Archive for the ‘Religion in Public Life’ Category

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.

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.

Is There Room for Pro-Life Democrats?

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

One of the saddest developments in modern politics has been the degradation of the Democratic Party when it comes to issues involving protection of human life. The party once boasted of pro-lfe members like Sargent and Eunice Schriver, Bob Casey Sr., Tom Eagleton and Hubert Humphrey. But sadly, the institutional party’s leadership has now become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the abortion industry’s lobbying and political wing.

This development has been going on for many years. But it may have reached its point of no return. Last week, a controversy erupted because Sen. Bernie Sanders, the erstwhile presidential candidate, endorsed a candidate for local office in Nebraska who had previously voted for various pro-life bills. It’s worth noting, though, that recently the candidate had earned a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood and had publicly bought into the “I’m Catholic but I won’t let that affect my vote on abortion” charade.

None of that mattered to the abortion industry, which brooks no dissent. The abortion fanatics at NARAL immediately yanked the chain on their Democratic Party subordinates. The new Chair of the party promptly fell into heel and pledged to enforce ideological purity: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not chance city by city or state by state.” His rigidity was echoed by other significant Democratic Party officials, like Sen. Dick Durbin, who stated, “I know within the ranks of the Democratic Party there are those who see that differently on a personal basis, but when it comes to the policy position, I think we need to be clear and unequivocal.”

In other words, the official position of Democratic Party leaders has become “shut up about defending life or get out of the party”. Cardinal Dolan, speaking on behalf of the US Bishops, denounced this intolerant extremism:

The recent pledge by the Democratic National Committee chair to support only candidates who embrace the radical unrestricted abortion license is very disturbing. The Democratic Party platform already endorses abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy, even forcing taxpayers to fund it; and now the DNC says that to be a Democrat—indeed to be an American—requires supporting that extreme agenda. True solidarity with pregnant women and their children transcends all party lines. Abortion doesn’t empower women. Indeed, women deserve better than abortion. In the name of diversity and inclusion, pro-life and pro-‘choice’ Democrats, alike, should challenge their leadership to recant this intolerant position.

This sad development doesn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention. Last year’s presidential ticket was ardently pro-abortion; the party in Congress has been in lock-step to continue funding Planned Parenthood, the most prolific abortionist in America; few leading Democrats in elected office at any level will identify themselves as pro-life or support pro-life legislation; and only a handful of Democratic Congressional representatives continues to support the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal funding for abortion on demand. The party’s platformlast year made its position perfectly clear:

We will fight Republican efforts to roll back the clock on women’s health and reproductive rights, and stand up for Planned Parenthood…. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured… We will continue to stand up to Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers, which provide critical health services to millions of people. We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.

The institutional leaders of the Democratic Party are woefully out of step with their own members, not to mention all other Americans. The remaining pro-life Democrats are rightly feeling excluded and unwanted, even though they make up a sizeable portion of the party. A recent poll shows that:

  • 61% of Americans oppose the use of tax dollars to fund abortions in the United States, including 39% of supporters of Hillary Clinton.
  • 59% of Americans say it is either an immediate priority (34%) or an important one (25%) to limit abortion to the first trimester, including 47% of Democrats.
  • Among those who call themselves “pro-choice”, 44% say restricting abortion is an immediate priority or important, only 26% believe it should be available at any time in pregnancy, and 33% believe it should only be permitted the first trimester.
  • 59% of Americans believe that abortion is morally wrong, including 37% of Clinton supporters.

This is truly a tragic development for our society, and particularly for a party that has traditionally categorized itself as the voice for the little guy, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Instead, the Democratic Party has not only abandoned the most vulnerable human beings in our society, it has become actively hostile to them.

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.

Judges — Not Tribunes of the People

Monday, February 6th, 2017

The President has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. This has excited and inflamed many people, and the battle over his confirmation will be a wild one. Filibusters and nuclear options are all on the table, and it will be very interesting to see what happens.

