Archive for the ‘Religion in Public Life’ Category

Controversies and Dinners

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

There is a controversy brewing in Catholic and pro-life circles over reports that the President has been invited to attend the annual Al Smith Dinner here in New York.  In my opinion, people need to take a deep breath, relax a second, and think carefully about this.

It’s important first to understand what the Al Smith Dinner is, and is not, and then what the invitation means, and what it does not.

The Al Smith Dinner is organized and hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which is closely affiliated with but independent of the Archdiocese of New York.  It’s named after Governor Al Smith, an iconic figure in New York politics, who dedicated his life to serving the people of the state, particularly the needy.  He was a classic urban machine politician, but was also committed to working with others across party lines when he saw that it was in the public interest.  He was always proud of his Catholic faith and he defended the Church against attacks against religious bigotry.  He was certainly well familiar with anti-Catholicism, since his own faith was brutally attacked during his run for the Presidency in 1928.

The dinner is not a religious event in any way — it’s a civic/political event that raises money for Catholic charitable institutions.  It’s not held at a religious building — it’s at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  It has no religious component aside from a benediction and closing prayer — much like sessions of Congress.  A large proportion of the people who attend the Dinner are not Catholic, and the list of past speakers shows that only once in its almost 70-year history has a religious figure given the keynote address (Cardinal O’Connor).

The dinner has a long tradition of inviting New York elected officials of all parties, and candidates of both major parties for the Presidency.  It is strictly non-partisan, and an invitation to the dinner is in no way an endorsement of any office holder, or any candidate for office.

It’s also important that the politicians who speak at the dinner are not being given any honor or award by the Church, but are rather delivering an address that is one part jocular remarks written by professional jokesters, and two-parts generic political after-dinner bromides.  Any comparison between the Al Smith Dinner and the honorary degree given to the President at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony is thus completely off-the-mark.

Everybody at the dinner understands this — it’s a civic event, much like a Veteran’s Day parade (but with a fancier menu and white tie).

Some people have been saying that inviting the President in some way undermines or contradicts the Church’s public witness in defense of life and the family.  There is no question that the President’s political agenda and policy record are deplorable from a Catholic perspective — he is consistently anti-life and is ardent in his promotion and support of abortion, he is in favor of re-defining marriage, he opposes parental choice in education, his Administration is a consistent enemy of religious freedom, and there is good reason to believe that he has dealt with our bishops in less than good faith.

Give the consistency and strength with which our bishops — particularly Cardinal Dolan — have been proclaiming the Catholic view of public policy, it is hard to see how this one Dinner could possibly lead anyone to believe that the Church is softening her defense of life, the family, and religious liberty.  When everyone wakes up the morning after, the struggle will resume.

But, as a matter of fact, an invitation to the current incumbent President to the Al Smith Dinner actually sends a message, one that is important in this time of pathologically toxic politics.  It says to us that we can vehemently disagree with a public official’s positions, but we can still show respect for his office, and for him as a person, and treat him with civility.  It gives us an opportunity to act as Christians, and show some love to our adversaries, and even those whose policies we consider to be immoral and oppressive. After all, even St. Peter told us to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17).

The message is also that we can set aside our deeply-held differences and leave the partisan politics at the door for an evening, speak nicely and politely to each other, and work together for a common cause in the service of the poor.  That’s a good thing, something that Al Smith would have been proud to associate himself with, and something that Catholics and pro-lifers should also support.

 

Note:  Some bloggers and other news sources have linked to this blog post, and have said that it is a statement by “the Archdiocese”.  Please read the sidebar to this blog: “The opinions expressed by the Bloggers… are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Archdiocese of New York”.  These comments are not an official statement by the Archdiocese or the Cardinal — they represent my opinions, and mine alone.  Clear?  Okay, fire away — but in a civil way, please.

A Prayer for Our Beloved Nation

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Just over four years ago, Peggy and I had the privilege of attending the beautiful Mass offered by Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium.  Like many in the Stadium, we were caught up in the power of the event — the leader of the Church around the world had come to our home town and was celebrating the Eucharist for us.  It was the pinnacle of the Holy Father’s visit to our nation, and a wonderful moment for us as Catholics.

