Archive for the ‘Catholic Teaching’ Category

The Church I See

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

We have all seen the horror stories over the past few months about sexual abuse in the Church. We have all been disgusted and enraged by them. For some, it has been too much. They have decided to leave the Church because of all the ugliness they see.

I understand that. I see the same ugliness, more close up and personal than most people do. I have been working in the child protection program of the Archdiocese since 2005. I have read the public reports and I’ve read through the files of priests who have been abusers. I’ve read academic studies of child molestation and the testimony of victims. Part of my job is to help investigate allegations, so I’ve talked personally and at length to many victims of abuse. I see the raw ugliness of the sins that were committed against these innocent people. At times it’s overwhelming, and it is always depressing. I’ve also seen the poor responses, the indifference, sometimes the hostility of Church authorities who have tried to ignore, deny, deflect, or conceal what was going on. So yes, there is much ugliness.

But that’s not all I see when I look at the Church I love. Even with everything that’s been going on, and all the sin and evil in the Church, I still see so much beauty. I see things like:

  • The Holy Hour of Prayer for the victims of sexual abuse that we held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What could be more beautiful than adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the devotion of those who were there —  mostly young adults.
  • The deep reverence of priests towards the Eucharist during exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and even during daily Mass.
  • The profession of final vows by the Sisters of Life. A spectacular liturgy, sublime music, and the powerful witness of women who were dedicating their entire lives to the Lord and his least ones.
  • The consecration to Mary that my wife and I made on the feast of Our Lady of Knock. Mary has been a source of so much grace and consolation to us that it was wonderful for us to offer ourselves back to her.
  • The Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, which we visited recently. Such a powerful devotion, and a wonderful, peaceful location for prayer and reparation.
  • The ardent curiosity and commitment of the young adults who come to our monthly Discussion and Discipleship group. We talk about Church teaching on tough topics like contraception, life issues, and sex abuse. You can sense the yearning and hunger for truth in the hearts of these wonderful people.
  • The sublime beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass and the noble simplicity of the ordinary Mass.
  • The sight of members of the Legion of Mary, praying the Rosary at the Grand Central subway station. Such a wonderful public witness of the power of prayer.
  • The dedication of so many loyal Catholics whose hearts burn with love for Christ and his Church, and who are desperately looking for something to do to correct the abuses.

There certainly has been much ugliness in the Church, and we need to be ruthless in eliminating it. But I refuse to dismiss the whole because of the rot in some of its members. Without the Church, I would know nothing of God, I would never have encountered Christ, and I would still remain in my sins without hope. I totally relate to what St. Peter said when Jesus asked if the apostles would leave him because of his hard teachings, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

St. Paul wrote that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27)

We wicked foolish humans have done our worst to deface and desecrate the Bride of Christ. We now have to do our best to cleanse her so that she can truly be without blemish and we can present her back to the Bridegroom as he desires. We certainly have a lot of work to do, but the Church I see is worth fighting for.

That’s because the Church I see isn’t the one tarnished by ugliness, but the one whose beauty remains eternal.

The Truth is Our Most Important Ally

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018

In recent weeks, we’ve seen an abundance of news stories about the crisis facing the Church. The letter released by the former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States has begun a new phase of the crisis, by leveling some deeply troubling allegations. There is a great deal of anger and concern among the faithful, but there is also a lot of confusion about what is actually going on and what can and should be done about it.

At this troubled time, a relentless pursuit of the truth will be our best ally in dealing with the current crisis. But we have to leave ideologies, axe-grinding and agendas behind. We need, as the old TV character Sgt. Joe Friday insisted, to stick to “just the facts”. Here’s my attempt to clear up some of the confusion.

I think it’s vital to be clear about the specific issues that are in play right now. Some of them overlap, but at their heart they are separate problems that require particular corrective responses. As I see it, there are four basic issues.

The sexual abuse of children by clergy. This was the primary focus of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, and it has been a major issue for the Church since at least 2002, when the Boston abuses became public. I consider this problem to be largely behind us, and it is no help for people to act as if nothing has changed since the adoption of the Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. We are still unearthing old cases of horrible abuse, but there is no evidence whatsoever that there is anything like widespread abuse of minors by clergy taking place now. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary, and even the Grand Jury Report notes the dramatic changes that have occurred since 2002.

The dioceses across the United States have spend millions of dollars on prevention efforts, including training and background checking, and there has been a vast improvement in the way that cases are handled. In fact, we should have no problem with any outside organization auditing our files to see how we’re doing. If there are deficiencies, we need to have them identified right away so that we can correct them. But we also need to make abundantly clear that we will redouble our efforts and be held accountable to our absolute adamantine commitment that any offender will be excluded from any contact with minors in any program or institution of the Church.

Sexual harassment and oppression of seminarians. This is the major focus of the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick, and many of the other allegations that have been made since those became public. These allegations are particularly appalling. The idea that priests (or upper classmen seminarians) who are in positions of authority would exploit the power disparity between them and their students is utterly reprehensible, a sin that must be extirpated as soon as possible. These offenses corrupt vulnerable men and they poison the entire ethos of a seminary, which is to form young men in a life of holiness.

So little is known about the scope of this problem, and much needs to be done to get to the facts. Investigations clearly need to be done, which means that people need to come forward on the record with testimony and supporting evidence. To ensure that will happen, we have to institute and enforce robust whistleblower protections for priests and seminarians who provide evidence. Boards of Trustees of the seminaries need to take the lead on this, in conjunction with independent investigators. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, then they should be replaced by those who are, or outside help such as accreditation boards should be welcomed.

