What We Need Most on Our Moral Bucket List

April 14th, 2015

Several friends contacted me to call to my attention an article in the Times Magazine by the well-known pundit, David Brooks, entitled “The Moral Bucket List”.  It’s an adaptation and summary of a new book by Mr. Brooks called The Road to Character.

In it, Mr. Brooks describes his dissatisfaction with his own character, and his desire to be more like a person who “radiates an inner light”, who is “deeply good”.  He clearly has thought a great deal about this, and has done considerable introspection. He came to the conclusion that to become more like those admirable people, he would have to “work harder to save his own soul”.  He had to grow in virtue by working on some specific “moral and spiritual accomplishments”.  In short, he came up with a prescription for several character-building projects that would become “a moral bucket list”:

  • The Humility Shift — There is no doubt that we live in a narcissistic and meritocratic culture that focuses only on the “Big Me”.   To develop that antidote of humility, we have to be honest about our true weaknesses, and then identify the “core sin” that has created them (e.g., selfishness, cowardice, hard-heartedness).
  • Self-Defeat — The way to build true character is not through competition with others, but by confronting our own weaknesses, and turning them into our strengths.
  • The Dependency Leap — Our culture encourages us to be self-absorbed atomistic individuals, but the foundation of good character actually is cultivating deep, committed relationships that recognize how dependent we all are on each other.
  • Energizing Love — We can overcome our self-centeredness by experiencing love for another.
  • The Call Within the Call — Instead of concentrating on status, money, and security, we need to find some way to convert our career into a calling to work for an ideal.

These suggestions are actually quite good.  But they left me cold, because I realized that they were missing something essential.

They were missing God.

When I was reading Mr. Brooks’ article, I couldn’t help but recall a key passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  For years, Augustine had sought truth and virtue through a variety of means — secular learning and success, sensuality, and esoteric religious cults.  He filled his bucket list with many “adventures”, but he was still deeply unsatisfied.

In the end, he came to realize that what he was seeking was within him all along, but was not just himself — it was the presence of God who loved him passionately and totally.  And when he embraced that truth, he finally found the peace and joy he longed for.  This realization led him to pen these immortal and moving words:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.

Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I deeply sympathize with Mr. Brooks’ search for goodness and meaning in his life, but I think he’s not reaching for the ultimate answer to his yearning.  Like him, I have spent my life in that quest. I have filled my bucket with many experiences and accomplishments, and all too often I have relied on them to give my life meaning.  But every time I have grasped at those distractions, I have been left empty and dissatisfied.

What I have come to realize, is the same thing that Augustine finally understood.  All the other things that I have searched for, all the things that I thought would give me meaning, didn’t provide a true solution.  The secret to finding real happiness and real character, and to saving my soul, was there all along, in the love of God that dwells within me and that draws me into communion with Him.

There are lots of things that I need to put on my “moral bucket list”, and Mr. Brooks’ suggestions are a pretty good start.  But I can’t be satisfied with that — the thing I need most on my “moral bucket list” is nothing less than God himself.

Approaching a Dangerous Threshold

April 1st, 2015

Many years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took up a case involving people who did not wish to conform to a law that they considered to be an imposition on their religious beliefs.  The government, backed by strong public opinion sought to enforce the law, and to compel this religious group to comply.

But they persisted in defending their civil rights, particularly their freedom of religion.  It was a time when it was widely understood that freedom of religion was actually a civil right, essential to well-ordered liberty.   People recalled that the freedom of religion was so important that it was explicitly enshrined in the United States Constitution in two separate places — in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and in the ban on religious tests for public office.  It was a time when freedom of religion was under attack around the world, with people of some faiths being openly and brutally persecuted.

But it was also a time when unpopular religions still faced legal obstacles in the United States.  Some faiths were considered to be out of step with American values, out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion, and were widely criticized and even derided in the popular media.

