Archive for the ‘Conscience’ Category

A Limited Victory for Religious Freedom

Monday, June 4th, 2018

The Supreme Court ruled today, by a wide majority of 7 to 2, in one of its most anticipated cases of the session, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The result was a victory for the particular religious liberty claim raised by the owner of the shop, Jack Philips. But this victory was limited by the Court’s very fact-specific ruling, and it’s explicit statement that there is no guarantee that future cases will be handled the same way.

The facts are fairly simple. In 2012, prior to the legalization of same-sex “marriage” in Colorado and the United States in general, two men approached Mr. Phillips and asked him to create a cake for their upcoming “wedding”. Mr. Phillips declined, saying that he did not create cakes for same-sex weddings, even though he would serve same-sex couples for other occasions. It’s important to note that Mr. Phillips views his business not just a profit-making venture. Rather, he says that his “main goal in life is to be obedient to” Jesus Christ and Christ’s “teachings in all aspects of his life” and he seeks to “honor God through his work at Masterpiece Cakeshop.” So his refusal to participate and celebrate the same-sex “wedding” was an expression of his deeply-held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.

A complaint was brought against Mr. Phillips, claiming that he was violating the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act by refusing service on the basis of sexual orientation. The case went before the Colorado Civil Rights Commission for decision. The Commission ruled against Mr. Phillips, as did the Colorado Court of Appeals. That’s what brought the case to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court paid very close attention to what happened before the Commission. The Court noted,

As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust. No commissioners objected to the comments. Nor were they mentioned in the later state-court ruling or disavowed in the briefs filed here. The comments thus cast doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of Phillips’ case.

In fact, the Commission had also heard three other cases recently that were relevant to Mr. Phillips’ case. In each of those cases, the Commission had ruled that bakers could refuse to create cakes with religious statements against homosexuality and same-sex “marriage” because the bakers found those statements “offensive”. The Court found this disparate treatment to be explicable only by the Commission’s hostility to Mr. Phillips’ religious beliefs. The Court concluded,

The Commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion. Phillips was entitled to a neutral decision maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it in all of the circumstances in which this case was presented, considered, and decided.

If there is anything that the First Amendment religion clauses stand for, it’s that government cannot favor certain viewpoints or punish others because the government officials have particular preferences. The Constitution demands that everyone be treated even-handedly, even if certain powerful people find the religious views involved to be “offensive”. The Court found that the Commission had not treated Mr. Phillips fairly because it disapproved of his religious views.

It is also important that, as the Court noted, “the religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.” This directly rejected the Colorado courts’ finding that his creation of wedding cakes did not qualify as “speech” because it was “not sufficiently expressive”. In a strong concurrence, Justice Thomas explained this error in detail.

While it is certainly a significant legal victory for Mr. Phillips (and for Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented him), the significance of this case is muted by the Court’s fact-based analysis and their specific caveat that future cases may come out differently. It is unfortunate that the Court did not explicitly adopt Justice Thomas’ broader view of religiously-motivated expressive conduct as a form of protected free speech. And it is also regrettable that the Court did not repudiate the position, taken by some state courts, that whenever there is a conflict between religious freedom and anti-discrimination laws, religion will always lose.

This decision does not mean, as some critics will undoubtedly argue, that religious people have a “license to discriminate”. But it does affirm that religious people are entitled to a fair hearing by a neutral decision-maker, and that overt hostility to religious belief is still forbidden. And that is clearly a victory for religious freedom.

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.

Big Brother in Albany

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

The public policy environment of New York State is almost invariably depressing. When you combine a corrupt dysfunctional State Legislature with an arrogant unaccountable Governor who rules as if endowed with the royal prerogative, there’s little reason for pride in the way the Empire State is led. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how things could get any worse.

And then, earlier this week, the Governor veered frighteningly into the territory of the suppression of free thought and speech, and intolerance for religious freedom.

