Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Zero Tolerance for Abuse

Friday, September 22nd, 2017

[I was invited to submit an op-ed to the Catholic News Agency about important remarks the Holy Father made about child protection, stressing that the laity must be held to the same zero tolerance policy as the clergy. The article appeared here and with their permission I’m reposting it here. I should stress that the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Archdiocese of New York.]

In his September 20 remarks to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis stated the important point that “the Church, at all levels, will respond with the application of the firmest measures to all those who have betrayed their call and abused the children of God.” That reaffirmation of the Church’s commitment to child protection cannot be said too often or too strongly.

The Holy Father then went on to say something new and very significant: “The disciplinary measures that the particular Churches have adopted must apply to all those who work in the institutions of the Church… Therefore, the Church irrevocably and at all levels seeks to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against the sexual abuse of minors.”

This is an unambiguous call to action. The Church in the United States has been a world leader in child protection, and we have an opportunity now to lead again.

Since its adoption in 2002, the Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has been the foundation for the Church’s immensely successful efforts to provide a safe environment for children in our institutions and to ensure accountability for the implementation of those efforts. As successful as the Charter has been, however, it has always been missing a very significant piece — on its face, it only applies to cases of misconduct by clergy and not by laypeople.

For example, the term “sexual abuse” is defined in the Charter by reference to a canon law provision that applies only to the clergy. The definition is ambiguous, and fails to provide sufficient guidance about what behaviors are proscribed. This leaves diocesan officials to rely on an ad hoc standard of their own creation or on potentially differing opinions of theologians, civil or canon lawyers, or review board members.

This is not a good practice — “sexual abuse” cannot mean one thing in one diocese and a different thing in another, one thing when it applies to clergy and another when it’s a lay person.

The Charter’s definition of “child pornography” suffers from the same problem. The only guidance in the Charter is a reference to a Vatican document that has an empty and unhelpful definition that is limited to conduct by clerics. An ambiguous standard for this heinous crime isn’t acceptable, and it must apply to laity as well.

In addition, although the Charter discusses procedures for handling cases involving the clergy, it says nothing about how to handle cases about lay persons. And most importantly, while the Charter clearly applies the “zero tolerance” policy of permanently removing an offending priest or deacon, there is no defined penalty for lay persons who have committed an offense.

This is a very significant gap. We must assure everyone that no person, lay or cleric, will be permitted to be with children if they have committed an offense. Failing to do so leaves an erroneous impression that sex abuse is uniquely a problem with the clergy, which ignores all the evidence of the incidence of sex abuse and unfairly stigmatizes our priests and deacons.

This omission could have an impact on the credibility of our child protection programs. The annual audit requires information about background check and training of lay people and detailed information about clergy abuse cases, but no information is gathered about cases involving lay people. Including the laity explicitly under the Charter will ensure a greater level of accountability and trust.

One would expect that every diocese has already adopted policies that cover lay people as well as clergy. We certainly have in the Archdiocese of New York. But local policies don’t send a strong enough message. The Charter is the public expression of the United States Church’s full commitment to child protection. It is imperative that we make absolutely clear that the same rigorous standards apply to all who work with children, across our entire nation.

This is not hard to do. Clear and usable definitions of “sexual abuse” and “child pornography” can be developed that unambiguously cover laypeople. We can draw on the vast experience reflected in state and federal law, which define numerous sexual offenses with great detail and specificity. Uniform disciplinary procedures for handling lay cases do not have to be developed at the national level, since those will be shaped by local personnel policies and laws. Nor do we have to worry about inconsistency with canon law, since that only applies to clergy cases.

It can also be stated plainly that all allegations will be immediately reported to law enforcement and full cooperation will be given to the authorities. All dioceses probably already do this — in the Archdiocese of New York we have strong protocols for cooperation with law enforcement. But again, a strong statement in the Charter will demonstrate our commitment across the nation.

Most important, after the Holy Father’s mandate, it is vital that the “zero tolerance” policy clearly applies to the laity. There can be no room for doubt about that.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been working on a revision of the Charter, and it has not yet been finalized. The Holy Father’s timely call to action now gives the Church a great opportunity to be proactive and ensure that our rigorous policies apply equally to all who work with our children.

The Costs of Political Ignorance

Friday, September 15th, 2017

September 17 is the 230th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. That document, in addition to being our governing text, is one of the greatest accomplishment of political and legal thinking and writing. Its endurance through such a long and troubled history, and its significance as a model for other nations that yearn to have ordered liberty, cannot be underestimated. For good reason, it has been called America’s sacred text, a secular Bible of sorts, the centerpiece of our civic religion.

So why are so many Americans so ignorant about the Constitution?