Sexual infidelity by clergy. This has primarily been centered on the issue of “gay priests”, although infidelity is not limited to them. From what we know so far, though, there is certainly a some connection between active homosexual clergy and both of the prior issues.

The exploitation of seminarians is clearly a homosexual problem. The Holy See issued a strong directive in 2005 that “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture'”. A seminary should be a place where holiness and human formation are the priority, and sexual dynamics have no place distracting the men from that work. It would seem to me to be grossly unfair to a man with same-sex attraction to be put into an all-male environment, which would necessarily be a constant occasion of sin. Just imagine putting a young adult male with normal sexual desires into an all-female dorm for four years.

It has to be noted that the sexual abuse of minors is not primarily a problem of homosexuality, although there clearly is some overlap. Pedophilia is a very complicated phenomenon. The clinical definition of pedophilia is a prolonged sexual attraction to minors 13 years old or younger. The large majority (over 70%) of the victims nationwide fall into that age group, but over a quarter were older teens. Studies have shown that the vast majority of men who have clinical pedophilia actually consider themselves to be heterosexual, and the clinical studies do not support the idea that homosexuals are more likely to be child molesters. Nevertheless, it would seem obvious that same-sex attraction has to be a relevant factor in the sexual abuse of mid-to-late teenagers.

The response to sexual infidelity of clergy is not limited to those with same-sex attraction, and it certainly is nothing new. If you read the biography of every saint who was a bishop or an abbot, you will see that they struggled with reforming the clergy away from sinful behavior. Clearly, every priest and bishop must be called to (and helped with) fidelity to their obligations of celibacy (not getting married), continence (no sexual activity), and chastity (properly ordered sexual desires). Careful attention must be paid to friendships and activities that undermine those commitments. Worldliness in general must be addressed, since moral laxity is contagious.

No matter what celebrity priests might say, it is imperative that the Holy See’s directive about homosexuals in the priesthood and seminary be taken seriously and implemented. This should not create an open season or “witch hunt” for gay priests, but a time of cleansing and purification of the clergy.

Ensuring the holiness and fidelity of the clergy is the responsibility of individual bishops, but they should not hesitate to seek assistance from lay people in pursuing investigations. We need people to come forward with facts, not with rumors or innuendo. In fact, we lay people can be a big help in this regard — we all need to live in a way that is less worldly, more ascetic, more chaste. It is hard to expect our clergy to be pure if we are not pure, but a renewed commitment to reforming our lives and living according to the Gospel can’t help but aid our brothers in their own path to holiness.

The failure to correctly handle abuse cases. This includes covering up, moving offenders around, failing to report to law enforcement, punishing whistleblowers, and creating a culture of silence. Clearly, in the past, the three problems discussed above were poorly dealt with by Church authorities. The revelations in 2002, subsequent disclosures in dioceses around the nation, the Grand Jury Report, and the McCarrick case make that abundantly clear. And while the first problem (sexual abuse of minors) is being dealt with, the other two problems need serious and vigorous attention — immediately.

In this, we need our bishops to step up to the plate and exercise the governance responsibilities that are part of the charism and burden of their office. This has to be done at the local level, since the problems stem from specific local characteristics and activities, not from broad national generalities.

Cardinal DiNardo, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement the other day that said some good things, but he left others out:

I convened our Executive Committee once again, and it reaffirmed the call for a prompt and thorough examination into how the grave moral failings of a brother bishop [i.e., Archbishop McCarrick] could have been tolerated for so long and proven no impediment to his advancement.

The recent letter of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò [the former Nuncio] brings particular focus and urgency to this examination. The questions raised deserve answers that are conclusive and based on evidence. Without those answers, innocent men may be tainted by false accusation and the guilty may be left to repeat sins of the past.

I am eager for an audience with the Holy Father to earn his support for our plan of action. That plan includes more detailed proposals to: seek out these answers, make reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier, and improve procedures for resolving complaints against bishops.

That’s a good start, but it doesn’t even address what will be done about the problems of sexual harassment of seminarians or sexual infidelity of clergy. Amazingly, it gives no indication that there is any sense of urgency. And it is a sad irony that the “plan of action”, which will supposedly enhance transparency, hasn’t been shown to anyone and nobody even knows who is involved in developing it. There are hundreds of people in our dioceses, and thousands in the private sector, who could offer excellent help and guidance in producing a plan to ensure internal integrity and whose involvement would assure greater public confidence in the process and the result. After all the terrible results of years of insularity and secrecy, USCCB needs to understand that the old ways don’t work any more if they’re to retain any credibility they might still have.

One thing is perfectly clear — in all of this, the truth is our most important ally. We are in a burgeoning crisis, and time is short. We have to get past politics, personalities, self-preservation, ideologies, agendas, fear of legal liability and personal embarrassment, and get to the truth. The truth is all that matters. After all, we have it on good authority that “the truth will set you free”.

Calling Sin by its Real Ugly Name

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

As reparation for my sins, and to help me be a better protector of children, I have been reading the Grand Jury Report from Pennsylvania. The Report documents the history of clerical sexual abuse in six of the Pennsylvania dioceses (excluding Philadelphia and Johnstown-Altoona, which have been the subject of other reports). It is truly horrifying reading, enough to make your blood boil with rage at the men who did these wicked evil demonic things and the foolish incompetent men who failed to properly respond to them.

