The first stone


THE NUMBER of incidents in which public figures have been publicly taken to task by the Catholic Church on the issue of abortion has grown long enough to fill a six-page chronology. And that's only through 1990. We can now add to the list Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lynn Yeakel, the Senate candidate from Pennsylvania.

Cardinal John O'Connor of New York wrote to the president of the University of Notre Dame to object to the senator's selection for a medal honoring an outstanding Catholic. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia told the president of Rosemont, a Catholic women's college, that he was displeased about the selection of Ms. Yeakel as commencement speaker.

In both cases, the objection was based on support for abortion rights. Moynihan and Ms. Yeakel join a growing group of distinguished officials so noted: Gov. Mario Cuomo and Gov. Jim Florio, Reps. Susan Molinari and Charles Rangel, and former Rep. Claudine Schneider.

The dean of Fordham's law school, an officer of an institution meant to foster the free exchange of ideas, sent a letter to the diocesan newspaper about the decision to have Geraldine Ferraro speak to the graduates. "I deeply regret the pain our decision has caused," he wrote.

I deeply regret the fact that a speech by a woman who has run for vice president and the U.S. Senate, who has been a member of Congress and a member of the law school's Board of Visitors, is considered an occasion for apology. Is the pool of perfect people in the world so vast?

Where are the colleges criticized for tendering a commencement honor to a Catholic official who supports capital punishment?

A church built on compassion and love is now best known to outsiders for its heebie-jeebies about sex, as though its vistas stretched no farther than the walls of the womb. It is in public opposition to its best-known members and in private opposition to many of its ordinary people.

It has become renowned for what it is against rather than for what it is for, which is a great deal of good: social justice, foster care, hospices, hospitals, successful schools. And the end result of the years of public bludgeoning has been no result. What has been accomplished except to make the hierarchy, and by extension the Catholic Church, appear closed-minded and mean-spirited?

The leaders of the church have every right to make their opinions known, and make them known they have. But beyond that right they have a more important job; it is to effectively lead, to effectively teach.

Many priests do that quietly, by showing respect for their parishioners, by acknowledging the simple fact that it is possible to be both good and flawed, by disapproving and illuminating without bludgeoning. I have talked with some of them. But their stories will not appear here because it seems better for their future in the church. What does that say about where their superiors have led us? What does it say about the lesson they have taught?

On Wednesday I visit my old elementary school. I am going back because it was a very good school and I was happy there, and because I hope I can give back a little to the students who have taken my place, perhaps teach them that not all writers are old English guys, mostly dead.

I believe I have something to teach the children who sit in the desks where I once sat, not about abortion, but about being a writer and being a mother. What would it mean if they never heard from, learned from, human beings who are imperfect in the eyes of the church?

The teachers who preceded them taught me to examine my conscience. They taught me that that was an honorable thing. They taught me that he who is without sin casts the first stone. I have never forgotten those lessons.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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