A study recently published by the Annenberg Center yielded appalling results when Americans were asked about the provisions of the Constitution. Some of the findings about constitutional rights:

  • 37% couldn’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Of those who could identify some First Amendment rights, only 15% named freedom of religion, 14% freedom of the press, 10% right to assemble, and 3% right to petition the government.
  • On the slightly brighter side, 48% could identify freedom of speech.

When it came to the structure of our government, things weren’t much better:

  • Only 26% could name all three branches of government.
  • 33% could not name a single one of the three branches.
  • 27% could only name one branch.

These results confirm what political scientists have long known — the great majority of people lack basic knowledge about how our government works and what it does. For example, the Pew Center periodically surveys people about current events, and the results are regularly dismal. Less than half of Americans can identify significant public officials and even fewer know important facts, like the approximate unemployment rate or that the government spends more on Social Security than foreign aid or that only about 13% of Americans are foreign-born.

This is a grave problem. It is true that a great deal of political ignorance is normal and rational — most political issues have little direct relevance to or impact on people’s lives. Yet the health of democracy depends on people knowing a certain amount of basic, common information if we are going to have anything like a rational public discourse.

The dangers of this political ignorance can be seen all around us. The tribalistic nature of modern partisanship is a clear example. More and more, people can be easily manipulated by demagogues or misled by propaganda that appeal to emotion rather than fact-based reason. Studies are showing that people with less political knowledge are easily swayed by changing positions of their party or leaders, instead of holding them accountable for breaking promises or betraying key principles. The scourge of racism and xenophobia is a direct result of political ignorance. In a society that inundates us with information, ignorance prevents us from sifting the wheat from the chaff.

There is a basic civic duty to be an informed citizen. It is bizarre to me that we require all applicants for citizenship to pass a civics test, but anyone can vote regardless of how much they know or care. For goodness sake, we require more knowledge to get a driver’s license than we do from voters. That civics test is really not that hard ( you can try a sample test here). Is it really too much to ask that people pass the test in order to qualify to vote?

Political ignorance is also a very big deal for us Catholics. Ignorance about constitutional rights is dangerous at a time when our religious liberty is under pressure. Anti-Catholic bigotry flares up regularly, fueled by the stereotypes that come from ignorance.

We also have a very grave moral duty as Catholics to become well-informed citizens and voters. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it very strongly:

414. Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable.

Unfortunately, what is “unthinkable” is all too common in our nation. The cost of this ignorance is the debased politics that is so dispiriting to watch. On this anniversary of our Constitution, it would be a good time to be highly resolved that “we the people” will remedy this and become well-informed, morally-responsible citizens and voters.

Don’t Dishonor Columbus

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

The movement to remove some public historical monuments has gained considerable momentum after the tragic events in Charlotteville.

I am sympathetic to the removal of statues to Confederate leaders. These men fought for an evil and ignoble cause and their statues were for the most part erected to reinforce a wicked regime of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era. Calling attention to this, and cleansing the public square of these monuments, may help to reinforce the rejection of racism that our society clearly needs.

But the “progressives” in our nation have begun to turn their iconoclastic attention to other historical monuments, and in this they are not on such solid ground. In particular, by targeting Christopher Columbus, they have gone too far and have shown a deplorable lack of moral and historical sense. To dishonor Columbus would be a crime against our history.

Modern progressive ideology holds Columbus responsible for all that went wrong after the discovery of the New World. Those effects are undeniable and Columbus was certainly implicated in conduct that by modern standards are unacceptable (but which is also grossly exaggerated). Historians disagree about the extent of his involvement in that conduct, and we should leave it to them and their researches to provide the basic facts.

But on the moral level, the legacy and conduct of Columbus deserve great respect and honor. To understand Columbus, we have to appreciate the completely Christian mind with which he — along with all of his contemporaries — viewed the world. The modern mind cannot understand the centrality of faith to a man such as Columbus, a deeply devout Christian of the late Medieval era. His faith affected every part of his view of the world, and was the most significant motivation for all that he did. To him, the liberation of Jerusalem the Holy City of God and the conversion of non-believers to offer them salvation were moral imperatives of the highest order. In his view, the occupation of the Holy Land by Muslims and the fall of Constantinople were not just political and military matters, but were catastrophes that had apocalyptic significance and demanded a response by Christians.

Columbus’s nautical ventures were not purely commercial in nature, as our narrow modern economic obsession would view it. Nor was he bent on conquest and oppression, or seeking to discover a new continent, or to prove that the world was round, as our contemporary historical ignorance would suggest. It was never Columbus’s intention to spread disease or to commit genocide. Unlike Confederate generals, it was never a fundamental part of his mission to enslave anyone. To allege otherwise is to commit a vicious and ignorant historical slander.