The most horrifying thing about the report is not just the cold, clinical way in which these awful sins are described by the Report. That’s somewhat understandable, because it’s an official document and they should strive for a tone of objectivity. Rather, it’s the cold, clinical, impersonal way that the internal Church documents discuss the offenses and how diocesan officials were reacting and handling them.

The Report singles one statement that is really beyond belief, but it is sadly not untypical:

In another case, a priest raped a girl, got her pregnant, and arranged an abortion. The bishop expressed his feelings in a letter: “This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief.” But the letter was not for the girl. It was addressed to the rapist. (6)

That kind of indifference to the victims and solicitude for the offenders is all too typical of the internal Church documents cited in the Report. It is incomprehensible to me that those diocesan officials did not die of shame when they read Matthew 18:6 (“whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”) and 19:14 (“Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”).

One of the hallmarks of the culture of silence and cover-up was the systematic use of euphemisms to describe what was happening. Terms such as “inappropriate sexual relationship”, “boundary issues”, “this difficult time”, and priests being “reassigned” or “out on sick leave” were used to conceal the true nature of what was happening. Plain words like “crime”, “sin”, “rape”, “sodomy”, and “torture” were rarely if ever used.

We have to call sin by its real name. Yes, those names are ugly, but not as ugly as the sins they describe. Nothing is as ugly as that. The Catechism provides a full panoply of very blunt talk about sexual sin, such as:

  • “Rape is the forcible violation of the sexual intimacy of another person. It does injury to justice and charity. Rape deeply wounds the respect, freedom, and physical and moral integrity to which every person has a right. It causes grave damage that can mark the victim for life. It is always an intrinsically evil act. Graver still is the rape of children committed by parents (incest) or those responsible for the education of the children entrusted to them.” (CCC 2356)
  • “sexual abuse perpetrated by adults on children or adolescents entrusted to their care… is compounded by the scandalous harm done to the physical and moral integrity of the young, who will remain scarred by it all their lives; and the violation of responsibility for their upbringing.” (CCC 2389)
  • “Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices.” (CCC 2396)
  • “intrinsically and gravely disordered action” (masturbation, CCC 2352)
  • “gravely contrary to the dignity of persons” (fornication, CCC 2353)
  • “grave scandal when there is corruption of the young” (fornication, CCC 2353)
  • “disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure” (lust, CCC 2351)
  • “a grave offense” (pornography, CCC 2354)
  • “Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. They are contrary to the natural law.” (CCC 2357)

You hear none of that plain language in the internal documents of the Church cited in the Report. Indeed, you get little sense that the gross immorality of the abusive behavior was even on the radar. Nor do you feel any degree of moral outrage at the evil behavior of the offenders, nor any effort to seriously discipline them. There is virtually no indication that any bishop ever seriously considered using the ample penal procedures of the Canon Law. All the priests were treated as if they had an illness to be treated quietly, not as if they had committed grevious sins for which they needed to repent and do reparation.

The only way that this horrendous scandal can be adequately dealt with requires first and foremost that we tell the truth. About the failures to respond to allegations appropriately. About the failures to bring law enforcement into the picture. About the failure to protect others from known offenders. And, to be fair, about the strides that we have taken in the last decade to improve things.

But more than anything else, we need to call sin by its real ugly name. And treat it with the revulsion it deserves.

Preaching, Practicing, and Conversion

Saturday, July 21st, 2018

Last week, the Church marked the 50th anniversary of the great encyclical letter of Blessed Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae. This event is being commemorated by Catholics around the world who share the Holy Father’s beautiful vision of marriage and love. We are particularly noting the Holy Father’s prescience in foreseeing all the ills that would befall society if contraception and sex outside of marriage were to become accepted.

This year also happens to mark the 43rd anniversary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s comprehensive declaration on sexual morality, Persona Humana, which is best-known for its unequivocal condemnation of all kinds of sexual activity outside of marriage, including homosexual acts and masturbation. It also marks the 37th anniversary of St. Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, which is noted for its magnificent teaching on the beauty of marriage and the integrity of married sexuality, including a rejection of any form of contraception. It is also the 26th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which comprehensively catalogued Church teaching on marriage and sexuality, again including an unequivocal condemnation of all sexual acts outside of marriage and any contraceptive act. It is also the 23rd anniversary of the Pontifical Council for the Family’s compendium of Church teaching and advice for families in educating their children, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality.

We can also note the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (13th anniversary), theUnited States Catholic Catechism for Adults (from the U.S. Bishops — 12 years old), and Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (also USCCB — 9 years old), all of which reiterate the same immemorial Church teachings on marriage and sexuality.

All of these teachings offer us a beautiful, uplifting and affirming understanding of the nature of the human person, the meaning of our bodies, the way to experience true love, and the means to embrace the gifts of fertility and new life. If people accepted and abided by them, there would be an immeasurable increase in human happiness, and many of our social ills would be eradicated. Just imagine what life would be like for women in particular. There would be no more abusive objectification of women through pornography, no degrading hook-up culture, no sex trafficking, and no sexualization of young girls. Marriages would thrive in a climate of actual mutual self-giving and respect. The #MeToo movement would be incomprehensible and unnecessary.

Tragically, that’s not the case. The destructive legacy of the sexual revolution is everywhere to be seen and is even worse than Blessed Pope Paul predicted. The signs are all around us and are  almost tiresome to repeat  — the saturation of culture with pornography, denigration of women in popular music, out-of-wedlock births, a dehumanizing dating scene based on meaningless sex, the decline in marriage, the breakdown of families, abortion, and on, and on, and on. Hearts have been twisted into thinking that this is all normal and acceptable, instead of being an abberation from God’s plan for human life and love. Opinion surveys repeatedly show that Catholics generally do not accept the teachings of the Church on sexual morality and are largely no different from the rest of society in approval of non-marital sex, homosexual acts, contraceptive use, cohabitation, etc. We are definitely not practicing what our Church is preaching, and we are paying the price.

