More Gender Ideology Madness

May 5th, 2016

It is axiomatic that a sound understanding of the nature of the human person is essential to a rational system of morality and public policy. The converse of that principle is equally true: an incoherent misunderstanding of the nature of the human person leads to nonsensical morality and public policy.

The best evidence for this are the ongoing lawless actions by the Administration to impose gender ideology on our nation, not by making law in the legitimate way established in the Constitution, but by issuing arbitrary edicts that purport to find new meanings in existing law, in ways that no rational person could ever consider sensible.

Let me be specific. Over the past several years, minor unelected officials in federal agencies (no doubt acting with the approval of high-ranking members of the Administration) have issued letters claiming that existing prohibitions against sex discrimination also ban any differential treatment of persons who consider themselves to be “transgender”. No acts of Congress have been enacted saying this, and no regulations have been issued through the normal course of rule-making. But that hasn’t stopped the Administration from making up law as it goes along, arbitrarily arrogating power to itself to re-define what it means to be human.

The most recent example is a threatening letter sent by the Justice Department to the State of North Carolina. That state recently passed a law declaring that multiple use bathrooms and locker rooms could only be used by persons of the appropriate sex, as determined by their biological sex as stated on their birth certificate. The Justice Department has decided that this law violates the federal civil rights statute, usually referred to as “Title VII”, and that the entire state could lose all federal funding as a result. Their reasoning, if you can call it that, is the bizarre notion that Title VII’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of “sex” also includes a ban on any differential treatment of “transgender individuals” due to their “gender identity”.

Of course, Title VII says nothing about “gender identity” or “transgender individuals”. Nobody understood it that way at the time it was passed in 1964.  And nobody interpreted it in that way until this current Administration decided to do so. In fact, Congress has flatly refused the Administration’s request that they amend Title VII to include “gender identity”, an amendment that would surely not be necessary if the term “sex” already included that meaning as well. This is not an isolated case, by the way. The Administration has also pushed this agenda in other areas — education, health care, and government contracting.

The whole idea makes no sense at all. Set aside for a moment the fundamental nonsense of gender ideology, which I have written about before. In this case, the government is arguing that acting on the basis of biological sex is discriminatory against people who think that biological sex is meaningless, and who are defining their identity in a way that they feel has no relationship with their biological sex. They also claim that the state is treating people badly on account of their “gender identity”, even though the state is completely disregarding the person’s claimed identity, and is instead using the person’s undisputed biological sex as the relevant standard.

There is no way to extract any intellectual coherence from the Administration’s position. But reason has little force when people in power are pursuing an ideological crusade to re-make man in their own image and likeness, when they have no trouble running rough-shod over the rule of law in order to impose this new orthodoxy, and when they will brook no opposition or dissent.

We Need to Talk Frankly

May 3rd, 2016

On April 19, the Governor of Utah signed a resolution, which had been passed by a unanimous legislature, declaring pornography to be a public health crisis. The evidence supporting that conclusion is massive, and unequivocal. So why aren’t we talking about it more?

Pornography is ubiquitous in our society, and exposure to porn is virtually universal among adolescents and young adults — precisely the times when people are supposed to be maturing in their personalities and sexuality, and preparing for marriage.  The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has an incredibly detailed set of studies about the evil effects of porn. Just a sampling of their findings, all of which are backed by academic studies, is that among adult males, exposure to pornography is connected with:

  • Greater acceptance of sex before marriage
  • Having more sex partners
  • Considering their partner to be less attractive
  • Less satisfaction with partner’s sexual performance
  • Greater desire for sex without emotional involvement
  • More callousness in sex
  • Acceptance of “rape myth” (i.e., that raped women enjoy rape and “got what she wanted”)
  • Trying to get partners to act out scenes from pornographic films
  • Going to prostitutes and strip clubs
  • Greater acceptance of adultery
  • More likely to have an affair
  • Using more negative and sexual terms to describe women
  • Less child centeredness during marriage
  • Reduced desire for female children
  • Sexual dysfunction with their partner (but not with porn)
  • Engaging in more aggressive sexual behavior
  • Committing date rape
  • Abusing sex partners
  • Coercing sex
  • Using alcohol or drugs to coerce sex
  • Engaging in marital rape

One particularly horrifying reality about porn is the level of violence and degradation against women.  The NCSE’s studies of this are appalling — they found, in a random sample of popular porn videos, that 88% included actual physical violence against women. It has even gotten so bad — but accepted in the industry and market — that popular porn sites actually categorize videos by the kind of violence they depict. The NCSE compares this disgusting attack on women to be tantamount to torture, and for good reason — the accounts of former porn performers are horrific. It is deeply disturbing that men are deriving sexual pleasure from watching women be degraded, abused, and raped.