The group in that case was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the law required their children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the highest court of our land would defend their right to live in keeping with their faith, and would grant them an exemption from the law.  The Supreme Court agreed with them, and reversed an earlier decision that gave their religious interests little respect.  In doing so, the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Jackson, said something very significant about the nature of our government, and the importance of respecting dissent:

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.  If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.  (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943)

We are now at a point in American history where this foundational principle is under direct attack, and it is not clear whether it will survive.  The long-standing conflict between the Christian faith and the forces of sexual liberation and radical egalitarianism is approaching a threshold that will be very dangerous to cross.

The battle right now is being conducted over religious freedom restoration statutes (“RFRA’s”) that have been enacted in twenty states (and which are the law by judicial decision in eleven others).  Those laws reflect the values expressed by the Supreme Court in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  RFRA laws recognize the civil rights of religious people to an exemption from certain general laws.  They would only get an exemption if they can prove that the law imposes a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.  However, they would still have to obey the law if the government has a compelling interest in enforcing it and there are no reasonable alternatives.  A RFRA law essentially creates a balancing test that courts would have to apply to a fact-based situation.  It does not grant a  blanket or automatic exemption to religious people.

The real dispute is, of course, whether Christians can be compelled to recognize same-sex “marriages” and to provide direct services to ceremonies that purport to create such unions.  A reasonable argument can be held about this question.  But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s precisely why we are in such a dangerous moment.

There has been an amazing amount of hysterical, ill-informed opposition to these RFRA laws that fail to take into account their true, limited nature.  But what really concerns me is the dismissive attitude that’s being displayed about religious freedom and the freedom to dissent.  People are speaking as if the category of “civil rights” didn’t even include freedom of religion, and that it must always be suppressed in favor of the supposed right to same-sex “marriage”.  One of our major political parties, most of the mainstream media, many of our courts, and a number of large corporations have already crossed the line into official intolerance towards religious liberty.   Public opinion polls show a shrinking number of people (albeit still a majority) who respect the right to dissent based on religion.  Gone are the days when dissent was considered a legitimate form of patriotism.

Basic respect for the right to dissent from official orthodoxy is under threat, and may not survive much longer.  When, as I expect, the Supreme Court invents the imaginary “right” to a same-sex “marriage”, this conflict will grow even more intense, and the danger to dissent based on religious beliefs will be even more acute.

On the other side of this threshold is real persecution, like that shown to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the old days.  People are already being forced to recognize same-sex “marriages”, or face crippling fines and loss of businesses.  Institutions that resist will be punished by loss of public funding, access to public programs, and tax exemptions.  Individuals who dissent will be shunned and excluded from certain professions, and even from public office.

The right to dissent is essential to American liberty.  The Supreme Court saw that in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  Will our nation continue to see that now?

God Doesn’t Accept Me

March 17th, 2015

One of the things we hear over and over again is how the Church needs to be more welcoming of those who are in irregular situations — immigrants, single parent and blended families, divorced people, and homosexual people. That is absolutely correct. The Gospel is for everyone, the call to unity with Jesus is universal, and the Church is the ark of salvation for all humanity.

The problem comes when the call to be welcoming becomes a demand for acceptance.

Here’s the problem. God doesn’t accept me,  at least not as I am — a sinner. He wants me to change.  He wants me to reject my sins, to turn to him in repentance, and to live my life differently, according to his will and not by my disordered appetites.

The Christian life is not about acceptance, it’s all about conversion.  This is a fundamental truth of our faith. The very first call of Jesus himself was to repentance (Mk 1:15). His way was prepared by the great John the Baptist, whose entire mission was a call to repentence. He was preceded by the prophets, whose message was always to turn away from sin and return to God in contrition.

We are reminded of this when we ask for forgiveness at Mass, when we say the Our Father (“forgive us our trespasses…”) and the Hail Mary (“pray for us sinners…”).  We get the most vivid reminder on Ash Wednesday, when we are told to “repent and believe in the Gospel”.  Perhaps we have lost sight of this.  Perhaps we’ve been too busy singing bland empty stuff like “All Are Welcome” that we’ve forgotten the essential message of great hymns like the Attende Domine.

