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Let’s March for Science

Tuesday, April 25th, 2017

Last Saturday, there was a large gathering in Washington called the “March for Science”. I didn’t attend, but I gather that the idea behind the march was a call for society in general and government in particular to rely more heavily on the input of scientists when making public policy in the areas of their expertise. It seemed also to have a lot of messages about accepting the reality of global warming and the adoption of policies that would address it.

All of that is well and good, and I’m all in favor of it.

But while we’re marching for science, how about if we include a little bit of the science of embryology when we make public policies?

Embryology is the study of life at its earliest stages. Human embryology is quite an advanced science, and there is an abundance of amazing resources that have been produced by scientists that can educate us about its truths. A quick Google search will uncover amazing photographs and models of embryonic human life. If we want the quick version, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Here are some of the basic truths that have been revealed to us by the science of embryology: “A human begins life as a fertilized ovum” ( University of Utah medical school website); “The first week of human development begins with fertilization of the egg by sperm forming the first cell, the zygote” ( University of New South Wales, Australia, website); “Human development is a continuous process beginning with fertilization and continuing throughout pregnancy, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and into old age.” ( the Endowment for Human Development website); “Fertilization is the event most commonly used to mark the zero point in descriptions of prenatal development of the embryo or fetus” (okay, this one is Wikipedia, there were too many medical websites to keep citing them all).

So how does all this science relate to the making of public policy? Consider these quotations:

“During the first trimester, the predominant abortion method is “vacuum aspiration,” which involves insertion of a vacuum tube (cannula) into the uterus to evacuate the contents.”

“D&E is similar to vacuum aspiration except that the cervix must be dilated more widely because surgical instruments are used to remove larger pieces of tissue… Because fetal tissue is friable and easily broken, the fetus may not be removed intact. The walls of the uterus are scraped with a curette to ensure that no tissue remains.”

“Because the fetus is larger at this stage of gestation (particularly the head) [after 15 weeks], and because bones are more rigid, dismemberment or other destructive procedures are more likely to be required than at earlier gestational ages to remove fetal and placental tissue.”

“There are variations in D&E operative strategy… However, the common points are that D&E involves (1) dilation of the cervix; (2) removal of at least some fetal tissue using nonvacuum instruments; and (3) (after the 15th week) the potential need for instrumental disarticulation or dismemberment of the fetus or the collapse of fetal parts to facilitate evacuation from the uterus.”

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists describes the D&X procedure in a manner corresponding to a breech-conversion intact D&E, including the following steps: 1. deliberate dilatation of the cervix, usually over a sequence of days; 2. instrumental conversion of the fetus to a footling breech; 3. breech extraction of the body excepting the head; and 4. partial evacuation of the intracranial contents of a living fetus to effect vaginal delivery of a dead but otherwise intact fetus.”

All of those blood-chilling quotations are from the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down a state ban on partial birth abortions. That opinion was authored by Justice Steven Breyer and joined by four other Justices. All of those Justices were highly intelligent and educated people, all of whom attended Ivy League or similar prestigious colleges and law schools. Presumably, they were all reasonably well educated (for laypeople) in basic scientific principles. One would expect that at some point their education included the basic facts of human embryology. That opinion was written in 2000, so Wikipedia was certainly easily available for quick reference.

Yet they still upheld the legal right to kill members of the human race in the most barbaric means imaginable — dismemberment while still alive. They obviously knew the science, but ignored it.

So by all means let us march for science. More public policy decisions should be made based on the facts uncovered by scientific research. But we cannot fool ourselves. Science alone is not enough to make good laws and to promote social justice in our society. We need a proper sense of morality, which cannot be discovered by the scientific method. For that, we need to listen to the voice of God, either in the natural moral law written in our hearts or in his revealed Word.

When we ignore the truths of the moral law, we make even worse mistakes than when we ignore the laws of science. Let’s march about that.

Our Challenge on Earth Day

Saturday, April 22nd, 2017

Today is the annual “Earth Day”, a secular holiday of sorts that encourages people to pay attention to the state of our world’s environment and particularly the threats to the beauty and purity of our material world. That’s all well and good and we should certainly do so.

