Archive for the ‘Religion in Public Life’ Category

The Supreme Court’s Religious Freedom Mess

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Some day, maybe, if we wish hard enough and clap until Tinkerbell’s light comes back on, the Supreme Court will fix the mess that it’s made of First Amendment religion jurisprudence.

Plain Meaning

The First Amendment deals with two basic categories of religious rights in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.  They read as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

At the time that the First Amendment was enacted, these provisions only applied to Congress, but since then the Supreme Court has applied it to the states as well, under the theory that they were incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment’s limitations on state power.  Also, at the time that the Amendment was enacted, the meaning of these phrases was pretty self-evident.

The Establishment Clause meant that there could be no “established church” — namely, a church that had enjoyed special legal status, that received unique privileges under the law, and that all citizens were either required to belong to or financially support.  Established churches were the norm in most European countries at that time, so our Founding Fathers knew well what it meant — all citizens would experience legal coercion to belong to that church, or would suffer penalties for not belonging.

The Free Exercise Clause was also well understood at the time.  It meant that the government could not forbid, restrict, or penalize people from practicing their faith.  This provision guaranteed that — in the words of the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 — people would not be “troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion nor in the free exercise thereof”. Perhaps the best statement of the well-understood meaning of the Free Exercise Clause was by George Washington, in his letter to the Jewish population of Newport, Rhode Island:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

As we all know well, one of the main reasons that people have come to America was to enjoy these guarantees of religious freedom.  That was true in the colonial era, and it remains true now.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has made a complete hash of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, with the result that the freedoms they guarantee have become threatened.

The Establishment Clause Muddle

The most recent example of this came the other day, when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a case arising out of Utah.  A private organization was founded to recognize and remember state troopers who died in the line of duty on the highways of that state.  They worked with family members to erect a memorial cross (or another symbol, at the choice of the family) near the site of the trooper’s death.  They obtained permission from the state highway authorities to do so, with the understanding that the state did not pay for or endorse the symbol erected.

Naturally, a group of Christophobic atheists brought suit, claiming that the erection of the memorials violated the Establishment Clause.  The theory was that the use of the cross as a symbol of remembrance would signal that somehow the State of Utah was endorsing the Christian religion — a particular irony, since the majority of citizens of that state are not Christians, but Mormons.

Anyone who reads the bare words of the Establishment Clause, and considers its original and plain meaning, would find this an easy case — permitting private people to put up a memorial cross on the side of the road does nothing to create a state church, and there’s nothing in such a gesture that would coerce anyone into joining or supporting any such church, or would penalize anyone for not joining.

Sadly, the Supreme Court’s religion jurisprudence is such a mess that the federal Court of Appeals ruled that the memorial crosses violated the Establishment Clause, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case.  Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent from the Court’s ducking of the issue, commented on the absurdity of it all:

Since the inception of the endorsement test, we have learned that a creche displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Likewise, a menorah displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… A display of the Ten Commandments on government property also violates the Establishment Clause, except when it doesn’t… Finally, a cross displayed on government property violates the Establishment Clause, as the Tenth Circuit held here, except when it doesn’t…  Such arbitrariness is the product of an Establishment Clause jurisprudence that does nothing to constrain judicial discretion.

The Empty Free Exercise Clause

The Supreme Court has not shown much more wisdom in interpreting the Free Exercise Clause, and in fact has virtually emptied it of any meaning.

In the case of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court was faced with a case involving the denial of unemployment benefits to several Native Americans, under a rule that denied benefits to anyone who couldn’t pass a drug test.  But the reason they couldn’t pass the test is because they used the drug peyote in their religious practices — much as we use wine at Mass.  They challenged the law, claiming that it would force them to violate their religious beliefs.

At that time, the Native Americans looked to have a good case.  The Supreme Court had previously held that a law could not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless the government had a compelling interest and the law was narrowly defined to serve that interest.  Under that standard, it would appear that the use of ritual peyote — much like the use of sacramental wine, in the face of blanket alcohol prohibitions — would have to be permitted as an exception to the law.

