A Religious Liberty Failure

May 10th, 2017

It is often difficult to know what to make of this very strange Administration. Every day seems to bring a new self-generated controversy and it is often difficult to discern what is going on and why.

Sometimes, though, it is very clear what has happened — or more accurately, what has not happened. The case in point is the alleged religious liberty executive order issued last week to great fanfare. It was a splendid photo op, with the President surrounded by Catholic prelates, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other religious leaders. The President spoke wonderful words about how committed our government is to defending religious liberty. There were smiles all around and much applause.

The problem is that the executive order is virtually useless, it accomplishes nothing, it misses an opportunity to implement important reforms, and it delivers nothing more than vague promises of possible future actions at undefined times.

The order contains six paragraphs. The first contains hortatory language about the importance of religious liberty, which is virtually indistinguishable from proclamations issued by the prior Administration. The last two paragraphs deal with legal procedure that has no particular importance. The middle three paragraphs is where the substance is supposed to be, but isn’t.

Paragraph 2 purports to grant legal protection to the free speech of religious non-profits and churchs that are incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It directs the Treasury Department not to enforce a legal provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits those organizations from engaging in partisan political activity such as open endorsement of candidates. Opinions differ about the Johnson Amendment. I happen to think it’s a good idea but many others disagree. The problem is, though, that the government has virtually never enforced that provision and the President can’t do anything to change the law itself — it can only be repealed by an act of Congress. Future administrations could easily begin enforcing the rule at any time — which would be particularly dangerous for any organization that foolishly relies on this executive order and begins engaging in partisan politics.

So this part of the executive order is actually completely devoid of any real content. It’s merely a promise not to do something that isn’t being done, without preventing it from being done in the future. Hold your applause.

Paragraph 3 is a particularly frustrating diappointment to those of us who have been battling over religious liberty the past few years, especially over the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. That is the cause of voluminous litigation that culminated in a directive from the Supreme Court that the government find some way to accommodate the religious liberty concerns of religious non-profits who object to the mandate. This executive order directs the relevant agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections”.

“Consider”? That’s all? Remember, you can’t overturn statutes or regulations with a mere executive order, so the HHS mandate and its offensive non-exemption continues to be the law of the land. But the President, with the stroke of a pen or even with a mere oral order, could easily have directed the Justice Department to immediately settle all the litigation by granting the religious non-profits the same full exemption that is enjoyed by churches, and further directing the relevant agencies to develop regulations that would formalize that settlement into law. That would have resolved the HHS mandate controversy completely and it would have established a strong precedent for further conscience protection laws and regulations.

This is a tragic missed opportunity, and it directly calls into question the Administration’s competence and/or its sincerity about protecting religious freedom. It is a complete and absolute failure to follow through on explicit campaign promises — somehave even called it a betrayal.

Paragraph 4 is hardly worth mentioning. It directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections”. This won’t come any time soon, since virtually no sub-cabinet Justice Department officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there isn’t even a nominee for the head of the crucial Civil Rights Division. And in any event, “guidance” does not have the same force of law as regulations or statutes, it does not have to be accepted by the courts and it can be overturned at any time by this or any future Administration. So this is another post-dated check for something that may be delivered someday by someone. Yawn.

This much bally-hooed executive order is a major failure. It provides no actual protection for religious freedom. It does nothing to change the law. It does nothing to reverse the hostility of the prior Administration towards those with traditional religious beliefs. It does nothing to protect religious contractors from discrimination by government agencies that disapprove of their beliefs. It is such a non-starter that even the ACLU has decided that it’s not worth challenging in court.

Many people, particularly religious conservatives, supported the President because they rightly feared the consequences for religious liberty if Hillary Clinton had been elected. But the President’s executive order uttely fails to deliver on expectations for imporoved protection of religious liberty. All we can hope is that the Administration will eventually get its act together, appoint good people to crucial executive positions, and implement concrete reforms to statutes and regulations that will give genuine and lasting protection to people and organizations of faith. Meanwhile, despite all the fanfare in the Rose Garden, the very real threats to religious freedom remain.

Is There Room for Pro-Life Democrats?

