Tone and Substance

October 15th, 2014

There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion.  It bears no doctrinal weight at all.  It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.

Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons.  And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

Or this:

These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Or even this:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.

Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).  Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.  

Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all.  The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics.  While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.

That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.

There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions).  In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards.  It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.

To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio.  It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live.  But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.

The Supreme Court Surrenders on Marriage

October 6th, 2014

This morning, to the surprise of just about every observer, the Supreme Court declined to review seven lower-court rulings that had re-defined marriage. For all intents and purposes, this non-decision really gives the green light to lower courts to strike down every democratically-enacted state law that defines marriage in the traditional way.

To understand how significant this surrender is, some basic background information is necessary.

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, there has been a virtually-unbroken string of lower-court decisions invalidating state marriage laws.  Three of the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals had already struck down laws in several states.  Four other Circuit Courts have similar cases before them but haven’t issued decisions yet.  When you take all these cases into account, the laws of as many as sixteen states were at issue.

Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court in which all the parties to the seven lower-court decisions — both the defenders of the marriage laws and those seeking to overturn them — had asked the Court to make a final ruling on the issue.   For the Court to agree to hear a case, only four Justices need to assent to the petition (technically called a petition for a “writ of certiorari”).

Rule 10 of the Supreme Court’s rules states:

Review on a writ of certiorari is not a matter of right, but of judicial discretion. A petition for a writ of certiorari will be granted only for compelling reasons. The following, although neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court’s discretion, indicate the character of the reasons the Court considers… (c)  a state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court.

You also have to understand something of the self-image of the Supreme Court, who seem to believe that they have been appointed to be Platonic Guardians over our society.   Recall this gaseous emanation from the penumbras of the Supreme Court’s collective consciousness, in the plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.

Now, it’s hard to imagine a more contentious controversy than the debate over the definition of marriage, or a more “important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court”.   The argument has raged since the late 1990′s, and it has been fought out in a series of state ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, legislative battles, court cases, and political campaigns.  The Supreme Court itself created the current legal chaos and uncertainty with its decision in the Windsor case, which was mis-used by federal judges to strike down state marriage laws.  One would have thought that now was the time for this matter to be addressed by the Court itself, in its self-anointed role to”call[] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution”.

Yet the Court declined even to consider the cases.  No briefs to be filed.  No oral arguments.  No further discussion among the Justices.  There weren’t even four Justices who thought it was ripe for decision — not even the vaunted supposedly-conservative wing of the court (Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito).  Even though anyone can foresee the consequences of not taking the cases — namely, sending a signal to the lower courts that it was open season on state marriage laws.  We can now expect more lower courts to follow the Supreme Court’s lead, and the dominoes will continue to fall.

The most disappointing part of this non-decision is that not a single Justice thought it was worth writing a dissenting opinion.  Perhaps they should just raise a white flag over the Supreme Court building today.

So, by not agreeing to decide any of these cases, the Supreme Court actually issued a momentous decision, and effectively re-defined marriage in the entire United States, without giving the defenders of marriage their day in Court.  This is how democracy no longer works around here.  Thus is marriage redefined in the United States, not with a bang but with a whimper.

 

Animals and Christian Discipleship

October 4th, 2014

About ten years ago, I decided to give up eating meat.  I didn’t do it for ethical, aesthetics, or health reasons.  I liked meat, so it was a mild sacrifice, as a way of trying to grow spiritually and overcome a particular “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Cor 12:7).  I viewed it as akin to a life-long Lenten Friday abstinence practice.

As with many ascetical practices, I found that it really bore fruit in my life, and I’ve continued with the practice ever since.  I describe myself generally as a “non-meat-eater” or a “vegetarian”, although I still eat dairy and seafood (occasionally), so the technical term for my diet would be probably be “pesco-vegetarian”.

At the time, I really didn’t have any desire to become an ethical vegetarian.  But I’ve become more curious about the arguments surrounding that philosophy.  I read some of the writings of Peter Singer, the leading animal rights philosopher, and found them deeply disturbing.  Singer and his followers seem to me to be profoundly anti-human, even to the point of advocating grave moral evil, such as the idea that unborn, newborn and handicapped children have no right to life, since they lack certain qualities of consciousness, and thus can be killed by their parents.  As a Christian — and a human being — I find such positions to be abhorrent, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way.

