Following the Higher Law on Refugees

January 30th, 2017

The news has been filled over the past few days with the new President’s Executive Order on immigration and refugees. The refugee part of the order bears very close examination, and, I believe, unequivocal condemnation. The order temporarily suspends the admission of any refugees into the United States, slices in half the number of refugees that will eventually be admitted, and places an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees.

The plight of refugees, especially from the war-torn areas of Syria and Iraq, is well known. It is a catastrophic tragedy, and has caused the worst humanitarian crisis involving refugees and displaced persons since World War II. Over 6 million Syrians have been displaced because of the civil war, and over 4 million of them have fled their country. Over 3 million Iraqis have been displaced, with over 200,000 fleeing the country. Religous minorities have faced brutal persecution to the point of genocide — primarily Christians, but also Yazidis, and Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. Many of them are sheltered in refugee camps where the living conditions are awful, and in which some of the persecution has continued.

There’s no doubt that the President has the legal authority to impose regulations and limits on refugee admissions. That’s a settled matter under both American and international law. It’s also clear that the primary obligation of civil authorities is to protect the people in their community.

There certainly can be a healthy debate about the extent of the threat posed to the United States by refugees. Studies of terrorist strikes against our country shows that very few were carried out by refugees, and that the great majority were by citizens or permanent residents. There can certainly be concerns about the potential for future radicalization of refugees. But that is all speculative and conjectural and in some ways beside the point — we have no idea what will happen to these people in the future, but we do know exactly how they are suffering now.

But apart from the prudential issues under secular law and public policy, there is a higher law that we must consider — God’s law. In his Message for the 2017 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the Holy Father said this:

we need to become aware that the phenomenon of migration is not unrelated to salvation history, but rather a part of that history. One of God’s commandments is connected to it: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion. While appreciating the issues, and often the suffering and tragedy of migration, as too the difficulties connected with the demands of offering a dignified welcome to these persons, the Church nevertheless encourages us to recognize God’s plan. She invites us to do this precisely amidst this phenomenon, with the certainty that no one is a stranger in the Christian community, which embraces “every nation, tribe, people and tongue” (Rev 7:9). Each person is precious; persons are more important than things, and the worth of an institution is measured by the way it treats the life and dignity of human beings, particularly when they are vulnerable, as in the case of child migrants.

Jesus himself was also quite clear that we will be judged based on our conduct towards our least brethren, including “strangers”:

`Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (Mt 25:41-45)

The President’s order is utterly incompatible with God’s law. It rejects the inherent solidarity that exists between all human persons, and fragments the human family into competing camps. In God’s eyes it is utterly irrelvant that a person happens to have been born within arbitrary national boundaries, most of which were invented out of whole cloth by cynical European imperialists. Arbitrarily suspending all refugee admissions, reducing the number of refugees that we will take, and closing the door indefinitely to refugees from Syria, is to condemn our brothers and sisters who are made in God’s image to continued persecution and suffering.

This all may sound idealistic and naive to modern ears, particularly in a world that lives in fear of terrorism. But I have faith that if we follow God’s higher law, we will actually reduce the threats to our nation. We can show the world that the American Dream is not just material prosperity, but is a welcoming society in which all kinds of people can flourish in freedom and peace. We can prove that we are vigilant but also compassionate, and that we are confident that once people come to our nation they will be converted to our values. True American values are the antidote to radicalization and terror.

I am proud to stand with George Washington, who shared my faith in America. He once said this to an association of Irishmen who had recently emigrated to America, most of whom were Catholics, an oppressed religious minority:

The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations And Religions; whom we shall wellcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.

There are Never Enough Abortions for our State Leaders

January 23rd, 2017

Does anyone seriously think we need more abortions in New York, or that abortions are hard to get in our state? Apparently, our Governor and some leading Democratic legislators do. What can they possibly be thinking?

