Calling Out the Real Evil

August 14th, 2017

The violence in Charlottesville has brought the reality and danger of racism once again to the front of America’s attention. Sane voices across our nation are denouncing the ugly white supremacists and neo-Nazis who precipitated the violence. Leaders of our Church have been unequivocal in deploring the hate that permeated the event. Such statements are important to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters who are suffering from racism. A good example is the statement issued by our local Commission of Religious Leaders.  It is altogether right that all people of good will should say these things.

But, in a way, it’s easy to denounce racism as a grave sin, a blight on the history of our nation, a malign force that denigrates and devalues people every day that has led to countless deaths and injuries. Nobody who isn’t infected by the sin would disagree.

I’m going to annoy peoply by saying it, but a commonplace bare denunciation of racism as evil doesn’t really say enough — it’s a tautology, a circular statement that is equivalent to saying “a bad thing is bad”. And to make things worse, the news media wastes too much time comparing the strength of various statements against racism, which just gives people a chance to compete with each other in “virtue signaling”.

This issue is too serious. We have to call out the evil reality of what produces racism. The real enemy is not just racism, or any other -ism — it’s the ideology of identity. And we won’t be able to make any headway against racism until we pull this evil out in the open, discuss it plainly, and expose if for the diabolic lie that it is.

It’s natural for people to emphasize certain of their characteristics as they express their personality and values. That can be a good thing, especially if it fosters a sense of community and belonging and solidarity.

But the ideology of identity is the weaponization of the wrong-headed and reductive idea that a person is defined by one of their characteristics (like race, or sex, or sexual desire). It focuses people exclusively and excessively on their own desires and choices and self-image, and demands that others accept their personal identity definition at all costs regardless of its relationship with the truth. It impairs our ability to truly understand ourselves in all our complexity, and to seek out the common elements that unite us with others. It says to outsiders that we cannot conceivably understand each other, and labels anyone who dares to doubt or disagree or question as a “hater”.

As a result, it splinters society into a myriad of mutually exclusive and incomprehensible fragments that are in perpetual conflict of all against all. It leads to the ugly identity politics that we are mired in right now, where the population is broken into factions and sects.

This dangerous attitude is fundamentally an anthropological error — a misconception of the nature of the human person. It denies the importance — and even the reality — of our common humanity.

Let’s go back to the seminal document of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, for the essential truths:

5. We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.

That is the fundamental truth that we have to keep talking about, because we obviously can’t take it for granted that everyone understands or agrees. We need to make the argument very plainly that every person is a member of one family and is a child of God. We have to hold to the truth that people aren’t defined by particular characteristics, but that their real identity and dignity transcend any one factor.

By making that key point, we will be able to argue very clearly that racism isn’t bad just because we don’t like it and it’s socially unacceptable. It’s bad because it’s irrational and idiotic and a lie to consider a person to be inferior based on their skin color or their nation of origin or ancestry. And, just like all other kinds of identity ideology, it is reductive and dehumanizing to look at people as a mere exemplar of a particular characteristic.

If you want an example of how to confront these kinds of virulent falsehoods head-on, read Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, or Abraham Lincoln’s arguments against slavery or Frederick Douglass’ orations. They go right to the root of the argument, and don’t shy away from arguing first principles. We need to emulate them.

As I said, it’s laudable and important to deplore the evils that happened at Charlottesville. But we are in a desperate fight over the nature of the human person and the inherent dignity of every child of God. We can’t rely on facile denunciations. We must make the argument against the evil of identity ideology, or we will never convince anyone of the wrong of racism.

Nuclear War Never Again

August 10th, 2017

In the morning of August 6, 1945, a single bomb was dropped from an American airplane over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. When the bomb detonated, between 70,000 and 80,000 people were killed instantly, some of whom were completely incinerated by the intense heat. Many more died of the long-term effects of radiation sickness. Fires burned for three days, killing thousands of people who survived the explosion. Thousands more suffered from burns and radiation poisoning and had  agonizing deaths. The final death toll has been estimated to be 140,000 by the end of 1945, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Many more died later from the long-term effects of radiation.

Later that day, a statement by the President of the United States was released. In that statement, he said, “If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

Three days later, on August 9, another bomb was dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Approximately 70,000 people were killed instantly. Because of the geography of the city, fires did not break out. But radiation poisoning did its worst, and in the end the death toll has been estimated at over 80,000 people, almost all of whom were civilians. Again, many thousands more died later from the long-term effects.

The civilian casualties at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not accidents or incidental. One of the specific intentions of the United States government in bombing cities and killing thousands of civilians was to terrorize the Japanese government into surrendering. If the Japanese had not surrended a week after Nagasaki, more atomic bombs would have been dropped over cities, causing tens of thousands more civilian deaths.

The debate over the morality of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has raged for decades. As an academic matter, the debate has some interest. But for Catholics, the issue has been definitively settled. In Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council said unequivocally:

The horror and perversity of war is immensely magnified by the addition of scientific weapons. For acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense…. All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude. The men of our time must realize that they will have to give a somber reckoning of their deeds of war for the course of the future will depend greatly on the decisions they make today.