In fairness, it has to be said that regular Mass-goers are more likely to accept Church teaching, but the numbers are still appallingly low. It is also enormously encouraging that there is a core group of Catholics — especially young adults — who not only accept but cherish the teachings of the Church and see them as the liberating and life-giving gift that God intends them to be.

The sex abuse crisis that we have been going through as a Church and society is certainly an outgrowth of the sexual revolution. It stems from the evil lie that sex is merely a physical act with no deeper meaning and no necessary connection to marriage. It then adds the perverse idea that it can be used as an instrument of power, exploitation and oppression. The sins of abusive clergymen are wicked on several levels. They are violations of the absolute prohibition on sex outside of marriage; they are an inexcusable breach of the obligation of perpetual continence for the clergy; in most cases they are acts that the Church has called “acts of great depravity” and “intrinsically disordered”; they are horrific betrayals of trust that corrupt the innocent; they cruelly mistreat people made in the image and likeness of God as if they were mere instruments for use; and they are egregious acts of violence that leave lasting scars. They also weaken — if not destroy — the credibility of the Church in teaching the will of God for sexuality, and lead people to believe that there is no truth in it. In characterizing these acts, weak phrases like “disappointing” or “morally unacceptable” are nowhere near sufficient. They must be condemned in no uncertain terms as wicked sins that cry out to heaven for justice.

In this context, it’s hard for our priests to preach the truth about sexuality. It must be disheartening that so few of their flock are practicing what the Church preaches, and to read the headlines about the sins of other clergymen. But we cannot be satisfied with this status quo. Those of us who treasure and live by the teachings of the Church must stand up and speak the truth, and encourage our clergy to do the same. Even with all the negative factors in play, this is no time for defensiveness, it is a time for boldness. God’s truth about sexuality is good for us and good for society, and is the ultimate answer to all the sexual sins that horrify us.

The Church has given us a wealth of teachings about sexuality. We need more preaching. We need more practicing. And we all need more conversion.

Scripture Does Not Justify Injustice

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

In response to criticism of the Administration’s policy of separating parents from their children at the border, the Attorney General has essentially demanded unquestioning obedience, referring to a verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” (Romans 13:1)

This is a dangerous argument, one that implies that Christians and others should give blind obedience to the decrees of our rulers, regardless of whether they are just or not.

First of all, it grossly misreads St. Paul. Let’s look a the context in Romans itself.

In Romans 12, St. Paul exhorts his readers to live their lives purely, according to God’s will. He says, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2) and “love one another with brotherly affection” (12:10).

He then passes on to the question of how to live peacefully in his contemporary society. Remember that the government of Rome was a brutal military dictatorship, one that required its subjects to view the Emperor as a god and to make sacrifice to him. Rome had already murdered Jesus based on false testimony that he was claiming to be an earthly king, and had already taken Paul under a false arrest so he could face the likelihood of execution.

So Paul had no illusions about the rulers of the world — in fact, he knew well that the ruler of the world was the Evil One and his minions (see Ephesians 6:12). Paul would be the last man to encourage us to accept blindly the rules set down by earthly kings. What Paul was clearly doing was encouraging Christians to keep their heads down, obey the law as best they can, and avoid any conflicts with their earthly rulers.

But Paul was also doing something even more important, and in fact even more treasonous towards the Roman emperors. He was saying clearly and plainly that earthly rulers were not the real or final authority on earth — God is. He said “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (13:1) The Roman emperors would have no authority except that God permits them to exercise it — but not for any purpose, but for the common good of mankind by maintaining order. Our rulers are not God, but are subject to Him and to His law. Christ is the King, not Caesar or anyone else.

And what does God’s law entail? Read on in Romans for the short version:

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10)

Now Paul is referring there specifically to the Mosaic Law, but his point applies more generally to all human law, and this brings up the Attorney General’s second major error. The only legitimate way to read and understand Sacred Scripture is to read it with the Church, not by my own personal interpretation. The Bible is the Church’s book — she wrote it, preserved it, and teaches it. And that means we need to listen to what the Church has always said about the meaning of Romans 13.

The Church has always taught that earthly rulers and laws must conform to the law of God, as made evident through revelation or the natural law and interpreted by the Church. If human law does not meet that standard, it is an abuse of authority and we are not bound to obey. This was clearly explained by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. This was the testimony of thousands of martyrs who disobeyed man so they could obey God — remember St. Thomas’ More’s famous saying, “I die the King’s good servant but God’s first”? Here is how the Catechism summarizes it:

1902 Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a “moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility”: “A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.”

1903 Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.”

Our bishops have spoken clearly about the Administration’s policies to separate children from their parents at the border. The President of the US Bishops’ Conference plainly called it “immoral”. Cardinal Dolan, in a very powerful interview on CNN, has said that it is “wrong” and “goes against human dignity”, and stressed that “God’s law trumps man’s law”.

Yes, we are generally obliged to obey the law and legitimate authority. But the Attorney General is way off base when he calls for obedience to the law without regard to its justice. To make that demand is to elevate human law above God’s law, and that way lies disaster.