According to the most recent state statistics from 2014, there were 93,300 abortions in New York State. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a well-known pro-abortion research group, puts the number highter, at 119,400. Thanks be to God, these number have been coming down in recent years, but regardless, it’s a mind-boggling number — in less than two years, the equivalent of the population of my home town, Yonkers, is exterminated.

There are few, if any, limits on access to abortion in New York. Women of every single county have abortions, and there are over 200 facilities where they take place, mostly stand-alone clinics. 79% of New York’s abortions are currently paid for by health insurance, 47% by Medicaid. In 52% of the abortions, the mother had at least one prior; in 15%, the mother had 3 or more priors;  in 4.3%, the mother had 5 or more priors. Nobody is having a hard time getting an abortion.

There is no evidence that wider access to abortion is necessary to preserve the health of women. The vast majority of abortions have nothing to do with health concerns. According to Guttmacher, “The three most common reasons — each cited by three-fourths of patients — were concern for or responsibility to other individuals; the inability to afford raising a child; and the belief that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents. Half said they did not want to be a single parent or were having problems with their husband or partner.” In other words, most abortions are taking place as a method of back-up contraception, and have nothing to do with the health of mothers.

So why are the Governor and legislators pushing for more abortions?

The Governor just announced a new set of regulations that would require every health insurance plan to cover “medically necessary” abortions, with no co-pays or deductibles. The term “medically necessary” isn’t defined in his rules, but pro-abortion advocates have typically used it to mean basically any abortion that a doctor either recommends or agrees to. In short, the Governor thinks that every woman in New York should be able to have an abortion for any reason whatsoever at any stage of pregnancy — for free. I’m sure the Governor understands economics, so I’m sure he understands very well that if you reduce the cost of something to zero, more people will avail themselves of it.

And take a look at the new bill that’s been introduced by Democrats in the Legislature (and that I would expect the Governor to sign into law, if it ever passes). This bill is really wicked. It would:

  • Permit non-doctors to do surgical abortions.
  • Increase the number of late-term abortions.
  • Endanger the few health and safety regulations that we currently have.
  • Compel hospitals and doctors to participate in abortions.
  • Eliminate any criminal penalties for back-alley abortions.

The worst part of this bill is so extreme that it boggles the mind. It would repeal a section of our Public Health Law (Section 4164, the “Baby Doe Law”) that gives full civil rights protection to any child who might be born alive as the result of an abortion. This law also requires a second doctor to be available during a late-term abortion — when the baby is likely to be able to live outside of the womb with basic medical care.

This evil bill would eliminate that law and treat those babies as non-persons — essentially saying, to paraphrase the infamous Dred Scott decision, that “a baby born alive after an abortion has no rights that born people are bound to respect”. Yet our Politburo-like Assembly passed the bill by a wide margin, and the only thing standing between it and the Governor’s pen is the slim pro-life majority in the Senate.

It is hard to conceive a reason to repeal these humane protections of basic human rights — unless you understand that the true motivation of pro-abortion advocates is to ensure the death of more “unwanted” babies.

This is what our state has come to. All the hooplah over marches for women and full civil rights for weak and vulnerable people is just a charade. The tragic reality is that powerful people in New York — particularly our Governor and Democratic legislative leaders — want to change the law so that there are more dead children, more damaged mothers and fathers, and an increase in the malign effects of the Culture of Death.

When will enough be enough?

The View in the Rear-View Mirror

January 19th, 2017

The time has finally come to say “goodbye” to the Obama Administration. Not a moment too soon. Whatever one may think of the personal character of Mr. Obama, or whatever one may think about the wisdom of some of his policies, I think it cannot be denied that his Administration was a disaster for the issues that are most important to Catholics — the defense of human life, religious liberty, the truth of human sexuality, and marriage. Let’s review some of the low-lights.

Celebrating Abortion.  The Obama Administration was the most committed pro-abortion group that we’ve ever had in a leadership position. They were completely committed to expanding “access” to abortion, defending it against any legal challenge, and to stigmatizing anyone who opposed them. The President repeatedly expressed his support for the abortion on demand regime of Roe v. Wade, he issued Presidential Proclamations lauding the decision, and he frequently praised Planned Parenthood.