With these truths in mind, this most holy synod makes its own the condemnations of total war already pronounced by recent popes, and issues the following declaration.

Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.

It is important to review these basic facts about atomic warfare and the clear and unequivocal teaching of the Church, because of the recent comments by the current President about North Korea. In terms appallingly similar to those of his predecessor, the President said,

North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen … They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.

The President is not known for systematic and rigorous thinking on policy matters or for a throughtful approach to international relations. But this is not complicated — he has threatened to attack a nation with nuclear weapons, which would inevitably involve the wholesale destruction of cities and the horrible deaths of tens of thousands of people.

In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers warned:

The unique hazard of modern warfare consists in this: it provides those who possess modern scientific weapons with a kind of occasion for perpetrating just such abominations; moreover, through a certain inexorable chain of events, it can catapult men into the most atrocious decisions. That such may never truly happen in the future, the bishops of the whole world gathered together, beg all men, especially government officials and military leaders, to give unremitting thought to their gigantic responsibility before God and the entire human race.

The development of nuclear weapons by North Korea and their missile program are certainly destabilizing and undermine peace in the region. But threatening a nuclear attack on North Korea is dangerous and grossly irresponsible. Other means must be found to resolve even the most intractable of international disputes. The world has already seen the human cost of using nuclear weapons. We should pray that we never see it again.

Dangerous Signs of the Times

August 3rd, 2017

We have been fighting against the legalization of assisted suicide for years, and we have been constantly warning about where that would lead — to direct and involuntary euthanasia of vulnerable people. We have been consistently accused of lying, scare-mongering, and exaggerating. But in the past few weeks, we have seen increasingly dangerous signs of the times that have confirmed all of our fears and warnings about the dangers of opening the door to euthanasia.

The first sign was the terrible tragedy of the Charlie Gard case. Charlie was an infant in the United Kingdom who had a very grave genetic disorder that was growing progressively worse. He was hospitalized and he was breathing with the assistance of a ventilator. His parents wished to take him out of the hospital and bring him to other hospitals for an experimental treatment that other medical teams thought had a chance of reversing the course of Charlie’s condition. Astonishingly, the doctors and the hospital resisted that request, and the case went to court. Equally astonishingly, the UK courts ruled that Charlie’s parents could not transfer him to another hospital, nor were they even allowed to bring him home for his last days. He died in the hospital after doctors removed the ventilator, against the parents’ wishes.

Prof. Charles Camosy, a theologian who specializes in medical ethics, has written a penetrating analysis of the case, and some of what he said is worth quoting directly (although you should read the whole thing). Commenting about the court’s decision, he noted that:

Implicit in this judgment is the view that the harm that would have been done to Charlie by his parents was so obvious and of such magnitude that the decision had to be taken out of their hands… Those who held power over Charlie decided that his life was not worth living. They reached this judgment on the basis of his expected mental disability. They denied him treatment, and ordered his ventilator removed, not because of the burden of the treatment, but because of the burden of his life. In a cruel act proposed by doctors, approved by courts, cheered by the press, and blessed by certain high clerics, Charlie Gard was euthanized. It was euthanasia by omission, but it was euthanasia all the same.”

This is chilling indeed, and it is a frightening sign of where medicine is heading. Similar judgments about “quality of life” and “medical futility” are being made in secret all the time by doctors against the desires of patients and even without their knowledge. The result is an unknown number of cases of passive euthanasia – death caused by omitting treatments that would extend life. Legalizing assisted suicide would bring these decisions out of the shadows, and would inevitably increase the number of cases like Charlie Gard’s.

This is not fear-mongering, it’s current events. All we have to do is look at studies of the Netherlands that have recently come out. One study came out in May from the Dutch Regional Euthanasia Commission, the government agency responsible for oversight. The other study was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine just last week.

The NEJM study found some alarming things. Doctors report that 4.5% of deaths in that nation are due to euthanasia. That is a staggering number. If it were in the United States, it would represent almost 120,000 deaths per year and would be the sixth leading cause of death – more than Alzheimer’s, diabetes, suicide, murder or drug overdoses.

Even  more alarming is what was found in the official Dutch study. They reported that euthanasia cases aren’t limited to the superficially sympathetic cases of people with terminal diseases. Instead, there was an increasing number of psychiatric and dementia patients who were being euthanized– 141 in 2016 compared to only 12 in 2009 – and that 431 people had been euthanized without their explicit consent. This is so shocking that one of the leading euthanasia supporters accused the Euthanasia Commission of concealing that “incapacitated people were surreptitiously killed,” and even went so far as to say that “executions” were taking place.

None of this should really be a surprise. As Cardinal Willem Eijk of Utrecht commented, “When one breaks the principle that human life is an essential value, one steps on the slippery slope. Dutch experiences teach that we will be confronted time and again with the question whether the ending of life shouldn’t also be possible with less serious forms of suffering.” The principal author of the NEJM study also saw what was going on: “When assisted dying is becoming the more normal option at the end of life, there is a risk people will feel more inclined to ask for it.”