One thing that has already become clear, though, is that a great many Americans have no idea what a judge is really supposed to do. It may sound too trite to even be mentioned, but the fundamental truth is that a judge’s job is to decide cases. Nothing more.

A great deal of the commentary that you will see from the opponents of Judge Gorsuch is startlingly uninformed. After the announcement, people were already labeling him as “dangerous” and “extreme”, even though they hadn’t heard of him five minutes before. They were portraying him as some kind of wild-eyed maniac who somehow had managed to get on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Never mind that he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for that position and that he has served there for the last decade without the Republic collapsing or anyone moving to impeach him.

The reality is that these advocates couldn’t care less about who Judge Gorsuch is (a pillar of his church and community), what his background is (both Columbia College and Harvard Law School, a few years behind me), or his years of outstanding public service (clerking on the Supreme Court and in a high position in the Justice Department). The reality is that these advocates only care about having a Supreme Court Justice who will enact their favored policy positions from the bench. And based on their rhetoric, the only issue that really seems to matter to them is abortion — they desperately want to keep abortion on demand legal in this country, and they don’t care how many people they have to calumniate and destroy to do it.

This campaign against Judge Gorsuch also betrays a complete lack of understanding about what a judge is supposed to do, and it illustrates how important it is for a judge to have a coherent philosophy of the law and a firm grasp of the essential principles of the American constitutional order.

Judges are not supposed to be super-legislators who make sure that their favored policies are embodied in their interpretation of the Constitution and statutes. Policy-making is the province of Congress and the President — the political branches that are subject to oversight by the electorate. The only job of the Supreme Court, as anyone can see in Article III of the Constitution, is to decide cases and controversies that arise under the Constitution and laws as well as certain other specific cases (like disputes between states).

Our Supreme Court has been violating that limited role for a very long time now. At least since the Progressive Era and especially since the New Deal, the Court has seen itself almost as a body of Platonic Guardians who can discern new meanings in the Constitution that nobody saw before. This is the body of judges who had the gall to say in the case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood:

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.

What gaseous nonsense. I defy anyone to find even a hint of such a role for the Court in the Constitution or in any of the writings of the Founders of our Republic. Madison, Hamilton and Washington would be appalled by such a pronouncement.

This highlights the importance of a sound judicial philosophy and a coherent understanding of the structure and principles of our Constitution. Too many Justices are on the bench already who lack this, and instead are ideologues (like Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor), smart but lock-step liberals (Justice Kagan and Breyer) or vacuous pragmatists (Justice Kennedy). They appeal to a non-existent entity they call the “living constitution” and use that to make up new laws as they go along. If you want to see how it’s done, see Obergefell v. Hodges. And in doing so they hijack the proper roles that the Constitution gives to Congress and the President.

Judge Gorsuch, on the other hand, is an “originalist” and a “textualist”, which means that his philosophy is to discern the actual meaning that Constitutional provisions had when they were adopted and the actual meaning of the words that appear in laws enacted by Congress. Then, in the common law tradition, he would see his job as applying those principles to decide the actual case or controversy that is before him. No vaporous pronouncements about grand roles of the Court, and no discoveries of new rights and liberties hiding in invisible ink in the penubras, emanations and miasmas of the Constitution.

This restrained approach to the law is what actually scares the advocates who oppose the judge. They have become so used to judges enacting their favorite policies that they can’t imagine one who does otherwise. They are desperate to hold onto their policy gains, and they dread putting them before the elected branches for an open democratic debate.

In ancient Rome, there was an office called the “Tribune of the People”. He had the power to veto any law or government action, and he was absolutely unaccountable to anyone — nobody could overrule him or even lay hands on him. That is not what our Constitution envisions when it gives the Supreme Court its “judicial power”. Judges should decide cases and controversies, give effect to the laws that were actually enacted by “we the people”, and not set themselves up as unaccountable rulers.