Abortion and Health Insurance. The President personally promised that his health care reform bill would not involve public funding for abortion, and even issued an executive order that purported to ensure that. But it was false when he said it and it was proven false by how the law was implemented. There will be tax subsidies for health plans that cover abortion, and many Americans will be forced by law to pay premiums for abortion itself. Just last year, the Administration even went so far as to re-interpret anti-discrimination laws to force all health insurance plans to cover abortion.

The Mexico City Policy. This long-standing policy prohibited tax dollars from going to international organizations that do abortions, such as UNFPA and International Planned Parenthood. The President signed an executive order revoking this policy on his very first day in office.

Embyonic Stem Cell Research. Just a few months into his first term, the President signed an executive order that allowed tax dollars to fund stem cell research that involved the deliberate destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage of their development.

Appointment of Pro-Abortion Officials. The President was utterly consistent in appointing pro-abortion people to key positions, including Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Justices Elena Kagen and Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.

Funding for Planned Parenthood. The President and his Administration were unwavering in their support for that evil organization, which kills over 300,000 unborn children each year and receives over a half billion dollars a year in federal money. He vetoed a bill that would have de-funded Planned Parenthood, and even went so far as to threaten to shut down the government, in order to coerce Congress to remove a de-funding provision from the budget.

Violating Religious Liberty. The President and his Administration have an incomparably deplorable record of hostility to religious liberty. Their singleminded adherence to the HHS Mandate, which ran roughshod over the freedom of religious organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor, is just the tip of the iceberg. They consistently opposed religious freedom in court, including advocating for government interference in the appointment of religious ministers. They suggested that churches might lose their tax exemptions if they failed to fall in line with the re-definition of marriage. Virtually every one of their regulations involving abortion and/or contraception failed to respect religious freedom and sought to squash any religious-based objections. They excluded the US Bishops’ conference from serving refugees solely because the Church would not promote abortion. They refused to enforce existing federal religious liberty laws, and revoked regulations that would have required enforcement actions.

Re-defining Marriage. During his first campaign and in the first few years in office, the President stated that he did not support re-defining marriage to include same-sex couples. Nobody believed him then, and he proved that they were right. He directed his Attorney General to stop defending the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, and ultimately urged the Supreme Court to overturn that law. Soon thereafter, the President disingenuously announced his “evolution” on the issue of marrage and came out in support of re-defining it. His Administration then supported the litigation that ultimately changed the meaning of marriage.

Gender Ideology. His Administration has been relentless in advancing the bizarre notion that “gender identity” can be separated from biological sex and can mean virtually anything. They have been equally consistent in seeking to coerce into conformity anyone who disagrees. More and more federal agencies have been issuing regulations and “guidance” letters that require people to accommodate and acquiesce in variations in a person’s totally subjective “gender identity”. They have even tried to re-define the word “sex” in old discrimination laws to include “gender identity” and “sexual orientation”, and thus to coerce every health care institution and professional to participate in surgical mutilations of people’s sex organs.

It’s been a bad eight years for our issues. We can only hope that the next four will be better.

The Awful Truth of Assisted Suicide Advocacy

January 11th, 2017

When they speak to the general public or to legislators, advocates for assisted suicide routinely express concern about ensuring patient safety, and point to the allegedly rigorous safeguards that they have written into their proposed bills. We have long countered that these safeguards are mere shams, and provide no real protection for vulnerable patients.

Now, thanks to an article at an obscure legal blog, we know what the assisted suicide advocates really think. They want no safeguards at all. They believe that any patient protections written into law are harmful and unnecessary. They want assisted suicide to be a normal part of medical practice and for doctors alone to set the standards.

In other words, they’ve been deceiving us all along about what they really want.