Columbus’s mission always and at its heart was motivated by his deep Christian religious beliefs. To understand this we can just look to Columbus’ own diary, in which he explained that he sought the journey in hope that he would find enough gold and spices to finance a crusade to liberate the Holy Sepulcher, and he urged the King and Queen of Spain “to spend all the profits of my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem”.

His faith and trust in God was what led him to his great adventure. This is what gave him the courage never to give up on his goal, despite all the personal hardships and disappointments he suffered. He was impelled always by what he saw as God’s holy will for him, his part in the mission to bring the Gospel to the whole world, his role in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

It is clear that Columbus did not foresee the negative consequences of his journeys. But who among us can see all the results of our actions? How was he to know that the natives of the Americas would be vulnerable to European diseases (and vice versa) or that the new colonists would act as monsters? It’s also important to recall that we can say with absolute certainty that there have been enormous good consequences of Columbus’s intrepid journeys. The opening of a whole new world has offered people an abundance of material blessings and has spread the Gospel, offering the hope of salvation to billions of people. This cannot be discounted in our evaluation of Columbus. Indeed, it should be given the tremendous weight that it deserves.

It is certainly ironic to see Columbus denounced as a killer by people whose evil acts are so obvious that all can see them — particularly the remorseless killing of African American and handicapped babies in the womb, which is ardently defended and supported by so-called “progressives”. One can only hope that history — and God — will judge them with more mercy and fairness than they are judging Columbus.

Christopher Columbus was not perfect. The values of his time were not as “enlightened” or “liberal” as ours. But he was undoubtedly one of the great men of history. Even to consider removing a statue honoring Columbus would be an act of historical sacrilege, a denial of the very roots of our society, and a crime against our heritage.

Calling Out the Real Evil

Monday, August 14th, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville has brought the reality and danger of racism once again to the front of America’s attention. Sane voices across our nation are denouncing the ugly white supremacists and neo-Nazis who precipitated the violence. Leaders of our Church have been unequivocal in deploring the hate that permeated the event. Such statements are important to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering from racism. A good example is the statement issued by our local Commission of Religious Leaders.  It is altogether right that all people of good will should say these things.

But, in a way, it’s easy to denounce racism as a grave sin, a blight on the history of our nation, a malign force that denigrates and devalues people every day that has led to countless deaths and injuries. Nobody who isn’t infected by the sin would disagree.

I’m going to annoy peoply by saying it, but a commonplace bare denunciation of racism as evil doesn’t really say enough — it’s a tautology, a circular statement that is equivalent to saying “a bad thing is bad”. And to make things worse, the news media wastes too much time comparing the strength of various statements against racism, which just gives people a chance to compete with each other in “virtue signaling”.

This issue is too serious. We have to call out the evil reality of what produces racism. The real enemy is not just racism, or any other -ism — it’s the ideology of identity. And we won’t be able to make any headway against racism until we pull this evil out in the open, discuss it plainly, and expose if for the diabolic lie that it is.

It’s natural for people to emphasize certain of their characteristics as they express their personality and values. That can be a good thing, especially if it fosters a sense of community and belonging and solidarity.

But the ideology of identity is the weaponization of the wrong-headed and reductive idea that a person is defined by one of their characteristics (like race, or sex, or sexual desire). It focuses people exclusively and excessively on their own desires and choices and self-image, and demands that others accept their personal identity definition at all costs regardless of its relationship with the truth. It impairs our ability to truly understand ourselves in all our complexity, and to seek out the common elements that unite us with others. It says to outsiders that we cannot conceivably understand each other, and labels anyone who dares to doubt or disagree or question as a “hater”.

As a result, it splinters society into a myriad of mutually exclusive and incomprehensible fragments that are in perpetual conflict of all against all. It leads to the ugly identity politics that we are mired in right now, where the population is broken into factions and sects.

This dangerous attitude is fundamentally an anthropological error — a misconception of the nature of the human person. It denies the importance — and even the reality — of our common humanity.

Let’s go back to the seminal document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, for the essential truths:

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

That is the fundamental truth that we have to keep talking about, because we obviously can’t take it for granted that everyone understands or agrees. We need to make the argument very plainly that every person is a member of one family and is a child of God. We have to hold to the truth that people aren’t defined by particular characteristics, but that their real identity and dignity transcend any one factor.

By making that key point, we will be able to argue very clearly that racism isn’t bad just because we don’t like it and it’s socially unacceptable. It’s bad because it’s irrational and idiotic and a lie to consider a person to be inferior based on their skin color or their nation of origin or ancestry. And, just like all other kinds of identity ideology, it is reductive and dehumanizing to look at people as a mere exemplar of a particular characteristic.