Post-Election Thoughts

Thursday, November 10th, 2016

A few points that I think are worth noting about the election results. On the whole, it was a good night for the pro-life, pro-religious freedom agenda.

  • The way the political parties are currently aligned, it is generally better for our issues when Republicans and conservatives hold key positions, because they are more likely to be pro-life and favorable to religious liberty. This is not universally true, nor may it be true in the future, but it is a generalization that I rely on in my comments below. More about this further down.
  • Clearly it is very good news that the most ardently pro-abortion presidential candidate in history has been defeated. The wailing and gnashing of teeth (and desperate apocalyptic fund-raising efforts) by Planned Parenthood et al. gives us an idea of what this means to pro-abortion advocates. Bad news for them is always good news for us.
  • Many of the Executive Branch officials in the Administration who have pushed an anti-life and anti-religious liberty agenda will also be turned out of office and replaced with more conservative policy-makers. This gives us great hope that hostile regulatory measures (like the HHS Mandate, ACA abortion mandates and the transgender mandates) will be reversed or moderated.
  • However, since the President-elect is not widely celebrated for consistency of positions and promise-keeping, it is vital that pro-lifers are vigilant and assertive in holding him to his campaign pledges and watching his appointments to key positions.
  • The US Senate and House of Representatives have both retained a Republican majority. This makes it more likely that important budget amendments will be retained, particularly the Hyde Amendment (restricting Medicaid funding for elective abortions) and the Weldon Amendment (offering conscience protection for health professionals), and that further conscience protections (like the First Amendment Defense Act and the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act) will move forward. It also makes it more likely that Planned Parenthood and the rest of the abortion industry will be at least partially defunded.
  • We have to have realistic expectations about Congress, however, because the Senate still requires 60 votes in most cases before legislation can be acted on, which encourages delay, obstruction, and compromise. We have to be ready to accept incremental improvements, while still pressing for more.
  • It is more likely that conservative judges will be appointed to the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. But we must again temper our expectations — the Senate requires 60 votes for a nominee to be voted on, so it is likely that any Supreme Court nominee will be more moderate than Justice Scalia. The ability to appoint more conservative lower court judges is a major opportunity, since most of the key litigation on our issues takes place at the District Court and Circuit Court of Appeals levels.
  • Here in New York, it appears that the Republican Party has retained control of the State Senate, by virtue of its coalition with some Democrats. It is not clear whether there is a pro-life majority in the Senate, but this still gives us some reason to hope that the assisted suicide bill may be held off.
  • However, the fact that Colorado approved the legalization of assisted suicide by a wide majority in a referendum, and the District of Columbia is about to pass legalizing legislation, it is clear that we must continue to work hard on this issue.
  • Elsewhere in the nation, Republicans retained their control of the majority of state legislatures and governorships. This means that the dynamic efforts of pro-lifers at the local and state level will have the chance to continue. Their successes give us solace that our movement is making progress, even if we seem stuck in New York.

The startling results of the presidential election may represent a watershed moment of political re-alignment. If the Democratic Party moves further to the left, as many are now suggesting, it is likely that moderate Democrats who are also pro-life and pro-religious liberty will be looking for a new political home. Voters of all types who are uneasy with the populism and nationalism of the President-elect may also find themselves in search of new political partners. There may be a chance for these centrist voters to come together to present a new vision for politics, perhaps even in a new party, a vision that is more in keeping with Catholic social teaching and with the innate pragmatism and moderation of the great majority of Americans.

In the meantime, we can watch, hope, and pray for our political leaders and for peace and harmony in our nation. God bless America.

(Please note that these comments are strictly limited to the issues that matter the most to me, namely pro-life, marriage and religious liberty. This should not be taken as a general assessment of the election results, an analysis that encompasses the full range of issues of concern to Catholics, or an unqualified statement of approval either of the President-elect or the Republican Party.)