May 3rd, 2017

One of the saddest developments in modern politics has been the degradation of the Democratic Party when it comes to issues involving protection of human life. The party once boasted of pro-lfe members like Sargent and Eunice Schriver, Bob Casey Sr., Tom Eagleton and Hubert Humphrey. But sadly, the institutional party’s leadership has now become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the abortion industry’s lobbying and political wing.

This development has been going on for many years. But it may have reached its point of no return. Last week, a controversy erupted because Sen. Bernie Sanders, the erstwhile presidential candidate, endorsed a candidate for local office in Nebraska who had previously voted for various pro-life bills. It’s worth noting, though, that recently the candidate had earned a 100% rating from Planned Parenthood and had publicly bought into the “I’m Catholic but I won’t let that affect my vote on abortion” charade.

None of that mattered to the abortion industry, which brooks no dissent. The abortion fanatics at NARAL immediately yanked the chain on their Democratic Party subordinates. The new Chair of the party promptly fell into heel and pledged to enforce ideological purity: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not chance city by city or state by state.” His rigidity was echoed by other significant Democratic Party officials, like Sen. Dick Durbin, who stated, “I know within the ranks of the Democratic Party there are those who see that differently on a personal basis, but when it comes to the policy position, I think we need to be clear and unequivocal.”

In other words, the official position of Democratic Party leaders has become “shut up about defending life or get out of the party”. Cardinal Dolan, speaking on behalf of the US Bishops, denounced this intolerant extremism:

The recent pledge by the Democratic National Committee chair to support only candidates who embrace the radical unrestricted abortion license is very disturbing. The Democratic Party platform already endorses abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy, even forcing taxpayers to fund it; and now the DNC says that to be a Democrat—indeed to be an American—requires supporting that extreme agenda. True solidarity with pregnant women and their children transcends all party lines. Abortion doesn’t empower women. Indeed, women deserve better than abortion. In the name of diversity and inclusion, pro-life and pro-‘choice’ Democrats, alike, should challenge their leadership to recant this intolerant position.

This sad development doesn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention. Last year’s presidential ticket was ardently pro-abortion; the party in Congress has been in lock-step to continue funding Planned Parenthood, the most prolific abortionist in America; few leading Democrats in elected office at any level will identify themselves as pro-life or support pro-life legislation; and only a handful of Democratic Congressional representatives continues to support the Hyde Amendment (which prohibits federal funding for abortion on demand. The party’s platformlast year made its position perfectly clear:

We will fight Republican efforts to roll back the clock on women’s health and reproductive rights, and stand up for Planned Parenthood…. We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion—regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured… We will continue to stand up to Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers, which provide critical health services to millions of people. We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment.

The institutional leaders of the Democratic Party are woefully out of step with their own members, not to mention all other Americans. The remaining pro-life Democrats are rightly feeling excluded and unwanted, even though they make up a sizeable portion of the party. A recent poll shows that:

  • 61% of Americans oppose the use of tax dollars to fund abortions in the United States, including 39% of supporters of Hillary Clinton.
  • 59% of Americans say it is either an immediate priority (34%) or an important one (25%) to limit abortion to the first trimester, including 47% of Democrats.
  • Among those who call themselves “pro-choice”, 44% say restricting abortion is an immediate priority or important, only 26% believe it should be available at any time in pregnancy, and 33% believe it should only be permitted the first trimester.
  • 59% of Americans believe that abortion is morally wrong, including 37% of Clinton supporters.

This is truly a tragic development for our society, and particularly for a party that has traditionally categorized itself as the voice for the little guy, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Instead, the Democratic Party has not only abandoned the most vulnerable human beings in our society, it has become actively hostile to them.

A Travesty of Justice in Arkansas

April 28th, 2017

Last night, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams, the fourth man they have executed in just over a week. The other three men’s names were Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr. Four other men were supposed to be killed, but they recieved stays of execution from courts.

All of these men were convicted of heinous murders and had served many years of incarceration awaiting execution. But the sole reason that the state scheduled so many executions over such a short period of time was that the state’s supply of one of the drugs used in its lethal injections expires at the end of April. In a statement calling for cancellation of the executions, Bishop Frank Dewane, Chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, described this twisted scenario in very clear terms:

The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.

