Thanks, E.J., for giving us a piece of your mind

Before another day passes, I want to express my appreciation to E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post Writers Group and the Brookings Institution, for delivering the 2011 Cardinal Bernardin lecture at USC last night.

Perhaps because he’s from my world, he spoke to me as no previous speaker has in the 12 years of the series — of faith and public life, particularly in the sense of how the Cardinal’s life and work relate to our existence today. So I thank him for that. I also thank all those who contributed to bringing about this event — the Department of Religious Studies, the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies, President Harris Pastides’ Civil Discourse Initiative, and Samuel Tenenbaum and the Tenenbaum Lectureship Fund.

For those of you who don’t know, Joseph Bernardin was a son of Italian immigrants who grew up here in Columbia, as a parishioner at my church, St. Peter’s. He would become the leading light of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the force behind such remarkable documents as “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.” He fostered the Church’s Common Ground Initiative, and his greatest legacy (to me) is placing the Church’s pro-life ethic within the compelling — and necessary — framework of the Seamless Garment — a legacy that, inexplicably to me, remains controversial, even anathema, among some. After becoming Archbishop of Chicago, he was widely regarded as a likely first American pope before his death of cancer in 1996 at the age of 68.

E.J. is that rare bird in the higher reaches of journalism who writes regularly of matters that bear upon ultimate questions (see, for instance, “The Vatican meets the Wall Street occupiers” from last week), and does so with an intellectual vigor that not only reflects credit upon his and my faith tradition, but shows what journalism is still capable of achieving at this late date. He knew the cardinal, and has long admired him.

Here’s a rough draft of his remarks. There are typos, and it is incomplete (entire anecdotes are missing), but it gives you an idea of what he had to say. An excerpt:

I want to close with something I have been pondering ever since the Spriritan fathers of Duquesne University asked me to give a talk about immigration. I was struck when I was preparing the talk how much both the Old and New Testament had to say about our obligations to strangers. Not to brothers or sisters or neighbors, but the strangers. And it made me think that perhaps our calling is really to create a world without strangers. Yes, that’s utopian and impractical and all sorts of other things. But it is a useful objective to ponder, a useful goal to keep in front of us. It is a world in which there is no “other,” no “them” or “those people,” just fellow citizens or fellow children of God or fellow human beings. It is a world in which we share each other’s joys and sorrows, each other’s benefits and burdens. It is a world in which the fortunate realize that their affluence depends not just on their own hard work and skill, but also on luck and providence. Often, simply, the good fortune of having been born in a particular place, to a particular family. We all owe so much of who we are to our parents and what they did for us. And not a single one of us can claim to have been wise or farsighted in our choice of parents. That truly was God’s choice, or for those who don’t believe, fate’s. And the same applies to the country in which we are born. We cannot praise ourselves for being really smart to have been born in the United States of America. A world without strangers would be a better world because all of us, everywhere, would feel at home all the time. In a world without strangers, we approach the new people we meet, anticipating the joys of friendship, not the anxieties of enmity. And yes, a world without strangers would be a world more likely to heed the injunction of the prophet Isaiah, to undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free. It would be a world more likely to resemble the place imagined by the prophet Amos, who, as Dr. King taught us in his “I Have a Dream” speech, imagined that justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I believe that Cardinal Bernardin spent his life trying to create a world without strangers. His mission to honor the dignity of every person was not just political but also personal. He provided us a model.  So let us live by his words: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

OK, that’s heavy, I know. Hey, it was the ending. Perhaps I can show you better the spirit of the way E.J. speaks with this ice-breaker from the beginning:

Whenever someone gives me an introduction that is far too generous, I like to note what it’s like to give talks about politics and be introduced with the words: “And now, for the latest dope from Washington, here’s E. J. Dionne.”

That’s E.J. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he approaches the most important issues with all the respect and reverence they deserve and demand.

I hope Kathryn Fenner and “Abba,” who were both there, will weigh in with their thoughts about the lecture. I had the impression that they found it meaningful as well.

24 thoughts on “Thanks, E.J., for giving us a piece of your mind

  1. Doug Ross

    We can’t achieve Dionnne’s objective of a world without strangers as long as we also expect to be the most powerful military force. We’ve killed plenty of “strangers”.

  2. Doug Ross

    “It is a world in which the fortunate realize that their affluence depends not just on their own hard work and skill, but also on luck and providence. Often, simply, the good fortune of having been born in a particular place, to a particular family.”

    There are enough examples of kids from good families going wrong and kids from horrible situations doing well to negate this old chestnut. Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and on and on. I doubt any of them would say they were lucky, blessed, or privileged. The best path to success is hard work and perseverance. Some have the drive, some don’t.

  3. Brad

    Doug, you’re reading something that’s not there. You’re injecting absolutism into a statement that is utterly lacking in that odious quality. Just as E.J. rejects the idea that people get where they are by merit alone, he is not discounting merit.

    The key part, in that regard, of the first sentence is “not just.” The key word in the second is “Often.”

  4. `Kathryn Fenner

    “Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, and on and on. I doubt any of them would say they were lucky, blessed, or privileged.”

    Well, Oprah’s biggest refrain is gratitude. She certainly says repeatedly that she was blessed.

    As far as Dionne’s speech–I naturally enjoyed hearing liberal concepts given articulate voice. I’m not particularly “into” Cardinal Bernardin who was the major focus of his speech, along with a discussion of the Catholic Church–Of course Bernardin was a great man and all, but the Catholic focus was irrelevant to me.