So it was with great interest that I found a book by Prof. Charles Camosy, an authentically pro-life theologian at Fordham, entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.  The goal of the book is to examine how Christians should relate to animals, particularly on such issues as factory farming and the use of animals in research.  I had hoped that the book would present a convincing Christian view of the relationship between humans and animals in the plan of God. While there are many aspects of the book that I found to be excellent, I was disappointed in his basic argument.

As with many animal rights arguments, Prof. Camosy’s position seemed to rest on an assumption that there is “speciesism” in the way we treat animals.  That term refers to an unjustifiable and invidious belief that humans are not just different from, but innately superior to animals in God’s plan for creation.  But surely that is the proposition that he should be seeking to prove, not a self-evident principle on which he can base his entire argument.  I found this to be a very unconvincing form of circular reasoning — he begs the question that he should be trying to answer.

I also found his use of Sacred Scripture to be implausible.  There is no doubt that God created animals not just to be used by humanity, but as creatures who have the “breath of life” and are meant to be our companions (see Gen. 1).  Yet there also can be no question that God specifically permitted the use of animals in ritual sacrifice and for food (see generally Leviticus).  Prof. Camosy appears to reject this aspect of Divine Revelation, particularly by suggesting that the practice of ritual sacrifice was a carryover from pagan practices and was not the will of God.  That is just completely unconvincing, and it is inconsistent with the essential role of ritual sacrifice in understanding the mystery of Jesus as the Paschal Sacrifice.

However, I also have to add that I found that Prof. Camosy makes a very compelling argument about the need for Christians to reject the horrors of factory farming.  There is overwhelming evidence that modern methods of factory farming are unspeakably cruel to animals, and they are truly shocking to the conscience.  Prof. Camosy makes a persuasive case that factory farming stems from a moral deficit that is inherent in a consumerist mentality that virtually amounts to an idolatry of profit.  This represents, I think, one of the best argument against the moral legitimacy of eating meat, at least as it is produced by way of this particular structure of sin.

I wish that Prof. Camosy had not begun his argument with the rejection of human exceptionalism in the divine plan, and I wish that he had given proper emphasis to the principle that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  That is actually the best argument for the ethical and humane treatment of animals, and even for the adoption of a vegetarian diet.  If we are made in the image of God, then we must assume some aspect of His relationship with the creation that He loves, and to which he gave the breath of life.  God is the ultimate steward of His gift of creation, and we are thus called to love and serve nature and animals, and to act with self-giving love to them.

I don’t believe that this role as stewards of creation requires us to forego meat in our diet, but it certainly requires us to take seriously our attitude towards our animal friends, and how we treat them.  We are so accustomed to this in our homes.  So many people love their dogs and cats and birds, and intuitively see the breath of life in them, and treat them very well.  As Prof. Camosy points out, we need to extend that attitude of fraternity to the animals we cannot see, particularly those in factory farms and medical research facilities.  That may require a change in lifestyle — and even our diet — but that’s the case with every aspect of our Christian discipleship.

A Bleak Outlook for Religious Liberty?

September 24th, 2014

For the past few years, disputes over religious liberty has been very prominent parts of the American legal and political agenda. No observer of the state of religion in our nation can fail to be struck by the series of difficult and contentious controversies. The HHS mandate and the redefinition of marriage are just the most recent examples that have brought the conflict into stark view.

This conflict has attracted a great deal of attention from legal and political scholars.  In my view, no book does a better job of explaining its background and likely future course than the recent sobering work by Steven Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Prof. Smith is one of the leading scholars of religious liberty, which might scare people off from this book. But his writing is remarkably accessible to non-experts, and anyone with a basic knowledge of American history would find it a fascinating and compelling read.