The family of Mr. Williams’ victim wrote a moving letter to the Governor, asking him to grant clemency. They related how they had arranged from Mr. Williams’ daughter and granddaughter to come and visit him, and asked to see him themselves so they could tell him that they forgive him — a request that had been denied. And they said this:

You often hear stories of men who go into prison and become bitter, angry and hateful. I do not believe Mr Williams is one of those men. He found God and I believe his redemption is genuine. Mr Williams is not the same person who killed my father on 4 October 1999. It is the changed man; the new Kenneth Williams that we are asking you to save.

Mr. Williams and Ledell Lee both received Communion before they were executed. Mr. Lee even opted for Communion instead of a last meal. There were significant doubts raised about the mental capacity of some of the men who were executed, and about the innocence of one of them.

None of that mattered. The courts stepped aside and the Governor ordered their execution before the artificial deadline set by the “sell by” date of the deadly drugs.

In his great encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul said this:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56)

It is difficult to justify the necessity of any executions in the United States today. Our massive prison system is surely capable of detaining potentially dangerous offenders so that they no longer pose a threat to society. We are also well capable of removing convicted murderers from the general population for extended periods of time. A recent report stated that over 150,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States, with over 50,000 of them ineligible for parole. There are fewer than 3,000 people who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. It’s hard to see how the fast-track execution of these four men contributes anything positive to the common good, or any way in which it was necessary.

But even if one accepted the argument that the death penalty was justified in these cases, it is still hard to justify the circumstances of these executions. The State of Arkansas displayed a callous disregard for the dignity of those prisoners by treating them — and not just the deadly drugs — as objects to be used up and discarded prior to their expiration date.

The Culture of Death is already far advanced in the United States. Abortion is routinely done for any reason — including eliminating handicapped babies — and is applauded by many influential people in our society. Adherence to abortion on demand is being required as a mandatory condition for being an active member of the Democratic Party. Human trafficking for commercial purposes is permitted in the form of gestational surrogacy and assisted reproduction. And ideologues are seeking to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia as a way of disposing of lives they consider no longer worth living.

The death penalty is not in the same category as those offenses against human life. They are all intrinsically evil, while the Church still maintains that capital punishment may be morally justifiable under some limited circumstances. But that’s not ultimately what’s at issue here.

The dispensation of justice is a fearsome and profound matter, and should be treated with great caution and seriousness. It is appalling to turn it into a travesty where the executioner is heedlessly racing to beat the clock. Every human life, including that of convicted murderers, deserves more than that.

Let’s March for Science

April 25th, 2017

Last Saturday, there was a large gathering in Washington called the “March for Science”. I didn’t attend, but I gather that the idea behind the march was a call for society in general and government in particular to rely more heavily on the input of scientists when making public policy in the areas of their expertise. It seemed also to have a lot of messages about accepting the reality of global warming and the adoption of policies that would address it.

All of that is well and good, and I’m all in favor of it.

But while we’re marching for science, how about if we include a little bit of the science of embryology when we make public policies?

Embryology is the study of life at its earliest stages. Human embryology is quite an advanced science, and there is an abundance of amazing resources that have been produced by scientists that can educate us about its truths. A quick Google search will uncover amazing photographs and models of embryonic human life. If we want the quick version, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Here are some of the basic truths that have been revealed to us by the science of embryology: “A human begins life as a fertilized ovum” ( University of Utah medical school website); “The first week of human development begins with fertilization of the egg by sperm forming the first cell, the zygote” ( University of New South Wales, Australia, website); “Human development is a continuous process beginning with fertilization and continuing throughout pregnancy, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and into old age.” ( the Endowment for Human Development website); “Fertilization is the event most commonly used to mark the zero point in descriptions of prenatal development of the embryo or fetus” (okay, this one is Wikipedia, there were too many medical websites to keep citing them all).

So how does all this science relate to the making of public policy? Consider these quotations:

“During the first trimester, the predominant abortion method is “vacuum aspiration,” which involves insertion of a vacuum tube (cannula) into the uterus to evacuate the contents.”

“D&E is similar to vacuum aspiration except that the cervix must be dilated more widely because surgical instruments are used to remove larger pieces of tissue… Because fetal tissue is friable and easily broken, the fetus may not be removed intact. The walls of the uterus are scraped with a curette to ensure that no tissue remains.”