The Supreme Court instead changed the rules, and held that they were properly denied the benefits.  The Court held that the government is not required under the Constitution to grant exceptions to neutral laws that apply to all people, even if that law imposes a burden on a person’s religious liberty.  In essence, the Court said that the government can require a person to forego their religious practices — to give up their sacraments — in order to qualify for benefits.

In one decision, the Court essentially gutted the Free Exercise clause.  The irony is that the majority opinion was by a man whose religion is frequently a subject for attention and comment — Justice Scalia, who is a Catholic.

Where this Leaves Us

These may seem like arcane bits of legal doctrine, but they are highly relevant to a central issue facing us at this time — the extent of religious liberty in the United States.  Policies and laws are being pursued that disqualify Christian and Catholic people from full participation in society, and that penalize churches that disagree with or refuse to comply with government policies.

If applied according to their plain meaning, the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses would offer protection from such measures.  Sadly, the Supreme Court has made such a mess of things that the First Amendment may offer little protection to those whose ancestors who came here to America seeking religious liberty.

The Catholic Lawyers’ Moment

Friday, October 7th, 2011

Last night, I was honored to receive a very nice award — the Charles Carroll Award from the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers.  Many of my friends and colleagues were able to attend the Red Mass and the reception afterwards, and it was a very humbling experience.  Here is the talk I gave at the award ceremony:

All Glory and Honor to God, and thanks to Him for the opportunity He has given me to serve Him.  “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

I don’t like speaking about myself, but fortunately I don’t have to, because this award is really not about me.  It’s about a cause.

I have been involved in public policy work for the Archdiocese for many years.  It’s a tough job, especially here in New York. Back in June, the Legislature voted to re-define marriage, a bill we worked very, very hard to hold off.  Afterwards, I was asked how I can keep doing this, how I avoid getting discouraged.  Part of it is because I’m Irish, and I love a cause that’s worth fighting for, even if it is against all odds.

But it’s also because I see a big picture, one that — by the grace of God — gives me great hope  and determination.

In 1987, Pastor (later Father)  Richard John Neuhaus wrote a book called “The Catholic Moment”.  He argued that a unique opportunity had arisen for the Church to offer moral guidance for the development of public policy, particularly in promoting a culture of life.

I believe that we are still in that Catholic Moment, and what’s more, I think there is a particularly important role for Catholic lawyers.  I believe that we are in a “Catholic Lawyer’s Moment”.

We all know the challenges.  Our world is deeply in the grips of a culture of death.  Attacks on human life from conception to natural death.  Genetic manipulation that threatens the integrity of humanity itself.  Hostility to fertility that is becoming more and more a hallmark of health care policy and practice.  A redefinition of marriage, overturning the foundation of society.  And increasing threats to the religious freedom of churches and individuals, threats that come from a secularist mindset that would exclude religion entirely from the public square.

In our profession, this secularism finds a partner in a soul-free legal positivism.  I recall my first year of law school, where we were taught from the beginning that there are no objective or transcendent values in the law.  Natural law was derided as outdated and sectarian.  Instead, we were told over and over that law is whatever the legislator or judge decides it is, based on their own values.  It is entirely an act of political will.  As one of my law professors liked to say, “It’s all up for grabs”.  I once gave a talk to a group of lawyers and when I mentioned natural law one of them said to me “I thought we got rid of that years ago.”  Really?  I’d like to see the bill that did that.

We see this alliance of secularism and legal positivism in many places.  Just yesterday, it was before the United States Supreme Court, in the most important religious liberty case in decades.  At stake is the ability of churches to operate without interference and control by the government in the selection of clergy and other staff members who have religious functions.  A key question for the Court is the nature of religious freedom — is it something inherent that requires special protection in the law, or is it something that the government can grant or withdraw, as it pleases?   The Administration filed a brief that took such a narrow view of religious freedom that both Justice Scalia and Justice Kagan expressed their surprise during oral argument.

It is ironic that, even as the secularists try to push religious belief out of public affairs and the positivists deny objective moral truth, there is a strong desire for guidance from the Church and from Catholics.  In debate after debate over tough moral issues, the media and public officials and regular people want to know where the Church stands.  They expect us to play a major role, and they look to Catholics for direction, even when they are sure to disagree.