The basic thesis of the book is to contrast what Prof. Smith calls the “standard story” of American religious liberty, which is generally accepted and taught in academia, with a “revised story” that he proposes as a better explanation for where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The “standard story”, in essence:

tells how, under the influence of the Enlightenment, the American founders broke away from the intolerance and dogmatism of centuries of Christendom and courageously set out on a radical new experiment in religious liberty. More specifically, the founders adopted a Constitution that committed the nation to the separation of religion from government and thus to secular governance that would be neutral toward religion.  These commitments were not immediately realized… Even now the achievement is under threat… mainly from religious conservatives…

This basic description of the “standard story” should be familiar to all, since it is reflected in Supreme Court decisions and the general public debate about the role of religion in our society.  It is the story that I learned in law school, and, I imagine, that is taught in every high school and college history and political science class.  It is the story of the alleged “wall of separation” that keeps push religious groups and ideas out of the public square.  It is the reason that our courts and legislatures increasingly find little reason to accommodate or protect unpopular religious beliefs and practices.  Prof. Smith says that the general acceptance of the “standard story” has reached such a point that nobody feels a need to explain or defend it.  Instead, it has become one of those things of which people say, “as we all know…”

According to Prof. Smith, the problem with the “standard story” is that it is actually false in many significant respects.  Instead, he proposes a “revised story” that better explains the history of American religious liberty in key ways:

  • American religious freedom is mostly a retrieval and consolidation of Christian themes (with some pagan principles mixed in), particularly libertas ecclesiae (freedom of the church), and freedom of the “inner church” of conscience.
  • The First Amendment religious clause did nothing radical or dramatically new, but instead re-stated principles that were uncontroversial at the time — a limitation on the jurisdiction of Congress relating to Churches and religion.
  • The first century and a half of our history were a “golden age of American religious freedom”.  It was not a time in which the Republic failed to live up to the ideals of the First Amendment, but instead  those ideals were allowed to grow and work out through the democratic process.  Prof. Smith proposes that this was the time of the “American settlement”, which rested on the separation of church from state (but not a strict exclusion of religion from government) and freedom of conscience, together with “open contestation” about what that meant in practice.
  • The modern Supreme Court, far from restoring the original ideals of the First Amendment, wrongly rejected the American settlement and instead declared that secularism is the controlling principle of constitutional law.  This brought an end to the open discussion and debate about our differences, and sought (usually inconsistently and incoherently) to impose hard rules to limit the role of religion in law and government.
  • The result is that religious freedom is in jeopardy, particularly when it comes into conflict with the modern ideologies of egalitarianism and sexual liberation.
  • In the end, Prof. Smith is pessimistic about the future of religious freedom in America, and he believes that life in our nation will suffer as a result.    Given all that we have seen in recent years, it is difficult to disagree with him.  One thinks of the intransigent refusal of legislatures to grant sufficient conscience clause exemptions from laws redefining marriage, or expanding availability of contraception or abortion.  Or we can cite the Administration’s denial of the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers, according to the dictates of their faith.  And there is always the rhetorical tactic of certain politicians to brand religious believers as “extremists” who are unwelcome in their own home states. Or the tendency of judicial opinions to brand religious beliefs on marriage as irrational hatred or bigotry.

    This book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over the role of religion in contemporary society. It provides a much-needed balance to the “standard story”, which has dominated the public discussion and the law-making process. It is essential that legal professionals, policy makers, and engaged citizens understand the true history of religious liberty.

    Prof. Smith reminds us all that religious liberty is very fragile, but it is very important to a healthy American society. Such a fundamental freedom, deeply rooted in American and Western history, cannot be so lightly thrown away, or forced to depend on narrow majorities of the Supreme Court. In particular, he warns us that “states that fail to protect religious freedom usually trample on other freedoms as well”.

    The Culture of Death and Lawlessness

    September 17th, 2014

    The Culture of Death is a culture of lawlessness.  Once our nation violated the natural law by permitting the killing of innocents by abortion, it inevitably began to ignore or jettison other laws as well.  You can see this in what passes for Supreme Court “jurisprudence” on abortion, which has regularly invented Rube Goldberg-like legal arguments, twisted precedents, and distorted the meaning of language in order to perpetuate an unjust regime under which unborn children have no rights that our lawmakers are bound to respect.

