‘In Lieu of Flowers, Please Send Funds for the Contras’

<i> Peter Steinfels, author of "The Neoconservatives," is editor of Commonweal magazine, an independent journal published by Catholic laypeople</i>

The battles that William J. Casey waged so tirelessly have accompanied him to the grave. When Bishop John McGann of Rockville Centre, N.Y., officiated at the funeral of the former Central Intelligence Agency director, the bishop set off a storm of protest by including in his eulogy a few sentences indicating that he and Casey had disagreed over support for the Nicaraguan contras. Last week, Catholic church officials in the Los Angeles Archdiocese canceled two strongly political eulogies and an appearance by a Marine color guard at a Beverly Hills church memorial service for Casey sponsored by more than two dozen conservative political groups. That didn’t prevent a hundred protesters from picketing the service and exchanging denunciations with those attending.

There are two ways of looking at this problem. One is that politics should never be injected into a religious service. In that case, the only question is, who started it? At a time when U.S. aid to the contras-- and Casey’s role in assuring that aid--were hot political topics, the word went out, in lieu of flowers please send funds to support the contras. The political character of the Beverly Hills service was even more deliberate. Were the bishop in Long Island and the protesters in California injecting politics into church services--or trying to neutralize the politics injected by Casey friends and backers?

There is a second, and better, way of looking at the problem--to recognize that politics and religion can never be fully separated. In fact, they shouldn’t be.


Consider the Casey funeral. Even if there had been no plea for sending money to the contras, could it have been nonpolitical? With the President and other dignitaries, including a contra leader, in attendance--to honor a life intensely and controversially political to its very end? Would it have been nonpolitical for the local bishop to pay respects to Casey with what one columnist called “a standard he-loved-God-and-country eulogy”?

With a man such as Casey there is just no getting away from the political. Nor should there be. It would be absurd to mark his passing with recollections of his private life, as husband, father and friend, and ignore his public role. And what’s true of Casey is also true of many less visible individuals. Religious faith calls us to community service, and that service quite commonly has political implications.

So the question becomes not whether to mix religion and politics but how. How should we a ) honor the political commitments that are often an important part of a religiously directed life, but at the same time b ) not let religious rites be manipulated for political ends and also c ) respect the consciences of those who may legitimately draw different political conclusions from the same religious faith?

This is a tough question. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been arguing these last few years about the involvement of fundamentalist groups in elections or about the Catholic bishops’ pastoral letters on nuclear arms and the economy.

But the question becomes even tougher when it involves honoring the dead. Few stories in Greek mythology grip the modern mind as strongly as Antigone, who defied the tyrant Creon to bury her rebel brother. Funeral services have been a kind of “free space,” where family wishes and personal views of the deceased must be respected. In societies where “free space” for political expression is restricted, funerals often become the rallying point for political causes, with religious reinforcement. One thinks of South Africa, or the 2 million Filipinos who followed Benigno Aquino’s casket.

Is there some simple rule covering religious participation in such politically charged ceremonies? In Northern Ireland, Catholic leaders have tried to keep the Irish Republican Army from “politicizing” funerals. Does that mean church officials should do the same in Poland with Solidarity? The two are sufficiently different to justify different responses.


Yet what about the United States, where political forums are not tightly controlled? The political dimensions of a political person certainly deserve religious commemoration, but rallying opinion for--or against--specific political views ought to be kept to those other available forums. Not long ago, a woman who had worked on behalf of the Nicaraguan poor was buried from a New York church. Certainly her work should be mentioned, but even close friends balked when some in the congregation tried to introduce a Sandinista refrain into the service. Of course, she was a relatively “private” individual. With an aggressive, embattled public figure like Casey, it is harder to draw the line between commemorating a public career in general and a set of policies in particular. Today, for example, no one is apt to draw large conclusions if friends of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy gather quietly at New York’s St. Patrick’s cathedral--as they do--for an annual Mass in his memory. But what if the event were larger and McCarthyism still a bitterly divisive issue?

All this suggests a few common-sense rules. Deference to the convictions of the deceased and wishes of family ought to be a leading consideration--but not the only one. When the political factor is unavoidably present, it ought to be kept in proportion: Religious faith may inspire or inform political activity, but it always remains larger. And when prayer or eulogy demands references to controversial political stances, those references should somehow acknowledge the possibility of conscientious disagreement among people of good will.

Look at the complete text of the homily spoken by Bishop McGann at Casey’s funeral. Of 121 lines, much in praise of Casey’s private charity and long public service, only 17 dealt with Central America and what McGann called “my fundamental disagreement . . . with a man I knew and respected.” Those five sentences suggested that if the former CIA director had a blind spot, it arose from his belief in “the fundamentally moral purpose of American actions.” And McGann immediately acknowledged that from “Bill’s” point of view, the U.S. Catholic bishops, too, must have a blind spot.

There are other ways the bishop could have fulfilled his multiple pastoral responsibilities--to honor the dead, console the grieving, maintain respect for the moral-political questions about U.S. policy raised by his fellow bishops, remain true to his own convictions and put everything in the larger perspective of divine love. He could have said a little more or a little less. But he certainly did more justice to the complex demands of the situation than have his critics.