In 2008, when the Holy See issued a major statement on bioethics, it was a major news story.  The media gave it extensive coverage — even in the New York Times.  Leading secular bioethicists and policy makers paid very close attention.  The same thing has happened in many other major debates — over the health care bill, the redefinition of marriage, cloning, assisted suicide and so on.

Why?  Because there is a hunger for truth and clarity, and Catholics can provide it.  We have a rigorously reasoned approach to difficult topics that is the result of careful analysis and has been developing for centuries.

We also have an understanding of the human person that is attractive and compelling — because it is true.  The secularist and positivist view of human nature is materialistic, morally relative, and utilitarian.  It is pessimistic and hopeless and dehumanizing — and false.  And people know that in their hearts.

Our view of the human person is Incarnational.  We believe that every human person is made in the image and likeness of God, and we believe that Jesus Christ, true God, became a true man.  We know that people aren’t just objects to be discarded when they are no longer useful or have become a burden.  We recognize that we are meant to be a gift to others, and not exploit them for our own benefit. We understand that our spirituality is central to who we are, and it can’t be ignored or relegated to the sidelines.  I cannot be a religious person in private, and a secularist in the public square — I am not two people, but one.  We are realistic about humanity, with all our flaws and problems, but in the end we are positive and hopeful.

We also know that there is objective truth, and there is a law of good and evil that has been written by God into the human heart — the natural law.    It appeals to people because it is true, because it speaks to the truth in their hearts.   And it gives us a common language for debate with others in the public square.

Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict spoke to the German Parliament about the foundations of law.  The Holy Father stressed that politics and law cannot be based solely on a drive for success or power — but that is the inevitable tendency of legal positivism.  Instead, he said that all law must be rooted in reason and natural law — only then will it respect the dignity of every human person.

This understanding of law is the antidote to the pessimism and nihilism of the secularists and positivists.  It gives us the foundation to uphold what is right and good and most human — polices that embody justice, charity, and the common good, and laws that protect the most vulnerable, and defend freedom and human rights.

We are called to do this in the public square, in our work, in our law practices, and in our everyday lives.  I look around the room and see people who are doing this, and I am in awe of them.  Supporting  organizations and political candidates who defend human life.  Filing briefs to defend crisis pregnancy centers or to oppose exploiting women by buying their eggs for cloning.  Giving practical assistance to mothers in crisis.  Representing doctors and nurses who are facing enormous pressure to sacrifice their religious values and participate in abortions.

And getting into the arena as advocates for justice and truth — that is what we are trained to do, and nobody does it better.

At the end of the fight over marriage in Albany this Spring, the day before the final vote, it was crazy in the Legislature.  A key Senator was called off the floor to meet with some constituents.  He walked through the corridors — filled with shouting protestors with their anti-religious signs and slogans.  There in the hallway, he met with a Catholic family — a husband and wife and their small children.  And there, amidst all the chaos and madness, they spoke quietly to him about the nature of marriage, family, and conjugal love.  It was a powerful and beautiful moment.

Our society is yearning for that kind of moral leadership.  We as Catholics and especially those of us who are Catholic lawyers can respond to that need.

It is very humbling to receive this award, named after Charles Carroll.  Two hundred and thirty five years ago, in 1776, he recognized that a special moment had come, and he responded — and signed the Declaration of Independence.  That document appealed to the natural law, and proclaimed the inalienable rights given to us by God, including the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Charles Carroll and the other signers pledged to defend those rights with their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

I hope that none of us will have to risk our lives or fortunes, as Charles Carroll did.  But I believe that we now stand at another special time in history, and we too have a cause.  We have an opportunity to build a culture of life, to defend the dignity of every human person, to protect families and the vulnerable, to stand up for the liberty of religious people, and to safeguard the freedom of our beloved Church.

We are Catholics, we are Catholic lawyers, and this is our moment.  This is a cause for which we can pledge our sacred honor.  This is a cause worth fighting for.