Stop the Cruelty at the Border

Wednesday, June 13th, 2018

The authority of nations to secure their borders and to regulate migration is undisputed as a matter both of civil and natural law. The Church’s social teaching has long affirmed that. This is a difficult area for governments, which have to balance many legal, moral and policy considerations. Some deference has to be given to the expertise and presumed good faith of governments as they work in this area.

But our government’s exercise of this power has now passed the bounds of decency and has descended into cruelty. We cannot stand by and allow this to continue.

The present Administration’s hostility to immigration is well-known to all. The unconstitutional travel bans, the unjustifiable limitations on refugees from certain countries, and the ignorant and nasty rhetoric about immigrants are also all well-known.

But things have become even worse than that, and they’re getting worse all the time. Beginning last year, the Administration began a policy of separating children from their parents when families cross the border either as undocumented migrants or when seeking asylum. Hundreds of children, some as young as infants, were taken from their parents without any legal due process, and moved to facilities far from where their parents were being held. Communication between parents and children were either not permitted or greatly delayed. The psychological impact on these young children is certain to be severe.

That injustice was bad enough. But in May, the Administration announced that the government would now prosecute all persons who cross the border with Mexico. Together with that, any parents would be assumed to be smuggling their child, who would be forcibly taken away without any judicial due process.  Even people who are seeking asylum from persecution and violence would be treated as common criminals and their children would be taken.

Crossing the border without authorization is illegal. But this policy is specifically designed to use the threat of loss of children to deter parents from coming across the border. In essence, our government has decided to use children as human shields against illegal immigration. That is not legitimate law enforcement, that is cruelty.

The callous way in which high government officials spoke about this situation shocks the conscience. The White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spoke dismissively about these immigrants as being poorly educated, overwhelmingly rural, and without skills — as if human dignity depended on those factors, and as if generations of prior immigrants were any different. Mr. Kelly then said, “a big name of the game is deterrence… The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever.” Hundreds of children, taken from their parents in a strange foreign nation and placed in group facilities or the homes of strangers — “whatever”.

But it gets even worse. The Attorney General, who oversees immigration enforcement, has issued a policy decision that domestic violence and gang violence will no longer be a ground for seeking asylum in the United States. This is outrageous. Women and children are subject to violence with impunity in many nations. Domestic violence and gangs are ubiquitous and they frequently go unpunished or are even facilitated by governments.

Our government will now separate mothers from children, incarcerate the mothers, and then send them back to their abusers. This decision overturns decades of humanitarian policies, under which our nation proudly offered protection to these most vulnerable people. This is a disgrace, and unworthy of a civilized nation and of a government that routinely brags about its Christian moral principles.

But it gets even worse. To handle the volume of people who have to be brought before courts as a result of these policies, the government has been holding mass court meetings. This practice began under the prior administration but its use has intensified due to the new policies. I cannot bring myself to call these “proceedings” or “hearings” — they are an appalling mockery of justice. Dozens of criminal defendants are herded into courtrooms, represented by one attorney who had minimal time to speak to the group and virtually none to speak to individuals, and then all plead guilty at once before a magistrate who is being held to a monthly quota of guilty pleas.

The Church has repeatedly raised her voice against these policies. Testimony has been given before Congress. The USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants Project has an action alert that everyone should use to contact Congress about it.

Yesterday, Cardinal DiNardo, the president of USCCB, issued a statement on behalf of all the bishops of the United States. It is worth quoting in full (emphasis mine):

“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection. These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country. This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors. We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.

Additionally, I join Bishop Joe Vásquez, Chairman of USCCB’s Committee on Migration, in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the Administration’s zero tolerance policy. Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.

There are lots of legitimate issues surrounding immigration that are worthy of debate. But this is not one of them. Our bishops have called us out — they have told us that our government is doing something that is immoral and that violates the fundamental right to life. We cannot stand idly by, no matter what we think about other immigration issues.

These policies are cruel and shameful and they must end.

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Intolerance in Philadelphia

Friday, May 18th, 2018

The City of Philadelphia plays a central role in the story of American freedom. It was the location of the writing of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the colony of Pennsylvania was notable for its religious toleration. It’s too bad that the current city government is now ignoring that legacy by violating the religious liberty of the Catholic Church.

The basic facts are very simple. There is a crisis in the foster care system in the City of Philadelphia. You recall that foster care serves some of the most vulnerable children in our society — victims of abuse or neglect, frequently with very serious medical and psychological challenges. There are approximately 6,000 children in Philadelphia’s foster care system, awaiting placement in a foster home. The City issued a call for new foster families, but then banned one of the oldest and most successful agencies, Catholic Social Services, from placing any children into foster homes.

The reason? The City of Philadelphia disapproves of the Catholic Church’s belief and teaching that the best place for a child to be raised is in a home with a married mother and father, and thus the refusal of Catholic agencies to place foster children with same-sex couples.

There are some important things to note. CCS does not discriminate against any child based on their sexual orientation. CCS will refer same-sex couples to one of the 26 other agencies that place children in foster homes. There are foster families, certified through CCS, who are ready and able to foster right now, but the City won’t allow the placement. Nobody has ever filed a complaint against CCS based on its religious mission, and its religious beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a home. And there is a history of bias against the Church — powerful city officials, including the mayor, have made numerous bitterly critical statements against the Church and the Archbishop of Philadelphia because of our religious beliefs about marriage and human sexuality.