His press release trumpeted that the Governor had signed an Executive Order “banning all state agencies and authorities from doing business with companies that promote or tolerate discrimination” against “LGBTQ” people. At first glance, who could object to that? Discrimination is a bad thing, isn’t it? But read that statement again carefully. It doesn’t say “companies that discriminate”. It is aimed at companies that “promote or tolerate” discrimination. What in the world does that mean?

The answer can be found by reading further in the press release and the Executive Order. There it is made clear that the target of this new action is the very existence of religious agencies, and the intent is to suppress any deviation from the new orthodoxy of gender and sexual ideology. There we will find these nuggets (the original language is in italics and my comments are in regular text):

“Additionally, in October 2017, the federal government rescinded a contraceptive coverage mandate under the Affordable Care Act.” 

This is a reference to proposed new regulations that would finally end the interminable controversy over the HHS Mandate, which forced religious organizations to provide health insurance coverage for contraception and abortifacients. This was the mandate that caused the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic institutions to fight for their rights all the way up to the Supreme Court.

This gives the game away right at the start. Those proposed regulations had nothing to do with discrimination laws or “LGBT” rights. They dealt solely with religious liberty and the HHS Mandate. By citing this completely irrelevant federal proposal, the press release inadvertently made clear that the Governor’s new order is rooted in animosity towards religious freedom.

“This action has permitted employers and organizations to claim broad exemptions from nondiscrimination laws, which has increased the vulnerability of LGBTQ rights.” 

This statement is absolutely false, misleading and incomprehensible. The Administration’s action on the HHS Mandate had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anti-discrimination laws, and it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with “LGBTQ” rights. It granted no exemptions of any kind whatsoever from non-discrimination laws, which the Executive Branch is not able to do anyway without an act of Congress. The idea that “LGBTQ rights” might be “vulnerable” (whatever that means) because of a decision relating to health insurance coverage of contraceptives is something that only an ideologue could believe.

This also gives the game away. This claim about exemptions from non-discrimination laws is the bogeyman raised by gay rights advocates to create a (non-existent but sympathetic) conflict between their interests and religious liberty. By parroting the advocates’ talking points, the Governor shows that the real intent of his Executive Order is to stigmatize religious freedom and threaten to penalize people for unacceptable thinking.

“With this executive order, New York reaffirms our commitment to protecting the rights of everyone.”

This is classic Orwellian doublethink — simultaneously believing in two utterly contradictory things. You cannot at the same time quash religious liberty and freedom of thought and still claim to be protecting the rights of everyone. This order is premised on the assumption that freedom is a zero-sum game with winners and losers — and the Governor has chosen which side he wants to win.

“Finally, the Governor announced that any school that refuses to protect transgender students will not receive state funding.”

Here is the unequivocal and direct attack on religious liberty. Note that the Governor’s order is aimed at “any school”, not just public schools. Catholic, Christian and Orthodox Jewish schools receive state funding for things like textbooks and computers as a matter of basic fairness to the parents of their students. They already protect all students from any kind of harassment or bullying or violence. But they do not and cannot recognize the idea of transgenderism, which is based on a false anthropology contrary to their religious beliefs. These faith communities continue to commit what contemporary sexual ideology considers to be an unforgivable heresy — namely, that God created every human person as male and female and that one’s “gender identity” must accept and conform to to the biological reality of male and female nature.

The amorphous language being used here — the vague undefined terms “protect”, “tolerate” and “promote” — shows that broad discretion is going to be given to unaccountable bureaucrats to police speech and thought as well as behavior. Who will decide what is sufficient to constitute “protection” and what standard will they use? Will it be enough to protect all students equally? Or will the state require Catholic, Christian and Jewish schools to violate their religious beliefs and treat some students in special ways that acknowledge the false notion of fluid gender identity? Does anyone trust this state government led by this Governor to act in a way that respects religious freedom as well as the rights to free speech, thought and association? Or are we witnessing the foundation of a Thought Police?

“Affected State Entities are hereby directed to amend their procurement procedures to prevent Affected State Entities from entering into contracts with entities that have institutional policies or practices that fail to address the harassment and discrimination of individuals on the basis of their gender identity, transgender status, gender dysphoria or any of the other protected classes enumerated above.”