We cannot afford to ignore what is happening around the world, and we must stop it from happening here. We are talking about the most vulnerable lives – handicapped children, old people with chronic problems, mentally ill people. Health care professionals are already being confronted with the question of whether their lives are worth living. If we allow assisted suicide, it is certain that doctors will become accustomed to doing it and will start recommending it, the secret euthanasia that is already happening will become more mainstream and open, and more people will start asking for it.

Prof. Camosy makes a crucial point that we have to focus our attention on:  “Nothing moral follows from medical facts. Judgments about whether or not treatment is worth pursuing will have to be made. And physicians, even with perfect medical knowledge, are not the best persons to make them.” I would add, neither are the government or insurance companies.

These decisions must be made by families and patients, and we in the Church need to do much more to make sure that they are informed by the truths of Church teaching about the sanctity and dignity of every human life, regardless of condition or capability.

The Way of Beauty

July 26th, 2017

The recent Convocation of Catholic Leaders on The Joy of the Gospel in America was a potential turning point for our Church. The challenge presented was to move outside the methods and modes of typical Church activities in order to become vibrant missionary disciples who are energized to bring the Gospel to all, especially those on the peripheries of society.

One of the great aspects of the Convocation, and one of the under-used tools of evangelization, is what Pope Francis calls in The Gospel of Life the “Via Pulchritudinis”, the “way of beauty”.

This insight is not unique to Pope Francis, of course. Pope Benedict (who is a musician) also spoke often of the power of beauty in spreading the Gospel, and Pope Saint John Paul (who was an actor, playwright and poet) was also deeply immersed in the aesthetic perspective. The great evangelistic work of Bishop Robert Barron also relies heavily on the historic beauty of the art and music created by Christian civilization.

At the Convocation the power of the way of beauty was made manifest. Thanks to the Magnificat Foundation, there was exquisite religious artwork projected on the screens during all the liturgical services — stained glass windows from Europe, and artwork from many nations. The Marian art was particularly powerful to me.

The liturgical music was truly spectacular. Coordinated by my friend Chris Mueller and Rev. Łukasz Miśko, O.P., the music provided a wonderful blend of traditional and modern compositions. Simple but lovely modes of chant were used during the Liturgy of the Hours, so that even novices like me could fully participate. There were many unfamiliar hymns at Mass, but they were easily learned and sung. The Schola, which sang under Chris’ direction, was positively angelic and they helped us to offer beautiful praise to God. I know virtually nothing about music, so if you’re interested in the details, check this story by Chris Mueller.

I have to add a particular plug for Chris. He is an extraordinarily talented musician, and he has taken for his mission the renewal of liturgical music through recapturing traditional forms and making them accessible to modern ears and voices. He specializes in polyphony, and his wife and children sing as an ensemble. Chris was invited to spearhead music at World Youth Day in Poland last year, and as soon as I heard that he was involved in the music at the Convocation I know we were in for a treasure. Anyone who is interested in the role of music in the New Evangelization should familiarize themselves with Chris and his work.

Humanity is inherently attuned to aesthetics. Music and videos are obviously at the center of modern entertainment, and they form a critical part of the vocabulary of emotions and experience, especially for young people. The Convocation demonstrated that in the evening of praise and devotion led Matt Maher and Audrey Assad, two of the best contemporary Catholic musicians. Everyone present — not just the young guys — felt the power of the Spirit in their music.

I have never been accused of having a heightened aesthetic sensibility. But the noble simplicity of the Roman Rite and the majesty of Eastern Christian icons appeal to me on a deep level. So I can understand very well that the way to God is through the three great universal values — the good, the true and the beautiful.

The Convocation captured this idea and we witnessed the power of the beautiful in our mission of proclaiming the truth and goodness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Scurrilous Accusations Against Christians

July 14th, 2017

In the current state of political discourse in the United States, it seems as if we have moved beyond the point where we can actually have rational reasonable arguments with each other. All too many people have descended back to the schoolyard, and are simply calling people names.

The cause of my reflection on this lamentable trend is the appearance of several news stories about the Attorney General speaking to the group Alliance Defending Freedom. There’s certainly nothing remarkable about a high-ranking public official who is a prominent lawyer speaking to another group of attorneys. The Attorney General is a political and social conservative and Alliance Defending Freedom is a well-known defender of traditional moral values when it comes to life, marriage and religious liberty. So it’s hard to see anything newsworthy about such a commonplace event. And, in fact, the speech itself was nothing extraordinary. It was a well-balanced defense of the role of religion in our society and the importance of religious liberty.