Many people find it difficult to talk about porn, for a variety of reasons. But we can no longer allow our squeamishness to prevail. Lives are being ruined by porn. Relationships are twisted and destroyed. The crisis demands a response.  One thing that we must do first and foremost is clearly identify the distorted sexual desires that lead people to porn, and the way to counter them.

The sexual activity shown in porn is not normal, healthy, or good, and the desire to have that kind of sex is not properly ordered towards its real purpose. The true goal of human sexuality is not to achieve an orgasm at all costs, without any human contact. That’s the lie that porn teaches — it is fundamentally artificial, because it only shows a two-dimensional image of a person, removed from any real sense of humanity. It is, on many levels, inhuman.

The real goal of human sexuality is to lead us to a real relationship with a real person of the opposite sex. Our sexuality is designed to be expressed and experienced not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually — in a way that involves the entire person. And ultimately, it is designed to bring us to the communion of persons that can only be fully achieved in the permanent and exclusive self-giving bond of man and woman. Real sexual desire is ordered towards marriage, and is deeply human.

We need to talk frankly about this to young people, to encourage them to resist the lie, and strive for the truth. Even the most habitual user of porn can — admittedly with difficulty — re-train their sexual desires so that they are correctly ordered. The first, and most important thing they must do is to get off the internet. Single people then have to seek out healthy, chaste dating relationships. Married people need to re-focus their desires towards their spouse and no other. It takes practice to minimize our disordered desires and build up our properly ordered desires. Vice is all too easy — it’s as close as our smartphone. Virtue takes hard work and patience.

This can be done. Many men and women have struggled with this temptation, and have achieved some level of success. But nobody will ever be victorious, unless we talk frankly about the evils of porn.

The Danger Signs on Suicide are Clear

April 23rd, 2016

It is hard not to have sympathy for those who are advocating for the legalization of assisted suicide as a way of alleviating suffering. Suffering is a terrible reality of human life, an experience of evil that cannot be avoided. Without a Christian understanding of the meaning of suffering (see St. John Paul’s magnificent letter Salvifici Doloris), it is a fearsome thing to face.

But even a non-believer should be able to discern the clear danger signs about the inevitable effects of legalizing any form of suicide, and step away from that precipice.

The experience of European countries that have legalized assisted suicide are test cases. We can see the way that the practice spread from the terminally ill, to those with chronic illnesses, to those with psychiatric or developmental problems, to minors, and utimately to people who were put to death even though they never requested it. It is abundantly clear that there are no limiting principles that can stop the spread of assisted suicide, and its progress to outright euthanasia.

The danger signs can also be seen in the most recent statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control on the incidence of suicide in the United States.

The situation is truly alarming — suicide has increased dramatically over the last two decades. Here are some of the lowlights of the report:

  • From 1999 through 2014, the suicide rate increased 24%, with the pace of increase accellerating after 2006.
  • Suicide rates increased from 1999 through 2014 for both males and females and for all ages 10–74.
  • In 2014, the rate for males was more than three times that for females, but the percent increase was greater for females (45% increase) than males (16% increase).
  • Although there were few suicides compared with other age groups, the suicide rate for females aged 10–14 tripled.
  • In both 1999 and 2014, suicide rates were highest among men aged 75 and over. Men aged 45–64 had the second-highest suicide rate for males in 2014 and the largest percent increase (43%) in rates.
  • Suicide is increasing against the backdrop of generally declining mortality, and is currently one of the 10 leading causes of death overall and within each age group 10–64.

With this information, how can it possibly make sense to legalize assisted suicide, which sends a clear, strong message that some lives are not worth living, and that death is the solution? Shouldn’t we instead redouble our efforts to convince people to reject suicide?

Advocates for assisted suicide insist that society defer absolutely to their autonomy, based on a notion that people have absolute liberty to do whatever they like. Yet our society has never done so. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said in his famous dissent in the Lochner case, “The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.” The idea that people have complete autonomy is both incoherent and an invitation to anarchy.

Again, the suffering of individuals is compelling and naturally rouses sympathy. We must do everything we can to alleviate the physical, psychological, social, emotional and spiritual suffering of all our brethren.

