A Humble Proposal on Humility

Name Catholic things after Catholic saints — not bishops, bosses and benefactors

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823–1909), “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III in New York City”
Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823–1909), “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III in New York City” (photo: Public Domain)

When I was a child, I used to collect stamps. I’ll date myself: the last president I could find on a stamp back then was John F. Kennedy, even though Richard Nixon sat in the White House. I later found out why: the U.S. Postal Service used to have a rule that, before you could appear on an American stamp, you first had to be dead.

Something similar was true in the Catholic Church: a certain number of years had to elapse from the person’s dies natalis before a cause for canonization was taken up. True, that meant a lot of the people who might have known the candidate were also dead, but it also meant that the matter stood on the record.

Once upon a time, a certain decency among politicians also demanded that, no matter how much bacon one brought back to his district, an incumbent ought not to get libraries, highways, post offices, federal buildings, or sewage plants named after him. The political class was a little less rigorous about the rule: they tended to wait until a solon was retiring before having his name affixed to a public work.

No matter how lacking in humility public personages might be, there was once a certain standard of decorum that demanded the sublimation of vanity to at least a feigned humility.

I’m from New Jersey, so I come from a state where I’ve watched that standard progressively erode.

When the Meadowlands Arena was renamed the Brendan T. Byrne Arena in 1981—before the incumbent governor left office—there were grumblings about propriety. By the time the Frank Lautenberg Secaucus Rail Station was dedicated in 2003, there were no apologies about naming it for the sitting incumbent senator who “championed federal legislation to build this historic and revolutionary facility.” I guess everything that happens in history is “historic” and pardon me if I fail to see what’s “revolutionary” about a train station. Once upon a time, a building got named for somebody who actually put his money, not somebody else’s (e.g., taxpayers’) into that project. Without detracting from the role our affluent late senator played in getting the station built, it was also not his dime that paid for it.

With all due respect, in Maryland they name highway bridges after slain policemen. In New Jersey, I doubt that—without the services of Wikipedia—most people will identify the major political achievements of Congressmen like Jim Howard whose names adorn highway segments.

But such is the way of the politician. But should it be that way in the Church?

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles love to show their power over the people. And their important leaders love to use all their authority over the people. But it should not be that way with you” (Matthew 20:25-26).

In South Amboy, the town neighboring my hometown, there used to be a parochial Catholic high school, St. Mary’s, which belonged to the eponymous parish. Founded in 1885, it proudly bore the name “St. Mary’s High School” from 1918-2001 when its legal identity changed and the Diocese of Metuchen rechristened it “Cardinal McCarrick High School.” It carried that name until it was closed in 2015.

I am not going to get into the justifications (which I can understand) for the demise of parish high schools, or even the creeping diocesan “consolidation” of parochial schools (contrary to our own principle of subsidiarity). That’s a separate essay.

My point is, rather: let’s not name facilities after the living.

Now that McCarrick has been laicized for his molesting children and seminarians and soliciting in the confessional, would we want a high school—a facility for children—named after him? In a perverse way, the Diocese of Metuchen can breathe a sigh of relief that the school went out of business before its namesake did.

Let’s consider, however, the logic for the renaming. The high school proudly bore the name of the Blessed Mother of God (and the parish which supported it) for roughly a century and a quarter. That’s a pretty distinguished and far more impeccable name to bear.

McCarrick’s claims to fame was being the first Bishop of Metuchen, his ascendance in the hierarchy, and his renowned fundraising ability. With all due respect: (i) dividing the former Diocese of Trenton, due to its size, had long been in the cards, so somebody was going to be first bishop of a new diocese; (ii) we now question McCarrick’s meteoric rise; and (iii) his fundraising apparently didn’t keep his namesake school from bankruptcy, so that where there were once two parochial high schools in the Amboys, there are now none.

A charitable explanation might say that the diocese wanted to honor its first bishop. Another explanation might be the sycophantic nature of clerical circles, wanting to curry favor with local-boy-now-cardinal-archbishop-of-Washington. The problem with such momentary efforts, however, is that one can sometimes discovery clay (or even slimier) feet.

I comment on this episode because, in the wake of the clerical abuse scandal and the various cover-ups of various bishops, various dioceses are now challenged about renaming grade schools, high schools, senior citizen facilities, diocesan centers, and other places on which a momentary explosion of exuberance led to affixing a living person’s (especially a bishop’s) name.

Can we stop this?

The broader civil society is in the throes of what I call its “Sethi Moment.” Like the ancient Pharaoh, some segments of (not just) secular society are caught up in a paroxysm of striking the name of X (Robert E. Lee, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, fill in the blank) from every stone and obelisk, from every pylon and tablet in the land. I have elsewhere criticized this American version of Soviet historiography (i.e., inserting blank pages into the past) as the vengeance of modern day Puritans with a “holier than thou” righteousness, but there’s no denying it’s afoot.

It’s one thing, though, to haul off statues or throw tarps over murals in the middle of the night, another to exercise a measure of prudent humility ante factum. “It should not be that way with you.”

In the months and years ahead, there will hopefully be a lot to learn from the McCarrick affair, but the humble lesson I suggest we can draw immediately is: let’s adopt a measure of humility today.

We have a wonderful Catholic tradition of naming our churches and institutions after recognized saints, i.e., those who have passed this life of becoming to their definitive state of being and have been recognized as such by the Church. Their capacity of aid and support is far more beneficial than even the most marveled ecclesiastical rainmakers and fundraisers.

In the old papal coronation ceremony, a master of ceremonies used to carry a burning flax and chant “sic transit gloria mundi” (so passes the glory of the world), reminding the new pope—lest the moment go to his head—of the transience of the moment. St. John XXIII had it right when someone once commented with what a fine bed the papal apartment was outfitted with. “Yes, unfortunately, though, I have to die on it.”

Perhaps we should leave the glorifying of incumbents to the Lord, whose inscription in the Book of Life is slightly more valuable than inscription on a cornerstone.

All opinions expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.