But nothing is so simple in our modern age. Several major news outlets covered this story before the text of the speech was released, and prominently repeated a despicable slander against ADF propagated by an advocacy organization called the Southern Poverty Law Center. The SPLC is a self-appointed watchdog over “hate groups” around the country. There certainly are many hate groups around the country who are dedicated to violent action motivated by bias, and it’s a good thing that someone is keeping an eye on them. In reality though, the SPLC is not a neutral agency like the FBI, but is instead a partisan advocacy organization for socially progressive causes, especially so-called gay rights, and a prodigious fund-raiser based on that advocacy.

Because ADF has the temerity to disagree with SPLC on those issues, the SPLC has designated them a “hate group”, and the media has now compliantly parroted the calumny. All that you need to do to qualify as a so-called “hate group” in the eyes of the SPLC is to disagree with them about issues like the effects of sexual hedonism on society, or the morality of homosexual conduct, same-sex “marriage”, and “transgender” rights. In other words, if you’re not with the progressive program you are a “hater”.

Now the SPLC can call people any name they like, since it is still a free country. But what’s really outrageous is that so-called reputable news organizations uncritically repeat the outrageous calumnies of the SPLC as if they were credible and objective, rather than the ideological name-calling that they really are.

We really shouldn’t be too surprised at this though. The Supreme Court in its decisions about homosexuality has been slandering people for years who have the nerve to hold to traditional moral values on sexuality. In 1996, the Court said that the only conceivable reason for a law passed by referendum that excluded sexual orientation from civil rights laws was “a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group” — in other words, pure malice. In 2013, the Court upped the ante when it struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act and said that the virtually unanimous Congress and the Democratic president who signed the law we’re motivated by a “bare . . . desire to harm”, “disparage and injure”, “demean”, and “impose a stigma” on homosexual people. Justice Scalia rightly dissented from that decision and accused the court of declaring anyone opposed to same-sex “marriage” an enemy of the human race. Finally, in 2015 when the Supreme Court invented a right to same-sex “marriage”, the Court again accused those of us who believe in authentic marriage as being motivated by a desire to “demean or stigmatize” homosexuals, and even to “disparage their choices and diminish their personhood”.

When the highest court in the land says such things, then the message goes out that anyone who disagrees with the progressive agenda is irrational and bigoted, with no legitimate motivations and no opinions worthy of respect. That gives the SPLC and their allies in the media carte blanche to slander groups like ADF as “haters”. Others have barely avoided the term “hate” by using other words of disapprobation, such as “odious”, “bigoted”, “unkind”, “hurtful”, “intolerant”, and “needlessly cruel”. But the message is the same.

What the Supreme Court, the SPLC, and the media have not — yet — come out to say, however, is that what they are describing as “hate” is normal, mainstream, traditional, historical, Christian belief. By the way, that includes the beliefs contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which have been held and taught by the Church since its founding.

Make no mistake about it. The supposedly “hateful” position that traditional orthodox Christians are accused of holding is the firm conviction based in Revelation, science, reason and tradition that maleness and femaleness are not accidental or arbitrary, that they have a meaning and a purpose oriented to unity of man and woman in marriage and the procreation of children, that homosexual desires and homogenital activity are incompatible with that meaning and purpose, and that a person can live a healthy and fulfilling life without acting on all of their sexual desires.

That’s not hate, that’s truth embedded deep into human nature, and it cannot be changed no matter what courts or advocacy groups say. And it doesn’t mean hating anyone – those of us who hold those beliefs still love our relatives, friends and neighbors who disagree with us.

Let me get back to ADF. I am very familiar with their work. I have been to their legal Academies, I have collaborated with their attorneys, and I have friends who are closely associated with them. I admire many of those in leadership positions there. I have found that they are an altruistic, heroic group of committed Christians who have sacrificed much to defend life, marriage, and religious liberty. They have done nothing to deserve the calumnies of the SPLC and the media. In fact they have done much to deserve the applause and support of all Americans who cherish traditional morality and decency, and the freedom to live by those values — and of those who disagree with them but defend their rights to free expression. Maybe the reason that groups like SPLC dislike ADF so much is that they’re so successful – they’ve won a number of key victories in court, including major cases in the Supreme Court.

Even in an era of debased public conversation, accusing people of “hatred” is a sign of intellectual bankruptcy, and indicates that you’ve lost the argument or that you don’t have enough confidence in your position to defend it. If you disagree with our positions on life, marriage and religious freedom, oppose us openly in the public square, legislatures and the courts. Don’t hide behind schoolyard insults.

The Joy of the Gospel in America

July 13th, 2017

Last week, I attended the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America”. This was an important moment in the history of the Church in America. This huge gathering in Orlando of Catholics from around the nation was attended by over 3,000 people, including over a hundred bishops and many priests, deacons and religious. It was years in the making and was a major accomplishment for the staff of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference.

I have to admit that I approached the event with considerably less than enthusiasm. I don’t like conferences — I am not a networker and I am an introvert who finds crowds uncomfortable and exhausting. I have also attended too many church events that were disappointing.

But this Convocation vastly exceeded my expectations. It was extremely well organized, the liturgies were beautiful (especially the music, which was exquisite), and it had a strong unifying theme that was very practical. In fact, I found the event to be virtually a mini-retreat, and I was very uplifted  and actually experienced spiritual healing of some long-standing wounds.