This was called to my mind by a propaganda video I recently saw, put out by a supposedly Catholic parish, trumpeting their ministry to homosexual persons.  It was very glossy, super professional, and totally misguided and dangerous.  The video was all about acceptance, and nothing about conversion.  In fact, sin and repentance were never even mentioned, and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality was openly rejected in word and practice.  The entire video was, in essence, a permission slip for people to continue in their sins.

If we welcome people without calling them to conversion, then we are misleading them and doing them no favors.  We are putting their souls, and our own, at risk.  God does not want me to be comfortable in my sins.  He wants me to reject my sins, seek forgiveness, and never look back.  Of course, we have to be gentle and kind, merciful and compassionate, and above all, patient.  Sin is an addiction for most of us — it certainly is for me — and it takes time for us to go through detox and rehab.  But God’s grace will help us go through this process, and to live clean and sober.  In fact, it’s impossible for us to experience real conversion through our own strength.  We can only do this through the grace of God, experienced through the ministry of other recovering sinners and dispensed through the Sacraments.

The Christian life is not easy.  It is difficult to lead a life of holiness and be saints.  But we’ll never get close to that goal if we’re looking for mere acceptance.  We have to acknowledge and renounce our sins, and turn to God for healing.

Please, God, don’t accept me.  Change me.

Farewell to a Churchman

March 16th, 2015

It is with great personal sadness that I write of the death of Edward Cardinal Egan.  He was a fine bishop, a man who loved the Church, and he was very kind to me personally.  I will remember him fondly, and I will miss him.

Cardinal Egan governed the Archdiocese during some of our most difficult hours.  The combination of 9/11 and the sex abuse crisis were a terrible trial for our City and our Archdiocese.  The dramatic social changes that were taking place in New York were also a serious challenge — the continued erosion of respect for human life and marriage, and the growing threats to religious liberty.  Internally, the Archdiocese had to struggle — as we always do — with limited resources.

Cardinal Egan proved that he was up to the challenge.  I worked very closely with him on pro-life issues and as Director of our Safe Environment Office, our effort to respond to the sex abuse crisis and to ensure the safety of children who were entrusted to our care.  You could not have asked for a more committed, dedicated bishop.  The Cardinal was keenly, directly, and urgently attentive to our child protection efforts.  We were all learning from past mistakes, trying to heal wounds, dealing with the chaos of a decentralized institution, and striving to make things better for the present and future.  With his backing, and in large part thanks to him, we made great strides.

I could tell dozens of stories about my interactions with the Cardinal.  He was a tough overseer.  He scrutinized everything, suggested improvements, and held people accountable.  I can testify that when you had disappointed him, you would have a conversation that was difficult to forget.  But he was also decisive and forward-thinking, and kept his goals in sight at all times.  When you gave your best effort, you knew very clearly that he appreciated it.  He served the Church whole-heartedly, and he recognized and honored others who did the same.

After he retired, I had several experiences with the Cardinal that really give a measure of the man he was.  Just a few weeks ago, I spoke to him and asked him to celebrate Mass for our Inaugural Men’s Conference.  He immediately and enthusiastically agreed, and he began thinking of themes for his homily so that he could make the event memorable for the men.  He was particularly keen to preach about the courage to do what’s right, in the face of opposition.  He was also happy that we were going to have the Eucharist and Confession at the center of our day.  That says a lot to me.  Even after such a distinguished career, he was always a priest, always interested in bringing the graces of the Sacraments to the People of God, and always eager to serve in whatever way he could, and always there to encourage us to follow the Gospel.