But the particular desires of individuals cannot be the basis of making law for our entire society. St. Thomas Aquinas defined law as “an ordinance of reason for the common good”. The good of all of society must be the controlling concern when we make law, not the idiosyncratic interests of some people or groups.

The danger signs of relaxing our immemorial ban on suicide are very, very clear that it would lead to many more unnecessary and tragic deaths. We must continue to resist any effort to legalize any form of suicide, for the good of all of society.

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

April 13th, 2016

There is growing reason to hope that the long battle to defend religious freedom against the HHS Mandate may soon be favorably resolved.

You will recall that the “HHS mandate” comes from a provision in the “Affordable Care Act” (the “ACA”, which is typically being called “Obamacare”) that requires all employers who offer health insurance to include coverage for “preventive services”. The term “preventive services” has been defined by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) to include contraceptive drugs and devices (including “emergency contraception”, which causes early abortions) and sterilization operations. Churches and other purely religious organizations are exempted from this mandate, but many religious and other organizations are not. As a result, they have been in court trying to vindicate their right to conscientious objection — they don’t want to cooperate in the provision of services or products that are against their religious beliefs.

There was a significant victory in 2014 when the right of two family-owned corporations won their case before the U.S. Supreme Court (the  Hobby Lobby case). But now the Court is considering a major case involving numerous religious organizations who are not exempt, and who are facing massive fines if they don’t knuckle under. The most prominent of these organizations is the Little Sisters of the Poor, but there are other Catholic and Protestant organizations as well. The principal argument of these organizations is that the government is requiring them to file forms that essentially allows the government to “hijack” their health plan to provide services that they consider morally evil.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court in March. Usually, we would expect a decision in late June, but things in the Court have become complicated by the death of Justice Scalia — cases that might otherwise have been decided by a 5 to 4 vote would likely now result in a 4 to 4 split Court.  Perhaps becuase of this dilemma, the Court did something very unusual.  They asked the parties to submit additional briefs, in response to a suggestion from the Court that there may be a way to resolve the case, by permitting employees to receive the offensive services without any action by the religious groups. This was encouraging — it suggested that the Court was sympathetic to the religious liberty arguments, and was seeking a way to protect them.

Now the religious organizations and the government have filed their briefs. The Little Sisters et al. readily agreed to the Court’s suggestion, saying that they could comply with an arrangement where they are not required to take any action that would trigger the provision of the services, and if the services are actually provided by a separate insurance plan (even if it is run by their regular insurance carrier). This is all that the religious organizations have ever wanted — to be left alone to do their work, without getting dragged into anyone’s sex lives. In effect, they were saying to the Court, “This is the solution that we would have suggested to the government years ago, if they had only asked”.

The government, for its part, reacted by quibbling, complaining, and digging their heels in. They complained about having to file a new brief. They insisted that no further concessions were necessary to protect the religious groups’ consciences — as if they knew better what is in violation of Catholic or Protestant moral teachings. They groused that the Court’s suggestion would require changes to other sections of the law and regulations, as if that were something unheard-of, rather than the commonplace result of any litigation of this type. They continued to fantasize that any further accommodation would lead to a parade of horribles — endless further litigation, thousands of women without health care, etc. And in the end, as if they were swallowing nasty-tasting medicine, they kind-of, sort-of, very reluctantly maybe agreed that the Court’s suggestion would be barely acceptable.

This ungracious reply hurts the government’s credibility, and is cause to be hopeful for a positive result. The Court now has reason to wonder why the case is even before them, and has a clear way to resolve it.  All they need do is issue a simple opinion, stating that the government has failed to establish a compelling reason to force the Little Sisters et al. to cooperate with the HHS Mandate, and ordering the settlement that the Court suggested, to which both the government (however grudgingly) and the Sisters have now agreed.

That would end this long nightmare, and vindicate the right to conscience of religious organizations. But it also raises a troubling question — if such a common-sense solution was available all this time, why did the government insist on forcing the cooperation of the religious groups? I know of no other answer, other than the Administration’s well-established hostility to traditional religious values, and their complete dedication to the spread of the ideology of sexual liberation, against any opposition.

The Dangerous Falsehood of Transgenderism

April 5th, 2016

Recent news has once again brought to the forefront the issue of “transgenderism”.  This phenomenon is based on something called “gender theory”, and it is a critical issue that far transcends arguments about who can use which bathroom. Society is being pressured to accept something about the very nature of the human person that is fundamentally false and dangerous.