The truth was revealed in a recent article by Kathryn Tucker, who is the Executive Director of the “End of Life Liberty Project”. She is a leading advocate for assisted suicide, and is one of the attorneys who is suing New York State to have assisted suicide legalized. She was commenting on the recent District of Columbia law that legalized assisted suicide — a bill that her fellow advocates drafted and which is similar to all the bills that have been introduced around the country, including the one her own organization has endorsed in New York.

But despite the lip service that they pay to patient protection, the reality is that she has no use for  safeguards that are designed to protect patients from abuse and manipulation. Instead she calls them “burdens and restrictions”, and adds:

While in some ways these enactments are a step toward expanding end of life liberty, they impose heavy governmental intrusion into the practice of medicine, which is concerning because it creates barriers to patient access and to physician participation.

“Barriers” to more death, in other words.

She then went on to object to such common-sense protections as:

  • Requiring the patient to make multiple requests, including at least one in writing, which is designed to ensure that the patient isn’t acting rashly.
  • Requiring that the request be witnessed, which would ensure that the request is being made by a competent person who is not under coercion.
  • Obtaining a second opinion, which is intended to protect the patient from a mis-diagnosis
  • Referring the patient to a mental health specialist to ensure that they are competent to make medical decisions.
  • Mandating a fifteen-day waiting period, again to ensure that the decision isn’t being made rashly.
  • Requiring that doctors collect and report data about the case, which would allow public health authorities and law enforcement to oversee what is happening and take action if there are abuses.

Now, to be clear, we consider all of these supposed safeguards to be inadequate to protect vulnerable patients. They leave too many loopholes, such as the failure to insist on a psychological screening for depression. And most alarming, they don’t provide any protection whatsoever after the medicine has been dispensed and the patient leaves the hospital. These problems can’t be fixed, and that alone is a reason to oppose legalization.

But now we know what assisted suicide activists are really after. They want more patients to have “access” to suicide, so that more people can kill themselves. And they want more doctors who are willing to participate in the killing. They don’t want to give patients even the minimal protections that go along with the execution of simple legal documents like wills, health care proxies or powers of attorney. They want doctors like Dr. Kevorkian to make up their own rules. And they don’t want anyone to be able to oversee what’s happening and hold people accountable.

The awful truth is that their agenda is death, and more of it. They want to push us down the slippery slope. They must be stopped.

Pro-Life Judges

January 2nd, 2017

I was recently asked my opinion of the list of the President-Elect’s potential Supreme Court nominees. I don’t have any personal knowledge of any of the people on the list, so I can’t really say anything useful about them. But I do have some observations about whether these people, or any judges, can be said to be “pro-life”.

In most cases, it is extraordinarily difficult to divine the personal views, and even at times the judicial philosophy, of lower-court judges based on isolated judicial opinions. Conscientious lower court judges are bound by precedent and are not free to overrule or widely diverge from it, even if they disagree with it. It is not good practice for lower court judges to openly criticize precedent. So even if a lower court judge rules against the “pro-life” side in a case, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything about their personal views or their judicial philosophy. It could just mean that the judge is doing his job.

Plus, sitting judges generally avoid writing law review articles or giving substantive talks on issues, since that might be considered pre-judging cases. There is also a phenomenon in the legal world where a person who hopes to be appointed to the bench deliberately declines to speak openly about controversial topics, to preserve their confirmability. So most sitting judges are a bit Sphinx-like when it comes to their actual views.

It is also a fact that there is probably not more than a handful of sitting federal or state high court judges who are “pro-life” in the sense that I would use the term — namely, they believe that unborn human beings are “persons” within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and are entitled to full legal protection. No Justice of the Supreme Court has ever taken that position — not even Justices Scalia or Thomas — and I would doubt that any sitting state judge has done so either.

So I would be very reluctant to call any judge “pro-life”, lest the word lose its real meaning.

In the absence of such persons, our best bet at this point is a “constitutionalist” or “originalist”, who would hold with Justice Thomas (and the late Justice Scalia) that there is no right to abortion guaranteed in the Constitution, and that the issue is therefore reserved to the states to permit and regulate or prohibit. I am not satisfied with that view, but I think it is just about as good as we can get in the current legal climate.