The Politics of Principle

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Varia

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

The following are some of the highlights from the daily email briefing about news and events, which  I send out to some of my friends and contacts (if you’re interested in subscribing to the daily mailing, leave your email address in the comments box):

  • More responses to Time Magazine’s slander against the Holy Father from Tom Peters, Fr. Zuhlsdorf and Kathryn Jean Lopez.   For my response, see below.
  • An appalling story on the international surrogate parent business — a gross example of the objectification of the human person as an economic commodity, and the commercial and emotional exploitation of the poor and the desperate.
  • I typically refer to the pro-abortion movement as the “Cult of Moloch” because of its religious adherence to the sacrifice of children.  Here is a scary account by a former clinic worker, who relates that the clinic in which she worked was pervaded with the occult and looked upon abortion as a form of sacrifice.  On the positive side, this same woman credits prayer witness outside of the clinic as being instrumental in her conversion.
  • Speaking of the death-cult, Planned Parenthood has released its annual report, and once again the numbers are jarring.  $363 million in federal funding.  324,000 abortions (a 6% increase over the previous year) and only 9,400 adoption referrals. Another $700 million spent on spreading contraception and abortion internationally.  Time to defund the billion-dollar Murder Incorporated.  Joint the fight.
  • And, if you want to see the real-world effect of the work by the Temple of Moloch, read about the creeping genocide that is resulting from the high rates of abortion among blacks and Hispanics in New York City.
  • The new political climate, and the results of the November’s elections, means that key new GOP House leaders are likely to push for restrictions on federal funding for abortion.
  • Same-sex “marriage” advocates are gearing up for the battle in New York next year. See here and here.
  • If you want a glimpse into the Strange New World, check out this review of a book about “polyamory” (romantic/sexual relationships with multiple partners).  Coming soon to a “right to privacy” near you.
  • Kathryn Jean Lopez examines two competing views of the role of religion in public life: Sarah Palin’s v. John Kennedy’s.  See also Rick Santorum on the same issue.
  • The European Court of Human Rights decided a major abortion case this week, in a challenge to Ireland’s pro-life laws.  The court did not invent a fundamental right to abortion, but  did rule against some parts of Ireland’s pro-life legislation,  which undermines the abilities of nations to restrict abortion.
  • A heartrending story about a funeral held for babies who were stillborn, and whose bodies were abandoned in hospitals, the “unwanted dead”.
  • (Please note that these links will take you to websites that are not affiliated with the Archdiocese.  We neither take responsibility for nor endorse the contents of the websites.)

    Varia

    Friday, December 3rd, 2010

    The following are some of the highlights from the daily email briefing about news and events, which  I send out to some of my friends and contacts (if you’re interested in subscribing to the daily mailing, leave your email address in the comments box):