But Earth Day also gives us an opportunity to put enviromentalism in its broader context, informed by a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person and of the gift of creation. To do this, it’s worth revisiting Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

When it was released, the secular media generally portrayed Laudato Si as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”. Some people reacted to the letter with horror because it dared to cast doubt upon the modern worship of mammon in the form of “captialism”. But both of these reactions miss the point. Laudato Si challenges us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is woven throughout the encyclical. Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom. We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person.  Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers man as a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, without regard to his relationships with others. When one looks at the modern domination of our society by the ethos of economic libertarianism and  hedonistic autonomy, the diagnosis certainly rings true. The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems. In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

It is certainly important to pay close attention to the Holy Father’s comments on the specific environmental depradations that have been inflicted upon creation, particularly in the developing nations. But the true significance of Laudato Si can be found in its call to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other and with all creation. This has to begin, as the Holy Father said in last year’s Message on World Day of Prayer for Creation, with “a serious examination of conscience and moved by sincere repentance,”  so that “we can confess our sins against the Creator, against creation, and against our brothers and sisters”.

Today, the Holy Father got right to the heart of the matter, in the prayer he sent out on his Twitter feed:

Lord, bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

May this be our prayer on Earth Day, and throughout the year.

The American Monarch Wages War

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over the extent of what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the inherent power of the monarch in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc.

The history of England is in many respects the history of the gradual restriction of the unlimited power of the king and the imposition of conditions and limitations that established a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of the central elements of the royal prerogative was the power to make war without the approval of Parliament. Even to this day, the monarch of Great Britain has the sole authority to declare war, without the consent of the legislature.

That history is essential to understanding the foundation of the United States. If you were to read the Declaration of Independence, and focus on the “long train of abuses” in that document, you’ll understand that the misuse of royal prerogative was at the heart of the grievances that led to the Revolution. One of the driving principles in the Declaration, and later in the Constitution, was the need to limit the royal prerogative and to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulare them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Cheif of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military, but did not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for instance in the Youngstown Steel case, which overturned President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War. It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. That same section has also been understood to give the President very broad powers to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, including making treaties.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51) but specifically forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII).

Over the course of our history, presidents have greatly expanded their powers over war-making. Our nation has engaged in many conflicts on Presidential decision alone, without specific Congressional approval. From time to time, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to restrain that power. In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts.

Why does this matter to Catholics? It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2309. An essential element of that doctrine is that the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorites.

Those requirements have been consistently flouted by our militarized government. We have now come to a place where the President has no accountability to anyone — not Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Constitution. And so we are engaged in on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria, all of which are being waged without any regard to the Constitutional limits on presidential authority.

It is as if we never separated from Great Britain. In effect, we have a monarch with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. These decisions are too important to leave morality out of the calculus. As Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

Thanks to My Patron Saints

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

(Today is my birthday, so I thought I would re-post a blog that I wrote several years ago, for the same occasion)

If you’re like me, you have lots of favorite saints, and lots of saints who you think are looking out for you and helping you.  That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — a regular, daily awareness of the communion of saints. And also, if you’re like me, you had the good fortune to be born on a day on which the Church honors the memory of particular saints.

I’m old enough to have been born when the old Roman Calendar was still in effect.  As a result, I was born on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.  I have received many graces through his intercession, including a keen interest in theology and my middle name.  Thomas led a fascinating life, and he wrote so beautifully and deeply on all aspects of the faith that he has been a great gift to my faith.  I am particularly mindful of one of his final thoughts, after having some kind of mystical experience.  He ceased work on a project, and upon being asked by his secretary why he didn’t finish the work, replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  That’s a good reminder that nothing that we could do in this life could ever stand comparison to the glory of God.  As St. Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:7-8)

When they reformed the Roman Calendar in the Sixties, they decided to move Thomas’ feast to January 28.  Oddly enough, they chose the day that they “translated his relics” — that is, the day they dug up his body and moved it from one resting place to another.

Although I still have some hard feelings about them taking Thomas from me, I have to say that I lucked out again when the Church restored the ancient feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to their proper day.

If you aren’t familiar with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, you should immediately drop all that you are doing and correct this.  Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman, and her slave Felicity, were martyred in 203 A.D., in Carthage.  Perpetua was nursing her baby when arrested, and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua’s child was taken from her by her family, but Felicity gave birth while imprisoned and the child was adopted by a Christian family.  Perpetua wrote an account of their ordeals in prison with other Christians — one of the earliest written records by a Christian woman.  The story of their witness to Christ is vivid and moving, and should be required reading for all Christians who want a glimpse into the heroism of our ancestors in faith.

The night before their martyrdom, after having celebrated a “love feast” (the ancient name for the Mass) with her fellow prisoners, Perpetua had a dream about being led to the arena by one of the men who had already been martyred, who beckoned her to come and join them.  In the arena, she was beset by a mighty enemy, but she vanquished him and was called to enter the Gate of Life.  Realizing the significance of this dream, she wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory”.