This is the language of the Executive Order itself, and it carries much more weight than a press release. This is the directive that will be used by state agencies to come up with binding rules. If this language just spoke of banning companies that have been found guilty of actual acts of discrimination, then it would be one thing. Or if it dealt with government agencies subject to the Governor’s direct authority, that would make some sense.

But this Order is aimed at banning private companies “that have institutional policies or practices that fail to address” harassment and discrimination. This doesn’t seem to require proof of actual wrong-doing — that acts of discrimination have occurred or that the company failed to correct them. So how will we know if a policy “fails to address” discrimination? Who will decide that, and what standard will they use? Since our schools and institutions do not recognize the validity of transgenderism, are we per se guilty of this thoughtcrime because of our religious beliefs? Again, can we trust this state government led by this Governor to act in a way that respects religious freedom as well as the rights to free speech, thought and association?

To really capture the import of the Governor’s new policy, just consider his own words: “I can tell you that any school that refuses to protect transgender students will not receive a penny of state money and then they are out of business.” No subtlety to that threat. The only schools he could be talking about are religious ones, and everyone knows that means Catholic, Christian and Orthodox Jewish schools. The message is clear — conform or be destroyed.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in a case named Trinity Lutheran Church v. Missouri. It involved a religious school that was denied a government contract that was generally available to anyone else. The Court said,

The State has pursued its preferred policy to the point of expressly denying a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character. Under our precedents, that goes too far. The Department’s policy violates the Free Exercise Clause.

The Supreme Court saw clearly that our Constitution recognizes the fundamental human right to think and believe freely, and that government cannot penalize persons or organizations solely because of their religious beliefs. The Court rejected the fundamentally totalitarian idea that all private entities must be forced into harmony with the government’s ideology.

The Supreme Court sees what Big Brother in Albany does not. The future of freedom in our state is not looking good.

A Major Victory for Religious Freedom

Friday, October 6th, 2017

After years of regulatory and courtroom battling, the Government has finally recognized that it was a violation of religious liberty to impose what we have long called the “HHS Mandate” on those with religious objections to contraception, abortion-causing drugs and sterilization. That mandate was cooked out of thin air by the previous Administration under the purported authority of the Affordable Care Act. The current Administration has now issued new rules that give relief to religious and other organizations, as well as individuals.

This is a major victory, and we should express our gratitude to the President and his Administration, particularly those in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The sweep of the new rules is very broad. First, the admission that the original (and the many revised) rules violated the religious freedom of institutions and individuals (direct quotations from the new proposed rules are in italics):

  • “We have concluded that requiring certain objecting entities or individuals to choose between the Mandate, the accommodation, or penalties for noncompliance imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise under RFRA.” This corrects the error of the previous Administration, which stubbornly insisted that the Mandate did not impose a burden on religious belief.
  • “Our reconsideration of these issues has also led us to conclude… that the Mandate imposes a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of individual employees who oppose contraceptive coverage and would be able to obtain a plan that omits contraception…” Under the original Mandate, individuals with religious objections had no hope of any relief.
  • “the Departments have concluded that the application of the Mandate to entities with sincerely held religious objections to it does not serve a compelling governmental interest.”This is a huge concession, and reverses the adamant — and hardly credible — insistence by the previous Administration that riding roughshod over the religious objections served a vital public interest.
  • “In the Departments’ view, a broader exemption is a more direct, effective means of satisfying all bona fide religious objectors.” Note the new emphasis here of actually showing respect for religious objectors, instead of brushing them aside, which was the attitude of the previous Administration.