  • The Holy Father conducted the first-ever world-wide Vigil for All Nascent Human Life.  Here’s an early, unofficial translation of the homily.  And here’s an unofficial translation of the special prayer written by the Holy Father for the Vigil.
  • Opponents of same-sex “marriage” — like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage — have now been labeled as “hate groups” by a prominent advocacy group.  The “sit down and shut up” phase of the debate over marriage continues.  Next will come prosecutions for “hate crimes” and “human rights” violations, based solely on politically-incorrect speech.  Oh, wait — that’s happening already in Mexico.
  • Maggie Gallagher and Robert George respond to having pro-marriage organizations — and traditional Christianity — branded as “hate groups”.
  • The indispensible Kathryn Jean Lopez puts the Holy Father’s condom and sex comments in the context of the importance of marriage and true human sexuality and interviews Fr. Robert Williams and sheds some clear light on the Holy Father’s condom comments.
  • More good news on the stem cell front.  A child has been fully cured from leukemia thanks to treatment by adult stem cells from umbilical cords.  And scientists have “tricked” cells to convert from one kind to another, which may make stem cell research unnecessary.  Reaction from the media:       .
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (and Abortionists) is once again trying to force doctors to refer or perform abortions, under the rubric of “professional ethics”.  Hence the need for a federal comprehensive conscience protection statute.  GOP leaders, are you listening?
  • I’m a Mac, iPod and iTunes user, so it’s nice to know that in return for all the money I’ve given them, the Apple Corporation thinks I’m a bigot, merely because I subscribe to the principles in the Manhattan Declaration.  For a reminder of what’s in this “hate speech” declaration (which is all about defending life, marriage, and religious liberty), go here.  While you’re there, join over 34,000 others in signing the petition protesting Apple’s intolerance.
  • It has become ever more clear that the Administration is failing in its duty to defend the Defense of Marriage Act from attack by same-sex “marriage” advocates.
  • The perfect proof that reproductive medicine treats human life as a commodity:  they’re putting bar codes on IVF embryos.
  • A terrible story about the modern sex slave trade, right here in New York City.  Why is this not a high priority for law enforcement?
  • Interesting how the Times buries a story about how Cardinal Ratzinger tried, as far back as 1988, to streamline the procedures to punish abusive priests.  No room for the story on the front page, where they’ve previously put the “exposes”, although they manage to squeeze in a story about obesity surgery.  It’s not so newsworthy if it’s favorable to the Holy Father, I guess.
  • The Bishop of Springfield, Illinois, publicly rebukes the Catholic governor for his comments that his faith impels him to sign a bill legalizing same-sex “civil unions”.  The governor replies, in classic modern fashion, “I follow my conscience. I think everyone should do that. I think that’s the most important thing to do in life, and my conscience is not kicking me in the shins today.”  He needs a new, authentically Catholic conscience.
  • When the world throws God out the window, there’s no stopping the descent into madness.  A “family law expert” in the UK says that sex offenders should be allowed to work with children, and even adopt or serve as foster parents.  As the Safe Environment Director of the Archdiocese, all I can say is, “over my dead body”.
  • Keep Politics Out of the Church

    Friday, October 8th, 2010

    One of the modern forms of idolatry is to view everything through the prism of politics, and to treat all matters as if they were essentially matters of power and partisanship.  The result of this is the subordination of all things to politics — even those things that properly belong to God.

    Three recent news stories have brought this disturbing trend to my attention, and have gotten under my skin.

    Same-Sex “Marriage” Activists Attempt to Politicize the Eucharist.
    A group of students at a purportedly Catholic university (St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota) showed up at a Mass being celebrated at the school by their local ordinary, Archbishop Nienstedt.  They came adorned with a rainbow sash, a political symbol that conveys a very clear message:  “we reject the Church’s teaching on the morality of homosexual acts, we reject the Church’s teaching on the nature of marriage, and we reject the Church’s authority to make public comments about moral matters that affect public policy”.  Despite wearing a badge that proclaims their breach of communion with the Church, these students presented themselves to receive the Eucharist.

    To his credit, Archbishop Nienstedt properly denied them Communion, since they were trying to make a political statement out of the central mystery of our faith.  The lesson taught by the good Archbishop is not difficult:  if you don’t believe what God teaches us through the Church, and if you have no intention of living as God desires as He has communicated to us through the Church, then you are not properly disposed to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.  You need to make a choice: politics or God.

    Calls for a “Catholic Tea Party”.
    From another front, there have been calls for what one advocate terms a “Catholic Tea Party”, directed against some of our bishops, due to their alleged indifference towards heresy by some activist clergymen.  I certainly have no problem with people contacting their pastors about matters that concern their own spiritual good and the spiritual good of the Church as a whole.  The Code of Canon Law says that laypeople “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.” (Canon 212.3)

    I note especially that phrase, “with respect toward their pastors”.  In the case of a call to a “Tea Party”, I cannot see any way that this shows “respect towards their pastors”.  The original “Tea Party”, after all, was a (justified) violent rebellious act against an oppressive government.  Is that really the image we want to use when lay people address their pastors, especially when we address a bishop, who is a successor of the Apostles?

    No, just no.  The Church is not a political entity, but the Body and Bride of Christ.  If people believe that there is a problem within the Church, they need to address the matter in the appropriate way.  The Bride of Christ should not squabble and wrangle in public like a bunch of unruly delegates on the floor of a political convention.