The whole idea of “gender theory” is, in my opinion, so nonsensical that it is hard to believe that anyone actually accepts it. The argument is that “gender” is not determined by one’s biological sex, but is a separate matter that is defined according to the subjective desires of an individual. To these advocates, one’s biological sex is an arbitrary classification that is “assigned” at birth, and has no intrinsic connection with one’s actual sexual identity.

This is a bizarre and dehumanizing idea.  It denies the unity of body, mind and soul, and it rejects the logical and scientifically undeniable understanding that biological sexual difference is essential to human nature.  It treats the body as a mere physical shell that can be used or manipulated as one wishes. People become just raw material, to be fashioned and changed — and mutilated, as happens with “gender reassignment surgery”.

This ideology is contrary to reason and science, much less faith.  Science has proven beyond any reasonable doubt that sexual difference is a significant part of human biochemistry, physical structure (not just our reproductive system, our brains too), behavior, and psychology.  It is also at the heart of an authentic Christian anthropology, which recognizes the inherent complementarity of the sexes, and their dignity as man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God.

Pope Francis directly confronted the danger of gender theory in his encyclical on respect for reation, Laudato Si.  In his typical pithy way, he said:

Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”.

Several years ago, in his annual address to the Curia, Pope Benedict went even deeper and confronted the philosophical flaws in gender theory, and its larger significance (my emphasis is added in bold):

[T]he question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself – about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human…

The Chief Rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim, has shown in a very detailed and profoundly moving study that the attack we are currently experiencing on the true structure of the family, made up of father, mother, and child, goes much deeper. While up to now we regarded a false understanding of the nature of human freedom as one cause of the crisis of the family, it is now becoming clear that the very notion of being – of what being human really means – is being called into question. He quotes the famous saying of Simone de Beauvoir: “one is not born a woman, one becomes so” (on ne naît pas femme, on le devient). These words lay the foundation for what is put forward today under the term “gender” as a new philosophy of sexuality. According to this philosophy, sex is no longer a given element of nature, that man has to accept and personally make sense of: it is a social role that we choose for ourselves, while in the past it was chosen for us by society.

The profound falsehood of this theory and of the anthropological revolution contained within it is obvious. People dispute the idea that they have a nature, given by their bodily identity, that serves as a defining element of the human being. They deny their nature and decide that it is not something previously given to them, but that they make it for themselves. According to the biblical creation account, being created by God as male and female pertains to the essence of the human creature. This duality is an essential aspect of what being human is all about, as ordained by God. This very duality as something previously given is what is now disputed. The words of the creation account: “male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) no longer apply. No, what applies now is this: it was not God who created them male and female – hitherto society did this, now we decide for ourselves.

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed…. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. 

The debate over “gender” is, at its heart, not just about bathroom access and kindness to those who have difficulty accepting their sexual identity.  It is about the nature of the human person and our relationship with the created world and ourselves.  The stakes are very high. We are fifty years into a massive social experiment that has revolutionized the understanding of sexuality based on a distorted view of human nature.  We are living with all its disastrous consequences. Gender theory takes us a bridge too far, to a place where human life loses its meaning.  And those of us who dissent are already facing legal pressures to conform.

A healthy society cannot continue to substitute falsehoods for truth, and expect people to thrive.. We must stand firm on the truth about man, woman and human nature.

Notre Dame’s Tragedy

March 16th, 2016

Notre Dame University has long held itself out as an exemplar of Catholic higher education. And in fact, they have had a great many admirable Catholic scholars, and wonderful Catholic alumni.  But they have clearly lost sight of what Catholic education is meant to be.

The University has decided to grant their Laeatare Medal (the name means “rejoice”) to Joseph Biden, the Vice President of the United States.  According to their website, this award “is presented annually to an American Catholic in recognition of outstanding service to the Church and society”.

There is nothing to “rejoice” about in Joe Biden’s public record.  I dare anyone to identify anything that Joe Biden has done in service of the Church that can in any way be described as “outstanding”.  Indeed, in their press release, the university didn’t even bother to try to describe any such service.  I also dare anyone to make sense of Notre Dame’s incoherent argument that by honoring the man, they are not endorsing his policy positions.  After all, what “service to society” has he given, except by his public acts?