Now, the specifics, which also show a broad desire to protect religious liberty:

  • “With respect to employers that sponsor group health plans, the new language… provides exemptions for employers that object to coverage of all or a subset of contraceptives or sterilization and related patient education and counseling based on sincerely held religious beliefs.” This is the most significant provision, because it allows all employers with religious organizations to opt out of the offensive coverage without going through any bureaucratic process.
  • “Consistent with the restated exemption, exempt entities will not be required to comply with a self-certification process.” This removes one of the most objectionable provisions of the previous Mandate, which essentially required religious organizations to give a permission slip for offensive services to be provided — putting them in direct cooperation with evil.
  • “the Departments do not limit the Guidelines exemption with reference to nonprofit status… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of closely held for-profit entities. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hobby Lobby… the rules extend the exemption to the plans of for-profit entities that are not closely held.” This is a huge expansion of the exemption, because it will not just be limited to organizations that are non-profit or to those for-profit entities that satisfy standards that vary from state to state to determine if they are “closely held”.
  • “These interim final rules extend the exemption… to health insurance issuers offering group or individual health insurance coverage that sincerely hold their own religious objections to providing coverage for contraceptive services.” This would also allow insurance companies with religious values to operate, providing a potential safe harbor from these and other morally offensive measures.
  • “This individual exemption allows plan sponsors and issuers that do not specifically object to contraceptive coverage to offer religiously acceptable coverage to their participants or subscribers who do object, while offering coverage that includes contraception to participants or subscribers who do not object.” Another major victory, this would permit — but not require — insurers to offer objecting individuals to opt out of the offensive coverage.

This is the result of steadfast opposition and litigation by many organizations and individuals who refused to surrender their religious principles  to over-reaching, ideologically-driven government regulation. Particuarly worthy of mention are the great defenders of religious freedom at Alliance Defending Freedom and Becket.

We can legitimately celebrate this victory, and thank God that our government has shown a new-found respect for our first and most precious freedom.

Pathological Politics

Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voting as a Catholic

Monday, October 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Voting Choices

Monday, September 19th, 2016

How many of us have heard or uttered this statement: “I don’t know how I’m going to vote this year”. Many Catholics are struggling to decide how to vote. That should mean that they’re trying to form their consciences in a correct and Catholic way. And they should be looking for choices that allow them to “see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city” ( Gaudium et Spes 43).

Unfortunately, we have the prospect this year of having some of the most deeply problematic major party candidates for president in American history (which is quite a statement, considering that Aaron Burr, Richard Nixon, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace are on that list). Several of them have significant character problems and all support some kind of intrinsic moral evil (i.e., laws and policies that are always wrong, like permitting abortion on demand, legalizing assisted suicide, or the deliberate killing of civilians in wartime).

I’m not a member of any of the major parties, so loyalty is not an issue for me — candidates don’t have a right to my vote, they have to earn it. To me, casting a vote is a moral act, a statement that I wish this candidate to serve in a particular office. It means that I believe the person is qualified for the office, and that I want them to fulfill their campaign promises and positions. If I know that this candidate will support intrinsically evil policies, I am giving my permission for those evil acts and I am therefore complicit (however remotely) in them.

This is a very troubling moral dilemma. Our Bishops have advised us that we can vote for a candidate who promotes an intrinsically evil act, but that can only be for truly grave moral reasons — which does not include party loyalty. The Bishops have also advised that we can “take the extraordinary step” of not voting for any candidate, or we can vote for the candidate who is likely to do the least harm. This is also a hard decision to make — how could there possibly be a sufficiently grave reason to vote for a candidate who favors abortion on demand, the killing of civilians in war, torture of captives, the redefinition of marriage, or proposals that are openly racist. Given the Law of Unintended Consequences, and the impossibility of predicting the future, it is also extremely hard to make a determination as to who would cause the least damage to our vulnerable republic and world.

Many people are considering to cast their vote for one candidate as a statement against one of the other candidates. But we don’t have an electoral system where we can “Like” or “Unlike” candidates. To vote against one, we have to vote to put the other one in office — which is a problem if we know that they will support evil policies.

But there are alternatives to voting for any of the major party candidates. One could leave the line blank — a vote of “none of the above” — but still vote for candidates in other key races. But that’s not satisfactory to those who want their vote not just to express dissatisfaction with the candidates that have been offered, but to support a positive agenda.