    The Hypocrisy of the Media.
    Complaining about a double standard from the mainstream media has become a bit tiresome, because it is like constantly pointing out that 2+2=4.  But I have rarely seen such a clear example of it, centered on politics and churches.  Consider two cases: Case #1: Catholic bishops in Minnesota speak out to defend marriage and the media questions their “meddling” in politics. Case #2: New York politicians go into churches to make campaign speeches from the pulpit, and are given glowing, unquestioning profiles that talk as if this is just a nice bit of local curiosity.

    I don’t know how other Churches justify to themselves being used by politicians.  But Catholic churches cannot allow politicians into the sanctuary for a very simple reason.  Not just that it’s against the Internal Revenue Code (which it is, even if we’re the only ones who obey the law).  But there’s a deeper reason, and it’s the fundamental truth that lies beneath each of these recent stories.

    Polarizing secular politics have no place in the Church, particularly in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  We need to recall that the Mass is not just a gathering of like-minded people, or just a group of voters.  The Mass is the assembly of the People of God, come into the presence of the King of Kings, whose eternal sacrifice on Calvary is being opened up for us anew for our participation.  We are there to worship and adore the Eternal One, and to grow in holiness and intimacy with Him, in an anticipation of the heavenly liturgy described in the Book of Revelation.

    With that awesome task on the agenda, you can see why I think there’s no room for politics in the Church.

    Are We Invited to the Tea Party?

    Saturday, September 18th, 2010

    If anything is clear at this point in the electoral season, it’s that the Tea Party movement is a significant force, and that anyone who hopes to understand American politics needs to understand it.

    My interest in the Tea Party comes from the policy issues that are my particular interest — the “Culture of Life” issues, primarily abortion and marriage. To me, these are the issues on which Catholics are called to devote their greatest energy.

    And I am wondering, as the Tea Party gets going, whether we’re invited.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat.  No party really exists for me in the United States.  My politics tends to be closer to what in Europe and Latin America would be termed “Christian Democracy”.  So I don’t have a partisan interest in the outcome here.

    I also have to admit that, even though I am not a Tea Partier myself,  I am sympathetic to their general goals.  I tend to favor small, limited government solutions to problems, which is a practical application of the Catholic social teaching about subsidiarity.  I view with abhorrence the current culture of “honest graft” that is at the heart of modern American government, and which is so clearly typified by the mess of a State Legislature we have here in New York.  And I am very impressed by the citizen activism that the Tea Party has energized, and their effective viral style of non-organized organization.

    I have some reservations, though, because the Tea Party agenda is silent on Culture of Life issues, and because of the current state of thinking in the leadership of both major political parties.

    It’s sad to say, but with a few notable exceptions (State Sen. Ruben Diaz, for instance), the Democratic Party, its core of activists, and its leaders have become the enemies of the Culture of Life.  Name an anti-life, anti-marriage initiative and you’ll find it on the agenda of the Democratic Party.  Prospective Democratic candidates are told, sometimes implicitly and many times brutally frankly, that they cannot advance in office unless they are pro-abortion.  Once in office, they relentlessly appoint officials and promote activities that are destructive to the Culture of Life.  All this, from the party that professes to be looking out for the poor and powerless.  It has become quite clear that, at least as far as the national Democratic Party is concerned, people who are seriously committed to Culture of Life issues are not welcome at the festivities unless they are willing to overlook their principles.

    That leaves the other guys.  The Republican Party, at least nationally (and much less so here in New York), has been sympathetic to Culture of Life issues, and has given us some significant victories.  A pro-life position has certainly helped the GOP, giving it a clear electoral margin among those for whom the issue matters, and giving them access to an energetic base of religious-minded voters. But as Culture of Life voters become more and more associated with the GOP only, we increasingly run the risk of being taken for granted and shoved aside in favor of the flavor of the month.

    And that is precisely what is going on.  As GOP mandarins sense the possibility of large gains in the upcoming election thanks to the Tea Party movement, Culture of Life issues are being pushed to the back burner or even being dismissed outright.  For example, GOP Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana has suggested that we accept a “moratorium” on pressing for the defense of marriage and human life.  Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the GOP’s effort to re-take the US Senate, has openly suggested that the party’s position on abortion is alienating independents, and should be muted.