The Church’s teaching on this is quite clear:

Homosexual unions are also totally lacking in the conjugal dimension, which represents the human and ordered form of sexuality… As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood… This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 7)

And the duty of Catholic organizations not to cooperate with this is also quite clear:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection. (5)

Becket, the stalwart defenders of religious liberty, has filed suit against the City of Philadelphia. This should be a fairly easy case, considering that just last year the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot deny generally-available public benefits to a religious organization purely because of their religious beliefs. In that case, the Court said plainly, “[A] law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” This is not a new doctrine. Fifty years ago, the Court said “The State may not adopt programs or practices . . . which ‘aid or oppose’ any religion. . . . This prohibition is absolute.” Apparently these decisions were not read by the government of the City of Philadelphia.

Yet the usual voices from the forces of intolerance are being heard, with all the usual false accusations and incorrect statements of fact, law and principle. Some examples:

  • “This is just bare hatred of gay couples.”
This is a strange argument, since the whole purpose of the foster care system is to consider the best interests of the child, not the interests or desires of prospective foster parents. The Church’s position is based on love of the child, and concern for the best way to assure their welfare and development.
  • “If they don’t want to follow the government’s rules, they should get out of the foster care business.”
As we noted above, there is such a thing as the First Amendment, which guarantees both the free exercise of religion and protection from the establishment of religion. This means that the government cannot reward or penalize a church — no playing favorites based on preferred doctrines. By directly penalizing the Catholic Church for our religious beliefs, the City has, in effect, established a definition of acceptable religious beliefs — and those that they will not tolerate. That’s totally out of bounds under the First Amendment.
  • “The agency isn’t being asked to do anything other than implement the rules set down by the government.”
Private organizations aren’t mindless puppets of the state. A foster care agency has to evaluate individual cases for the suitability of placement of individual children into individual homes. This takes discretion and adherence to particular principles, including the teachings of the Church mentioned above on the best interests of children. If the agency feels it cannot do that, it will refer the children and parents to another agency. Plus, we again have to remember the existence of the First Amendment, which says that churches are not mere instruments of the state. They are independent, and their internal affairs cannot be interfered with by the government.
  • “They’d rather the children suffer in orphanages than allow gay couples to foster them.”
No child is living in an orphanage, a la Oliver Twist, and there are 26 other agencies that are perfectly free to certify gay couples and place children with them. Since there are so many alternatives, why must the City insist on ideological submission by CCS?
  • “Haven’t Christian adoption agencies shut down just to prevent gay people from adopting?”
Catholic adoption agencies have been forced out of business in a number of places (Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Illinois) — state agencies denied them licenses because they disapproved of Catholic beliefs. What Philadelphia is doing is another example of the same kind of intolerance. Catholic Charities wants to conduct its affairs in keeping with our faith, while other agencies can operate according to their principles and place children with same-sex couples.
  • “Isn’t this the same as refusing to place kids in interracial homes?”
Race is completely different from sexual orientation — it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nature and structure of a family and the right of a child to have a mother and father to raise them. It’s interesting that in some states, like New York, agencies are required to give preference to placing children with adoptive parents of the same religion. Some people have argued that race and ethnicity  should also be considered. If it’s okay to consider those factors, why can’t Catholic agencies consider a religion-based factor that we consider important for the well-being of a child?
  • This is just another example of the Church trying to impose their morality on others.
Who’s using political and financial power to push forward an agenda? Who’s doing that based on a moral and political judgment about human sexuality and marriage? Answer — it’s the City of Philadelphia that’s using its political power to impose its morality. They’re the ones who have decided that CCS is morally unfit to place foster children. The Church is just asking to be left alone to operate our foster care agency according to our religious beliefs, which puts a burden on absolutely nobody.

The point here isn’t whether people think that children should be placed in foster homes with same-sex couples. It also isn’t whether people agree with the Church on this issue or not — in fact, I imagine that the vast majority of Americans don’t agree. The point here is that an intolerant government is using its political power to enforce ideological conformity upon a religious organization that dares to dissent from current sexual orthodoxy. All Americans, regardless of what they think about the underlying issues, should be appalled by this abuse of power.

It’s an interesting irony that this is happening in Philadelphia. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence in that city later became President. While serving in that office, he received a letter from some Catholic nuns in New Orleans who were worried that they would lose title to their property after the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase territory. The letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote to them is worth quoting in full:

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

How far we have come from those days, when the “inalienable right” of freedom of religion was assured by such generous and liberal words – and by a man who was not a religious believer himself. Too bad that the city government of Philadelphia hasn’t learned that lesson.

Hope and Assisted Suicide

Friday, May 11th, 2018

Yesterday was the Solemnity of the Ascension. That naturally should lead Christians to contemplate the virtue of Hope. The Catechism summarizes the basic principles: “Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, precedes us into the Father’s glorious kingdom so that we, the members of his Body, may live in the hope of one day being with him forever.” (CCC 666) And again, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 1817)

I am particularly struck by the importance of this virtue because of recent experience. Last week, I gave testimony on behalf of the Archdiocese and the Catholic Conference at a hearing held by the Assembly Health Committee in Manhattan. The legislation at issue was the legalization of physician-assisted suicide.

It was a very long hearing. I sat in the hearing room for over eight hours before I testified, and the hearing went on for at least another hour and a half. By the end, almost 50 people testified – the majority in favor of the bill. I had also attended a previous hearing in Albany on the legislation, which lasted about three hours. So I’ve heard a lot of arguments in favor of legalizing assisted suicide.

Most of the witnesses who favored the legislation spoke of their desire to avoid suffering at the end of life, particularly the loss of autonomy, the effects of diminished capacity to perform basic tasks and enjoy favored pleasures, the fear of unbearable pain, and the desire to “end life on my own terms”. The tales of sadness and suffering were very heart-felt, and I deeply respect them for their sincerity.