The other occasion was even more important to me.  My mother passed away a few years ago.  The day before the funeral, I was informed by my pastor that Cardinal Egan was going to come and preside at my mom’s funeral.  I was thunderstruck.  I would never have dreamed of asking him to do that, but he came forward of his own initiative.  His presence at the funeral was a great honor, and it was personally comforting to me.  He also gave a powerful and beautiful reflection at the end of Mass.  I am still deeply moved in thinking of it.  That also says a lot to me.  He was a kind man, who cared about people and who wanted to bring them the comfort of Christ in times of sorrow.

When I heard about the Cardinal’s passing into eternal life, I was in Washington for meetings at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.  I was really torn about what to do — should I skip the meeting and come home for the funeral?  In the end, I decided to stay at the meeting, put my own interests aside, and do my duty to the Church.  I felt peace with that decision, and I think that the Cardinal’s intercession had a lot to do with that.  He was always a Churchman, a man who served his beloved Church and who put duty to Her above all personal considerations.  That’s one of the most important lessons I learned from him.

Requiem aeternam, Cardinal Egan.  You were a good priest, a good bishop, and a good man.

My Lenten Mission

February 19th, 2015

Ash Wednesday has come and gone.  And I have to admit that I am not very good at Lent.

I never miss an Ash Wednesday Mass, and I have no problem walking around with ashes on my forehead.  I readily answer questions about why my head is dirty, and I even posted an #AshTag selfie on Facebook.  But I am far too often like the seeds that fall amid the thorns, and the “cares of the world” overtake me and “choke the word” so that it bears little fruit (see Matthew 13:1-23).  My intentions are good, but my persistence is weak, and I let the busyness of my life distract me from the path to greater holiness.

So I would very much like to grow spiritually through the spiritual and penitential practices of Lent.  Last year, I tried something new, and I found that it bore fruit.  So I’m going to try it again this year.  During Lent, I’m going to dedicate myself to intercessory prayer, praying for other people who are in need, particularly if they have nobody else to pray for them.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis had this to say:

One form of prayer moves us particularly to take up the task of evangelization and to seek the good of others: it is the prayer of intercession…. The great men and women of God were great intercessors. Intercession is like a “leaven” in the heart of the Trinity. It is a way of penetrating the Father’s heart and discovering new dimensions which can shed light on concrete situations and change them. We can say that God’s heart is touched by our intercession, yet in reality he is always there first. What our intercession achieves is that his power, his love and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people. (281-83)

So I’ve asked people to send me names of people whom they would like me to pray for, and I’m keeping a list on my phone.  Every day, when I say my morning prayers, I go through the list and pray by name for each of the people and for their needs.

Now, I don’t think that I have any kind of special pull with the Lord, or that my prayers jump to the front of the line, or that I think I deserve any special credit for this.  Intercessory prayer has been a practice among God’s people stretching all the way back to Abraham.  It’s part of every Mass, and we do it every time we ask our Father to “give us today our daily bread” and Mary to “pray for us sinners”.

But I have a sense that this is what God wants me to focus on this Lent.  I’ve been feeling a desire in my heart to pray for others, and I’ve always trusted those feelings as promptings by the Spirit or subtle nudging by my Guardian Angel.

And so, that’s my Lenten mission — to pray for others.  If anyone out there has a prayer intention, feel free to email it to me at emechmann@archny.org.  And perhaps you could say a prayer for me, too.

Life is Worth Living, Even When You’re Terminally Ill

February 10th, 2015

Legislation has been filed in New York State to legalize physician assisted suicide, and a lawsuit has been filed seeking the same goal.  The advocates of death are calling their effort “death with dignity”, and are appealing to a sense of compassion for those experiencing suffering as the end of life approaches.  We cannot fall for this — it is wrong, it is dangerous, and it must be opposed with all our energy.

The very term “death with dignity”, used as a euphemism for suicide, is a terrible lie.  It demeans those whose death from natural causes was not just dignified but even beautiful.  My mother passed away a few years ago from cancer.  It was a long illness, and she experienced real suffering, as did all of her loved ones.  But we worked with her doctors and with hospice staff to alleviate her pain, and give her as much comfort and love as we could.  She died at home after receiving the Anointing of the Sick, with her family around her.  Her death was holy, and beautiful.  It is an insult and a lie to imply that her death did not have dignity, because she did not kill herself.