The next day, March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their companions were taken to the arena, whipped, attacked by wild beasts and slain by gladiators.  They have been honored ever since.  As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.

I certainly do not consider myself to be in the intellectual ballpark of Thomas, or anywhere near as courageous as Perpetua and Felicity.  But I feel very close to them, as if they were my friends, but just separated from me for a short time.  Perhaps one day, if their prayers for me are heard, I will meet them, and I can thank them for their help and friendship.

Politics, Factions, and the Church

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

At the time of the founding of our Republic, one of the great concerns was the danger that political factions would undermine the fragile unity of the new nation. This was so serious that the Founding Fathers specifically and repeatedly warned about the deleterious effects factions would have on the country. For example, George Washington, in his Farewell Address (a document that is amazingly prescient and relevant in our age) said:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Likewise, James Madison in the Federalist Papers (No. 10) said this:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

There is no question that the spirit of faction is very widespread in our nation and that it is driving us further apart. The past election was a particularly bad season for this, and virtually everyone can tell about divisions in their families, uncomfortable or hostile conversations at dinner, being “un-friended” or seeing vitriol on Facebook, and so on. There is not just anecdotal evidence for this. A major study by the Pew Center last year documented the rise in partisanship and animosity over politics.

American politics is becoming almost tribal in nature. A person’s political affiliation is becoming a dominant aspect of their identity and it is increasingly shapes not just their views on public issues but their friendships, associations, etc. Party loyalty is becoming one of the highest values and group-think is becoming the acceptable standard. Politics is also invading more and more aspects of life. It’s becoming increasingly common at sporting or entertainment events for some athlete or singer to inject their political views into the show. Facebook is becoming more about political rants than pictures of the kids and silly cat videos. Corporations whose purpose is to sell us stuff are now seeing it as their role to tell us how to think as well. People on both the left and the right are bemoaning the fact that we are facing the politicization of everything.

This is not news, but I raise it at this time for a reason.  The President recently said that one of his major goals is to eliminate something called the “Johnson Amendment”. That’s a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that bans certain tax exempt organizations — particularly churches — from engaging in partisan politics. This has long been a goal of many Evangelical organizations and some Catholics as well. They want pastors to be able to openly endorse political candidates from the pulpit and to lend them material support through their churches.

I think this would be a disaster for the Church and for our society — and for our souls. Politics has its place, and its place is not everywhere. A healthy society has many institutions and activities whose purpose is to bring people together, not to divide them or to “kindle their unfriendly passions”. One of the most important of these places is in Church.

The purpose of Church is not to contemplate or promote temporary solutions to worldly problems. The purpose of Church is to worship God, the Creator and King of the Universe. It is a time to separate ourselves from the Kingdom of Man and immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of God, which is our true homeland. It is a time to renew our communion with Our Lord Jesus Christ and with His Mystical Body — with our fellow sinners of all political views. It is the place where we recall our solidarity with the Communion of Saints around the world, those who have preceded us and those who will follow us. We are called to lift our hearts and minds to God, to listen to His Word, and, if we are worthy, to receive His Body and Blood. In Church, nothing should distract us from trying to come closer to God in our hearts, minds and souls. Nothing.

Factions, parties, and partisanship — whatever term we use for it — have no place in the Church. They divide us in the most important place where we must stand united. St. Paul went so far as to call “party spirit” a work of the flesh, and compare it to many very wicked sins that exclude people from the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21). We certainly need more guidance from our Church about the principles and demands of our faith, and how we can apply that to the issues of our day.  But we cannot allow partisan politics to turn us against each other — or against the Church — and divert us from our real role in the world. In the famous Letter to Diognetus written way back in the second century, this was how the Christians were described:

… there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law… To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world…  Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

That is indeed a lofty function, one that we cannot allow to be diluted by politics or factions.

The Politics of Principle

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last eight 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 — perhaps now more than ever, in this poisonous political environment.  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.

The View in the Rear-View Mirror

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

The time has finally come to say “goodbye” to the Obama Administration. Not a moment too soon. Whatever one may think of the personal character of Mr. Obama, or whatever one may think about the wisdom of some of his policies, I think it cannot be denied that his Administration was a disaster for the issues that are most important to Catholics — the defense of human life, religious liberty, the truth of human sexuality, and marriage. Let’s review some of the low-lights.