    The apparent advice from many in the GOP leadership to Culture of Life voters  is, “Sit down, be quiet, and help us win elections.  Then maybe we’ll talk.”  Some allies.

    But now there’s an alternative for us.  Each of the major Tea Party candidates who have won primaries recently appears to be pro-life, and that hasn’t seemed to hurt their electoral chances much.  Some of their candidates are eccentric, but after so many years of corrupt professionals, maybe eccentric amateurs are worth a try.  I suspect that most of the people who are active in the Tea Party movement are also Culture of Life supporters, but are just focusing their energies on fiscal issues right now.  And, in general, the kind of candidates being supported by the Tea Party appear to me to be likely to support Culture of Life issues, once they are in office.  Over the past few years, it has clearly been most helpful for our issues to support candidates who are more politically conservative across the board, and those are the kinds of people associated with the Tea Party.

    The reality is this.  It would be best if Culture of Life voters could find a home in both major parties.  But we have been effectively ejected from the Democratic Party, and we have been only grudgingly welcomed and suffered in the Republican Party.  The Tea Party seems to offer a new dynamic, presenting us with the possibility of an alliance with voters and candidates who are amenable to our positions and who may prove to be potent supporters.

    So, I’m not sure if we’ve been explicitly invited, but I also think they won’t mind too much if we cautiously crash the Tea Party and see what happens next.

    “Civic Religion”? Count Me Out

    Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

    I didn’t attend the big “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington over the weekend, nor did I watch any of the proceedings.  But what I’ve read about it gives me some serious concerns.

    There was apparently a great deal of religious talk at the rally, amidst all the other political rhetoric.  There were calls for people to “return to God” in order to effect certain changes in our nation’s policies.  Several speakers described the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as “sacred texts”.  There were also comments about how “our faith has driven us to become the greatest people the world has ever known”, and how we “must restore the faith that once guided us.”

    Those kinds of expressions are typically described as part of American “civic religion”, a quasi-faith in our nation and our Constitutional order.  They are not unusual in modern politics — and certainly have been common throughout our history.

    Now, I think it can be fairly said that I’m a pretty patriotic person.  I love my country, and I hate to see it criticized, especially from abroad.  I fly the flag every day, I serve in my state’s military forces, and I’m a proud Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus — the patriotic degree of our order.  Several times, I have worked in government positions that have required me to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”, and I have always been glad to do so, with no mental reservations.  I get all teary-eyed when reading the Declaration of Independence or the Gettysburg Address.

    I also believe that it is a requirement of my Catholic faith that I respect and honor my nation.  Patriotism is a form of piety, and is mandated by the Fourth Commandment.  As the Catechism says, “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” (2239)

    But when we start talking about our country in overtly religious terms, as if our founding documents are somehow part of revelation, or as if the United States is a holy nation of divine institution, then I start to get nervous.

    Perhaps I’m hyper-sensitive, and this is just another of my strange obsessions.  I certainly don’t cast aspersions on the good will and patriotism of anyone who observed or spoke at that rally.  And, to be honest, I would probably agree with much of the political agenda proposed at the rally.

    But this kind of language, to my ears, starts to come alarmingly close to the sin of idolatry, and I will have nothing to do with it.

    In the early years of Christianity, the “civic religion” of emperor-worship was a significant problem for the Church.  Many, many saints were tortured and put to death because they wouldn’t offer even the token sacrifice to the emperor, because they rightly saw that as idolatry.  They refused to be disloyal to the true King, the one whose empire was founded on the Cross.  They were much more concerned about being citizens of the City of God, rather than the City of Man.

    Here’s how that played out in the case of the glorious St. Perpetua:

    Another day as we were at meal we were suddenly snatched away to be tried; and we came to the forum… And my father appeared there also, with my son, and would draw me from the step, saying: “Perform the Sacrifice; have mercy on the child.” And Hilarian the procurator… said: “Spare your father’s gray hairs; spare the infancy of the boy. Make sacrifice for the Emperors’ prosperity.” And I answered: “I am a Christian.” And when my father stood by me yet to cast down my faith, he was bidden by Hilarian to be cast down and was smitten with a rod. And I sorrowed for my father’s harm as though I had been smitten myself; so sorrowed I for his unhappy old age. Then Hilarian passed sentence upon us all and condemned us to the beasts; and cheerfully we went down to the dungeon.