The effort to legalize assisted suicide is based on an even deeper falsehood — trying to eliminate the crucial difference between allowing natural death to occur, and intentionally causing someone’s death.  Death will come for us all, from one cause or another.  And when the time comes, we are not morally obligated to undergo extraordinary or disproportionate forms of treatment — measures that will cause unnecessary suffering while yielding little benefit.  But that is not the same as killing a patient or killing myself.  It is accepting the inevitability of death by natural causes.  Life is a great gift from God, and He will call me back to Him in His good time.  I cannot become my own god and just throw this gift away.

The advocates for death must realize that they cannot face the truth about what they are doing, because they are hiding their bill behind the Orwellian term “aid in dying”.  In fact, in the Assembly bill, they even try to deny that what they are legalizing is suicide or assisted suicide — as if such a transparently phony statement can conceal what is really going on.

Assisted suicide also seriously distort the nature of our health care system, which is already under so much pressure to treat patients as commodities and to look primarily to the bottom line and to convenience, rather than to care for the human person.  The relationship between a doctor and a patient should be about healing, care, and trust.  Legalizing assisted suicide fundamentally changes that sacred relationship — that’s why the American Medical Association opposes bills that will have doctors break their promise to “do no harm”.

This will also increase dangerous pressure on vulnerable patients to choose death — people who are chronically ill, handicapped, lonely, isolated, depressed.  In fact, assisted suicide discriminates against those who are most in need of our help.  This will become more and more of a problem as health care resources become more expensive and scarce.   We’ve seen in other countries that once you introduce assisted suicide, the pressure to expand it to people who are not terminally ill, and for euthanasia — the direct killing of a patient, even without their explicit consent — is not far behind.

In discussing this issue, it is vital that we all recognize that when death approaches, there is always some suffering.  Some deaths seem more tragic than others, and bear particular pain to the person and their loved ones.  But we need to address that suffering, and not just give up on the patient.   Modern medicine has the ability to relieve almost all cases of physical pain in a terminally ill patient.  We need to work harder to address the other forms of suffering — the familial, psychological and spiritual pain that accompanies a person’s final illness and passing. We also need to think about preventing the pain and suffering that suicide will leave with families and loved ones, and the sense of guilt that often goes along with that.

That’s why more people need to know about institutions like Calvary Hospital, which provides wonderful support and care for those with terminal cancer.  They allow people to exit this life with true dignity and compassion, and utterly reject the idea of giving people lethal overdoses of drugs.  People also need to know more about the teachings of the Church on end-of-life issues, and what options are morally acceptable and available.  To that end, the New York State Catholic Conference has created a wonderful website, “CatholicEndofLife.org”.  This site deserves to be widely known and used by Catholics and others who want to know the truth, and not the lies of the assisted suicide promoters.

Our society spends lots of time and money trying to prevent suicide, particularly for teens and depressed people.  It makes no sense — and it will hurt those efforts — to designate it as an acceptable option for elderly and sick people.  Think of the awful message that sends — that for some people, we’re all better off if you kill yourself.  Talk about creating a culture of death.

We’ve all driven over bridges with signs that say, “Life is Worth Living”.  Well, life is always worth living, even when you are terminally ill.  That’s the message we should be sending to those who are suffering, and that’s why we must resist any attempt to legalize assisted suicide.

The Politics of Principle

February 2nd, 2015

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last six years.  This post was written in memory of Jack Swan, a great warrior of faith and politics, who entered eternal life on February 2, 1998.  God sent Jack into my life to teach me these lessons about politics, and I’m just a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant.  As time goes by, I see more and more a need for us to recapture the politics of principle.  Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lessons right.)