Celebrating Abortion.  The Obama Administration was the most committed pro-abortion group that we’ve ever had in a leadership position. They were completely committed to expanding “access” to abortion, defending it against any legal challenge, and to stigmatizing anyone who opposed them. The President repeatedly expressed his support for the abortion on demand regime of Roe v. Wade, he issued Presidential Proclamations lauding the decision, and he frequently praised Planned Parenthood.

Abortion and Health Insurance. The President personally promised that his health care reform bill would not involve public funding for abortion, and even issued an executive order that purported to ensure that. But it was false when he said it and it was proven false by how the law was implemented. There will be tax subsidies for health plans that cover abortion, and many Americans will be forced by law to pay premiums for abortion itself. Just last year, the Administration even went so far as to re-interpret anti-discrimination laws to force all health insurance plans to cover abortion.

The Mexico City Policy. This long-standing policy prohibited tax dollars from going to international organizations that do abortions, such as UNFPA and International Planned Parenthood. The President signed an executive order revoking this policy on his very first day in office.

Embyonic Stem Cell Research. Just a few months into his first term, the President signed an executive order that allowed tax dollars to fund stem cell research that involved the deliberate destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage of their development.

Appointment of Pro-Abortion Officials. The President was utterly consistent in appointing pro-abortion people to key positions, including Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Justices Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Funding for Planned Parenthood. The President and his Administration were unwavering in their support for that evil organization, which kills over 300,000 unborn children each year and receives over a half billion dollars a year in federal money. He vetoed a bill that would have de-funded Planned Parenthood, and even went so far as to threaten to shut down the government, in order to coerce Congress to remove a de-funding provision from the budget.

Violating Religious Liberty. The President and his Administration have an incomparably deplorable record of hostility to religious liberty. Their singleminded adherence to the HHS Mandate, which ran roughshod over the freedom of religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, is just the tip of the iceberg. They consistently opposed religious freedom in court, including advocating for government interference in the appointment of religious ministers. They suggested that churches might lose their tax exemptions if they failed to fall in line with the re-definition of marriage. Virtually every one of their regulations involving abortion and/or contraception failed to respect religious freedom and sought to squash any religious-based objections. They excluded the US Bishops’ conference from serving refugees solely because the Church would not promote abortion. They refused to enforce existing federal religious liberty laws, and revoked regulations that would have required enforcement actions.

Re-defining Marriage. During his first campaign and in the first few years in office, the President stated that he did not support re-defining marriage to include same-sex couples. Nobody believed him then, and he proved that they were right. He directed his Attorney General to stop defending the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, and ultimately urged the Supreme Court to overturn that law. Soon thereafter, the President disingenuously announced his “evolution” on the issue of marrage and came out in support of re-defining it. His Administration then supported the litigation that ultimately changed the meaning of marriage.

Gender Ideology. His Administration has been relentless in advancing the bizarre notion that “gender identity” can be separated from biological sex and can mean virtually anything. They have been equally consistent in seeking to coerce into conformity anyone who disagrees. More and more federal agencies have been issuing regulations and “guidance” letters that require people to accommodate and acquiesce in variations in a person’s totally subjective “gender identity”. They have even tried to re-define the word “sex” in old discrimination laws to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation”, and thus to coerce every health care institution and professional to participate in surgical mutilations of people’s sex organs.

It’s been a bad eight years for our issues. We can only hope that the next four will be better.

On the Move

Friday, December 18th, 2015

This blog is moving to a new address, on the main Archdiocese website: http://www.archny.org/steppingout.

Comments on the new blog site are not yet enabled, so if you want to post a comment, send it to me by email (emechmann@archny.org) and I’ll figure out some way to post it.

What’s Going On?

Sunday, November 29th, 2015

I was born at the tail end of the 1950’s, and grew up in a completely white Irish and Italian neighborhood. There were no blacks in my elementary school, or on any of the sports teams I played on. I didn’t personally meet a single African-American until I went to high school. My parents watched the news every night, so I saw the cities burning in the summer riots. But beyond some vague fears of race riots in New York, it really didn’t mean much to me.

My introduction to racial reality came when I went to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.  I met African-American boys and girls for the first time, but it didn’t really strike me in any way, because I thought they were just like me.  But one day, my freshman religion teacher, Mrs. Mary Doyle, showed us a film of some of the civil rights marches in the South. I was appalled to see the police using fire hoses and setting dogs on the marchers. One of the wise guys in the class made a smart remark, probably something racist.  I was shocked, and can vividly remember to this day, watching Mrs. Doyle become so upset at the boy’s callousness that she started to cry.

That was the first time I realized that something was going on with race in America, but I didn’t really have a clue what it was.

