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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.

A Holy Warrior for Our Time

Friday, May 26th, 2017

May 30th is the anniversary of the martyrdom of my favorite saint — she called herself Jeanne the Maid (“Jehanne la Pucelle”), but we know her better as Joan of Arc. She was a beautiful person, simple, humble, devout and strong. She rose from total obscurity in the backwater farm country of France, and accomplished one of the most remarkable feats in human history.  Hers is such an amazing story that it sounds like fiction — an ignorant seventeen-year-old girl, with no military experience whatsoever, leading the army of a defeated and demoralized nation to impossible victories, restoring the true king to the throne, only to end in tragedy.

But her military accomplishments aren’t the most important thing about her, even though they remain astonishing and unmatched in history. Her entire mission was not intended to glorify herself, but was carried out in humble obedience to the will of God, communicated to her through visions of Sts. Michael, Catherine, and Margaret. She never wanted anything more than to return to her home, yet she obeyed God and set aside her own desires, in order to bring peace and justice to her homeland.

The price she paid for this devotion was appalling.  After all her triumphs, she was betrayed by the same king whom she raised to the throne, abandoned by her comrades in arms, persecuted by hard-hearted enemies, tortured and condemned by corrupt Churchmen, and cruelly put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable.

Jeanne’s beauty of soul and her sterling faith shone through it all, even in battle and even in the darkest days of her cruelly unfair trial.  Here is what she said at the trial, when asked about who carried her standard (i.e., her flag): “It was I who carried the aforementioned sign when I charged the enemy. I did so to avoid killing any one. I have never killed a man.”  She wept over the loss of life in battle, strove to minimize it, insisted on sparing prisoners, and comforted dying enemy soldiers.  At her trial, Joan offered a statement that sums up her character, and could have been her battle cry:  “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

Jeanne rejected worldly honors, and refused to accept titles for herself.  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 “+Jhesus+Maria+”. I wear a similar ring every day in her honor. As she was suffering at the stake, she had a cross before her eyes and she died with the name of Jesus on her lips. Those who witnessed her death finally understood that they had condemned a saint.

She is, in my opinion, the most outstanding example of a brave and Christian warrior, whose love of God inspired all that she did, whose nobility of character inspired deep love and devotion among the hardened soldiers who followed her, and whose courage under persecution is a shining beacon of purity and virtue. Her life continues to inspire biographers to this day, and even the cynical Mark Twain, who wrote a beautiful novelization of her life, considered her to be the most remarkable person who ever lived.

Back in 2011, Pope Benedict presented a series of reflections on the great female saints, at his regular Wednesday address.  One of those he spoke about was Jeanne, and he said this: “Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision”.

She is a saint for the ages, and she is particularly important for this age.  The Church and people of faith need holy warriors now more than ever, people who are willing to stand for the truth, for God’s will, and for the welfare of their homeland.  I pray to Jeanne every day, and in times of trial I feel the strength of Jeanne’s patronage.  If I ever make it to heaven, she will be one of the first saints I seek out and thank for her help.

A Religious Liberty Failure

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

It is often difficult to know what to make of this very strange Administration. Every day seems to bring a new self-generated controversy and it is often difficult to discern what is going on and why.

Sometimes, though, it is very clear what has happened — or more accurately, what has not happened. The case in point is the alleged religious liberty executive order issued last week to great fanfare. It was a splendid photo op, with the President surrounded by Catholic prelates, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other religious leaders. The President spoke wonderful words about how committed our government is to defending religious liberty. There were smiles all around and much applause.

The problem is that the executive order is virtually useless, it accomplishes nothing, it misses an opportunity to implement important reforms, and it delivers nothing more than vague promises of possible future actions at undefined times.

The order contains six paragraphs. The first contains hortatory language about the importance of religious liberty, which is virtually indistinguishable from proclamations issued by the prior Administration. The last two paragraphs deal with legal procedure that has no particular importance. The middle three paragraphs is where the substance is supposed to be, but isn’t.

Paragraph 2 purports to grant legal protection to the free speech of religious non-profits and churchs that are incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It directs the Treasury Department not to enforce a legal provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits those organizations from engaging in partisan political activity such as open endorsement of candidates. Opinions differ about the Johnson Amendment. I happen to think it’s a good idea but many others disagree. The problem is, though, that the government has virtually never enforced that provision and the President can’t do anything to change the law itself — it can only be repealed by an act of Congress. Future administrations could easily begin enforcing the rule at any time — which would be particularly dangerous for any organization that foolishly relies on this executive order and begins engaging in partisan politics.

So this part of the executive order is actually completely devoid of any real content. It’s merely a promise not to do something that isn’t being done, without preventing it from being done in the future. Hold your applause.

Paragraph 3 is a particularly frustrating diappointment to those of us who have been battling over religious liberty the past few years, especially over the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. That is the cause of voluminous litigation that culminated in a directive from the Supreme Court that the government find some way to accommodate the religious liberty concerns of religious non-profits who object to the mandate. This executive order directs the relevant agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections”.

