offer warmth.”

Skorka, quoting Proverbs, writes something similarly beautiful: “‘G-d’s candle is man’s soul which reveals the innermost parts of his being.’ In its most profound sense, to have a con-
versation is to bring one’s soul nearer to another’s in order to reveal and illuminate his or her core.”

Both the Catholic faith and the Jewish faith have the same disposition toward dialogue with others, even those we disagree with. These faith traditions tell us we should listen to others
without reservation or judgment.

This makes Farrell’s decision puzzling. I cannot presume to speak for Farrell, but the story as reported in a number of outlets suggests that his reasoning for barring McAleese was
simply that he did not agree with her controversial political views.

However, there may be more to the story than reports suggest. “America” reported that Jesuit Refugee Services had held discussions with Voices of Faith beginning in October 2017 because Casina Pio would not be available in 2018. Similarly, the National Catholic Review reported that Casina Pio was unavailable and that one of the Vatican’s only other facilities with the technological capability to host the Voices of Faith event was also unavailable.

If the venue was already known to be unavailable, why do reports suggest that Farrell’s decision was the impetus for removal? I do not believe it is far-fetched to think that there may be a political calculus behind these reports.

In 2015, on the eve of the Vatican’s Synod on the Family, McAleese said in an address at a meeting of the Global Network of Rainbow (LGBT) Catholics, “If I wanted expertise on the family, I honestly cannot say that the first thing that would come into my mind would be to call together 300 celibate males who, as far as we know, have never raised a child.”

That is not dialogue. It’s polemic.

And Farrell, although he has not expressed a specific reason for refusing to allow McAleese to speak, is certainly aware of the implications of opening the Vatican’s doors and infecting Church dialogue with invectives.

In difficult times, when politics are inflamed and the world is dangerous, the Church is a stronghold for a healthy sense of community. We can offer warmth and illuminate ourselves to each other without the fear of condemnation. A place like that should be defended.

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