If you want an example of how to confront these kinds of virulent falsehoods head-on, read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or Abraham Lincoln’s arguments against slavery or Frederick Douglass’ orations. They go right to the root of the argument, and don’t shy away from arguing first principles. We need to emulate them.

As I said, it’s laudable and important to deplore the evils that happened at Charlottesville. But we are in a desperate fight over the nature of the human person and the inherent dignity of every child of God. We can’t rely on facile denunciations. We must make the argument against the evil of identity ideology, or we will never convince anyone of the wrong of racism.

The Way of Beauty

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

The recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders on The Joy of the Gospel in America was a potential turning point for our Church. The challenge presented was to move outside the methods and modes of typical Church activities in order to become vibrant missionary disciples who are energized to bring the Gospel to all, especially those on the peripheries of society.

One of the great aspects of the Convocation, and one of the under-used tools of evangelization, is what Pope Francis calls in The Gospel of Life the “Via Pulchritudinis”, the “way of beauty”.

This insight is not unique to Pope Francis, of course. Pope Benedict (who is a musician) also spoke often of the power of beauty in spreading the Gospel, and Pope Saint John Paul (who was an actor, playwright and poet) was also deeply immersed in the aesthetic perspective. The great evangelistic work of Bishop Robert Barron also relies heavily on the historic beauty of the art and music created by Christian civilization.

At the Convocation the power of the way of beauty was made manifest. Thanks to the Magnificat Foundation, there was exquisite religious artwork projected on the screens during all the liturgical services — stained glass windows from Europe, and artwork from many nations. The Marian art was particularly powerful to me.

The liturgical music was truly spectacular. Coordinated by my friend Chris Mueller and Rev. Łukasz Miśko, O.P., the music provided a wonderful blend of traditional and modern compositions. Simple but lovely modes of chant were used during the Liturgy of the Hours, so that even novices like me could fully participate. There were many unfamiliar hymns at Mass, but they were easily learned and sung. The Schola, which sang under Chris’ direction, was positively angelic and they helped us to offer beautiful praise to God. I know virtually nothing about music, so if you’re interested in the details, check this story by Chris Mueller.

I have to add a particular plug for Chris. He is an extraordinarily talented musician, and he has taken for his mission the renewal of liturgical music through recapturing traditional forms and making them accessible to modern ears and voices. He specializes in polyphony, and his wife and children sing as an ensemble. Chris was invited to spearhead music at World Youth Day in Poland last year, and as soon as I heard that he was involved in the music at the Convocation I know we were in for a treasure. Anyone who is interested in the role of music in the New Evangelization should familiarize themselves with Chris and his work.

Humanity is inherently attuned to aesthetics. Music and videos are obviously at the center of modern entertainment, and they form a critical part of the vocabulary of emotions and experience, especially for young people. The Convocation demonstrated that in the evening of praise and devotion led Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, two of the best contemporary Catholic musicians. Everyone present — not just the young guys — felt the power of the Spirit in their music.

I have never been accused of having a heightened aesthetic sensibility. But the noble simplicity of the Roman Rite and the majesty of Eastern Christian icons appeal to me on a deep level. So I can understand very well that the way to God is through the three great universal values — the good, the true and the beautiful.

The Convocation captured this idea and we witnessed the power of the beautiful in our mission of proclaiming the truth and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Joy of the Gospel in America

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

Last week, I attended the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America”. This was an important moment in the history of the Church in America. This huge gathering in Orlando of Catholics from around the nation was attended by over 3,000 people, including over a hundred bishops and many priests, deacons and religious. It was years in the making and was a major accomplishment for the staff of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.

I have to admit that I approached the event with considerably less than enthusiasm. I don’t like conferences — I am not a networker and I am an introvert who finds crowds uncomfortable and exhausting. I have also attended too many church events that were disappointing.

But this Convocation vastly exceeded my expectations. It was extremely well organized, the liturgies were beautiful (especially the music, which was exquisite), and it had a strong unifying theme that was very practical. In fact, I found the event to be virtually a mini-retreat, and I was very uplifted  and actually experienced spiritual healing of some long-standing wounds.

The event was organized around the themes presented by the Holy Father in the document The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). Boiled down to an “elevator pitch”, it was all about how we can share the Gospel with people in our modern world, especially those who are excluded and marginalized (who are in what the Pope calls “the peripheries”) so they can experience the saving and healing joy that comes from a personal loving relationship with Jesus Christ. To do this, we have to make sure that we have that kind of relationship, and we have to overcome the barriers in our own lives to sharing it with others and the stumbling blocks that that prevent them from accepting it. One of the primary ways that we are called to do this is by living a life of mercy and love, encountering and accompanying people in the difficulties of their lives.