Pathological Politics

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Politics is a dirty business and anyone who is involved in it, even just as a spectator, has to have a thick skin and a high tolerance for invective and hyperbole. Even by the standards of ordinary politics, though, the current Presidential campaign has certainly hit a number of new low points in the behavior of the major party candidates — including juvenile name calling, deranged conspiracy theories, unfounded accusations of bigotry and hatred, and the dismissal of a large percentage of the population as being “deplorable”.

The level of discourse among the general public has also been lamentably awful, as any reader of a Comments Box or Facebook feed can attest. On the whole, this year has not presented an edifying display of democracy at its best.

All of this might easily be dismissed as “politics as usual”. But things are certainly getting worse, and it is a very dangerous trend. This was brought home to me the other day when I received a troubling email from a very respectable Catholic gentleman. In the email, he said that the Democratic presidential nominee “is pure evil and very powerful because of her allegence [sic] to Satan”.

When uncharitable and unjust things like this are being said by Christian people, we should be seriously alarmed. If we as Christians cannot engage in strong political discourse without resorting to calling people “pure evil” or alleging that someone is a servant of the Evil One, then there is something sick about our political climate.

I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised. A recent study by the Pew Center on “Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016″ found that Americans are not just divided by politics, but that the divisions have reached the level of fear and loathing. For example, the study found that “A majority of Democrats (55%) say the GOP makes them feel afraid, while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. And nearly half of Democrats (47%) and Republicans (46%) say the other party makes them feel angry”.

Things have clearly gone beyond robust disagreement about policy proposals. This personal animosity is the fruit of a political culture that cares little for policy discussions, but is instead infected by ideological media like “comedy” talk radio shows that show contempt for opposing viewpoints and politicians, and thrive on stirring up feelings of anger and indignation against the perceived enemy.

I understand that many people firmly believe that imminent disaster is at hand if one or the other of the major party candidates is elected. I certainly share the concern about the intensification of the Culture of Death and attacks on religious liberty. I also am disturbed by the prospect of immoral, unstable and untrustworthy people being elected to high office.

But as Catholic laypeople, we cannot be satisfied with this state of things. We are called by our faith to enter into temporal affairs, including politics, in order to bring to others the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must advance our positions while still remaining disciples of the Lord. As our Bishops say in their document, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “We are committed to clarity about our moral teaching and to civility. In public life, it is important to practice the virtues of charity and justice that are at the core of our Tradition” (FC 60).

Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, DC, has said it very well:

We need to look at how we engage in discourse and how we live out our commitment to be a people of profound respect for the truth and our right to express our thoughts, opinions, positions — always in love. We who follow Christ must not only speak the truth but must do so in love (Eph 4:15). It is not enough that we know or believe something to be true. We must express that truth in charity with respect for others so that the bonds between us can be strengthened in building up the body of Christ.

As Christians, we cannot participate in pathological politics. Our society is indeed sick, and desperately in need of healing. But the solution is the message of mercy and love of the Gospel, emphasizing the dignity of every human person — including those with whom we disagree about politics.

Voting as a Catholic

Monday, October 24th, 2016

As Election Day approaches, there is a great deal of confusion and angst among Catholics. The Presidential race has garnered so much attention that it has overshadowed many other essential races at the federal and state levels. These other races will have an impact on key issues that affect our lives – the legalization of assisted suicide, regulation of abortion, religious liberty, war/peace, health care, etc. As in every election, there is much at stake, and we have a duty to be responsible citizens and vote.

When approaching our election decisions, it is vital that we act as Catholics – as disciples of Jesus Christ. We do not have to be locked into the arbitrary binary categories that the world seems caught up by – Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, etc. Instead, we follow St. Paul’s advice, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

So our task is to think with the mind of Christ, and look for ways to build the “civilization of love” (a phrase first coined by Pope Paul VI) that is at the heart of the social mission of the Church. In doing this, we as laypeople have the crucial role. It is our duty to engage in secular affairs and transform them in light of the Gospel. Politics is our responsibility, and the more Catholic we are, the better citizens and voters we will be, and the more we will advance the Kingdom of God.