Another option is to look at some of the “minor parties” that have proposed candidates. I find one of these minor parties, the American Solidarity Party, to be very intriguing. It seems to be building its platform on Catholic Social Teaching. The party is not strictly Catholic, but falls in the tradition of “Christian Democratic” parties, which have been so influential in Europe and Latin America but which have never gained a foothold in the binary party system here in the United States.  On the issues I consider most important, the ASP is right on point: they are consistently pro-life, defend religious liberty and the authentic definition of marriage, oppose the use of torture and the killing of civilians in war, and support the right of parents to control the education of their children and the duty of the state to support them. I don’t agree with all of their platform, and I am not endorsing them or any other candidate for office. But I am interested in any political party or movement, however small they may be, that tries to advance the Church’s positions on policy issues.

Obviously, these kind of parties have no chance of winning this election. Most probably won’t even be on the ballot in New York, given our notoriously byzantine ballot access laws, so a write-in vote would be necessary.

But for voters who are looking for options, a minor party vote may allow them to vote according to their conscience. And that is not a “wasted vote”. As John Quincy Adams once said, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

The Hierarchy of Values in Voting

Monday, February 29th, 2016

In several of my recent blog posts, I discussed some of the standards that our Bishops have recommended for helping Catholics make their voting decisions.  I noted that it is all too common for us to be faced with difficult choices involving candidates whose positions are not all in line with the teachings of the Church, particularly about the core issues of life, marriage and family, and religious liberty.

I’ve been discussing this problem a lot with my colleague, Alexis Carra.  She has a very valuable point of view, so I asked her to summarize it, and offer me a chance to respond:

“Like you mention in your post, it’s becoming more common to be presented with candidates who are in line with the Church when it comes to economic and social justice issues, but supportive of abortion. This poses a particular challenge for Catholic voters — Does a candidate’s favorable stance on economic and social issues outweigh his unfavorable stance on abortion? Or does a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? The guidance from the Catholic bishops seems to suggest that abortion outweighs all other issues. In other words, one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion for a proportionately serious reason. Considering that abortion is a very grave evil, this means that one could only vote for a candidate who supports abortion if one has a very grave reason.

“For some Catholics, this is a little off-putting. Why should a candidate’s favorable stance on abortion outweigh all of his other unfavorable stances? Why should abortion matter the most? Aren’t there other issues that are just as important? Or wouldn’t a combination of other favorable stances balance an unfavorable stance on abortion? Unfortunately, however, I find that these legitimate concerns have not been well-addressed, especially since they are difficult to address. Often times, I’m asked to discuss this issue, so I have included a portion of my response below. But really, I want to know your response.

“In short, I think these concerns can be best addressed by looking at the nature of the human person and reflecting on what enables a person to flourish. First and foremost, the person needs to be offered a chance at life — not killed in womb. If the person is not alive, then none of this really matters. Next, the person needs to be taken care of within a stable structure — everyone knows what happens to abandoned babies who are not taken in. Then, in order for the person to truly develop, the person needs to live within a society free from oppression, in which education, health-care, employment opportunities, etc. are also available.

“When asked to be as simple and pragmatic as possible, I think a reflection on the nature of the human person and on human development allows us to derive rough categories of importance. First, issues related to life. Second, issues related to stability, family structure, and sexuality. Third, issues related to greater flourishing. The reason why abortion typically outweighs all other issues is that is abortion cuts at the heart of life — it goes against the most basic category. If people are not even offered a chance to live, the most fundamental aspect of existence, then there can be no further debate on any other topic.

“What do you think?”

I think she’s on to something very important.  With all the fuss and furor that take place around elections, it’s hard to keep track of which issues are more important, and why — we tend to hear only about issues that the candidates have chosen to emphasize, in order to advance their electoral strategies.  Fortunately, our Catholic faith helps us to maintain a clearer view of the hierarchy of values.  There can be no real question that the right to life is the fundamental, original predicate for all other rights, needs, and desires — without life, none of those things can even be coherently discussed.  Likewise, the absolute equality of value of all human lives is also a foundation for any healthy society.  An attack on these foundational rights must be considered the most serious of social evils, and it is the highest social duty to defend them against such attacks.  So we as voters have the duty to make the protection of life our highest priority.