My general impression, from what I have read, is that the people on the President-Elect’s list would likely fit that description. Since I have no confidence whatsoever that the President-elect would recognize constitutionalism if it hit him over the head, I take some comfort in the probability that he is getting advice from the Federalist Society, which is committed to that view of the law.

Of course, one never knows what a person will do once they’re on the Court (as we have seen from Warren, Brennan, Souter, Kennedy, O’Connor, Roberts and many, many more examples). The Court is generally reluctant to overturn major precedents, and instead prefers to adjust or adapt them (see Casey). So I am not particularly sanguine about any reversal of Roe/Casey in the near term. I think that if a couple of constitutionalist Justices are appointed, we might get a ruling that backs away from the expansive application of Casey’s “undue burden” standard that we saw used to devastating effect in Whole Women’s Health to strike down Texas’ health and safety regulations for abortion clinics. That would be a tremendous accomplishment in itself because it would open up the field for further state restrictions, and it could lay the groundwork for an eventual direct attack on Roe/Casey.

One thing that I particularly fear is a sense of pro-life over-confidence that might lead to a premature assault on Roe/Casey. Pushing flawed and risky cases too fast (e.g., heartbeat bills) could produce a disastrous reaffirmation of Roe/Casey, perhaps with an even stronger constitutional justification based on the (spurious) idea that the Equal Protection Clause requires abortion rights to ensure the ability of women to fully participate in society. That is a position long proposed by Justice Ginsberg, and given the tenor of recent Court decisions like Obergefell, it may appeal to a majority of other justices as well.

At this point, I’m more concerned with the Executive Branch appointments, since that’s where most of the action is right now — regulations, enforcement actions, etc. I also fear that too much attention will be paid to DC, and not enough to the states where the pro-death movement will be very active in expanding abortion rights and promoting assisted suicide. State legislatures and courthouses are the battlefront right now, and our movement needs to focus on them, and less on crystal-ball gazing about potential judicial appointments.

Post-Election Thoughts

November 10th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

A Political Desecration

November 7th, 2016

Yesterday, Fr. Frank Pavone, the leader of Priests for Life, went live on Facebook to endorse Donald Trump for President. That’s his right as a U.S. citizen, and one can agree or disagree with that as a matter of course. But the way he did it was absolutely appalling, and deserves to be repudiated by all of us who consider ourselves to be pro-life in the fullest meaning of that word.

What did he do? He used a dead aborted baby, laying naked and bloody on an altar, as a prop for his video.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A priest of the Catholic Church publicly displayed on a sacred altar a dead baby who was the victim of a terrible crime as part of a propaganda video in favor of a political candidate.

It is hard for me to express in calm, measured terms, the revulsion I feel about this. I know that the pro-life movement has long had a debate about the use of graphic images to reveal the reality of abortion. The discussion has always focused on a cost/benefit analysis of their effect of the viewer versus the risk of alienating those who don’t want to see such things, especially on women who are post-abortive and have not yet healed.

But that’s all beside the point. The real question is, what about that baby as a human being? That baby is an individual human person, someone’s son or daughter, made in the image and likeness of God, unique and unrepeatable, and deserving of our love and mercy. To use her body in this way is to treat that poor lost girl or boy as an object to be used — which is the antithesis of love  — and not as a brother or sister to be mourned.

Who would ever wish that their body be used in such a way?  Who would ever want that for a loved one?  Can any of us imagine that being the right way to treat the remains of our dead son or daughter?

And to place that baby’s body on an altar, which has been sanctified for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? To treat the altar of God as if it’s a mere podium for a political speech?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection.” There is no ambiguity there.

A human being has been sacrificed and the altar of God has been desecrated, all for politics. Everyone who respects the dignity of every human person should reject and disavow this atrocity.

Pathological Politics

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

October 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Need for Political Morality

October 11th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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