But what made the stories most sad was that they lacked any sense of hope.

The subtext of their testimony was the bleak meaningless of suffering and even of life itself, the sense of loneliness and abandonment  of so many people with grave illnesses, the illusion that one can control one’s life though an exercise of will, and a utilitarian view of life that equated value with usefulness or function. I remarked to a colleague afterwards that the view of life of so many of the witnesses was flat and  almost two-dimensional – as if this visible life is all that there is. If that’s the case, then it makes a certain kind of sense to favor suicide as an answer to suffering.

In contrast, the testimony by many of those who opposed the bill showed a richer, deeper sense of the inherent dignity of life. The best exemplars of this were the persons with disabilities who gave inspiring accounts of the meaning and value of their lives, despite their daily difficulties. Particularly impressive was the poignant testimony of Kristen Hanson, the widow of J.J. Hanson, who was such a warrior against his own deadly cancer and against the legalization of assisted suicide.

What made these opposition testimonies so powerful, I think, was the virtue of hope. That makes perfect sense. If you believe that there is a higher dimension to life, and particularly if you trust that Jesus is good to his word and that we have a chance for eternal life with God, you will look at sickness, pain and suffering in a different light. You will see it as a transitional stage in our lives, unpleasant to be sure, but part of a long continuum that we all have to travel and that can actually have a happy ending.

Hope rejects the idea that our loved ones are annihilated by death, but instead believes that they have entered into a new and glorious life – and that we hope to join them there. It helps us to see that suffering can have a kind of power, as St. Paul pointed out – “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). It can also lead us to understand that a death infused with hope can be a beautiful experience for those left behind.

The depressing testimonies by the proponents of assisted suicide stand in such bold contrast to the confidence that the virtue of hope offers us. I couldn’t help but think of the strong exhortations by St. Paul in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 15 to reject the view that death is the end, and understand the significance of the victory of Christ over death and the joyful hope that it gives us.

The fight against assisted suicide, as with all the other incursions of the Culture of Death, is long and difficult. It can be tiring to battle for so long against so many opponents and with so few allies. But we have one great advantage on our side – the virtue of hope that comes from our faith in the power and glory of God. With that, we can take to heart St. Paul’s advice: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:58)

How the Law Kills

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

The world was transfixed over the last week by the tragic case of Alfie Evans. This poor young boy, not yet two years old, was the center of a legal dispute in which his life hung in the balance. His case has a greater significance, though, because it is a demonstration of how bad law can kill.

A quick synopsis of the basic facts of Alfie’s case will help put us understand this bigger picture. Not long after he was born, he started showing symptoms of a neurological disorder and had to be hospitalized. The condition was never diagnosed, but it progressed and left Alfie in a coma and dependent on assisted food, hydration and breathing. After over a year of treatment, the doctors decided that further treatment of Alfie was futile and that his recovery was impossible. I am sure that they made that diagnosis in good faith. But his parents disagreed, and searched out other options for continued treatment or, failing that, they wanted to bring Alfie home.

Here is where the bad law makes its appearance. In the UK, the law gives the court authority to overrule parental decisions if there is a dispute between the doctors and parents over life-sustaining treatment for their child, based on his assessment of the “best interests of the child”. And that’s what happened here. The court overruled the parents and gave permission to the doctors to remove Alfie from life support.

So without any proof of abuse or neglect or any other misconduct on the part of Alfie’s parents — in fact, all the evidence was that they were devoted to him — their parental rights were stripped from them simply because they disagreed with the doctors about how to care for their son. The court actually went even further, and forbade Alfie’s parents from choosing any other kind of treatment, and even forbade them from taking him home. This is an astonishing result. Alfie had the right to have his care decided upon by his parents, not by doctors or judges. I can only describe this as judicial kidnapping.

As bad as that law is, the underlying principles are even worse. The initial court that ruled on Alfie’s case gave great authority to a document called “Making Decisions to Limit Treatment in Life-limiting and Life-Threatening Conditions in Children: A Framework for Practice”, issued by the Royal College of Paedriatics and Child Health in 2015. This “guidance” sets out the standards under which medical decisions will be made for critically ill children who are dependent on “life-sustaining treatment”. In that document, there are two fatal errors that inevitably distort the way that doctors will approach the care of children on life support, and that create a significant bias in favor of death.

The first error is this astounding statement: “The principle of the sanctity of life is not absolute.” All the errors in Alfie’s case, and all those like it, stem from this tainted source. If the sanctity of life isn’t absolute, then of course courts and doctors will put conditions on preserving it. When that decision is made in the context of our society’s fear and even disgust for disability and diminished capacity, this guarantees that imperfect lives will be systematically devalued and discarded. And that’s exactly the calculus that the court was making, applying the principle set out elsewhere in the document that life-sustaining treatement can be ended “when life is limited in quality”. Operating from these premises, it makes perfect sense that a misguided court will reach the horrific conclusion that a patient like Alfie is better off dead.

This is the evil doctrine of “lives unworthy of living”, the wicked notion that “It can in no way be doubted that there are living human beings whose death would be a deliverance both for themselves and society, and especially for the state, which would be liberated from a burden that fulfills absolutely no purpose”. This discredited principle from the infamous 1923 book Permitting the Destruction of Life Not Worthy of Life , which led to the involuntary euthanasia program of the Nazis, keeps coming back under different guises. Pope Francis called it by another name: “the throwaway culture”.