From that basis, I think that we can then discern the rest of the hierarchy of values. For any human being, life alone is insufficient for genuine flourishing and development.  Basic physical needs must also be attended to —  health, safety, shelter, nourishment, etc.  Human beings also cannot exist in isolation, so the health of relationships must also be taken care of.  The primary relationship is the family, which means that the promotion and protection of marriage must be a high priority, since that is the best environment for the health and development of both adults and children. As a person extends their relationships beyond the family, and particularly as they begin to develop as an independent person, other needs must also be addressed — education, employment, opportunities for cultural and leisure activities, etc.

As we move further down the hierarchy, the overall health of society is also a concern, since each person is part of the organic whole of the political community in which they live.  So this involves issues like the election of people of good moral character, the proper and prudent functioning of government, accountability of public officials, economic development, immigration, etc..  Since no nation exists in a vacuum, and we must consider the welfare of our fellow human beings around the world, we then look to issues of international relations, peace, etc.

As a voter, then, each of these matters has weight, but I have to consider them within this hierarchy of importance when making my decisions.

But there’s another important part of the hierarchy of values.  Alexis is absolutley right that we have to consider the nature of the human person, which means that we also have to consider the person’s spiritual needs as well.  Society has an obligation to create conditions where humans can develop spiritually, and to remove any unreasonable obstacles to that development. This is why the freedoms of religion, expression, and association are so important.  Society also has a duty to remove and remedy conditions that harm people’s spiritual health — the structures of sin that do so much damage, but encouraging and facilitating sinful behavior, like corruption in politics, the drug trade, the sex industry, etc.  As for the very great importance of spiritual health, we have it on good authority — “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt. 10:28).  The spiritual health of each individual, and society as a whole, should thus be placed alongside the right to life itself as a foundational value, and must be treated accordingly as voters.

This is, of course, not an easy way to make voting decisions.  It is much easier to vote for the loudest candidate who speaks colorfully with great theatrical skill.  But as Catholics, we have to do better.  We need to educate ourselves about the teachings of the Church, we have to pay close attention to the hierarchy of values, and we have to pray for guidance.

The stakes are high when we make voting decisions.  God clearly takes an interest in the health of societies, and has never been shy about passing judgment on them.

The Burden of Proof

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

I’ve written before about the challenges faced by Catholics in the election season, which is now upon us with the onset of presidential primaries.  I am often asked about how to make decisions between candidates, especially when none are in full agreement with the Church about essential issues.  The hypothetical case is typically presented of the candidate who is “pro-choice” on abortion, but has stands on economic issues that are closer to those promoted by the Church.  I know I’m old-fashioned in many ways, but in my mind the clearest thinking on this issue comes from our Bishops.

In 2004, the Bishops approved a brief statement called “Catholics In Political Life”. They said the following about abortion:

It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified… To make such intrinsically evil actions legal is itself wrong. This is the point most recently highlighted in official Catholic teaching. The legal system as such can be said to cooperate in evil when it fails to protect the lives of those who have no protection except the law. In the United States of America, abortion on demand has been made a constitutional right by a decision of the Supreme Court. Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good. (emphasis added)

During their deliberations, the Bishops had received a private letter from then-Cardinal Ratzinger that was later made public.  In it, he said:

When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.

That is standard Church teaching about the question of cooperation with evil.  And so, many people point to this notion of “proportionate reasons” when approaching the voting decision.  But in fact, our Bishops have gone further, and have significantly raised the bar for making a decision whether to vote for a “pro-choice” candidate because of their other positions.  In their document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, the Bishops have said:

There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. (35, emphasis added).