During the rest of my high school and college times, I came to know a number of African-Americans personally. But I never became friends with any of them. I was unknowingly living a segregated life.

In 1981 I went to law school, but I followed at a distance the ugly fight over housing and school desegregation in my home town of Yonkers. I read the news stories, and even saw video of some of the public meetings, and was disgusted by the open racism that was being expressed.  Yet it still did not have a real impact on my life.  I still knew very few African-Americans, I had no idea what life was like in their neighborhoods and families.  I was still living a segregated life.

After law school, I became a prosecutor in Manhattan.  For the first few years, I worked on street crime cases — thefts, assaults, robberies, and the like.  Interacting with the victims, witnesses, and defendants, the majority of whom were all African-American, gave me a new view of life in New York City.  It introduced me to life in the African-American neighborhoods, which were inundated with drugs and crime and poverty and hardship.   But I really still didn’t understand, and I was still living a segregated life.

I tend to be politically conservative, and so are most of my friends and associates.  It is commonplace in conservative circles to dismiss claims of racism, or to minimize the lingering effects of racism.  Conservatives tend to have great faith in personal responsibility and initiative, and at times there is a distinct aroma of judgmentalism directed towards poor people, as if it is all their fault for remaining in poor and disadvantaged areas.  There also tends to be an emphasis on the social pathologies that afflict African-American communities — the breakdown of the family, poor schools, and so on.  All of this may have some truth to it, but is has never satisfied me as a good answer to what’s really going on.

We are now in a time where racial tensions are at the highest that I can recall.  The reality is that there are many, many people in the African-American communities, people of good will, who believe that there is systemic racism in America. It does nobody any good to deny this or to explain it away as a mis-perception, or a politically-motivated stunt.  It is a cliche to say that we need to have a “national conversation” about race, but it is also true.  But this has to begin by having personal conversations, to develop a better understanding of how we really live, so that we can begin to address the problem.

I still live a segregated life.  None of my close friends are African-American.  A handful of my neighbors are African-American, but aside from nodding “hello” to them in the street, I don’t interact with them at all.  With only two exceptions, none of my close co-workers is African-American.

Pope Francis consistently talks about the need to reach out to those on the periphery of society.  But I think I’m the one who is on the periphery when it comes to race in our nation.

Because there’s a serious problem with what’s going on.  And I still don’t understand.

The Despotism of an Irrational Oligarchy

Friday, June 26th, 2015

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a prosperous merchant, in which he discussed his views about the proper role of the judiciary in the American constitutional system.  In his letter, Jefferson made a famous observation:

You seem … to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions;  a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.

In his first inaugural address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln echoed these sentiments, in reference to the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in the Dred Scott case:

… the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court… the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

In 2015, it is now more clear than ever, that Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s predictions have been fulfilled, most recently with the latest ruling on the redefinition of marriage.

The Supreme Court’s impatience with the democratic process is well-established, and it has long arrogated to itself the presumed authority to substitute its political judgement for that of the people or Congress.  One need only recall the astonishingly arrogant passage from the Casey abortion decision, in which the Court claimed almost sacred significance to its own lawless decisions:

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

Of course, the Court’s rulings in its abortion cases have no basis whatsoever in the actual Constitution, or the tradition of American law, much like their bizarre rulings that essentially re-write acts of Congress to better suit their preferred result (e.g., the Affordable Care Act cases, NFIB v. Sibellius and  King v. Burwell).  Just so with the series of Supreme Court decisions relating to the radical redefinition of marriage — first in United States v. Windsor, and now with Obergefell v. Hodges.

Little needs to be said about this latest decision by the Court. This Court has a propensity to make things up as they go along, to satisfy their policy preferences or to follow public opinion.  Reasoned legal argumentation really has no great sway over the Court on these issues, so there’s no reason to treat their decision as if it had anything to do with law at all.

There is no question that over the past few years, public opinion has shifted strongly in favor of redefining marriage.  But the resolution of such a weighty policy argument should not be left to the least democratic branch of the government.  It should be hashed out in the rough and tumble of politics.  That is what was happening, prior to the Supreme Court’s first usurpation, in the Windsor case.  But democracy is apparently no longer an option, when the post-modern Zeitgeist of sexual liberationism demands its way.

And so, we should really stop pretending.  When it comes to certain important issues about the nature of the human person and our society, we really no longer have a rule of law or of reason, but a rule of lawyers — a majority of five, to be precise, all of whom attended a few elite Eastern law schools.  Jefferson’s fear of the despotism of an oligarchy has fully come true.