    News in the past few days has brought new evidence of the inherent lawlessness of the Culture of Death.  A report by the Congressional Accountability Office has revealed that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has resulted in massive taxpayer subsidizing of elective abortion.

    Remember, the Act was passed largely because of last-minute promises by the Administration.  They gave assurances that people would be able to buy plans that don’t cover elective abortions, and that no taxpayer funds would be used directly or indirectly to pay for elective abortions.  Health plans offered through the state exchanges would be permitted to cover abortion, but no taxpayer-funded subsidies were supposed to be used to buy coverage for elective abortion.  Insurers that covered elective abortions would be required to collect a separate payment from policy holders, in order to ensure that taxpayer subsidies did not pay for abortions.

    Many of us doubted the sincerity of those promises at the time and were dubious of the Administration’s commitment to put them into practice.  Our pessimism has proven to have been right. The GAO’s report found the following:

  • Twenty-eight states allow insurance plans sold on their exchanges to cover abortion. In those 28 states, 1,036 plans include elective abortion coverage, while 1,062 only cover abortion in the case of rape, incest or to preserve the mother’s life.
  • Every single taxpayer-supported plan sold in New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Hawaii covers elective abortion.
  • Other states, including our own, are nearly as bad — in New York, 405 out of the 426 plans offered cover elective abortions. In Massachusetts, 109 out of 111 cover abortions. In California, 86 out of the 90 plans cover it.  In these large states, between 95% and 98% of plans cover elective abortion.
  • The GAO specifically interviewed 18 insurers, who offered three-quarters of the coverage in the twenty-eight states that allow abortion coverage.  Fifteen confirmed that they covered all abortions, none of them charged separately for abortion coverage, and none of them even itemized the coverage on their bills.
  • To put it plainly, the law is being ignored on a massive scale.  Every American taxpayer is now paying for elective abortion, and millions of pro-life Americans have no choice but to pay out of their own pockets for the death of innocents.

    So much for promises and assurances from this lawless Administration, whose commitment to the Cult of Moloch is absolute.

    The Culture of Death corrupts everything it touches.  It has corrupted our legal and medical professions, and the rule of law itself.

    Encounter and Evangelization

    September 10th, 2014

    In this time of rapidly shifting cultural values — usually not for the better — the Church and Catholics are struggling to find the right way to proclaim the Gospel and live according to our faith.  The public witness of the Church and Catholics is becoming increasingly difficult, as our government and secularized culture becomes more hostile to us.  Each new day seems to bring a new challenge, and everyday Catholics are confused, uncertain, and frequently upset.

    I think that in times like these, it’s crucial to make sure that we remind ourselves of the fundamentals.

    The entire purpose of the Church is not to decide who can attend what dinner, or who can be part of a parade. The mission of the Church is to bring people into a loving encounter with Jesus Christ. That means we have to bring people to the real Jesus, and the model for this is the story with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11).

    That meeting involved two things — compassion and conversion. Both are essential, and can never be separated. The woman was treated with compassion and mercy by Jesus, and thus was open to his call to conversion. If we fail to present both aspects of the encounter, we are lying to people and presenting a false Jesus — he’s not just about mercy, and he’s not only about conversion (and he’s never about condemnation). The real Jesus simultaneously says “I love you even when you’ve sinned”, and “come, follow me”.

    I think our Holy Father and our own Archbishop have realized that there are significant impediments in our culture to hearing the Gospel message, and thus people are unwilling to come to meet Jesus.  In the minds of all too many people, we are not seen as merciful and compassionate, but judgmental and condemnatory.  In response, our leaders have decided that we have to emphasize the message of mercy, so that people will be more open to hearing the message of conversion. In his closing remarks to the young men and women who attended World Youth Day in Rio, Pope Francis said this:

    Every one of you, each in his or her own way, was a means enabling thousands of young people to “prepare the way” to meet Jesus. And this is the most beautiful service we can give as missionary disciples. To prepare the way so that all people may know, meet and love the Lord.