Specifically with respect to abortion, the Bishops responded to errors that are  made in applying Church teaching that can disort our defense of human life.  They said:

The first [temptation] is a moral equivalence that makes no ethical distinctions between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity. The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed. (28, emphasis added)

The Bishops don’t point this out, but in making our voting decision it is vitally important that we don’t consider it in isolation.  Instead, we have to look at the reasonably foreseeable consequences — in other words, what will happen if this flawed candidate is elected?  In the case of the Presidential election, there are substantial foreseeable consequences:  as many as two possible Supreme Court nominations, dozens of Circuit Court and District Court nominations, and appointment power to many key policy-making positions in the Administration where regulations are developed (just think of the HHS Mandate and you’ll know why this matters so much).  Will the candidate’s future actions work to ameliorate the situation, leave it intact, or make it even worse?  One also has to take into account the likelihood of a candidates’ positions becoming reality — they may be nice campaign promises that are in keeping with the positions of the Church, but if they may have no chance of being passed, then what good are they?

So that sets the bar very high indeed.  What could possibly be a sufficiently grave moral reason that would justify voting for a candidate that supports the injustice of abortion, where upwards of a million vulnerable lives are lost every year?  Where the courts are hostile to common-sense measures that would regulate abortion?  Where minors are allowed to get abortions without even notifying their parents?  Where public authorities refuse to enforce health standards in abortion clinics?  Where abortion is held out as being indispensible for women to participate in society?  Where millions of taxpayer dollars go directly to pay abortionists for their dirty work?

Can any position, on any issue, be sufficient to justify voting for a person who will support that?  Personally, I cannot imagine anything satisfying that burden of proof.

How Will We Be Ruled?

Friday, January 29th, 2016

America is once again at the threshold of another presidential election year.  The early campaigning has been done, and the voting will soon begin in primaries across the nation.

The electoral process is more than an question of who will best fill the position of president, but it is a moral testing ground.  What kind of person will we choose to head our government?  What kind of standards will he govern by?  What are the moral implications of his decisions?

For Catholics, this is a time for us to challenge our consciences.  Are we making political decisions based on our faith, or on other criteria?  Are we voting like Christians, or like members of a political party or ideology?

The bishops of the United States have published a document every four years, in preparation for the presidential elections, entitled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.  It lays out the Church’s perspective on the policy issues that are facing our nation, and calls Catholics to use it as a guide to their moral decision-making.

But the real challenge to us involves more than just a decision about who will temporarily hold an office.  It is a much deeper question — will we live according to God’s standards, or man’s?  This is a test of faith, and it is one that our nation seems to be failing.  The evidence is all around us — idolatrous consumerism and materialism, widespread sexual immorality, ethical relativism, the collapse of social support for authentic marriage, denial of the true nature of the human person as male and female, and the increasing reach of the Culture of Death.

Every year, we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe.  This feast encourages us to contemplate the Kingdom of God.  All too often we only view God’s Kingdom as an abstract idea, perhaps something for the distant future, or a goal to be aspired to.  But it actually has tremendous significance for the way we live right now, and for our political decisions.  A few years ago, in a homily for the feast, Pope Benedict pointed out that “The kingdom of God is a kingdom utterly different from earthly kingdoms”, because it is founded on justice, love, peace, and service, and not on power or force.  He also reminded us that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God “is a pressing invitation addressed to each and all: to be converted ever anew to the kingdom of God, to the lordship of God, of Truth, in our lives.”

Are those the standards we apply in making political decisions?

We are not unique in having to decide how God’s standards can be instituted in our earthly realm.  This has been a struggle faced by God’s people throughout history.  And, all too often, we have chosen badly.  I am reminded of a passage from the First Book of Samuel, in which the prophet issues a stern warning to the Israelites, who have clamored to be ruled by an earthly king, instead of the prophets and judges appointed by God.

Samuel said to the people, “Fear not; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after vain things which cannot profit or save, for they are vain.  For the LORD will not cast away his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself.  Moreover as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you; and I will instruct you in the good and the right way.  Only fear the LORD, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for consider what great things he has done for you. But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.  (1 Samuel 12:20-25)

How are we responding to the Lord’s invitation — and Samuel’s admonition — as we consider our upcoming political decisions?  Are we choosing to be ruled by God’s standards, or by man’s?