To do this, we first have to form a correct and Catholic conscience about public affairs. Fortunately, the Bishops of the United States have given us an excellent tool for this, the document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. This document provides practical advice on how to form one’s conscience in keeping with the teachings of our Church, and how to apply it to the political choices that have been presented to us. The goal is to foster political engagement that is “shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable” ( FC 14).

The first question that we must ask ourselves when considering how to vote is the character, philosophy and integrity of the candidates ( FC 41). It is essential for the health of the nation and for the common good to elect persons of good moral character who are responsible stewards of the power that we delegate to them. There have been too many examples in our history of the terrible consequences of electing people of bad character (see the Watergate scandal), and we should have learned this lesson by now. Public morality and private morality are connected, and we desperately need both.

We then must evaluate the positions of the candidates and their parties in light of Church teaching. We cannot responsibly vote based only on party labels or self-interest ( FC 41). Instead, we have to inform ourselves based on reliable and serious sources (i.e., not comedy shows). An excellent source for this kind of information is a party’s platform, which shows in broad strokes what the party stands for and what they hope to accomplish in office. This takes a little research, but with so much information on the Internet it is not too difficult for the average voter.

In doing this, we must keep the Church’s teaching in the forefront of our attention. Faithful Citizenship highlights several essential concepts that must be at the heart of a Catholic’s voting analysis: the dignity of every human person from conception to natural death, the pursuit of the common good for all persons in society, subsidiarity (addressing social problems as close as possible to their source and respecting families and local institutions), solidarity (the unity of the human family), and the special obligation to protect the weak and the vulnerable.

Within that general framework, some issues are clearly more important than others. Our Church has consistently emphasized the preeminent place of the protection of human life at all its stages. We must oppose all kinds of intrinsically evil acts that endanger human life and dignity, such as abortion, euthanasia, destructive embryo research, the redefinition of marriage, racism, terrorism, torture, wars of aggression, human trafficking, pornography, and inhumane working conditions. All of these are utterly incompatible with human dignity and the common good.

This creates an obvious dilemma when we are confronted with candidates who are in favor of legalized abortion. We obviously cannot vote for a “pro-choice” candidate in order to support or perpetuate legalized abortion — “in such cases a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil” (FC 34). The Bishops advise, however, that we may vote for a “pro-choice” candidate — but only “for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil” (FC 35) What constitutes a “truly grave moral reason” will obviously depend on the circumstances, but it would appear to mean something that involves opposing another seriously immoral act, such as preventing racism, defending against serious threats to religious freedom, or stopping an aggressive war.

One thing is clear. Although we are not “one issue voters” and we should evaluate all of a candidate’s positions, “if a candidate’s position on a single issue promotes an intrinsically evil act, such as legal abortion, redefining marriage in a way that denies its essential meaning, or racist behavior, a voter may legitimately disqualify a candidate from receiving support” ( FC 42). So it is a perfectly responsible position for a Catholic to rule out voting for any “pro-choice” or racist candidate for that reason alone.

The hardest case for a Catholic is when we are presented with a choice between candidates who all support grave and intrinsic evils. In this case, the Bishops offer this advice: “The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods” ( FC 36). This is not “choosing the lesser of two evils”, but instead is an effort to mitigate or minimize the damage that will be done by imperfect candidates. This is a difficult balance to draw, and one that should be approached very carefully. Balancing evils and predicting the future are fraught with the possibility of error, so a Catholic should proceed with great caution.

When faced with that situation, we can leave a particular ballot line blank and move on to other races, or we can look beyond the partisan binary – there’s no requirement in our faith that we must vote for a major party candidate. In many races, particularly the Presidential race, there are other people running whose positions are compatible with Church teaching, and a Catholic can therefore use their vote to make a principled statement. So we should look at minor parties (e.g., the American Solidarity Party) and other independent candidates.