The event was organized around the themes presented by the Holy Father in the document The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium). Boiled down to an “elevator pitch”, it was all about how we can share the Gospel with people in our modern world, especially those who are excluded and marginalized (who are in what the Pope calls “the peripheries”) so they can experience the saving and healing joy that comes from a personal loving relationship with Jesus Christ. To do this, we have to make sure that we have that kind of relationship, and we have to overcome the barriers in our own lives to sharing it with others and the stumbling blocks that that prevent them from accepting it. One of the primary ways that we are called to do this is by living a life of mercy and love, encountering and accompanying people in the difficulties of their lives.

The decision to use The Joy of the Gospel as the heart of the Convocation was inspired. This document was unjustly ignored in America because, I believe, the Holy Father had the audacity to express doubts about the justice of the world’s economic system. This is due to the extent of the materialism and consumerism that has infected American society, and the almost religious fervor that people have when it comes to “capitalism”.

In fact, the document is a beautiful call to experience the Gospel. As the Holy Father says up front,

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.

This “new chapter” has to begin with a revived relationship with Jesus. The Holy Father goes on to say:

I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”.

The Holy Father clearly identifies many obstacles to experiencing and sharing the Gospel, particularly a sense of complacency and self-orientation. He is particularly pointed in challenging pastoral workers not to fall into the temptations he calls “spiritual sloth”, “sterile pessimism, “spiritual worldliness”, all of which deaden our souls and dampen the desire to bring the Gospel to others.

The Convocation was designed to blast us out of those dead-end attitudes, and, judging by what I felt and saw, it was a success. Coming out of it, I think the participants were renewed in our confidence in the Gospel and eager to bring it to the peripheries of our troubled world.

I’ll have more to say about the Convocation in following posts.

More Chaos and Injustice for Refugees

July 7th, 2017

At the end of June, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a lawsuit that challenged the Administration’s so-called “travel ban”. The Supreme Court decision would permit the Administration to impose its ban on refugees from any nation in the world for 120 days, once the quota of 50,000 refugees has been met. Since that absurdly low number is expected to be met next week, the effect is to permit a refugee ban for the rest of this year.

However, the Court provided that refugees from six Muslim-majority countries can be admitted if they can prove a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.” The Administration has interpreted this narrowly, to mean that people with “close family” in the U.S. — such as a parent, spouse, fiance or fiancee, child or sibling — would qualify. But it does not include others, including grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins. And it fails to take into account the reality of persecution suffered by thousands who don’t have any family ties to the US.

This leaves thousands of refugees trapped in dangerous and unhealthy camps or in hiding from violence and persecution. 65 million people are currently displaced by war and persecution around the world, according to the UN. Our attention has mostly been directed to the Middle East, but there are refugees from all over the world, including those fleeing the civil war and famine in South Sudan and people escaping the growing tyranny and economic collapse in Venezuela.

The terrible irony is that, even though the President originally said he wanted to help Christians facing persecution and to keep out radical Islamists, the ban will likely exclude far more Christians than Muslims. According to the State Department, 48 percent of the refugees admitted to the US in the first half of this year were Christian, while 41 percent were Muslim.

The injustice to Christians fleeing persecution was made even more evident by the bizarre decision by immigration officials to target Chaldean Christians in Michigan for a deportation campaign. Some of these people were legitimately subject to potential deportation because of prior criminal convictions. But the result of this campaign is not only to separate families, but to send these people back to northern Iraq — a current hot war zone that has been the site of genocide against Christians. It’s hard to fault them for feeling betrayed by a President who once tweeted “Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!”

This Administration is not exactly famous for consistency and rationality of its policies, and chaos seems to be the order of the day. Just today, it was revealed that the head of the ICS deportation unit has ordered his officers to detain all undocumented immigrants they encounter, even if they don’t have a criminal history — in direct contradiction of the Administration’s publicly stated priorities. Considering that the Administration hasn’t even nominated a new head of ICS or the policy office of Homeland Security, the disarray is not too surprising.

But the injustice of this Administration’s policies on refugees is both surprising and tragic. While I can appreciate differing positions on the appropriate numbers of immigrants to welcome to the United States, it is hard to fathom the Administration’s hard-heartedness towards refugees.

Welcome to the Arena

June 10th, 2017

[I had the honor of being invited to address the graduates of The Montfort Academy. This high school is a gem — a truly, entusiastically and unapologetically Catholic school that focuses on classical learning and guiding the personal and spiritual growth of their students. May God bless those grads and the faculty and staff of Montfort. This is the text of my address.]

I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Montfort Academy for inviting me to speak to the graduating class today. It is an honor to be able to participate in this great enterprise of Catholic education.

We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives. No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly. We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood and our entry into the world at large. I hope and trust that your school and family have been safe and nurturing environments, in which you were respected and valued. Unfortunately, I have to tell something that you probably know already — you are stepping into a world that is not like that at all.