Throughout his visit to America, the Holy Father spoke in such positive terms about our nation’s legacy of freedom.  At the time, it would have been easy for most Americans to overlook the significance of remarks like these:

In this land of religious liberty, Catholics found freedom not only to practice their faith, but also to participate fully in civic life, bringing their deepest moral convictions to the public square and cooperating with their neighbors in shaping a vibrant, democratic society. Today’s celebration is more than an occasion of gratitude for graces received. It is also a summons to move forward with firm resolve to use wisely the blessings of freedom, in order to build a future of hope for coming generations.

How much things have changed, and how prophetic the Holy Father has proven to be.

Just a few years after that papal visit, we are faced with a panoply of threats to our fundamental religious liberty, which few could have foreseen — the legal re-definition of marriage; the mandates for insurance coverage of sterilization, abortion drugs, and contraceptives; forcing people to pay for insurance coverage of direct abortion; the refusal of our government to recognize the conscience rights of religious institutions.  The path forward is daunting, and we are likely to see more and more restrictions on religious participation in public life.

In these times, it is all the more important to go back to basics, to recapture those essential ideals of America about which the Holy Father spoke.  And to turn to God in prayer for our nation.

This is what is motivating the United States Bishops in their call for a prayerful “Fortnight for Freedom”, from June 21 through July 4.  They are asking us to join in “a great hymn of prayer for our country”, with special liturgical events like Holy Hours and litanies, and public witness like the ringing of church bells and processions.  It is an event of public devotion and worship — directed to God, on behalf of our beloved nation.

Of course, the Fortnight for Freedom risks being misunderstood by our modern culture, with its obsession with electoral politics.  The Fortnight is not about partisan politics, it has nothing to do with elections, and it is not concerned with who holds public office.  It is a call for all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — to recapture our sense of priorities.  The goal is to reawaken our sense of dependence on God for the well-being of our nation, and our commitment to transforming all of society in the light of the Gospel.

I believe that, in his homily at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict foresaw the need for the Fortnight for Freedom, and anticipated its message and its importance.  He spoke of our daily prayer for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and dedicating ourselves to its growth throughout our society.  Speaking of the significance of this prayer, he added:

It means facing the challenges of present and future with confidence in Christ’s victory and a commitment to extending his reign. It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness… It means working to enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel, and never losing sight of that great hope which gives meaning and value to all the other hopes which inspire our lives.

We are proud to be Americans, and we are proud to be Catholics.  We will gladly join together with our brothers and sisters across our nation during the Fortnight for Freedom.  We pray that our beloved nation, under God, will respect our fundamental human rights, particularly our right to religious liberty, and that this freedom will always be held sacred and secure.

The Power of the Powerless

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

In my last post, I outlined the need for resistance against unjust laws that threaten the freedoms of religious and pro-life people.  In this post, I’m going to present a “menu of resistance” — essentially a list of things that people can do to give actual life to their conscientious objections to injustices like the contraception and abortion mandates, attempts to force the recognition of same-sex “marriages”, restrictions on free speech, and the like.

Before presenting these suggestions, I would like to stress several important points.

First, this is not an official statement or position of the Archdiocese of New York — it is my opinion, and mine alone. Take these ideas for what they’re worth, but they are not attributable to the Archdiocese in any way.

Second, I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion here — some of these suggestions may lead people into legal difficulties with the authorities.  Governments generally are very intolerant of dissent and civil disobedience.  So people should assess their level of risk, and prepare themselves to accept the consequences of their actions.

Third, and most important, the watchword of resistance to injustice is always that we speak the truth with love.  That is non-negotiable.  Our aim is the conversion of hearts, not the exertion of power.