    I love my nation.  But I’m sure that Byzantines loved their Empire, the Franks loved theirs, and the Romans loved theirs.  Those nations all passed away, into the dustbin of history.   Sad as I am to say it, the United States is not an entity of divine origin, and will someday pass away.  The Lord never promised that “the powers of death shall not prevail against it”. (Mt. 16:18)

    We can, and must, love our country.  We must respect our laws, take an active part in public life, promote the common good, and bring our religious values into the public square to advocate for policies that defend human life and dignity.

    But St. Perpetua had it right.  We must not do anything that would treat our nation as a graven image.

    It’s Up to the Church — To Us

    Friday, August 20th, 2010

    A poll came out the other day that got a great deal of attention in the popular media, mainly because it surveyed people’s odd views on the President’s religion.  But that’s not the reason I found the poll to be of such interest.  After all, only one person’s opinion really matters about our religious beliefs and practices, and we’ll find that out at our particular judgment.

    What I found interesting is a result that was deeper in the poll result, past the sensational headlines.  If you read deeper into the report, you’ll find a disturbing result when people were asked if churches should express views on political matters or keep silent.  52% of Americans said churches should not speak up about such matters, and only 37% of Catholics think the Church should be speaking out. Church attendance matters here — 54% of Americans who attend weekly approve of churches speaking out, while only 31% of those who seldom or never attend church approve.

    I sent this poll result around in my daily e-mailing, and a friend sent back an interesting comment that I thought was worthy of further reflection:

    I think if one equates “church” with “clergy,” what you are seeing reflected is a very traditional American distaste for “political ministers.” The Catholic Church teaches that it is the laity who are to take the initiative in the political arena, but the hierarchy does not always trust in and rely on the laity to do so. If the bishops put more energy into molding an informed and articulate body of lay leaders, they may find that these people are more persuasive than they can be simply because lay people are talking to lay people.

    There are several things about this comment that are very important.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out to a parish to give a talk about public policy matters, especially in places with active pro-life committees of diligent laypeople, only to hear some variation on this:  “Why doesn’t the Church/the bishops/our pastor/the Pope say more about this?”

    My answer to that usually is to note several things.  As Catholics, we are bound to accept the teachings of our Church as given to us by our Holy Father, bishops and priests.  We don’t live in the “Church of What’s Happening Now”, in which we make up dogma as we go along, to suit our passing fancies.

    But at the same time, we laypeople have got to stop looking over our shoulder at Father and expecting him to do all the heavy lifting.  The leadership of the Church hierarchy is indispensable, but it’s our special role in life to be the principal advocates and architects for a just society.  Here’s what Pope Benedict has said about that:

    The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church’s responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew….  The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity… The mission of the lay faithful is therefore to configure social life correctly, respecting its legitimate autonomy and cooperating with other citizens according to their respective competences and fulfilling their own responsibility. (Deus Caritas Est 28-29).

    Having said that, another point from my friend’s comment should also be emphasized.  If our Church leaders want laypeople to take on their role as leaders in establishing and creating a just society, they have to empower and trust us to do so.  We can’t do anything unless our Church leaders — our bishops and priests — support structures like local parish pro-life committees, social justice committees or Knights of Columbus councils, which are are crucial in this regard.  We need them to promote initiatives like our state-wide Catholic Advocacy Network, as well as other efforts to educate and mobilize the laity.  Our Family Life/Respect Life Office has lots of resources for people to use in their advocacy, as do the various offices of the U.S. Bishops Conference.  Thank God, so many of our clergy are doing this, but there’s always more that can be done — if they let us.

    Building a just society is an increasing challenge in our time.  The multitude of threats to human life, to families, and to social justice keep on accumulating.  It’s us to the Church — primarily us, the laity — to rise to this challenge.