Along with this fatal flaw comes the second error, which can be found in this key definition: “Life-Sustaining Treatments (LSTs) are those that have the potential to prolong life. They may include… Clinically Assisted Nutrition and Hydration”. Considering assisted nutrition and hydration as “treatment” is very common in the medical world. But it is utterly misguided.

Food and water are not medical treatments but basic human needs, like shelter, clothing, air and sanitation. They are fundamental human rights, and caregivers have an obligation to provide them if a person can’t do so for themselves. This stems from their inherent dignity as a human person, which is never lost because of condition or prognosis. This is a foundational perspective of sound medical morality. By rejecting this norm, the UK doctors ensured that some of their patients, whose lives are no longer considered worth preserving because of a negative prognosis, will be killed by starvation or dehydration.

These distorted principles produced the regime of law that killed Alfie Evans and betrayed his parents: a law that permitted a judge to substitute himself for Alfie’s parents; an underlying bias against the value of life with a disability; and an erroneous notion that a fundamental human need can be denied if the overall prognosis is bad. All of that adds up to a law that leans in favor of death.

We are dangerously close to following it here. It’s true that our Supreme Court long ago recognized the natural law principle that “the child is not the mere creature of the State” and that parents have the authority to oversee their health and upbringing. But we have already seen courts and laws interfere with that sacred family relationship. For example, children can get contraceptives and even abortions without their parents even being notified. That is a dangerous path, and it is even more treacherous when combined with trends in the medical world like increasing approval of assisted suicide and euthanasia, futile care theory, cost pressures, and the invidious social fear and disdain for disability. It leads inexorably to euthanasia, the fancy word for murder by doctor.

The Alfie Evans case is a test study for how the law can kill. This is why we cannot give an inch in our resistance to assisted suicide and euthanasia, and why we can never surrender to the Culture of Death.

Reading the Holy Father Correctly on Life Issues

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

There is an unfortunate tendency during the current papacy to seek confusion and controversy where there really is none. All too often I see in my email and online Catholics complaining about various statements by the Holy Father, saying that they are unclear or confusing or contrary to the statements of earlier popes.

My favorite recent pope is Benedict XVI. His clear and powerful writings resonate with me. Perhaps it’s the legacy of my German ancestors. Benedict gave us a key tool with which to look at statements from popes and bishops, so that we can always “think with the Church” as St. Ignatius of Loyola put it. Speaking specifically about the Second Vatican Council, he contrasted two ways of looking at teachings of the Church over time: “On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.” The word “hermeneutic” is a fancy term for the way we look at things.

In that spirit, let’s look at one passage from Pope Francis’ new document, his apostolic exhortation on holiness Gaudete et Excultate (nos. 101 and 102):

The other harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist. Or they relativize it, as if there are other more important matters, or the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend. Our defence of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.

We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”, with a gesture of veneration; the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.

Some people have looked at this passage through the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”, thinking that Pope Francis has broken with the teachings of his predecessors and saying that abortion should no longer be seen as a paramount issue and that migration issues are just as important. The secular media has been guilty of spreading this misinterpretation, obviously because they wish that we would spend less energy fighting abortion and they love to sow disunity among us. Unfortunately, some Catholics have fallen for it, and think that Pope Francis is going soft on abortion.

Actually, not. When we look at this passage through the “hermeneutic of continuity”, we see that what the Holy Father is saying is that all the issues on which we do advocacy stem from the same source — the inherent dignity of every human person. He recognizes that abortion requires “clear, firm and passionate” defense, but urges us to make sure that other violations of human dignity are not ignored. The Holy Father is personally very concerned about migration issues, and he wishes that we all were too, but he is absolutely not telling us to desist from fighting abortion. He particularly is warning us against pitting one issue against another, as a cynical politician might do in order to get our votes. We can all cite examples of that.

If this advice sounds familiar, it should. Here is what St. Pope John Paul II said in his great pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (nos. 3 and 10):

The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council and with the same forcefulness I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: “Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practise them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonour to the Creator”….

And how can we fail to consider the violence against life done to millions of human beings, especially children, who are forced into poverty, malnutrition and hunger because of an unjust distribution of resources between peoples and between social classes? And what of the violence inherent not only in wars as such but in the scandalous arms trade, which spawns the many armed conflicts which stain our world with blood? What of the spreading of death caused by reckless tampering with the world’s ecological balance, by the criminal spread of drugs, or by the promotion of certain kinds of sexual activity which, besides being morally unacceptable, also involve grave risks to life? It is impossible to catalogue completely the vast array of threats to human life, so many are the forms, whether explicit or hidden, in which they appear today!

St. John Paul went on in that encyclical to focus on abortion and euthanasia as particularly grave threats to life, but he made sure that we recalled that there are many other threats to life and dignity as well.

There is clearly nothing wrong with responding when the Holy Spirit is calling us to prioritize our efforts on one issue or another. So many people have dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights of unborn people, and others have done so on behalf of prisoners, migrants, victims of human trafficking, the environment, and so on. But what Pope Francis, and St. John Paul and Pope Benedict before him, is warning us about is our natural tendency to ignore other issues, or — even worse — to denigrate them or oppose Church teaching about them, out of a misguided devotion to the particular issue that we favor or that is favored by our preferred political party.

Serving the common good, which is at the heart of Catholic social teaching, requires that we work to eliminate all threats to human life and dignity, since all lives are equally sacred in the eyes of God. That requires each of us to focus our energies on particular issues, and to be grateful that other people are working on other issues. All of this is good — after all, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord” (1 Cor 12:4-5).