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently perceived as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

Engagement and Resistance

January 17th, 2015

Reflecting on my pessimistic take on the Supreme Court’s decision to make a final ruling on the marriage redefinition cases, I had an interesting email exchange with my friend and colleague Alexis Carra. She wrote to me:

Inevitably, the government/legislature/court will no longer recognize true religious liberty, amongst other things. This is an unfortunate consequence of a metaphysical and anthropological revolution/decline that has swept society; a phenomenon in which people no longer have a proper understand of human nature, reality, and our relationship to God.

1) So in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the public sphere, especially when our court system will inevitably be against us? Is it time to change methods? If so, what should our new method(s) be?

(2) Similarly, in this “post-human” age, how do we go about testifying and defending the Truth in the private sphere? How should we engage our children, our friends, and our communities, especially when they are often hostile towards our message?

I replied, in part:

I wish I had answers to your questions. I have believed for many years that the time is rapidly approaching when Catholics may no longer be able to give their consent to the Constitutional morass that our judicial oligarchy has now imposed on us. This is a regime where truth and morality are denied and are instead branded as invidious bigotry, while laws that violate fundamental human rights are foisted upon us and we are compelled to cooperate with them. The Supreme Court’s decision on the marriage case may put us in a position where we can no longer recognize the legitimacy of the current regime.

Alexis’ response gets right to the heart of the matter, and adds some important distinctions:

It’s going to be even harder to live as authentic Catholics within the American system or as you say, “the current regime.” We will be forced to cooperate with evil under duress or become martyrs.

However, I actually do have some hope. I think the distinction must be made between “engaging with the public system” and “utilizing the public system.” I think — for most cases – we will be unable to utilize the system in order to uphold our religious liberties, etc. Yet this does not mean that we completely retreat from the system. Instead, we must continue to engage with the system; we must become the gadfly to the system (thinking of Socrates here). And this is a very important role that cannot be underestimated.

I still think there is something to be said for public engagement. I think the gay marriage debate has been largely a disastrous failure, but the same cannot be said for abortion. I think progress has made been made particularly because many young people rightly perceive abortion as the murdering of innocent life.

Overall, I think we are called to live as counter-cultural witnesses in an active sense; most of us are not called to completely separate ourselves from society.

I think that she is precisely correct. I too am pessimistic but not hopeless. There are many who advocate for disengagement from society, similar to the Amish. I refuse to do so. Engagement is clearly the proper course, but as a form of resistance to the dictatorship of relativism — where we continually proclaim the truth with love, and steadfastly refuse to conform to the lies. My model for this is Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

Nothing can erase the human desire for, and recognition of, the truth. Even under all the lies, the vast majority of people will try to live in truth. We are always called by our faith to be witnesses to the truth, even when that truth may be a “sign of contradiction”.

Pessimism about Marriage and the Supreme Court

January 17th, 2015

The Supreme Court has now agreed to decide one of the marriage redefinition cases. The oral argument will be held at the end of April, and a decision will come down at the end of June.

In my opinion, this is not good news. The conventional wisdom is that the Court takes cases in order to reverse lower courts, and the statistics bear that out (in revious terms, they’ve reversed about 75% of the cases they take). So it’s very significant that the Court took the case from the Sixth Circuit — the only Circuit Court to have upheld real marriage.

We also have to bear in mind that in the Windsor case, the majority of the Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, on the theory that it violated Equal Protection because the law was enacted specifically with “animus” towards homosexuals. In the case the Court just accepted, each of the state laws involved (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee) would be vulnerable to that same argument, since they adopted constitutional amendments specifically to rule out the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

So I think there’s every reason to anticipate that the Court will rule the wrong way. It’s clear that there is a solid 4-vote bloc that will vote to recognize same-sex “marriage” (Sotomayor, Kagen, Breyer, and Ginsberg), and a 4-vote bloc that will likely vote against it (Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and probably Roberts). Given Justice Kennedy’s past record on homosexual rights cases — he has always voted in favor of them and has written some terrible majority opinions centered on the issue of alleged “animus” (see the Lawrence, Romer, and Windsor cases) — it seems virtually certain that he will follow his own reasoning in his Windsor majority opinion, and rule that the secret messages, written in invisible ink but that he manages to discern in the Constitution, somehow require the recognition of same-sex “marriage”.