The decision to use The Joy of the Gospel as the heart of the Convocation was inspired. This document was unjustly ignored in America because, I believe, the Holy Father had the audacity to express doubts about the justice of the world’s economic system. This is due to the extent of the materialism and consumerism that has infected American society, and the almost religious fervor that people have when it comes to “capitalism”.

In fact, the document is a beautiful call to experience the Gospel. As the Holy Father says up front,

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

This “new chapter” has to begin with a revived relationship with Jesus. The Holy Father goes on to say:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.

The Holy Father clearly identifies many obstacles to experiencing and sharing the Gospel, particularly a sense of complacency and self-orientation. He is particularly pointed in challenging pastoral workers not to fall into the temptations he calls “spiritual sloth”, “sterile pessimism, “spiritual worldliness”, all of which deaden our souls and dampen the desire to bring the Gospel to others.

The Convocation was designed to blast us out of those dead-end attitudes, and, judging by what I felt and saw, it was a success. Coming out of it, I think the participants were renewed in our confidence in the Gospel and eager to bring it to the peripheries of our troubled world.

I’ll have more to say about the Convocation in following posts.

More Chaos and Injustice for Refugees

Friday, July 7th, 2017

At the end of June, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a lawsuit that challenged the Administration’s so-called “travel ban”. The Supreme Court decision would permit the Administration to impose its ban on refugees from any nation in the world for 120 days, once the quota of 50,000 refugees has been met. Since that absurdly low number is expected to be met next week, the effect is to permit a refugee ban for the rest of this year.

However, the Court provided that refugees from six Muslim-majority countries can be admitted if they can prove a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” The Administration has interpreted this narrowly, to mean that people with “close family” in the U.S. — such as a parent, spouse, fiance or fiancee, child or sibling — would qualify. But it does not include others, including grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins. And it fails to take into account the reality of persecution suffered by thousands who don’t have any family ties to the US.

This leaves thousands of refugees trapped in dangerous and unhealthy camps or in hiding from violence and persecution. 65 million people are currently displaced by war and persecution around the world, according to the UN. Our attention has mostly been directed to the Middle East, but there are refugees from all over the world, including those fleeing the civil war and famine in South Sudan and people escaping the growing tyranny and economic collapse in Venezuela.

The terrible irony is that, even though the President originally said he wanted to help Christians facing persecution and to keep out radical Islamists, the ban will likely exclude far more Christians than Muslims. According to the State Department, 48 percent of the refugees admitted to the US in the first half of this year were Christian, while 41 percent were Muslim.

The injustice to Christians fleeing persecution was made even more evident by the bizarre decision by immigration officials to target Chaldean Christians in Michigan for a deportation campaign. Some of these people were legitimately subject to potential deportation because of prior criminal convictions. But the result of this campaign is not only to separate families, but to send these people back to northern Iraq — a current hot war zone that has been the site of genocide against Christians. It’s hard to fault them for feeling betrayed by a President who once tweeted “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”

This Administration is not exactly famous for consistency and rationality of its policies, and chaos seems to be the order of the day. Just today, it was revealed that the head of the ICS deportation unit has ordered his officers to detain all undocumented immigrants they encounter, even if they don’t have a criminal history — in direct contradiction of the Administration’s publicly stated priorities. Considering that the Administration hasn’t even nominated a new head of ICS or the policy office of Homeland Security, the disarray is not too surprising.

But the injustice of this Administration’s policies on refugees is both surprising and tragic. While I can appreciate differing positions on the appropriate numbers of immigrants to welcome to the United States, it is hard to fathom the Administration’s hard-heartedness towards refugees.

Welcome to the Arena

Saturday, June 10th, 2017

[I had the honor of being invited to address the graduates of The Montfort Academy. This high school is a gem — a truly, entusiastically and unapologetically Catholic school that focuses on classical learning and guiding the personal and spiritual growth of their students. May God bless those grads and the faculty and staff of Montfort. This is the text of my address.]

I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Montfort Academy for inviting me to speak to the graduating class today. It is an honor to be able to participate in this great enterprise of Catholic education.

We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives. No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly. We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood and our entry into the world at large. I hope and trust that your school and family have been safe and nurturing environments, in which you were respected and valued. Unfortunately, I have to tell something that you probably know already — you are stepping into a world that is not like that at all.

Welcome to the arena. I use the word “arena” very deliberately. It has particular significance to us Christians, calling to mind the early martyrs and confessors, heroes in the face of the hostility of the world. They were people of great courage and virtue. I also use the word “virtue” deliberately, because I know that your classical education has been deeply immersed in the development of virtue. So you have an excellent foundation for the challenges that lie ahead.

