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Cardinal Dolan on the Wrong Side of Many Catholics in St. Patrick's Day Parade Flap

Cardinal Dolan on the Wrong Side of Many Catholics in St. Patrick's Day Parade Flap

As regards St. Patrick’s Day, let’s be clear on a few things.

First, St. Patrick is the Catholic patron saint of Ireland. He is not a saint shared by other Christian communities (like the Apostles, for example). If non-Catholic Irish or others claim him, they’re borrowing him (not that he’d object, as he was a great evangelizer). March 17 is his saint’s feast day in the Catholic calendar. It’s celebrated in Ireland because most Irish have historically been Catholic, or at least since Patrick led the Christian conversion of the island.

Of course, not all Irish are Catholic, and that has always been the case, to one degree or another. But, as Catholic churches are open to all, Catholic feast days–which are celebrated throughout the worldwide Church–are publicly proclaimed, and sometimes non-Catholics participate in cultural or secular observances. But these have nothing to do with how the Church understands her saints, marks her feast days, outlines her doctrine, or conducts her worship.

Second, St. Patrick’s Day parades have celebrated not only Ireland’s faith but her general heritage and culture, by way of using a Catholic saint’s feast day. Theoretically, one could celebrate Irish heritage on any number of other days that are significant in the nation’s history (or in ways that don’t involve tacky accessories and alcohol-induced vomiting). So, whether anyone’s bothered by this or not, non-Irish and/or non-Catholics celebrating St. Patrick’s Day are appropriating something from another culture and/or another faith.

Third, no doubt there have always been gay marchers in St. Patrick’s Day parades, as there are gay Irish, faithful gay Catholics of various ethnicities, and gay folks who just like to show up for a parade.

So, the current controversy over the upcoming 2015 New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade illustrates a number of issues: the hijacking of a Catholic saint’s feast day for non-religious celebrations; the simultaneous honoring and degrading stereotyping of Irish culture every March 17; and the perils of the Church’s generosity in opening her doors and liturgical calendar.

Under pressure from NBC and corporate sponsors, the organizers of the parade–which are not affiliated with the Church, nor any longer directly with the New York chapter of the Irish-Catholic Ancient Order of Hibernians–have allowed a group representing LGBT NBC employees to march in the parade under a banner proclaiming their sexual orientation. There are reports that another LGBT activist group is petitioning for inclusion.

The independent parade organizers are within their rights to include whomever they want, but apparently they also want the imprimatur of the Catholic Church for what is essentially a secular celebration (and drinking festival).

To the dismay of many Catholics, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan–who never met a New Yorker he didn’t want to like him–is raising no opposition to the NBC group’s inclusion and will continue as the parade’s grand marshal.

In Dolan’s defense, while the Catholic Church considers same-sex attraction to be contrary to natural law–and forbids the faithful from engaging in any sexual activity outside of Holy Matrimony–it considers all people to be beloved children of God, with a common dignity and intrinsic value. Dolan’s pastoral goal may be to keep lines of communication open with all people and to be seen as welcoming to all New Yorkers.

But at the same time, for a Catholic, especially a bishop, to imply, even indirectly, an endorsement of same-sex acts (or any sex acts outside of traditional marriage) is a scandal to the faithful and contrary to Church teaching. And, despite those who take edited soundbites from Pope Francis out of context and run with them, that’s not a teaching that’s going to change.

Therefore, many feel that Cardinal Dolan is sending a confusing and contradictory message to members of his flock who honor Church doctrine and sometimes run risks by defending it. It’s especially confusing to faithful gay Catholics, who find little support in the larger society for adhering to their beliefs.

It’s useful to remember that Cardinal Dolan has no power to change Church teaching, even if he wanted to (and there’s no indication that he does). And this isn’t the first time that his efforts to be all things to all people have gotten him in hot water with the orthodox faithful, such as him not refusing to offer communion to pro-abortion Catholic Vice President Joe Biden, nor condemning adamantly pro-abortion and pro-gay-marriage Catholic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

On the other hand, Dolan vigorously opposed a vote to legalize same-sex marriage in New York State in 2012, and in 2013, affirmed the U.S. bishops’ opposition to the Obama administration’s HHS mandate to force insurance plans to include contraceptives and abortifacents (both of which are contrary to Church teaching).

And Dolan recently urged Pope Francis to be “more direct in calling for a thoughtful, moderate, temperate Islamic response” to violence against Christians in the Middle East (incidentally, at the same time, the Vatican announced that the pontiff is prepping a possible visit to the Turkey/Iraq border in November).

Catholics are left to wonder, what to do? Here’s a modest suggestion.

Cardinal Dolan can withdraw as grand marshal of the parade–as some have already called for him to do–and let organizers choose a secular figure to lead an event that, despite being inspired by a Catholic saint, long ago lost any direct connection to the Church (and is barely clinging on as a representation of Irish culture).

He can celebrate Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on that day but have no other involvement with the parade. In that way, as a Catholic prelate, Cardinal Dolan could observe the day in a manner proper to the Church, and let the rest of the city celebrate in its own way.

In an increasingly secular society, especially with so many people under pressure at work and in the public square for defending Catholic beliefs, it behooves a prominent cleric to make clear the distinction between what is of the Church and what is of the world.

The Feast Day of St. Patrick belongs only to the Church, but the green beer, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons, plastic leprechaun hats, and binge drinking belong to the world.

Let the world have them.

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