Making peace with the Catholic pool lifeguard

Making peace with the Catholic pool lifeguard President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump visit St. John Paul II National Shrine on June 2, 2020, in Washington. Photo: Patrick Semansky
Letter from America


The late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

A Catholic equivalent might be that everyone is entitled to disagree with their bishop, but not to pretend he is not the bishop.

Some years ago, whilst on a speaking tour of the US during the presidential election, I happened to be at lunch with a bishop in one battleground state.

Just after ordering food, the bishop got a phone call from a local reporter seeking comment on news that one of the candidates, a Democrat with a pro-choice voting record, would be appearing the next day at the city’s major Catholic university.

Completely blindsided, the bishop quickly ended the call. He then shook his head in exasperation and asked: “How the Hell is this the first time I’m hearing about it?” This was a great question then, and it remains a great question today.


All this comes to mind in light of a controversy that erupted this week when Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington issued a stinging rebuke of a visit by President Donald Trump to the city’s Saint John Paul II National Shrine, calling it “baffling and reprehensible” that a Catholic facility would allow itself to be “egregiously misused and manipulated”.

The Archbishop’s objection was that less than a day before, police had used tear gas to clear away protestors outraged by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, so that President Trump could walk across the street from the White House to the Episcopal Church of St John in order to be photographed holding a Bible.

The heart of the story pivots on Archbishop Gregory’s assertion that a Catholic venue should not lend itself to such a photo-op versus critics, who charged it was Archbishop Gregory who politicised things by rebuking the President in a moment of national crisis.

However, there is a critically important footnote that has nothing to do with whether Archbishop Gregory, President Trump or any of the commentators were right on the substance of the dispute.

It has been widely reported that Archbishop Gregory was not informed of the visit until late Tuesday night of last week, when the White House issued a statement announcing it.

No one associated with the Shrine, including its owners the Knights of Columbus, apparently gave Archbishop Gregory a heads-up.

This seems to defy belief that officials at the shrine were not contacted prior to the announcement to discuss the logistical details. A statement from the shrine indicated that President Trump’s visit was originally envisioned as an opportunity to sign an executive order on religious freedom, suggesting it had been in the works for a while.

There had to be some gap of time, however small, in which Archbishop Gregory could have been alerted.

Although the shrine does not need Archbishop Gregory’s permission to host President Trump or anyone else, the Knights of Columbus – the world’s largest Catholic fraternal organisation – are not under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Washington.

There is a big difference, however, between asking permission and showing respect.

If you are a political advocacy organisation or a for-profit corporation, fine, do whatever you perceive to be in your self-interest.

If you are Catholic, however, then seeking the opinion of your local bishop, and being willing to make reasonable compromises in order to accommodate it, is just part of the deal.

To put the point differently, being part of the family matters at least as much as being right.

When Notre Dame decided to award an honorary doctorate to then President Barak Obama in 2009, for example, then-Bishop John D’Arcy of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend was caught off guard, which became an important part of the subtext in what happened next.

There are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the law of averages suggests they are not all going to be role models of enlightenment”

Of the dozens of American bishops who publicly objected to President Obama’s invitation, causing lasting heartache and anger on all sides, several said privately they were doing it less on the merits than out of solidarity with Bishop D’Arcy.

Had Notre Dame reached out to Bishop D’Arcy, or had the Knights reached out to Archbishop Gregory, things might have played out differently.

Perhaps they could have found a way to package those events so that the concerns of both the sponsor and the bishop were satisfied, and conflict avoided.

There are more than 5,000 Catholic bishops in the world, and the law of averages suggests they are not all going to be role models of enlightenment.

In those cases, an institution not dependent on that bishop is well within its’ rights to press ahead.

Still, you never know until you try, and no matter what happens, you will get points for having made the effort.

A legendary scholar at one of Rome’s pontifical universities, often called upon by religious orders to help them negotiate their relationships with the hierarchy, said he would always counsel them at least to notify the local bishop of what they were up to, and ideally to find a way to win his blessing.

“If you’re gonna swim in the Catholic pool,” he would say, “sooner or later you have to make your peace with the lifeguard.”

John L. Allen Jr is Editor of Crux.