    This is the task of the New Evangelization, and of the Church.  We have to make sure that when people encounter us, they’re encountering Christ, and feel both his compassion and his call to conversion.  When they see his face in our face, we will be fulfilling our mission.

    Yet Another Alleged “Accommodation”

    August 23rd, 2014

    The Administration has announced yet another set of new rules for the HHS abortion/contraception mandate, affecting religious non-profits (the so-called “accommodation” class) and closely-held for-profit corporations (e.g, Hobby Lobby).

    Remember that under the most recent version of the oft-amended rules, religious non-profits that wanted to take advantage of the accommodation had to file a document (“Form 700″) with their insurer. This document stated their objections to the coverage, and was the trigger for the insurance company to offer the benefits to the employees. The objection was that Form 700 was tantamount to signing a permission slip for immorality, and being required to fill it out was therefore a violation of religious and free speech rights.

    In these new rules, the Administration adopted the approach previously granted by the Supreme Court to the Little Sisters of the Poor and Wheaton College. Now, to qualify for the accommodation, the religious non-profits can file a statement of objection with the government. The government will then contact the insurance company and make arrangements for the coverage to be offered to the employees.

    It’s not clear whether this will be sufficient to protect the rights of the religious non-profits like the Little Sisters, Catholic Charities, and Christian colleges.  Their insurance plans will still be required to cover abortion-causing drugs and other offensive services (e.g., sterilization). There is also still the issue of self-insured entities, which will be directly paying for immoral things.  There’s also a concern about whether the insurance companies will be passing on the costs to the employers so that they will still be paying for the offensive services. We also have no way of knowing how the courts will view this new development — will the non-profits start losing cases now that the Administration has come this far?  We’ll have to wait for USCCB and other attorneys to analyze the new rules in detail.

    It appears also that closely-held for-profit businesses with religious objections (e.g., Hobby Lobby), will also be able to take advantage of the same procedure as the religious non-profits, and thus qualify for the accommodation. This was in response to the Supreme Court’s decision on the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case.  The rules aren’t specific on which corporations will be given this protection, so it remains to be seen how broadly their religious liberty rights will be respected.

    This is yet another step in the Administration’s on-going campaign to normalize contraception and abortion as being essential to women’s health, and a standard part of health insurance policies.  It is also yet another example of their deafness to the objections of religious entities and people, who do not wish to be forced to violate their beliefs.

    The real solution to this problem is for the Administration to permit anyone with conscientious objections to be exempted entirely from the abortion/contraception mandate.  That doesn’t seem possible, given their deep commitment to a Culture of Death ideology, under which fertility is a curse, new life is the enemy, and religious believers are in the way.

    I, Too, Am a Nazarene

    July 24th, 2014

     

    The image at the top of this post is the Arabic letter “n”.  It has become known worldwide in the last week.  The violent fanatics who have formed what they call the “Islamic State” in northern Iraq and eastern Syria left this mark on the doorways of Christians who were living in areas they under their control to show where the “Nazarenes” — the Christians — were living.  This was significant because the Islamic State leaders had decreed that all Christians had to convert to Islam, pay a ruinous tax and live as serfs, or be killed.

    This is the latest terrible development in the destruction of historic Christian communities in the Middle East, particularly in areas of Syria and Iraq that have been ruined by warfare.   The Iraqi city of Mosul, which stands on the site of ancient Nineveh, has been a focus of the oppression.  Christians have been killed, churches have been burned, and the Archbishop and thousands of his flock have been forced to flee as refugees.

    Around the world this week, Christians have been expressing their solidarity with our oppressed brethren in the Middle East, by posting the “n” symbol, and by spreading the Twitter hashtag #WeAreN.

    The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.  I am awed by the witness and courage of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  There is little that I can do to help them or to relieve their suffering.  But I pray for them, and I humbly stand with them.

    I, too, am a Nazarene.

     

    My Immigration Story

    July 22nd, 2014

    In a nation of so many descendants of immigrants, there are a million stories. Most of them are about an ancestor who left their home to find a better life and to live in freedom. The stories are filled with heroism, idealism, and perseverance.