    I kept pondering throughout the speech the conundrum wherein liberals give total respect to pretty all religions, even though that respect is hardly reciprocated by most. I also go back to the whole JFK and the Pope question–as a Catholic, did he not owe total obedience to the Pope, so either he was a bad Catholic or a bad President? Same for the whole “who cares if Obama is a Muslim” argument I have made–because I *am* concerned about any President whose decisions are made by reference to some absolute religious arbiter, rather than completely by his/her conscience–which may certainly be religiously informed.

    I don’t know enough about the “obedience” requirements of Mormons. I do know plenty of Mormons who have impressed me with their apparent personal integrity and deep decency.

  5. Doug Ross

    So it depends on what you interpret “often” to mean.

    There are people who just as “often” don’t make the most of their upbringing.

    Attitude is everything.

  6. bud

    The wealth of a person is directly related to luck, at least beyond a certain income. A person making $20k/year probably has zero luck working for them. A $50k guy maybe can attribute 10% to luck. The million-a-year guy is about 75% luck. The super wealthy owe as much as 99% of that to luck.

  7. Brad

    Sigh… this is why I usually have to be berated multiple times by y’all when you want to argue about the Church. Even very smart people, such as Kathryn, have a completely off-base understanding of what the Church is, and I have found that if people don’t get it, it’s hard for anything I say to make sense to them.

    I’m referring here to Kathryn’s comment about “as a Catholic, did he not owe total obedience to the Pope?” Well, no, he didn’t. What JFK did in that speech was try to explain that to people who have all these boogeyman dissenting protestant notions of what the church is.

    Frankly, for years I had thought — based on ACCOUNTS of his speech to the Houston association — thought that he HAD been a bad Catholic. I thought he had said his faith would not inform his decisions as president, and to me that WOULD constitute being a bad Catholic. But then I finally got around to reading the speech. I elaborated on that personal epiphany here.

    That has nothing to do with “total obedience to the Pope.” It has to do with sticking with the things you truly believe.

    Let me try to explain… perhaps the best way is to cite the old joke, “Is the Pope Catholic?” Well, yeah, he is. He’s the guy who is at the top of a system of discernment that determines — and has been working on this for 2,000 years — what Catholic belief is. The Church, through its teaching authority (Magisterium) decides where the lines are — this is a Catholic belief; that is not.

    Individual human beings decide, on the basis of that, whether they will be Catholic or not.

    Of course, this is a gross oversimplification. But it points in the right direction. There are still people who consider themselves Catholic — and which the Church considers Catholic — who have drifted away from those teachings, and for that matter, from the Church itself.

    It gets even vaguer when you consider that we consider non-Roman Catholics to be part of the same Church, and some of them do, too (and I hope I’m not misrepresenting here), such as Lutherans, Anglicans and United Methodists. I refer you again to LARCUM, as a visible expression of that concept that we are all part of the Body of Christ.

    Teaching authority — defining doctrine — is a far, far cry from “You do this” and everybody jumps. But it’s hard for people who don’t know the Church to understand that.

  8. Doug Ross


    I would guess someone on the low end of the “luck” scale would probably use that as the excuse. “I’m just not as lucky as the guy who is successful”.

    How is it that we can accept that there are people in the 1% category in every aspect of life EXCEPT being successful at business?

    I think people like Larry Ellison, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg, etc. would laugh in your face if you tried to present your luck theory.

    Luck is an event. Winning the lottery is luck. Winning the lottery every week for decades takes skill.

  9. bud

    And Doug’s comment “Attitude is everything” is NOT an oversimplification?

    A person’s income is dependent on a wide range of factors including: hard work, attitude, perseverance, intelligence, good looks in some cases, education and on and on. But to deny that luck plays a role is ludicrous. The figures I site are purely arbitrary, and probably vary from person to person, but the point I’m trying to make is that the higher the income the greater the role luck plays.

  10. Tim

    I feel pretty lucky, just having been smart enough to be born in an advanced Western Nation. I am part of the 1% not being born where my life expectancy is about 50% of what it currently is, and that 100% of my food, clothing and shelter needs are met. Been to some of those other places.

    My observation is that we are going to pretty much be at about 80% of what we thought we had 5 years ago.

    Am waiting for the influx of Chinese 1%ers who are fleeing China’s poor quality of life, stultifying smog and repressive policies, poor regulator environment and corrupt legal system for our shores.

  11. Doug Ross


    You are the one throwing out ridiculous numbers like 99% luck being responsible for someone’s success.

    And please start naming the people who are successful who do not work hard and also have a defeatist, negative attitude.

    You got any names, Brad? Who are the laziest, low-self esteem, non-persevering successful people you know?

    If I’m oversimplifying, you should be able to generate a list pretty quickly.

  12. Doug Ross

    And while we’re at it, define “luck”. It doesn’t exist.

    Was Bernie Madoff lucky? In what way? Lucky that he could dupe people into giving him money? Lucky in keeping his Ponzi scheme going for years? Lucky for getting caught?

  13. Abba

    Thank you, Brad, for letting us know about this lecture. I found it very thought-provoking — and I am impressed with the sense of energy that E.J. Dionne, who is smaller physically than I expected, projects. He reminded me of Atom Ant. His ability to respond at length and with such thought and humor to questions from the audience was quite impressive.

    As for his prepared remarks, his discussion of the Biblical teachings on our obligations to strangers struck a chord with me. I clicked on the link you provided, and found this scripture from the Gospel of Matthew:

    When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a scholar of the law tested him by asking, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

    As E.J. said, a world like this is surely Utopian, but a useful objective nevertheless.

  14. bud

    The Walton family heirs are pretty dang lucky. They’re worth billiones yet did very little to earn it.

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