The fact of the matter is that Mr. Biden has a long track record of public policy positions that are in direct contradiction to the Catholic faith, and that flout the specific and grave duties of a Catholic public servant.  Specifically, he has long been a supporter of abortion.  When in the Senate, his voting record can only be described as “mixed”, with some pro-life votes (including votes in favor of the partial birth abortion ban), but an increasing number of pro-abortion votes in recent years. He was a very prominent front man for the Administration’s endorsement of the redefinition of marriage.  And he has done nothing publicly to defend the Church’s religious liberty by mitigating his Administration’s iniquitous contraception/abortion health insurance mandate, and, in fact, publicly defended it with an outright falsehood during the 2012 campaign.

But don’t just take my word about his attitude about abortion rights, listen to what he wrote:

I remember vividly the first time, in 1973, I had to go to the floor to vote on abortion. A fellow Senator asked how I would vote. “My position is that I am personally opposed to abortion, but I don’t think I have a right to impose my few on the rest of society. I’ve thought a lot about it, and my position probably doesn’t please anyone. I think the government should stay out completely. I will not vote to overturn the Court’s decision. I will not vote to curtail a woman’s right to choose abortion. But I will also not vote to use federal funds to fund abortion.“  I’ve stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than 30 years. I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I’d like to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion, but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.

Now, contrast that with the authentic teaching of the Church about the duties of a public servant:

Failing to protect the lives of innocent and defenseless members of the human race is to sin against justice. Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good. (US Bishops, Catholics in Political Life)

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection…. In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favour of such a law, or vote for it.”  (St. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 73)

Presumably, these official Church documents are available somewhere in the Notre Dame library.

This tragic decision represents yet another example of the complete failure — and in some cases, contumacious refusal — of many institutions of Catholic education to understand their role and nature.  In his Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, St. John Paul made clear that the necessity of acting in accordance with Catholic identity is one of the core obligations of a self-described Catholic university:

Catholic teaching and discipline are to influence all university activities, while the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected.  Any official action or commitment of the University is to be in accord with its Catholic identity.  (General Norms, Article 2, §4, emphasis added)

Ex Corde Ecclesiae also emphasizes that “the institutional fidelity of the University to the Christian message includes a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals.” (27)

Notre Dame’s decision to honor the Vice President is just another confirmation of a sad state of American universities that once were Catholic, but are now something lesser.  Notre Dame, of course, is named after Our Blessed Mother.  I cannot imagine her rejoicing at this decision made in her name.

The Hierarchy of Values in Voting

February 29th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Presidential Leadership

February 21st, 2016

As the Presidential primary season unfolds, we keep on hearing various
candidates talk about “leadership”.  The question is, what does that mean?
February 22 is an auspicious occasion to reflect on the meaning of true leadership in our American republic — Washington’s Birthday.

George Washington is a hero of mine.  I believe he was the greatest American
who has ever lived, and one of the greatest men who has ever lived.  He was the
dominant figure at the most important time in our history, when our nation was
being formed, and his impact on our history is incalculable.  He was indeed, as
the title of one of his biographies calls him, the “indispensible man”.

In our modern time, we tend to emphasize in our “leaders” the importance of
government experience or business acumen (when we’re not looking for
iconoclastic bluster).  While Washington possessed many managerial gifts, his
excellence as a leader were based on something far more important — they
stemmed directly from the quality of his character.  There are several attributes
of his character that are worth highlighting, because I believe that they would be
the perfect template for the virtues we need in our modern-day leaders.

Humility — Despite being the most admired and accomplished public figure of
his time, Washington never reveled in his status or stooped to bragging or self-
aggrandizement.  Instead, at every point in his career, as he was being asked to
assume greater and greater responsibilities, he took care to speak of his sense of
unworthiness and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with
new duties.  One can see this in his statement on accepting his commission as
leader of the Continental Army, his resignation of that commission after
successfully prosecuting the war, his First Inaugural Address, and so on.  It is a
consistent theme of his public life — his humility in accepting the duties that his
nation demanded of him, even while he willingly accepted the task.

Self-Sacrifice — Washington always put his nation ahead of his own interests.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, he nurtured a strong desire to return to his
beloved home.  He repeatedly quoted the Bible to describe this desire:  ” they
shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make
them afraid” (Micah 4:4).  Yet, amazingly, his devotion to duty was such that he
visited his estate only once in the eight years of the war, and only near the end,
when the campaign came to Virginia.  He tried to retire from public life after the
war, only to be called back to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, and again to serve as President.  Love for his nation, and a keen
sense of duty, were always his motivating force, never egotism or ambition.