With that having been said, here are some suggestions about how people can

  • Learn about your rights.  Most states have laws that grant protection to religious belief.  For example, here in New York, our Human Rights Law contains fairly broad protection against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for believers.  Courts in New York have already held that opposition to abortion is protected under these laws.
  • Take advantage of the law.  Many unjust laws provide for exemptions and appeals.  For instance, private employers can file for an exemptions from the HHS abortion/contraception mandate.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HHS received a letter from every parish, every school, every hospital, every nursing home, every Catholic employer in the United States — thousands of requests for exemptions that they would have to process?  Do you think that might let them understand how significant an intrusion their mandate is?
  • Use the government’s own legal process.  Appeal any denial of a request for an exemption.  File complaints with civil rights offices of government agencies when they try to force you to cooperate with unjust laws.  Explain to them that complying with the law would violate your Constitutional rights.  For example, you can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of HHS here.  All states (like New York) and most localities also have human rights commissions — file complaints with them as well.
  • Be persistent.  Protest letters to government agencies are likely to be ignored at first, or summarily denied without any reason.  If that happens, appeal to higher authorities at the agency, and go up the ladder, all the way to the person in charge.
  • Ask your elected officials for help.  Send copies of your complaints and appeals to your representatives in Congress or the State Legislature.  Ask them to intervene with the agency on your behalf.  Insist that they send you a response.  Go to their district office and ask for help in person.
  • Always tell the truth. Never tell a lie to a government official — if it’s a federal official, that’s a crime.  So, for example, if you are called upon to fill out a form, and it asks for an answer that you cannot honestly give, leave it blank and write a cover letter explaining your objection.
  • Don’t pay for injustice.  Refuse to pay fees for insurance coverage for abortion and contraception.  Write to your health insurance company and ask for a rebate for any funds spent on abortion.  When they ignore you, write to the board of directors and the president of the company.  If they insist that you pay, send them the fee in pennies, write a polite protest letter.
  • Write to your elected officials.  Make clear to them that you want them to pass just laws, and repeal unjust laws.  Do it over, and over, and over.  Join email networks like the New York State Catholic Conference Advocacy Network and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and send easy emails to your representatives.
  • Write to candidates.  Explain to them that you will never vote for them unless they oppose unjust laws.  If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them that you agree with Cardinal Egan:  “Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name”.
  • Don’t vote for them.  Speaking for myself, 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, I won’t vote for you.  I refuse to choose “the lesser of two evils” — because then, all I’ll ever get is evil.
  • Participate in public witness.  It is vitally important that we be seen by the general public as sane, reasonable, committed people.  Participate in prayerful and peaceful vigils like those run by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.  Join positive, well-informed rallies like the ones sponsored by “Stand Up for Religious Freedom”.  Always obey the law.  Remember — numbers don’t matter — witness does.
  • Support lawsuits against unjust laws.  There are many great organizations that are fighting in court to defend religious liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund.  If you have some extra, send them some cash.  Join their lawsuits — wouldn’t it be great if a million Catholics joined a gigantic class action suit against the contraceptive and abortion mandates?
  • Refuse to speak the lie. Always tell the truth — abortion is not health care, contraception is bad for women, men and society, marriage is only a union of one man and one woman, and religious belief is not hatred or bigotry.  Remember, your silence may be taken as agreement or surrender, so make sure that you speak out.
  • Don’t cooperate in the lie.  Don’t do anything that will recognize the lie.  For example, don’t give your employees information about contraception or abortion coverage, erase it from your company’s plan books, refuse to recognize any same-sex marriages.  Remember that human rights laws protect religious liberty.  If you think your rights are in danger, use the magic words — “I’m going to consult with a lawyer”.  Then call a group that defends liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund.
  • Stick together. One of the things that people find demoralizing is the sense that they’re all alone, and that nobody agrees with them.  But we are not alone — we’re a gigantic movement.  So, write letters to the editor of your newspaper, post comments on friendly blogs (and ignore the flames that come back in response), put the truth up on your Facebook page (even if people will “unfriend” you), pass around supportive emails, join a pro-life organization like the Knights of Columbus or your local pro-life committee.
  • Pray, pray, pray.  For everyone involved — those being oppressed as well as their oppressors.  This is not going to be easy.  But remember what St. Paul said:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
  • Resistance reminds people of a sense of their power, even when they appear to the whole world to be powerless.  The truth, expressed with love, is an enormously influential force.  Worlds and lives can change, when people have the courage to testify to the truth.  We can lift each other up by our steadfastness.