    Here’s my story. It’s actually not about me, it’s about my mother’s mother, whom I always knew as “Grandma Sheridan”. But because I wouldn’t be an American without her, I like to think that it really is my story too.  It’s the story about how she became an American.

    Grandma lived down the street from us when I was growing up, and we were always in and around her house. She was a wonderful, kind woman, who had seen many tough times but was always willing to help others. But her story wasn’t easy to piece together. Grandma didn’t like to talk about herself, or where she came from. And we had no contact with relatives from “over there”. So we’ve gradually accumulated documents, and drawn on the memories of relatives who are now gone to eternal life.

    Grandma was born and baptized Elizabeth Dowe, in 1885, in a tiny hamlet named Aghabullogue, in County Cork, Ireland. (I don’t speak any Irish, but I’m told that the town’s name sounds something like “Ah-Buh-Log”, with a long “o”, emphasis on the last syllable and a barely pronounced hard “g”). As a child, she was known as Lizzie, and she lived with her parents John and Hannah Hill Dowe, along with three sisters and a brother. She was the youngest in the family. They were farmers, and if you know anything about 19th century rural Ireland, you know that was a hard life.

    Her father and brother died at some point before 1900, when my Grandma was a young girl. According to the laws at the time, the farm passed to her uncle, so her family was turned out of their home and lost their livelihood. They lived for a short time in a house in a nearby area called Clonmoyle, but in 1901 they decided that they had enough of poverty in Ireland. They would go to America.

    This is the point in every immigrant’s story that always makes me pause and wonder. My Grandma was only 15 years old. Her mother was illiterate in English and Irish, and she had nothing waiting for her in America — no profession, no job, no place to live. My Grandma and her sisters could read and write English, but only one was employed in Ireland, as a dressmaker. As far as we know, the only people they knew in America were some cousins, who had come over earlier. That’s not a lot to go on.

    But what they had was an abundance of faith, hope, courage, and a yearning for a better life.

    They arrived in New York in 1902. And here’s the funny part of the story. They were on a ship that entered New York harbor, and thus passed under the watchful eye of the great lady who lifted her lamp beside the golden door to welcome my Grandma. When the ship arrived at Ellis Island, there was an announcement that all passengers in steerage had to get off. But my Grandma’s mother had managed to get Second Class tickets, so they decided that the announcement didn’t apply to them, and they didn’t get off at Ellis Island. Instead, they sailed up to the pier in Manhattan and set foot in America without ever going through any of the legal immigration process.

    And so — my Grandma Sheridan was an illegal alien.

    They settled in New York, and my Grandma worked for a time as a domestic servant in the household of the publisher of the New York Times. In 1911, she married John Sheridan, another Irish immigrant who was a greengrocer with the A&P Company. He was an American citizen already, and that’s how my Grandma became a legitimate American citizen. They lived mostly in the northern Bronx (in the same neighborhood where I still live), and had six children, the youngest of whom was my beloved mother, Claire.

    My grandfather died in 1932, leaving Grandma to finish raising her young family — my mother was only 5 years old at the time. Grandma struggled, relying on income from the older children and dividends from A&P stock. But she was a firm believer in education, and she sent all of her children to college, even the three girls — which was certainly remarkable for that time. She was also a committed Catholic who took her faith seriously. There was never any question about the faith being handed down to her children.

    Grandma took her American citizenship seriously. The flag flew every holiday. She was a voracious reader of the newspapers, followed current events very closely, and was absolutely committed to voting in every election. I recall very clearly her insisting that we had a duty to vote, and that if we didn’t vote, we couldn’t complain.

    Her three sons all served honorably in the military in World War II — one was an officer in the Navy, another an officer in the Army Air Corps, and one was a grunt in the Army who landed on D+2 and went on to be awarded the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. At least six of her grandchildren have served in the military, and many of us have served in government offices. Patriotism runs deep in the Sheridan blood, which you would expect with Grandma as a role model.

    Grandma didn’t have any interest in being considered an “Irish-American” — she was absolutely American, through and through, and she was proud and grateful for this country. When she died at the age of 95, she had lived a rich, long, generous life in her beloved home country.