Welcome to the arena. I use the word “arena” very deliberately. It has particular significance to us Christians, calling to mind the early martyrs and confessors, heroes in the face of the hostility of the world. They were people of great courage and virtue. I also use the word “virtue” deliberately, because I know that your classical education has been deeply immersed in the development of virtue. So you have an excellent foundation for the challenges that lie ahead.

That’s good, because the arena is a tough place. Our modern world is very hostile to the message of the Gospel and to those who bring it. We see it every day in the news. Threats to religious liberties by our government; open hatred and contempt towards our faith and our Church in the media, and probably in most of the universities that you will be attending; threats to human life at the beginning, end and every point in between; attacks on the very meaning of what it is to be a man and a woman; and when we look beyond our borders, bloody persecutions in other lands. Powerful forces in our culture want people of faith to sit down, shut up, and leave their faith at home in private. And they are using the force of law and social pressure to make sure that we either conform to their views or we pay the price.

We have to be clear, though, that our battle is not just with the forces of the world — governments, media, entertainment, etc. It is a spiritual struggle as well. In fact, this is the most serious and difficult part of being in the arena. As St. Paul said, “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but… with the evil spirits in the heavens.” (Ephesians 6:12) We cannot opt out of this spiritual battle. And we are called to choose whose banner we will follow – God’s or His Enemy’s.

Make no mistake, once you step into the arena, you’ll will feel it in your heart and soul – because that’s where the real battle is taking place. I recall once being in the State Capitol, going to a meeting with a high-ranking and hostile legislator about an abortion bill. I could feel the sense of opposition as I went to the meeting, as if I was walking into a strong headwind or swimming upstream. Just the other day, a colleague and I were at a conference run by assisted suicide advocates, and we could feel the evil in the room. In times like these we really need to listen to St. Paul’s advice, and draw our strength from the Lord and from his mighty power, and put on the armor of God so that we can stand firm against the Evil One (see Ephesians 6:10-11).

In the face of all these challenges, the worst mistake we could make would be to huddle together in small communities with only people who think like ourselves, and hope that someday somhow things will get better in the outside world. No. That’s a response of despair and defeat. Too much is at stake to do that.

We are called to build the kind of society that God wants us to live in. And so we need to arm ourselves with certain virtues that I’d like to talk about.

To illustrate this, I’ll call on the example of two of my favorite people from history – George Washington and Joan of Arc. Two soldiers who fought for great causes against overwhelming odds in a hostile world. They have a lot to teach us about how to fight our fight.

First and foremost, they had the virtue of trust in God.

I think of George Washington on Christmas Eve 1776. His army had suffered a series of defeats by the most powerful army in the world. He faced the likelihood of his army melting away. It would have been easy to think that defeat was inevitable. But Washington had absolute confidence that God supported what he called “the Glorious Cause”. As he put it once in a letter, “as far as the strength of our reason and religion can carry us, a cheerful acquiescence to the Divine Will, is what we are to aim at”. With that attitude, he trusted in Providence and went on the attack, turning the tide of the war at the Battle of Trenton, and saving the cause of independence.

Think also of Joan of Arc in 1429. Her homeland was torn and devastated by civil war and foreign invasion. She had been receiving private revelations for years from St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret. They had assured her that God had a special plan for her, and she believed them. But it was an astounding plan – God wanted this illiterate peasant girl, perhaps 17 years old, with no military experience at all, to lead the French Army to victory and make sure that the king was crowned and anointed with sacred oil. If ever there was something to scoff at, that was it. Imagine if one of you ladies went to the Pentagon and said that God had sent you to win our wars. But Joan never doubted, she trusted God. She pursued her mission with passion and tenacity, overcoming all skeptics and opponents and obstacles. She achieved a remarkable series of victories in battle, and she stood beside the king as he was crowned and anointed, just as God had promised.

We need trust in God in our struggles today. Don’t ever forget that God has a specific design and plan for each one of you. He has a design and plan for our nation. God cares what we do, how we live, what our laws are, how we are governed. Discerning His plan is difficult, but when we understand what it is, we must hold firm to it and place our trust in Him.

The second virtue is a purity of heart. By this, I don’t mean the theological virtue of detachment from sin (which we all need). I mean a kind of selflessness and humility that puts other people and the cause ahead of our own self-interest.

Whenever Washington was asked to assume a new office he spoke of his sense of unworthiness, and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with his duties. At the end of the Revolutionary War, and again at the end of his second presidential term, Washington didn’t seize ultimate power, as many victorious military leaders have done. Instead, he put the nation above himself, and he gladly returned to private life. When hearing that Washington might retire voluntarily, King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!”  But so he did, and so he was.

Joan, too, was a great example of this virtue. Having come from poverty, she never asked for riches or titles or honors. Her greatest wish was to complete her mission and then return home to her parents. Surrounded by ambitious and conniving courtiers, she stood out for her simplicity and lack of egotism. Serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life, not personal glory. As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving of the names of Jesus and Mary. That was enough honor for her. At the trial that led to her unjust execution, Joan offered a statement that sums up her purity of heart: “I came from God. There is nothing more for me to do here! Send me back to God, from Whom I came!”