In other words, the Court will likely decide that the Equal Protection Clause requires that we must abandon logic, and say that inherently different things are actually the same.  Welcome to the Humpty-Dumpty world of justice, where words mean whatever the people in power wish them to mean.

I am innately pessimistic about Court rulings, but I just can’t see any path to a good outcome here. Not only will a marriage re-definition ruling flout the will of the people as expressed in the democratic process, it will contradict the fundamental truths about marriage contained in the natural law and in the nature of the human person. It will also increase pressure on religious people to conform, and will test our ability to live in keeping with our faith in an increasingly hostile nation.

 

Our Unconventional Christmas Tree

December 25th, 2014

If you were to visit my home this Christmas season, you would be met with a most unusual sight.  Instead of the traditional pine Christmas tree, this year our tree is very unconventional, and you might be tempted to laugh at it as weird or silly.  But there’s a story behind it, and it might make a little more sense out of our strange Christmas tree.

Here’s a picture of it:

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Very odd, indeed.  Here’s the story:

This autumn has been very difficult for us.  My wife, Peggy, is getting close to finishing her Masters degree in Library Science, and she’s been slaving away at her final project.  For the last month, it’s pretty much all she’s been able to do.  This has been a particular challenge for her, because she suffers from fibromyalgia, an unpredictable and debilitating disorder that gives her acute pain at unexpected times and usually leaves her exhausted and unable to concentrate.  The fact that she has been able to do masters-level work with this condition is amazing to me.

Peggy is very traditional, and loves to decorate the house for Christmas.  She loves to make the place special for us, our children and our guests.  So it was particularly painful to her that she was so busy with her masters paper — which she finally handed in, three days before Christmas — we weren’t able to get out and buy a Christmas tree this year.  Our house won’t be well-decorated, and she’s deeply embarrassed about it. Tears have been seen in the vicinity of our home.

One of the watchwords of our marriage has been that we will always try to adapt and overcome any problem that arises.  So we came up with an idea for a different kind of Christmas tree, the one you see in the picture above.

It’s an umbrella plant, and Peggy gave it to me when we were first dating, way back in 1979.  It was much smaller then, but she’s kept it alive ever since (I have a black thumb).  It’s kind of like our marriage — growing and thriving after all these years, despite all the twists and turns that fate has given us.  So, in a way, this tree is a symbol for the generosity of God that was manifested at Christmas — and the great gift of each other, united and in love, still going strong.

At the base of the umbrella plant, we put another small plant, a Christmas cactus.  It belonged to my mother, and thanks to Peggy’s care, it has bloomed for the first time in many years.  So it, too, is another symbol of something central to Christmas — the fruitfulness of life, and the legacy of our wonderful parents.

The last piece of the story is also important.  I read in the newspaper of the terrible plight of Christians in Iraq, displaced from their homes and unable to celebrate Christmas.  They have no trees — traditional or unconventional — and no gifts.  So we decided that the money that we would have spent on a Christmas tree would instead be donated to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which is doing such great work to alleviate the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  So our odd tree is a symbol of something else essential to Christmas — the vocation to be a gift of self to each other and to all those in need.

So, yes, it’s a very unconventional and strange Christmas tree.  But I hope that the story behind it has helped make sense of it.  If that doesn’t help, let’s look back at the the original Christmas story.  The Son of God emptied himself, and became human in the poorest of circumstances, being born in a cave where the animals lived.  His family suffered to bring him to birth, and they became refugees to protect him.  They sacrificed for the love of each other, and he sacrificed all for the love of us.

I’d like to think that the Lord who came in such a way, and who lived such a life, would like our humble little tree.  I think he’d smile at it, and appreciate what it means.  And he’d feel perfectly at home in its shadow.