Sr. Deirdre Mary Byrne speaks during the Republican National Convention Aug. 26. CNS photo/Republican National Convention, Handout via Reuters

Charles Lewis: Partisan speech treads dangerous waters

  • September 16, 2020

Sr. Deirdre Byrne is a remarkable woman. Many of you have heard her life story because of the address she gave to the Republican National Convention in August.

She has done much good in the world — far more than most of us. She is clearly a selfless woman. But in front of the convention she made a serious mistake. Not something to erase all the good she has done, but a big misstep nonetheless.

Criticizing her is not easy given the life she has life she has lived.

“My journey to religious life was not a traditional route, if there is such a thing,” she told the GOP in her speech. “In 1978, as a medical school student at Georgetown University, I joined the Army to help pay for my tuition and ended up devoting 29 years to the military, serving as a doctor and a surgeon in places like Afghanistan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. After much prayer and contemplation, I entered my religious order in 2002, working to serve the poor and the sick in Haiti, Sudan, Kenya, Iraq and in Washington, D.C.”

But then, unfortunately, she added this: “President Trump has earned the support of America’s pro-life community. Moreover, he has a nationwide of religious standing behind him. You’ll find us here with our weapon of choice, the rosary. Thank you, Mr. President, we are all praying for you.”

By speaking at the Republican convention as a partisan she has created division in the Catholic community — something that should have been avoided.

There are many Catholics and other Christians who would agree with Sr. Deirdre that Trump is a pro-life hero. It was the evangelical Christian vote that propelled him into the White House in 2016. They forgave him his personal moral failing because he promised to appoint conservative judges who might eventually allow for stricter anti-abortion laws and even overturn Roe v. Wade.

But not every pro-life American supports Trump. Many see inconsistency in his pro-life stance by focusing entirely on the unborn while turning his back on others, such as the so-called Dreamers — a group that came to the country as babies or tots when their parents crossed the border illegally. Trump thinks they should be deported to lands they do not know — places where they do not know the language — because of the sins of their parents. Some might say this is not pro-life.

Take a look at the website Democrats for Life to get a taste of the pro-life argument against Trump. These are sincere Christians who want an end to abortion but think Trump’s negatives outweigh his positives. They see supporting Trump solely for his anti-abortion views as using the means to justify the ends — something Catholics are supposed to avoid.

The point is there is no unified support for Trump or his Democratic opponent in our faith community. So if Sr. Deirdre threw her support behind Joe Biden I would be writing the same column.

St. Pope John Paul II spoke about partisanship in reference to priests but I believe it also applies to women religious whose main tasks are to be a beacon of Christ’s love through prayer and works and a doorway to salvation for all.

He said a priest “ought to refrain from actively engaging himself in politics in order to be a central point of spiritual fraternity.” In other words, to refrain from anything that causes a rift to Christian unity.

New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan also spoke at the convention but his words were not that of a partisan but as a religious leader praying for all citizens of his country. He never used Trump’s name. And in fact he asked the Republicans to pray for immigrants and refugees — a line that likely caused some discomfort to a party that has become less welcoming to “the other.”

He struck the right tone. He spoke to all Americans. Nothing he said would set Catholics to arguing.

Politics in the United States has become a dirty business. Neither side respects the other. Where there used to be civil debate there is now shouting and accusation — even calling into question one’s patriotism.

I grew up in the States and I do not remember it ever being so ugly. It is times like these when women religious and priests and bishops should be healers, not dividers.

Neither Trump nor Biden, but Christ.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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