That’s good, because the arena is a tough place. Our modern world is very hostile to the message of the Gospel and to those who bring it. We see it every day in the news. Threats to religious liberties by our government; open hatred and contempt towards our faith and our Church in the media, and probably in most of the universities that you will be attending; threats to human life at the beginning, end and every point in between; attacks on the very meaning of what it is to be a man and a woman; and when we look beyond our borders, bloody persecutions in other lands. Powerful forces in our culture want people of faith to sit down, shut up, and leave their faith at home in private. And they are using the force of law and social pressure to make sure that we either conform to their views or we pay the price.

We have to be clear, though, that our battle is not just with the forces of the world — governments, media, entertainment, etc. It is a spiritual struggle as well. In fact, this is the most serious and difficult part of being in the arena. As St. Paul said, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but… with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) We cannot opt out of this spiritual battle. And we are called to choose whose banner we will follow – God’s or His Enemy’s.

Make no mistake, once you step into the arena, you’ll will feel it in your heart and soul – because that’s where the real battle is taking place. I recall once being in the State Capitol, going to a meeting with a high-ranking and hostile legislator about an abortion bill. I could feel the sense of opposition as I went to the meeting, as if I was walking into a strong headwind or swimming upstream. Just the other day, a colleague and I were at a conference run by assisted suicide advocates, and we could feel the evil in the room. In times like these we really need to listen to St. Paul’s advice, and draw our strength from the Lord and from his mighty power, and put on the armor of God so that we can stand firm against the Evil One (see Ephesians 6:10-11).

In the face of all these challenges, the worst mistake we could make would be to huddle together in small communities with only people who think like ourselves, and hope that someday somhow things will get better in the outside world. No. That’s a response of despair and defeat. Too much is at stake to do that.

We are called to build the kind of society that God wants us to live in. And so we need to arm ourselves with certain virtues that I’d like to talk about.

To illustrate this, I’ll call on the example of two of my favorite people from history – George Washington and Joan of Arc. Two soldiers who fought for great causes against overwhelming odds in a hostile world. They have a lot to teach us about how to fight our fight.

First and foremost, they had the virtue of trust in God.

I think of George Washington on Christmas Eve 1776. His army had suffered a series of defeats by the most powerful army in the world. He faced the likelihood of his army melting away. It would have been easy to think that defeat was inevitable. But Washington had absolute confidence that God supported what he called “the Glorious Cause”. As he put it once in a letter, “as far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will, is what we are to aim at”. With that attitude, he trusted in Providence and went on the attack, turning the tide of the war at the Battle of Trenton, and saving the cause of independence.

Think also of Joan of Arc in 1429. Her homeland was torn and devastated by civil war and foreign invasion. She had been receiving private revelations for years from St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. They had assured her that God had a special plan for her, and she believed them. But it was an astounding plan – God wanted this illiterate peasant girl, perhaps 17 years old, with no military experience at all, to lead the French Army to victory and make sure that the king was crowned and anointed with sacred oil. If ever there was something to scoff at, that was it. Imagine if one of you ladies went to the Pentagon and said that God had sent you to win our wars. But Joan never doubted, she trusted God. She pursued her mission with passion and tenacity, overcoming all skeptics and opponents and obstacles. She achieved a remarkable series of victories in battle, and she stood beside the king as he was crowned and anointed, just as God had promised.

We need trust in God in our struggles today. Don’t ever forget that God has a specific design and plan for each one of you. He has a design and plan for our nation. God cares what we do, how we live, what our laws are, how we are governed. Discerning His plan is difficult, but when we understand what it is, we must hold firm to it and place our trust in Him.

The second virtue is a purity of heart. By this, I don’t mean the theological virtue of detachment from sin (which we all need). I mean a kind of selflessness and humility that puts other people and the cause ahead of our own self-interest.

Whenever Washington was asked to assume a new office he spoke of his sense of unworthiness, and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with his duties. At the end of the Revolutionary War, and again at the end of his second presidential term, Washington didn’t seize ultimate power, as many victorious military leaders have done. Instead, he put the nation above himself, and he gladly returned to private life. When hearing that Washington might retire voluntarily, King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”  But so he did, and so he was.

Joan, too, was a great example of this virtue. Having come from poverty, she never asked for riches or titles or honors. Her greatest wish was to complete her mission and then return home to her parents. Surrounded by ambitious and conniving courtiers, she stood out for her simplicity and lack of egotism. Serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life, not personal glory. As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving of the names of Jesus and Mary. That was enough honor for her. At the trial that led to her unjust execution, Joan offered a statement that sums up her purity of heart: “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

Purity of heart is essential for our leaders and for the success of our cause.
But it is in short supply. Think of the public figures who revel in their celebrity status or constantly resort to bragging or self-advancement. That erodes trust and breeds suspicion and cynicism. It also encourages division in our ranks. We need purity of heart to stay strong and united. As the Bible says, One person standing alone can be overcome, two together can resist, but a cord of three strands is hard to break. (Ecc 4:12)

The final virtue is boldness. This is a form of courage, but it’s more than that. It’s a sense of freedom and honesty, being able to act on one’s deepest beliefs, unrestrained by fear or self-consciousness, certain of the truth and justice and inevitable triumph of one’s cause.