“Consider”? That’s all? Remember, you can’t overturn statutes or regulations with a mere executive order, so the HHS mandate and its offensive non-exemption continues to be the law of the land. But the President, with the stroke of a pen or even with a mere oral order, could easily have directed the Justice Department to immediately settle all the litigation by granting the religious non-profits the same full exemption that is enjoyed by churches, and further directing the relevant agencies to develop regulations that would formalize that settlement into law. That would have resolved the HHS mandate controversy completely and it would have established a strong precedent for further conscience protection laws and regulations.

This is a tragic missed opportunity, and it directly calls into question the Administration’s competence and/or its sincerity about protecting religious freedom. It is a complete and absolute failure to follow through on explicit campaign promises — somehave even called it a betrayal.

Paragraph 4 is hardly worth mentioning. It directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections”. This won’t come any time soon, since virtually no sub-cabinet Justice Department officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there isn’t even a nominee for the head of the crucial Civil Rights Division. And in any event, “guidance” does not have the same force of law as regulations or statutes, it does not have to be accepted by the courts and it can be overturned at any time by this or any future Administration. So this is another post-dated check for something that may be delivered someday by someone. Yawn.

This much bally-hooed executive order is a major failure. It provides no actual protection for religious freedom. It does nothing to change the law. It does nothing to reverse the hostility of the prior Administration towards those with traditional religious beliefs. It does nothing to protect religious contractors from discrimination by government agencies that disapprove of their beliefs. It is such a non-starter that even the ACLU has decided that it’s not worth challenging in court.

Many people, particularly religious conservatives, supported the President because they rightly feared the consequences for religious liberty if Hillary Clinton had been elected. But the President’s executive order uttely fails to deliver on expectations for imporoved protection of religious liberty. All we can hope is that the Administration will eventually get its act together, appoint good people to crucial executive positions, and implement concrete reforms to statutes and regulations that will give genuine and lasting protection to people and organizations of faith. Meanwhile, despite all the fanfare in the Rose Garden, the very real threats to religious freedom remain.

A Travesty of Justice in Arkansas

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Last night, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams, the fourth man they have executed in just over a week. The other three men’s names were Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr. Four other men were supposed to be killed, but they recieved stays of execution from courts.

All of these men were convicted of heinous murders and had served many years of incarceration awaiting execution. But the sole reason that the state scheduled so many executions over such a short period of time was that the state’s supply of one of the drugs used in its lethal injections expires at the end of April. In a statement calling for cancellation of the executions, Bishop Frank Dewane, Chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, described this twisted scenario in very clear terms:

The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.

The family of Mr. Williams’ victim wrote a moving letter to the Governor, asking him to grant clemency. They related how they had arranged from Mr. Williams’ daughter and granddaughter to come and visit him, and asked to see him themselves so they could tell him that they forgive him — a request that had been denied. And they said this:

You often hear stories of men who go into prison and become bitter, angry and hateful. I do not believe Mr Williams is one of those men. He found God and I believe his redemption is genuine. Mr Williams is not the same person who killed my father on 4 October 1999. It is the changed man; the new Kenneth Williams that we are asking you to save.

Mr. Williams and Ledell Lee both received Communion before they were executed. Mr. Lee even opted for Communion instead of a last meal. There were significant doubts raised about the mental capacity of some of the men who were executed, and about the innocence of one of them.

None of that mattered. The courts stepped aside and the Governor ordered their execution before the artificial deadline set by the “sell by” date of the deadly drugs.

In his great encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul said this:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56)

It is difficult to justify the necessity of any executions in the United States today. Our massive prison system is surely capable of detaining potentially dangerous offenders so that they no longer pose a threat to society. We are also well capable of removing convicted murderers from the general population for extended periods of time. A recent report stated that over 150,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States, with over 50,000 of them ineligible for parole. There are fewer than 3,000 people who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. It’s hard to see how the fast-track execution of these four men contributes anything positive to the common good, or any way in which it was necessary.

But even if one accepted the argument that the death penalty was justified in these cases, it is still hard to justify the circumstances of these executions. The State of Arkansas displayed a callous disregard for the dignity of those prisoners by treating them — and not just the deadly drugs — as objects to be used up and discarded prior to their expiration date.

The Culture of Death is already far advanced in the United States. Abortion is routinely done for any reason — including eliminating handicapped babies — and is applauded by many influential people in our society. Adherence to abortion on demand is being required as a mandatory condition for being an active member of the Democratic Party. Human trafficking for commercial purposes is permitted in the form of gestational surrogacy and assisted reproduction. And ideologues are seeking to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia as a way of disposing of lives they consider no longer worth living.

The death penalty is not in the same category as those offenses against human life. They are all intrinsically evil, while the Church still maintains that capital punishment may be morally justifiable under some limited circumstances. But that’s not ultimately what’s at issue here.

The dispensation of justice is a fearsome and profound matter, and should be treated with great caution and seriousness. It is appalling to turn it into a travesty where the executioner is heedlessly racing to beat the clock. Every human life, including that of convicted murderers, deserves more than that.

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.