    Even if we have no idea how our actions will play out, each individual moral act will have a ripple effect, the ends of which we cannot foresee.  Even if we never see the end result, we can always be satisfied that we have been faithful to our beliefs.

    And we can never underestimate the power of the powerless.  Especially when God is with us.

     

    Revision and Resistance

    Monday, May 14th, 2012

    Most people are not aware of it, but the founding documents of our nation have been fundamentally re-written in recent years.  Here is how the key passage of the Declaration of Independence has now been revised to read:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that some people are created more equal than others, that some of them are endowed by their government with certain alienable rights that can be given or taken away at any time, at the whim of the government.

    And here is part of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

    Congress shall make many laws respecting an establishment of religion, and prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    We now live in a nation that is systematically revising its intellectual and legal foundation.  We are in grave danger of abandoning its commitment to fundamental human rights, rooted in human nature and natural law.  That foundation is being replaced by a system of positivism and secularism.  I have written on this blog many times about this trend.  For a fuller explanation of what it means, check out Cardinal Dolan’s important address to Fordham Law School.

    In concrete terms, we can see these threats to religious liberty and fundamental rights in many places: the HHS Mandate, the abortion mandate in the health care law, the radical re-definition of marriage, and efforts to suppress the speech of pro-lifers.

    In the face of these threats to our liberties, ordinary citizens frequently feel powerless.  After all, the government is very large and very powerful, and we think we are isolated and alone.  We fear for our livelihoods and our families if we run afoul of the law.

    So what can we do?

    We must resist.

    The starting place for resistance is to understand what it means, and what it does not.  I strongly urge everyone to read two key works that explain the reasons and tactics for resisting unjust laws enacted by civil governments — Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

    These essays stress a number of essential points:

  • Resistance is a duty of all citizens when faced by injustice.  It is not an “extra-credit” activity.
  • It must be always be grounded in the truth.  It makes no compromise with lies, and always seeks to expose them.
  • It must always be pursued with love and respect.  It is not an excuse for violence and lawlessness.
  • The goal is conversion of heart on the part of those who support injustice, not overbearing their will with power.  It’s message always is “come, join us”, and never “we will force you to agree”.
  • The most important tactic is our willingness to testify to the truth by our words and our actions, and our refusal to cooperate with injustice and lies.
  • Underlying this duty of resistance is an important understanding of the freedom of conscience.  My conscience is not just reflected in my external decisions, but it involves the very core of who I am as a human person.  It is the inner sanctuary where I encounter God’s law.   It is in my conscience that I hear the voice of God, speaking the truth to me.  It is there that I must be true to myself, and to the will of God.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the document of the Second Vatican Council, On the Dignity of the Human Person (especially paragraph 3), explain this beautifully.  These documents should also be studied with care.

    The government may attempt to coerce my external cooperation with injustice by imposing penalties, fines, and so on.  But no government, and no law, can force me to accept a lie as the truth.

    That is the heart of resistance — the ultimate freedom of the human heart.

     

    A Timely Reminder About Christians in the World

    Friday, May 11th, 2012

    One of the wonderful ways in which Providence acts is through the liturgy.  So often, the readings offered to us by the Church for public worship are exactly what we need to hear at a particular moment in our lives.  These are not coincidences — they are a way in which God reveals His truth and his will to us.

    And just so, on Wednesday.  That was the day that the President announced his “evolution” on the redefinition of marriage, a development that bodes ill for the religious liberty of Christians in this nation.  On that day, the Divine Office presented this excerpt from the Letter to Diognetus (a work of Christian apologetics that dates from the second century) as part of the Office of Readings:

    Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

    And yet 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. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. 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.

    Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

    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. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

    Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

    Thank you, Lord, for your timely reminder that we are citizens of Your heavenly kingdom, passing through this valley of tears, and that we should comport ourselves accordingly.

    The Politics of Principle

    Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

    (This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last three 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.

    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.