“Because the fetus is larger at this stage of gestation (particularly the head) [after 15 weeks], and because bones are more rigid, dismemberment or other destructive procedures are more likely to be required than at earlier gestational ages to remove fetal and placental tissue.”

“There are variations in D&E operative strategy… However, the common points are that D&E involves (1) dilation of the cervix; (2) removal of at least some fetal tissue using nonvacuum instruments; and (3) (after the 15th week) the potential need for instrumental disarticulation or dismemberment of the fetus or the collapse of fetal parts to facilitate evacuation from the uterus.”

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists describes the D&X procedure in a manner corresponding to a breech-conversion intact D&E, including the following steps: 1. deliberate dilatation of the cervix, usually over a sequence of days; 2. instrumental conversion of the fetus to a footling breech; 3. breech extraction of the body excepting the head; and 4. partial evacuation of the intracranial contents of a living fetus to effect vaginal delivery of a dead but otherwise intact fetus.”

All of those blood-chilling quotations are from the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down a state ban on partial birth abortions. That opinion was authored by Justice Steven Breyer and joined by four other Justices. All of those Justices were highly intelligent and educated people, all of whom attended Ivy League or similar prestigious colleges and law schools. Presumably, they were all reasonably well educated (for laypeople) in basic scientific principles. One would expect that at some point their education included the basic facts of human embryology. That opinion was written in 2000, so Wikipedia was certainly easily available for quick reference.

Yet they still upheld the legal right to kill members of the human race in the most barbaric means imaginable — dismemberment while still alive. They obviously knew the science, but ignored it.

So by all means let us march for science. More public policy decisions should be made based on the facts uncovered by scientific research. But we cannot fool ourselves. Science alone is not enough to make good laws and to promote social justice in our society. We need a proper sense of morality, which cannot be discovered by the scientific method. For that, we need to listen to the voice of God, either in the natural moral law written in our hearts or in his revealed Word.

When we ignore the truths of the moral law, we make even worse mistakes than when we ignore the laws of science. Let’s march about that.

Our Challenge on Earth Day

April 22nd, 2017

Today is the annual “Earth Day”, a secular holiday of sorts that encourages people to pay attention to the state of our world’s environment and particularly the threats to the beauty and purity of our material world. That’s all well and good and we should certainly do so.

But Earth Day also gives us an opportunity to put enviromentalism in its broader context, informed by a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person and of the gift of creation. To do this, it’s worth revisiting Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

When it was released, the secular media generally portrayed Laudato Si as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”. Some people reacted to the letter with horror because it dared to cast doubt upon the modern worship of mammon in the form of “captialism”. But both of these reactions miss the point. Laudato Si challenges us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is woven throughout the encyclical. Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom. We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person.  Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers man as a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, without regard to his relationships with others. When one looks at the modern domination of our society by the ethos of economic libertarianism and  hedonistic autonomy, the diagnosis certainly rings true. The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems. In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

It is certainly important to pay close attention to the Holy Father’s comments on the specific environmental depradations that have been inflicted upon creation, particularly in the developing nations. But the true significance of Laudato Si can be found in its call to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other and with all creation. This has to begin, as the Holy Father said in last year’s Message on World Day of Prayer for Creation, with “a serious examination of conscience and moved by sincere repentance,”  so that “we can confess our sins against the Creator, against creation, and against our brothers and sisters”.

Today, the Holy Father got right to the heart of the matter, in the prayer he sent out on his Twitter feed:

Lord, bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

May this be our prayer on Earth Day, and throughout the year.

The American Monarch Wages War

April 8th, 2017

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over the extent of what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the inherent power of the monarch in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc.

The history of England is in many respects the history of the gradual restriction of the unlimited power of the king and the imposition of conditions and limitations that established a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of the central elements of the royal prerogative was the power to make war without the approval of Parliament. Even to this day, the monarch of Great Britain has the sole authority to declare war, without the consent of the legislature.