Washington repeatedly showed boldness in battle, both in his personal conduct and in his strategy. Several times he exposed himself to enemy fire in order to rally his soldiers. On that Christmas Eve in 1776 when all hope seemed lost, he led his men on an impossible venture – crossing a frozen river and marching through a blizzard to surprise and defeat the enemy at Trenton. A bold stroke, and a decisive one.

Joan’s boldness was legendary. She took a defeated, disheartened and demoralized French army and galvanized it into action. She rejected counsels of caution and attacked the enemy directly and decisively. She led her troops from the front of every battle, with her standard in her hand. When things were going badly she refused to retreat, but rallied the troops and attacked again. When asked if she was afraid, she said: “I fear nothing for God is with me!” Old hardened soldiers, with years of battle experience, willingly followed this young girl – they followed her up the battlements and they would have followed her anywhere. So would I.

Every generation faces its own battles. Washington and Joan fought for freedom and justice for their nations, against steep odds. The battle we face is similar, and just as daunting. We are in a struggle to define our culture and our nation, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are going to live together. We defend human life at every stage against what the Holy Father calls a “throwaway culture” that would just get rid of inconvenient lives. We stand for authentic masculinity and femininity, and the truth about human love and sexuality. We stand up and fight for poor, powerless, sick and suffering people in a culture that would rather avert its gaze and ignore them. We speak the truth of God’s will in a culture that rejects the very idea of truth.

Pope Francis once said: “Even today the message of the Church is the message of the path of boldness, the path of Christian courage… [and] the path of Christian courage is a grace given by the Holy Spirit.” So when we step out into the arena, we are not alone. We stand with the Holy Spirit, with Our Blessed Mother, our guardian angels, the heavenly hosts and the communion of saints. With them, we can truly say with the Psalm, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts” (Psalm 28:7). We can also hold on to the words of Jesus: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)

This is a difficult time. But this is a time for trust in God. This is a time for purity of heart. This is a time for boldness. This is a time for heroes. This is a time for you.

Welcome to the Arena. Congratulations and God bless.

Moral Guidance on Health Care Reform

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

The United States Senate is currently struggling to draft a health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The House previously passed a bill, but the Senate has essentially gone back to the drawing board and is trying to develop their own unique bill. Both in its politics and policy details, the process of doing so is mind-numbingly complex and difficult, and the results will have a tremendous effect on the lives of all Americans.

But the moral aspects of this kind of legislation are equally momentous in their importance. All legislation involves moral decisions about what to permit or prohibit, what to promote or discourage, what to spend money on and what to defund. Legislation like a health care bill is particularly fraught with moral dimensions that no “scoring” from the Congressional Budget Office can measure.

This is where our legislators need to listen to the advice of our Bishops, who have been examining this health care reform process for decades, and who have essential moral guidance to offer. In a letter sent to the Senate on June 1, the bishops who chair four major USCCB committees (including Cardinal Dolan, the Pro-Life chair) offered a clear moral template for any health care bill. As always, the bishops expressed their concern for how legislation would affect the most vulnerable people, including low-income people, immigrants, and the unborn.  But the principles they laid out are even broader:

  • No Affordable Care Act repeal effort should be undertaken without the concurrent passage of a replacement plan that ensures access to adequate health care for all.
  • Respect for life: No health care reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion. Long-standing “Hyde Amendment” protections must extend to any relevant health care plan in order to prevent federal funding of abortion and not as a temporary fix or future promise. Federal resources must not be used to assist consumers in the purchase of health care plans that cover abortion.
  • Access for all: Reform efforts must begin with the principle that health care is not a privilege, but a right in keeping with the life and dignity of every person. All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care…  
  • Truly affordable: Many lower-income families simply lack the resources to meet their health care expenses. The Bishops have serious concerns about structural changes to Medicaid that would leave large numbers of people without the coverage they now rely upon, including those who gained access to care as part of the Medicaid expansion that came with the ACA. Reform also ought to address barriers to affordability for those living above the poverty level but who are still working hard to make ends meet.
  • Comprehensive and high-quality: Health care is much more than mere insurance. Other aspects of health care policy require the attention of policy-makers: … focus on the maintenance and promotion of good health as well as treat disease and disability for all people, regardless of means; Incentives for preventative care, early intervention and maintaining a reasonable choice of providers… encourage individuals to develop a sense of ownership over decisions that affect their health and well-being; encourage people to enter medical professions, and which foster more humane and responsive relationships between doctors and patients…
  • Honoring conscience rights: Congress should expressly provide conscience protections for those who participate in any way in health care. Such protections should extend to all stakeholders, including patients, insurers, purchasers, sponsors, and providers.

