Published September 20, 2007
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has decided not to attend an awards ceremony that will follow the Sept. 27 Red Mass celebration because of objections to the abortion stance of one of the honorees.
Hosted by the independent St. Thomas More Society, the luncheon given by the Catholic lawyers group is recognizing three leaders in the law community, including former Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes. He is being honored for his role in removing the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag and for giving legal service to the poor since he left office.
In a brief statement issued Tuesday, Sept. 18, Archbishop Gregory said he would not attend the awards ceremony because of Barnes’ position on abortion.
“While I recognize and applaud Governor Barnes’ efforts surrounding the controversy of the Georgia State flag, his support of abortion is contrary to the Church’s teaching. The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the very foundation of a moral vision for society,” said the archbishop’s written statement.
Archbishop Gregory is still scheduled to celebrate the Red Mass, which is officially known as a Solemn Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit. It traditionally commemorates the beginning of the judicial year and calls on God’s guidance in the administration of justice. The Mass will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on Sept. 27 at Sacred Heart Church.
The Red Mass, a 700-year-old tradition, gets its name from the color of vestments worn in the service and the red robes worn by judges in the Middle Ages. In 2006, a re-energized St. Thomas More Society in Atlanta organized what it intends to be an annual tradition to match the pomp surrounding the Red Mass in Washington, D.C., where Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and Supreme Court justices attend the church service.
Nearly all of the justices of the Georgia Supreme Court are expected to attend the Red Mass next week, along with hundreds of lawyers and other state and federal judges.
Michael Sullivan, the immediate past president of the lawyer organization, said the archbishop would be missed at the awards luncheon, which will be held at the Capitol City Club in downtown Atlanta and is not an archdiocesan event.
“We appreciate Archbishop Gregory’s celebrating the Red Mass and his friendship to our Society. We will miss him at the luncheon, and it is an unfortunate turn of events that will cause his absence,” he said in a written statement.
The church is losing an opportunity to build bridges in an ecumenical spirit because of a “small but loud minority,” he said. “The vast majority of Catholics—not to mention our non-Catholic guests—applaud the specific good actions for which we are recognizing these three honorees,” Sullivan said. Sullivan, a lawyer at Finch McCranie, said he was speaking for himself and not the organization.
The St. Thomas More Society honorees this year are Barnes; Frank B. Strickland, for his service as chairman of Legal Services Corp., which provides legal services to the poor; and Judge Doris Downs, the chief judge of the Fulton County Superior Court, for her role in leading the court after a triple shooting in the courthouse and developing a drug court to deal with offenders.
Giving awards to political leaders at church-affiliated events frequently leads to controversy. In the spring, faculty and students at St. Vincent College, a liberal arts Catholic college in Latrobe, Pa., protested the invitation to President George W. Bush to speak at the graduation. Critics said Bush’s Iraq war policy is counter to the school’s peaceful Benedictine traditions and the Vatican strongly condemned the war.
Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, a political scientist of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, said the Atlanta lawyer group faces the same dilemma as Catholic colleges. In fact, he thinks Catholic groups could avoid the disputes by not granting honors to elected officials altogether.
Critics may “falsely assume” a church group is applauding a politician’s entire career, instead of one specific act, he said.
“They might want to honor someone for their work with the poor, or with health care, or immigrants,” he said. “… Does he have to be perfect on every position the church has?”
Barnes was elected to the governor’s seat in 1998 and held the position for one term. One of his initiatives was to remove the Confederate emblem that was added to the state flag in the mid-1950s to protest the federal desegregation movement. His work on changing the flag is linked by many to the fact that he lost his re-election bid in 2002. He received the 2003 John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Profiles in Courage Award for his flag effort.
Critics from organizations that oppose abortion have called Barnes’ abortion policy “a story of bitter betrayal.” Before his unsuccessful 1990 run for governor, the Georgia Right to Life organization backed his campaign, but the group later opposed him when he ran again in 1998 and claimed he had abandoned his principles for political gain.
On Tuesday, Barnes could not be reached for comment.
Statement By Archbishop Gregory
I have decided not to be present at the St. Thomas More Society’s Awards Luncheon following the Red Mass because the organization has independently selected three attorneys to honor, one of whom is former Governor Roy Barnes. While I recognize and applaud Governor Barnes’ efforts surrounding the controversy of the Georgia State flag, his support of abortion is contrary to the Church’s teaching. The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the very foundation of a moral vision for society.