That history is essential to understanding the foundation of the United States. If you were to read the Declaration of Independence, and focus on the “long train of abuses” in that document, you’ll understand that the misuse of royal prerogative was at the heart of the grievances that led to the Revolution. One of the driving principles in the Declaration, and later in the Constitution, was the need to limit the royal prerogative and to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulare them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Cheif of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military, but did not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for instance in the Youngstown Steel case, which overturned President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War. It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. That same section has also been understood to give the President very broad powers to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, including making treaties.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51) but specifically forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII).

Over the course of our history, presidents have greatly expanded their powers over war-making. Our nation has engaged in many conflicts on Presidential decision alone, without specific Congressional approval. From time to time, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to restrain that power. In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts.

Why does this matter to Catholics? It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2309. An essential element of that doctrine is that the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorites.

Those requirements have been consistently flouted by our militarized government. We have now come to a place where the President has no accountability to anyone — not Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Constitution. And so we are engaged in on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria, all of which are being waged without any regard to the Constitutional limits on presidential authority.

It is as if we never separated from Great Britain. In effect, we have a monarch with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. These decisions are too important to leave morality out of the calculus. As Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

Failing the Dred Scott Question

March 24th, 2017

As I have already written, I have great concerns about some of the answers given by Judge Neil Gorsuch during his confirmation hearings. I consider his originalist legal philosophy to be perfectly sound and likely to produce decisions that are favorable to the cause of human life. But when asked the most important question, his answer was an utter failure.

One of the Democratic Senators, Richard Durbin, was questioning Judge Gorsuch about a book he had written about assisted suicide and euthanasia. In the book, Judge Gorscuh proposed a principle that could be used to justify laws against suicide and euthanasia, which he called the “inviolability-of-life principle”:  “All human beings are intrinsically valuable, and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

Senator Durbin then asked the judge how he could square that principle with legalized abortion. This exchange then took place:

Gorsuch: Senator, as the book explains, the Supreme Court of the United States has held in Roe v. Wade that a fetus is not a person for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment—and that book explains that..

Durbin: Do you accept that?

Gorsuch: That’s the law of the land. I accept the law of the land, Senator, yes.

I appreciate Judge Gorsuch’s respect for precedent and the original meaning of the Constitution. But I wonder if he realizes that in his answer, he was echoing one of the worst possible Supreme Court precedents — the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. In that decision, the Court held that, based on their reading of the original meaning of the Constitution, African-Americans were not “persons” within the meaning of the Constitution:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…. [and the provisions of the Constitution] show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed.

In a concurring opinion, one of the Justices said this:

The correct conclusions upon the question here considered would seem to be these: That, in the establishment of the several communities now the States of this Union, and in the formation of the Federal Government, the African was not deemed politically a person.

Is that really the kind of precedent that we want Supreme Court justices to respect?

What’s especially disheartening about Judge Gorsuch’s answer is that he didn’t have to say that at all. He could have easily deflected the question — as he did with pretty much every other substantive question — by saying that the issue of the personhood of unborn humans was likely to be litigated before the Court and that it was thus inappropriate for him to comment. The fact that he did give a substantive answer means that he considered the non-person status of unborn humans to be so clearly and finally settled that it is uncontroversial.

I still think that Judge Gorsuch should be confirmed, and that he will likely rule positively on incremental pro-life regulations of abortion. But any hope that he would overrule Roe v. Wadeappears to be a mirage.

The most important threshold legal question in any case is whether someone can count on the protection of the law to defend their basic human rights. Judge Gorsuch failed that question.

Concerns About Health Care Reform

March 23rd, 2017

The House of Representatives is poised to vote on a proposal to reform the Affordable Care Act. The new bill, called the American Health Care Act, is being pushed forward under a procedural rule that permits a bill to pass by only 50 votes in the Senate, to evade the usual Senate rule that 60 votes are required to close debate and vote on the substance of the bill itself. The bill is going to be yet another major piece of legislation that will be supported only by one of the parties, and opposed by the other — there will be virtually no bipartisan support for the bill in either the House or the Senate.

