E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer May 22, 2011

Sometimes we learn more from the dogs that don’t bark and the wheels that don’t squeak.

It’s likely you didn’t hear much about the controversy over House Speaker John Boehner’s recent commencement speech at Catholic University. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that Boehner’s critics were civil and respectful. The media, it turns out, don’t cover you much if you are civil and respectful. This would be the same media that regularly disparage incivility and divisiveness in politics.

E.J. Dionne writes about politics in a twice-weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog. He is also a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics for National Public Radio, ABC’s “This Week” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” View Archive

And the story broke from the stereotypical narrative the media like to impose on Christians in general, and Catholics in particular. If the headline is “Conservative Catholics Denounce Liberal Politician on Abortion,” all the boilerplate is at the ready. But when the headline is “Catholic Progressives Challenge Conservative Politician on Social Justice,” this is something new and complicated. It’s far easier to write the 10th story of the week about Newt Gingrich.

Oh yes, and there is also a problem for those bishops who barely murmur when a Catholic politician departs from the church’s teachings on social justice but think that even the mildest deviation on abortion is enough to keep a public figure off a Catholic campus. As a result, they feed the distorted media narrative about what the church believes.

Here’s the background: This year, Catholic University invited Boehner to give the address at its May 14 commencement, and why not? Boehner is Catholic, and universities like to get famous people to give such speeches. Notre Dame was similarly proud in 2009 when it snagged President Obama as its commencement speaker.

But a group of Catholic academics, including some leading members of the Catholic University faculty, decided Boehner’s visit was a useful moment to remind him and everyone else about Catholicism’s strong instructions about our duty to the poor and government’s responsibility to promote social justice.

The anti-abortion Notre Dame protesters shouted in fury at the university and insisted that the president should not even have had a chance to speak at a Catholic institution. Boehner’s critics, in sharp contrast, were respectful and never said he didn’t belong there. The opening paragraph of their letter welcomed the speaker — and also served as a not-so-subtle poke at the Notre Dame rejectionists and the bishops who supported them.

“We congratulate you on the occasion of your commencement address to The Catholic University of America,” they wrote. “It is good for Catholic universities to host and engage the thoughts of powerful public figures, even Catholics such as yourself who fail to recognize (whether out of a lack of awareness or dissent) important aspects of Catholic teaching.”

The rest of the letter was tough. “From the apostles to the present,” the professors wrote, “the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” They added: “Your record in support of legislation to address the desperate needs of the poor is among the worst in Congress.”

The letter specifically condemned the House-passed Ryan budget, arguing that it “guts long-established protections for the most vulnerable members of society.” It cited the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ strong criticisms of the GOP plan (since softened by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the conference president). “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons,” wrote bishops Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., and Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif. Pointedly, the Catholic academics said the budget had “anti-life implications,” including its cuts to the Women, Infants, and Children program.

For their efforts, the professors got nothing like the avalanche of attention let loose by the far angrier anti-Obama Notre Dame protesters. As for Boehner, his address went off peacefully. He offered a sweet-natured, non-political talk about the power of “humility, patience and faith,” complete with references to the Blessed Mother, the Hail Mary prayer and the speaker’s intrepid Catholic high school football coach.

It was perfectly fitting that Boehner gave his speech at Catholic, just as it was appropriate for Obama to address the graduates at Notre Dame. So what should we learn?

Bishops and right-wingers should stop trying to drive speakers away from Catholic campuses. Confidence in the truth of the church’s teachings should make its institutions more, not less, open to reasoned dialogue and conversation.

The media should note that Catholicism has a lot to say, not just about abortion but also about justice and compassion. And the Catholic professors just might force journalists to ponder whether they actually punish the civility they routinely and lavishly praise.

ejdionne@washpost.com