Purity of heart is essential for our leaders and for the success of our cause.
But it is in short supply. Think of the public figures who revel in their celebrity status or constantly resort to bragging or self-advancement. That erodes trust and breeds suspicion and cynicism. It also encourages division in our ranks. We need purity of heart to stay strong and united. As the Bible says, One person standing alone can be overcome, two together can resist, but a cord of three strands is hard to break. (Ecc 4:12)

The final virtue is boldness. This is a form of courage, but it’s more than that. It’s a sense of freedom and honesty, being able to act on one’s deepest beliefs, unrestrained by fear or self-consciousness, certain of the truth and justice and inevitable triumph of one’s cause.

Washington repeatedly showed boldness in battle, both in his personal conduct and in his strategy. Several times he exposed himself to enemy fire in order to rally his soldiers. On that Christmas Eve in 1776 when all hope seemed lost, he led his men on an impossible venture – crossing a frozen river and marching through a blizzard to surprise and defeat the enemy at Trenton. A bold stroke, and a decisive one.

Joan’s boldness was legendary. She took a defeated, disheartened and demoralized French army and galvanized it into action. She rejected counsels of caution and attacked the enemy directly and decisively. She led her troops from the front of every battle, with her standard in her hand. When things were going badly she refused to retreat, but rallied the troops and attacked again. When asked if she was afraid, she said: “I fear nothing for God is with me!” Old hardened soldiers, with years of battle experience, willingly followed this young girl – they followed her up the battlements and they would have followed her anywhere. So would I.

Every generation faces its own battles. Washington and Joan fought for freedom and justice for their nations, against steep odds. The battle we face is similar, and just as daunting. We are in a struggle to define our culture and our nation, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are going to live together. We defend human life at every stage against what the Holy Father calls a “throwaway culture” that would just get rid of inconvenient lives. We stand for authentic masculinity and femininity, and the truth about human love and sexuality. We stand up and fight for poor, powerless, sick and suffering people in a culture that would rather avert its gaze and ignore them. We speak the truth of God’s will in a culture that rejects the very idea of truth.

Pope Francis once said: “Even today the message of the Church is the message of the path of boldness, the path of Christian courage… [and] the path of Christian courage is a grace given by the Holy Spirit.” So when we step out into the arena, we are not alone. We stand with the Holy Spirit, with Our Blessed Mother, our guardian angels, the heavenly hosts and the communion of saints. With them, we can truly say with the Psalm, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts” (Psalm 28:7). We can also hold on to the words of Jesus: “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (Jn 16:33)

This is a difficult time. But this is a time for trust in God. This is a time for purity of heart. This is a time for boldness. This is a time for heroes. This is a time for you.

Welcome to the Arena. Congratulations and God bless.

Moral Guidance on Health Care Reform

June 6th, 2017

The United States Senate is currently struggling to draft a health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act. The House previously passed a bill, but the Senate has essentially gone back to the drawing board and is trying to develop their own unique bill. Both in its politics and policy details, the process of doing so is mind-numbingly complex and difficult, and the results will have a tremendous effect on the lives of all Americans.

But the moral aspects of this kind of legislation are equally momentous in their importance. All legislation involves moral decisions about what to permit or prohibit, what to promote or discourage, what to spend money on and what to defund. Legislation like a health care bill is particularly fraught with moral dimensions that no “scoring” from the Congressional Budget Office can measure.

This is where our legislators need to listen to the advice of our Bishops, who have been examining this health care reform process for decades, and who have essential moral guidance to offer. In a letter sent to the Senate on June 1, the bishops who chair four major USCCB committees (including Cardinal Dolan, the Pro-Life chair) offered a clear moral template for any health care bill. As always, the bishops expressed their concern for how legislation would affect the most vulnerable people, including low-income people, immigrants, and the unborn.  But the principles they laid out are even broader:

  • No Affordable Care Act repeal effort should be undertaken without the concurrent passage of a replacement plan that ensures access to adequate health care for all.
  • Respect for life: No health care reform plan should compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion. Long-standing “Hyde Amendment” protections must extend to any relevant health care plan in order to prevent federal funding of abortion and not as a temporary fix or future promise. Federal resources must not be used to assist consumers in the purchase of health care plans that cover abortion.
  • Access for all: Reform efforts must begin with the principle that health care is not a privilege, but a right in keeping with the life and dignity of every person. All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care…  
  • Truly affordable: Many lower-income families simply lack the resources to meet their health care expenses. The Bishops have serious concerns about structural changes to Medicaid that would leave large numbers of people without the coverage they now rely upon, including those who gained access to care as part of the Medicaid expansion that came with the ACA. Reform also ought to address barriers to affordability for those living above the poverty level but who are still working hard to make ends meet.
  • Comprehensive and high-quality: Health care is much more than mere insurance. Other aspects of health care policy require the attention of policy-makers: … focus on the maintenance and promotion of good health as well as treat disease and disability for all people, regardless of means; Incentives for preventative care, early intervention and maintaining a reasonable choice of providers… encourage individuals to develop a sense of ownership over decisions that affect their health and well-being; encourage people to enter medical professions, and which foster more humane and responsive relationships between doctors and patients…
  • Honoring conscience rights: Congress should expressly provide conscience protections for those who participate in any way in health care. Such protections should extend to all stakeholders, including patients, insurers, purchasers, sponsors, and providers.

