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Exit Stage Left: Cardinal O'Malley's Fit of Pique

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Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley has withdrawn from the Boston College graduation rather than share the stage with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. He follows the lead of a few of his brother bishops like John D'Arcy, who did the same when President Obama was invited to Notre Dame's graduation in 2009.

Then, as now, it may be surprising that the commencement platform is such hotly contested real estate. There is something at stake with Kenny's appearance at Boston College, but O'Malley's focus on the abortion legislation introduced by Kenny's government is not it. At issue is the nature of a Catholic university, or, put another way, what kind of society we want our Catholic universities to exist in. These are the questions that engage students, graduates and citizens.

If the school has done its job, BC students have been exposed to many competing ideas and are perfectly capable of deciding what they agree with -- and what they don't. According to the Boston College website, the Catholic faith is "a 2,000-year-long conversation" and the Catholic university a place where "the most probing questions in every discipline are never deemed to be in opposition to faith but are welcomed into the conversation." The Catholic intellectual tradition is made up of a long line of argumentative scholars who would scoff at being protected from thorny political questions on graduation day -- or any other day.

The "scandal" -- in reality a controversy manufactured by a very small group, the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts (CALM) -- borders on the absurd. CALM mirrors the tactics of the Cardinal Newman Society, a self-appointed protector of Catholic higher education and the mastermind behind the Notre Dame petition against President Obama's appearance. Both groups employ a litmus test of Catholicism that demonstrates little love -- for learning or for one's neighbor.

Kenny's presence at the Boston event does raise one question: Should we expect Catholic politicians to listen to the bishops' voices or to legislate in the interests of all people?

In that respect, the women of Ireland could use more consideration from Prime Minister Kenny than is displayed in the very limited abortion legislation his government introduced. Case in point: the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old woman who was denied an abortion, has led Ireland to come face to face with what a society that bans abortion really means.

Still, the Irish abortion legislation that O'Malley finds so objectionable is the result of that triumph of civilization, the secular state. History shows that an unholy mixture of civil and religious authority inhibits everyone's religious freedom. John F. Kennedy assured America that as president he would not follow any direction but that of his own conscience when making policy decisions. Citizens of every country have a right to expect this commitment from their lawmakers. In Spain and Portugal, reproductive rights and LGBT rights have advanced because of the will of the people and the courage of legislators, and despite the vocal protests of the bishops. In the Philippines, the Reproductive Health Bill was pushed through by legislators, many of them Catholic, who saw it as their duty to serve the people, not the bishops.

O'Malley and his Irish counterpart, Cardinal Seán Brady, on the other hand, seek to publicly shame politicians for doing their jobs. We know Catholics hold a diversity of views about abortion. And when bishops intervene in political decisions it shows that they no longer have the ear of those they claim to pastor. Bishops who have lost their flocks are the ones denying communion, threatening excommunication or making petulant exits from graduation ceremonies. They seek to coerce consciences -- the antithesis of what we are taught is the Catholic way.

Catholic teachings affirm the importance of religious pluralism. Prime Minister Kenny's presence at the Boston College graduation is just the sort of conversation-starter that Catholic higher education needs. At best, Cardinal O'Malley's exit from the proceedings only touched off more debate among Catholic school students who have been well-prepared for the challenge.