Crafting complex legislation is not a pretty process, and inevitably involves many political compromises and imperfect solutions. But health care is too important a human right to be left entirely to amoral market forces, or to the often-immoral intrusiveness of government regulations. Either approach values ideology over people, and endangers lives of vulnerable people. One need only think of the massive funding and support provided to the abortion industry, regulations that violate religious freedom and seek to coerce cooperation in immorality, or the heartless attitude of insurance companies that will pay for suicide drugs but not for chemotherapy.

Congress has a difficult task in front of it. But our bishops have given much-needed guidance, and we should urge our legislators to heed it. The common good of our society, and social justice for all, is too important to leave to a debate that focuses only on political and economic concerns, and not on morality.

Life in the Balance

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

On May 30, the New York State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case of Myers v. Schneiderman, which is seeking to legalize assisted suicide in New York. The case was previously rejected unanimously by the trial court and the Appellate Division. Our pro-life coalition, along with disabilities-rights groups, have been opposing this effort, and the Catholic Conference filed an amicus brief in both the lower court and at the Court of Appeals.

It was a lively oral argument. The Judges were definitely engaged in the issues and asked tough questions of both sides. We were very fortunate that the Deputy Solicitor General did an excellent job representing our side. The essence of her argument was that the lower courts correctly dismissed the case because the Legislature has already enacted a “bright line prohibition” against assisted suicide and the Court should leave it to the Legislature to make any changes in that rule. One of the Judges affirmed that, noting that no other state (with the ambiguous exception of Montana) had legalized assisted suicide by court decision, but instead had enacted extensive legislation.

The Judges showed little interest in defining a broad constitutional right to assisted suicide or in sending the case back down to the trial court for a fact-finding hearing. Several Judges also stated that they had read a brief submitted by a disabilities-rights organization which stressed that legalizing assisted suicide sends a message that their lives are less worthy of respect. And one judge clearly recognized that once you permit assisted suicide for some patients, it is difficult to deny it to others.

On the whole, though, I’m still pessimistic. There was no reason for the Court to take this case, except to reverse the lower courts. One Judge pressed the Solicitor General repeatedly over the state’s interest in protecting life at the last extremity, when it already allows patients to be sedated into a state of unconsciousness and to then die of starvation or dehydration. This suggested strongly that the Judge was trying to figure out a way to define a statutory right to assisted suicide in a way that has a reasonably-definable limit. But that’s a bad thing for them to be even considering — again, whether or not to draw lines, and where you put them, is for the Legislature to decide, not the courts.

None of the judges pressed the plaintiff’s attorney to explain why the lower court judges were unanimously wrong or why the right to decline medical treatment includes having a third party (i.e., the doctor) give them a drug that will directly kill them. They also did not seem to grasp the fundamental difference between declining treatment and committing suicide — the crucial difference is in the intention and causation between those acts. Other state interests, such as the preservation of the integrity of the medical profession and the potential negative effect on other anti-suicide activities, were not addressed in the arguments (although they were extensively discussed in the briefs, including ours).

It is so hard to read oral arguments, especially when one judge said nothing and another very little. A decision is expected in June. I fear that the most likely result is that the Court will create some kind of statutory right to assisted suicide for patients who are at the very end of life and would otherwise be eligible for palliative/terminal sedation, and then either leave it to the Legislature to enact procedural protections (or, even worse, leave it to doctors to self-regulate). Of course, there’s no way to hold that limit, or to trust the Legislature to do it right, and we’ll inevitably slide right down the slippery slope to euthanasia along with Canada, Belgium and Holland. The Culture of Death has quite a grip on New York already, and things will only get worse.

One last point. It’s easy to be cynical about the law and about judges. I certainly am. The law is an extension of politics, it serves the powerful better than the weak, and it is easily manipulated for special interests. Judges often consider themselves to be our Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Rulers and arrogate to themselves authority that should belong to the people.

But to sit in that magnificent courtroom, listening to a very high level of legal argumentation on such a momentous issue, with the portraits of so many Judges looking down at us, with the portrait of the Founding Father John Jay in the center facing the bronze statute of Chancellor Robert Livingston and Judge Benjamin Cardozo looking on from the side, is an extraordinary reminder of something very important. The law and the judicial system, for all their faults, demonstrate the remarkable human capacity for reason and self-government. The administration of law is awe-inspiring and fearsome, and there’s still quite a bit of nobility in it. Whichever way the Court rules, we should not forget that.