Crafting complex legislation is not a pretty process, and inevitably involves many political compromises and imperfect solutions. But health care is too important a human right to be left entirely to amoral market forces, or to the often-immoral intrusiveness of government regulations. Either approach values ideology over people, and endangers lives of vulnerable people. One need only think of the massive funding and support provided to the abortion industry, regulations that violate religious freedom and seek to coerce cooperation in immorality, or the heartless attitude of insurance companies that will pay for suicide drugs but not for chemotherapy.

Congress has a difficult task in front of it. But our bishops have given much-needed guidance, and we should urge our legislators to heed it. The common good of our society, and social justice for all, is too important to leave to a debate that focuses only on political and economic concerns, and not on morality.

Life in the Balance

May 31st, 2017

On May 30, the New York State Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case of Myers v. Schneiderman, which is seeking to legalize assisted suicide in New York. The case was previously rejected unanimously by the trial court and the Appellate Division. Our pro-life coalition, along with disabilities-rights groups, have been opposing this effort, and the Catholic Conference filed an amicus brief in both the lower court and at the Court of Appeals.

It was a lively oral argument. The Judges were definitely engaged in the issues and asked tough questions of both sides. We were very fortunate that the Deputy Solicitor General did an excellent job representing our side. The essence of her argument was that the lower courts correctly dismissed the case because the Legislature has already enacted a “bright line prohibition” against assisted suicide and the Court should leave it to the Legislature to make any changes in that rule. One of the Judges affirmed that, noting that no other state (with the ambiguous exception of Montana) had legalized assisted suicide by court decision, but instead had enacted extensive legislation.

The Judges showed little interest in defining a broad constitutional right to assisted suicide or in sending the case back down to the trial court for a fact-finding hearing. Several Judges also stated that they had read a brief submitted by a disabilities-rights organization which stressed that legalizing assisted suicide sends a message that their lives are less worthy of respect. And one judge clearly recognized that once you permit assisted suicide for some patients, it is difficult to deny it to others.

On the whole, though, I’m still pessimistic. There was no reason for the Court to take this case, except to reverse the lower courts. One Judge pressed the Solicitor General repeatedly over the state’s interest in protecting life at the last extremity, when it already allows patients to be sedated into a state of unconsciousness and to then die of starvation or dehydration. This suggested strongly that the Judge was trying to figure out a way to define a statutory right to assisted suicide in a way that has a reasonably-definable limit. But that’s a bad thing for them to be even considering — again, whether or not to draw lines, and where you put them, is for the Legislature to decide, not the courts.

None of the judges pressed the plaintiff’s attorney to explain why the lower court judges were unanimously wrong or why the right to decline medical treatment includes having a third party (i.e., the doctor) give them a drug that will directly kill them. They also did not seem to grasp the fundamental difference between declining treatment and committing suicide — the crucial difference is in the intention and causation between those acts. Other state interests, such as the preservation of the integrity of the medical profession and the potential negative effect on other anti-suicide activities, were not addressed in the arguments (although they were extensively discussed in the briefs, including ours).

It is so hard to read oral arguments, especially when one judge said nothing and another very little. A decision is expected in June. I fear that the most likely result is that the Court will create some kind of statutory right to assisted suicide for patients who are at the very end of life and would otherwise be eligible for palliative/terminal sedation, and then either leave it to the Legislature to enact procedural protections (or, even worse, leave it to doctors to self-regulate). Of course, there’s no way to hold that limit, or to trust the Legislature to do it right, and we’ll inevitably slide right down the slippery slope to euthanasia along with Canada, Belgium and Holland. The Culture of Death has quite a grip on New York already, and things will only get worse.

One last point. It’s easy to be cynical about the law and about judges. I certainly am. The law is an extension of politics, it serves the powerful better than the weak, and it is easily manipulated for special interests. Judges often consider themselves to be our Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Rulers and arrogate to themselves authority that should belong to the people.

But to sit in that magnificent courtroom, listening to a very high level of legal argumentation on such a momentous issue, with the portraits of so many Judges looking down at us, with the portrait of the Founding Father John Jay in the center facing the bronze statute of Chancellor Robert Livingston and Judge Benjamin Cardozo looking on from the side, is an extraordinary reminder of something very important. The law and the judicial system, for all their faults, demonstrate the remarkable human capacity for reason and self-government. The administration of law is awe-inspiring and fearsome, and there’s still quite a bit of nobility in it. Whichever way the Court rules, we should not forget that.