This bill has some significant reforms that are very positive developments for the cause of human life:

  • Restriction of Federal Funding for Abortion — The bill will not permite federal tax credits to be used for any health plan that covers elective abortions.
  • Codifying the Hyde Amendment — This very important measure limitats federal funding for abortion to those cases involving rape, incest, or to preserve the life of the mother. While we do not consider this to be ideal in principle, it is a recognition that taxpayer money should not be used for the vast majority of abortions.
  • Limits on Funding for Planned Parenthood — The bill would prohibit Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood clinics for one year. Murder Incorporated gets over half a billion dollars a year in grants and reimbursements, so anything that would cut any part of their money stream is a good idea.
  • Supporting Pregnant Women — The bill would retain the requirement that insurance plans cover maternity care, which would be deemed an “essential health benefit”.

However, there are problems with the bill, also from a pro-life perspective:

  • Caps on Medicaid funding — The bill would convert Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement that is guaranteed federal funding into a block grant to the states with a fixed upper limit. The argument for this is that it will encourage the states to increase efficiency and control costs. However, it is basic economics that any time the supply of any kind of commodity (such as health insurance payments, in this case) the result can be rationing enforced by the government. This is very troubling. The great bulk of Medicaid expenditures is for elderly, handicapped, and terminally ill patients. Our concern is that a cap on Medicaid spending may lead to pressures to limit life-sustaining treatments that are morally obligatory — which would lead to involuntary euthanasia (causing death by omitting treatments) and increased pressure for people to choose assisted suicide.
  • Continued Mandatory Contraception Coverage — Contraception would continue to be included as a required benefit. This is both immoral and unnecessary. Since some forms of “contraception” actually cause early abortions, it also undercuts the bill’s limitations on funding for abortion.
  • Lack of Conscience Protection — Current federal conscience protections are not adequate either in substance or in enforcement. Greater protections have to be enacted into law that will prevent discrimination against individuals and institutions that decline to participate in morally offensive activities, such as abortion, contraception, sterilization, assisted reproduction, suicide and euthanasia.
  • Large Numbers of People Losing Health Insurance — The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that as many as 24 million people will lose insurance coverage under this bill. While those numbers have been disputed, there is no disagreement that fewer people will have coverage. This is very troubling, since the most likely people to lose access to health care will be poor and disabled people, and may increase incentives for women to have abortions.

The current Affordable Care Act is deeply flawed in many ways. But any reform effort should be sure to correct those problems and not cause other problems. The USCCB has written to Congress about these concerns. We have to press Congress to address those concerns and guarantee true and morally acceptable health insurance coverage to all Americans.

“Precedents” and Justice

March 22nd, 2017

We are now in the midst of yet another set of hearings on the nomination of a new justice of the Supreme Court. As with prior hearings, it has been considerably less than edifying, given the political grand-standing and speechifying. But once again, some of the more illuminating exchanges have centered on the concept of “precedent”.

“Precedent” is a legal term for a previous judicial decision. In many cases, courts will consider precedent to be the controlling legal authority. For example, lower courts must follow the precedents of higher courts in all similar cases. This is an important feature of a common law-based legal system, like ours. It means that once a legal issue has been resolved, there is a strong preference for respecting and giving deference to that decision, so that there can be some clarity and predictability about what the law is. The fancy Latin term for this respect for precedent is “stare decisis”, which means, basically, “maintain what has been decided”.

Of course, not all previous judicial decisions are worthy of being followed. It has always been understood that prior decisions are not controlling if they are “flatly absurd or unjust” or “contrary to reason” (to quote the great legal scholar William Blackstone). Courts frequently overrule prior decisions when it becomes clear that they were wrong or poorly reasoned. In fact, in the words of another great legal scholar, Chancellor James Kent, “If, however, any solemnly adjudged case can be shown to be in error, it is no doubt the right and the duty of the judges who have a similar case before them, to correct the error” (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court has overruled prior cases, or declined to follow them, many times. The most famous example is Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled the earlier erroneous decision by the Court that endorsed legal racial segregation. There have also been other cases that are universally seen as unworthy of being followed, even if the Court has never formally overruled them. For example, we have the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”, or the case of Buck v. Bell, which upheld the involuntary sterilization of mentally handicapped persons since, as the Court said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”. Clearly, those “precedents” are not worthy of any respect.

This brings us to the current confirmation hearings. The Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee are repeatedly asking the nominee about his views on the cases of Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and their ilk. They have invented a term, “super-precedent”, to indicate that they believe these decisions are beyond any further judicial review and can never be overturned — a concept so foreign to our Constitutional order and to the rule of law as to be laughable.