    A few years ago, my wife Peggy and I visited Ireland, and went to Aghabullogue. It’s still a tiny hamlet, with little more than a church, a store, a football field and a pub, surrounded by beautiful rich farmland. I stood in the graveyard of the old parish church where my grandmother was baptized, and where she went to Mass for the first fifteen years of her life. The chapel has since fallen into ruins, replaced by a more modern building close by. It was profoundly moving to look around, and realize that the scene was virtually identical to what my Grandma saw every day of her youth. I was able to see the world that she left so that her future family — and mine — could be born in America.

    Grandma Sheridan’s story is about an America that was willing to give a poor homeless girl a chance at hope and prosperity. I believe that story is still true today. I believe that America is still open to other young girls and boys who are yearning for the same kind of life that my Grandma was able to have, the kind of life that she was brave enough to give to her children, grandchildren, and beyond.

    I believe in my immigration story. I think it is the story of America. And I thank God for it, and for Grandma Sheridan for having lived it.

    Trying to Think about Immigration

    July 21st, 2014

    The debate over immigration has reached a fever pitch in America, fueled by the heart-rending spectacle of the plight of all those unaccompanied children who have been coming to our southern border in recent months.

    I am no expert on immigration, but I’ve been trying to think about this issue from a Catholic perspective, guided by the teachings of our bishops and our Holy Father. It seems to me that there are a number of fundamental principles that are in tension in this area, and it extraordinarily difficult to make them all fit together well.

    Let’s take as our starting point a teaching from St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris:

    Every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that one is a citizen of a particular State does not detract in any way from his membership in the human family as a whole, nor from his citizenship in the world community (25).

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes the basic issues very clearly:

    The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him. Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (2241)

    These principles show us that the way we think about this problem is the key consideration.  There is no question that our civil authorities have an obligation to preserve and protect the common good of our particular political society, which includes enactment and enforcement of just laws. People have a right to emigrate to seek prosperity and freedom for themselves and their families, but they also have an obligation to obey the laws of the nation they enter.

    But we always have to remember that human laws and political structures don’t exist as ends in themselves, and they don’t have the preeminent place in the hierarchy of goods. They don’t define the full scope of human aspiration or fulfillment. States are purely provisional entities that exist solely to provide for the good of the people within them.  I love America, but it is not a divinely-ordained institution, and it is not essential to the divine will or to the plan of salvation. To think otherwise can come very close to a form of idolatry.

    As a result, we have to think outside of our political boundaries, and be concerned with all members of the human family — not just those who happen to hold a particular citizenship, or who speak a certain language, or who had the good fortune to have ancestors who emigrated prior to a certain date, or who managed to find a home within some arbitrary political boundaries.

    Our policy solutions also can’t be dominated solely by economic factors.  We have to beware of any way of thinking that treats immigrants as mere means to be used for ends, welcomed to the extent that they are useful to us and discarded when they are not. People are not objects, and must be treated as the image of God among us.

    Articulating these principles is easy.  Finding the right policies to implement them is certainly not so easy.  Our bishops and the Holy Father are not saying that we have to have open borders, or that people can disregard the law at a whim.  They are saying that we need to address the humanitarian needs of immigrants — particularly the unaccompanied children — as best we can, as our top priority.  We then have to work to reunite them with family members, without just throwing them on buses back or interning them in refugee camps.  Long-term answers would then include repatriation, or admitting them as refugees or as temporary residents based on an evaluation of their individual cases.

    On top of this, we have to make sure that we work with the governments in the source and transit countries to improve the awful social conditions that have led to this emigration, and to prevent exploitation of migrants.  This is crucial.  The drug trade — largely fueled by drug use in America — has led to a disastrous disintegration of much of Latin American society.  The problem of immigration can’t be addressed without confronting this reality, and accepting our responsibility for correcting it.

    When we listen to the Catholic perspective on this issue, we see that persons come first in our considerations, and our priorities start to fall into place.  We won’t’t make decisions based on fear, suspicion, party politics, or prejudice.   And we can work together to formulate sensible public policies that promote the common good and respect the fundamental human rights and needs of all.