Voting as a Catholic is not easy in this fallen world, but it is something that all Catholics are capable of. To do this, we can’t give up on politics as if it is hopeless to have good moral candidates and to improve our society. The quality of our politics depends on the quality of our participation. We must be aware of what is happening, and stay informed by seriously researching the positions of parties and candidates and the teachings of the Church. We should also pay close attention to all the races on the ballot, not just those on the top. We should certainly put in as much effort in voting as a Catholic as we do in selecting a cell phone. We should also stay engaged all year long, particularly by joining advocacy efforts like the New York State Catholic Action Network or the Human Life Action network.

The most important thing in this, as in any moral decision, is to call on the assistance of God. Pope Francis, when asked recently about our elections, gave this advice: ” Study the proposals well, pray, and choose in conscience.” Prayer is essential for any Catholic who seeks to do their duty as a voter. Because, as the U.S. Bishops have noted, “It is important to be clear that the political choices faced by citizens not only have an impact on general peace and prosperity but also may affect the individual’s salvation ” (FC 38).

The Need for Political Morality

Tuesday, October 11th, 2016

Recently, I read a journalist’s account of the Watergate scandal. It was actually a bundle of inter-related illegal acts and conspiracies that led to the downfall of President Richard Nixon. One of the things that struck me was the astonishing and complete lack of morality among “All the President’s Men”. These were the most powerful men in the country, most were lawyers, and all considered themselves to be religious in one way or another. Yet they acted in total disregard for the law and for basic morals. They committed a series of crimes with no compunction — burglary, theft, bribery, illegal wiretapping, violations of campaign finance laws, and obstruction of justice. The amount of lying was breathtaking — a systematic campaign of perjury and knowingly false public statements. They never asked themselves “is this right?” but only cared about “will this work”.

I was a teenager when all this happened, and I remember following the stories with great interest. But I didn’t appreciate the sheer scope of all of it until I read this book. And, naturally, it led me to reflect on the current political climate, and on the desperate need for “political morality”.

There are two components to political morality. One is the personal morals of those who hold public office — are they people of integrity who can be counted on to obey essential principles of honesty, financial responsibility, lack of self-interest, fairness, seriousness, humility, etc. I utterly reject the notion, which is usually attributed to Macchiavelli, that rulers are not bound by ordinary moral laws, but are free to do things that would be illegal or immoral if done by ordinary citizens. No matter what public office one holds, the Ten Commandments still apply, and personal virtue will lead to good government.

The other component is constitutional morality — do they respect the rule of law, the process of law-making and governance, the rights of citizens, the notion that nobody is above or outside of the law, etc. I’m not as cynical as most people think, and I actually believe that a sound legal process will lead on the whole to sound results. I believe that the principles embodied in our Constitution — separation of powers, limits on the authority of the government, checks and balances, protection of fundamental rights, and federalism — provide a rich and fertile soil for living a peaceful and just life.

These elements of political morality were utterly lacking in the Nixon Administration. The Watergate scandals and their threat to the constitutional order were the direct result. The similar lack of political morality in the current climate fills me with dread for the future of our Republic.

At all levels of politics, we are repeatedly presented with — and we routinely elect — candidates who have a propensity for falsehood, whose financial affairs are deeply suspect, who treat people as instruments to be used and then discarded, and who seem obsessed with personal power rather than selfless public service. It has become unremarkable for candidates to affirm that they will use their power to commit gross moral evils, like abortion on demand, torture, aggressive war on civilians, and racial and religious discrimination. Candidates openly show disdain for the proper Constitutional process and promise to rule unilaterally by decree. And candidates and political advocates make crystal clear that they will use the levers of power to punish their enemies, and all those who disagree with their ideology.

The men who built and established our Republic understood very well the need for political morality. George Washington, who was an exemplar of this, said, “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government,” and “Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.” John Adams, who was no stranger to the rough and tumble of partisan politics, said “Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.”

The current state of affairs in our political system would horrify the Founding Fathers. They should equally horrify us.