However, in response to one of those questions, the nominee said: “”Once a case is settled, that adds to the determinacy of the law. What was once a hotly contested issue is no longer a hotly contested issue. We move forward.”

That is a very unfortunate way of thinking. Roe, Casey, and their progeny have excluded unborn children from virtually any legal protection, declared them not to be “persons” under the law, and permit their destruction with impunity. They have established the unborn as a virtual underclass, whose rights no man is bound to respect. They violate the fundamental principles of natural law and justice, and the promise of universal equality under the law and the right to life as expressed by the Declaration of Independence. They are widely recognized as being poorly reasoned, even to the point where legal scholars who favor abortion rights have derided them.

It is therefore very troubling that the new Supreme Court nominee has called these decisions “precedent” and “settled”, and that we have to “move forward”. When a law — either a statute or a judicial decision — violates the inherent, inalienable rights of any human being, that law can never be considered to be “settled”. It can never be respected or given deference as a binding “precedent”. Such a law is not really a law at all, but is instead a usurpation of power and an act of violence. A true respect for authentic justice means that it must be opposed and changed.

Justice must take precedence over “precedents”. Otherwise we do not have an authentic rule of law for all, and we will never fulfill the dream of respecting the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator, particularly the right to life. I hope that the nominee will consider this more carefully when he is on the Supreme Court, and take seriously his right and duty to correct the injustice of the Court’s abortion decisions.

Thanks to My Patron Saints

March 7th, 2017

(Today is my birthday, so I thought I would re-post a blog that I wrote several years ago, for the same occasion)

If you’re like me, you have lots of favorite saints, and lots of saints who you think are looking out for you and helping you.  That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — a regular, daily awareness of the communion of saints. And also, if you’re like me, you had the good fortune to be born on a day on which the Church honors the memory of particular saints.

I’m old enough to have been born when the old Roman Calendar was still in effect.  As a result, I was born on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.  I have received many graces through his intercession, including a keen interest in theology and my middle name.  Thomas led a fascinating life, and he wrote so beautifully and deeply on all aspects of the faith that he has been a great gift to my faith.  I am particularly mindful of one of his final thoughts, after having some kind of mystical experience.  He ceased work on a project, and upon being asked by his secretary why he didn’t finish the work, replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  That’s a good reminder that nothing that we could do in this life could ever stand comparison to the glory of God.  As St. Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:7-8)

When they reformed the Roman Calendar in the Sixties, they decided to move Thomas’ feast to January 28.  Oddly enough, they chose the day that they “translated his relics” — that is, the day they dug up his body and moved it from one resting place to another.

Although I still have some hard feelings about them taking Thomas from me, I have to say that I lucked out again when the Church restored the ancient feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to their proper day.

If you aren’t familiar with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, you should immediately drop all that you are doing and correct this.  Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman, and her slave Felicity, were martyred in 203 A.D., in Carthage.  Perpetua was nursing her baby when arrested, and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua’s child was taken from her by her family, but Felicity gave birth while imprisoned and the child was adopted by a Christian family.  Perpetua wrote an account of their ordeals in prison with other Christians — one of the earliest written records by a Christian woman.  The story of their witness to Christ is vivid and moving, and should be required reading for all Christians who want a glimpse into the heroism of our ancestors in faith.

The night before their martyrdom, after having celebrated a “love feast” (the ancient name for the Mass) with her fellow prisoners, Perpetua had a dream about being led to the arena by one of the men who had already been martyred, who beckoned her to come and join them.  In the arena, she was beset by a mighty enemy, but she vanquished him and was called to enter the Gate of Life.  Realizing the significance of this dream, she wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory”.

The next day, March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their companions were taken to the arena, whipped, attacked by wild beasts and slain by gladiators.  They have been honored ever since.  As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.

I certainly do not consider myself to be in the intellectual ballpark of Thomas, or anywhere near as courageous as Perpetua and Felicity.  But I feel very close to them, as if they were my friends, but just separated from me for a short time.  Perhaps one day, if their prayers for me are heard, I will meet them, and I can thank them for their help and friendship.