Tolerance — In an age of religious intolerance, Washington was noteworthy for
his liberality.  During the war he forbade his soldiers from holding “Guy Fawkes”
events, out of fear that they would offend his Catholic allies, the French.  As
President, he wrote one of the most important statements of religious liberty in
our history, his justly famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,
Rhode Island.  He spoke of how the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to
persecution no assistance”, and promised protection to those of all faiths who
live as good citizens.  It is inconceivable that Washington would show any
degree of animosity or hostility to members of any faith who sought, like him, to
be good Americans.

Respect for Rule of Law — Washington always respected his role as a servant of
the people, within the proper role assigned to him by the law.  Throughout the
Revolution, he defered to an incompetent Congress, not out of respect for their
abilities, but out of reverence for the rule of law in a republic.  His character
alone was enought to allay the fears of many Americans, who were concerned
that the office of President under the new Constitution could become a crypto-
king.  His devotion to the law can be best seen in his response to the incipient mutiny of his officers at the end of the war.  Congress had refused to pay the officers, and there was a movement afoot to petition Washington to lead the army to Philadelphia to compel Congress to act.  He reacted to this by immediately squelching the rebellion, saying that the conspiracy “has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts at the idea”, and calling upon the officers  to look with the “utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country”.  By force of his force of character alone, Washington ended the threat to turn America into a military dictatorship, and thereby preserved our freedom.

Piety — While there has been much debate about Washington’s religion, there is
no question that he was a sincere and devout believer in God, and that he relied
on divine providence in all his work.  At every significant moment of his public
career, he invoked the assistance of God.  For example, in his First Inaugural
Address, he spoke eloquently of his prayer for divine protection of America,
speaking of “my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the
Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids
can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the
liberties and happiness of the People of the United States”.  His faith was not a
mere political posture, but a deeply held conviction that God’s benevolent hand
was responsible for the welfare of the American nation.

Nobility — The greatest demonstration of Washington’s nobility of character was
not in the way he exercised power, but how he surrendered it.  Indeed, in some
ways the most important day of American history was December 23, 1783, when
Washington resigned his commission to Congress at the end of the war.  Rather
than seizing power, as many victorious military leaders had done in the past,
Washington willingly and respectfully turned over the authority that had been
given to him.  When hearing that Washington might surrender his office, the
baffled 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, and his last words to Congress are worth quoting:

“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.  Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

It may seem impossible that anyone in our debased modern age could measure
up to Washington’s patriotic virtues.  But there is a reason that the President can
look out and see the Washington Monument from the Oval Office, and that Congress can likewise see it down the Mall. It is upon the virtue of our leaders that the health of our nation depends.  A republic cannot survive if it elects leaders who lack virtue.

Washington’s virtues are the same that we should expect — no, require — from
every one of our Presidents.  We cannot afford to demand anything less.

The Danger is Real

February 11th, 2016

One of the common arguments offered by assisted suicide advocates is that the track record of the practice in Oregon shows that there have been no problems.  Just last week, I sat in the courtroom of the Appellate Division and heard the suicide group’s lawyer say that repeatedly and with passion.

The problem for them is, it just isn’t true.  In fact, the most recent report from Oregon bears out all the warnings we’ve been offering about what would happen if it were legalized here in New York:

  • It threatens disabled people — the three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns are not unbearable pain, but instead were decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (96.2%), loss of autonomy (92.4%), and loss of dignity (75.4%).  Legalization of assisted suicide amounts to saying that a life with a disability is not worth living.
  • It ignores mental health problems — Only 3.8% of those who ask for suicide are referred for psychiatric evaluation, even though it’s well-established that those who ask for suicide are frequently suffering from treatable depression.  A recent study of euthanasia in Holland underscores this problem — people with mental illness are not getting psychiatric treatment for their problems and are choosing to kill themselves instead.
  • It harms the elderly — Virtually all those who committed suicide were over 55, and the great majority over 65.  Are we really willing to send the message that suicide is a good thing for elderly people?
  • It threatens vulnerable and isolated people — 62.5% were insured by some kind of government insurance (e.g. Medicaid or Medicare), 26% were widowed, and 27.5% divorced; the median length of their relationship with the doctor who gave them the deadly drugs was only 9 weeks — and at least one person had only known their doctor for one week.
  • There is no supervision to prevent abuse — 79.2% died with no health provider present, and in more than 89% of the cases the prescribing doctor was not present (although he makes the report and signs the death certificate).  So how can we tell if the person was mentally competent, and free of coercion?
  • It’s a danger to others — 86 people got the deadly drugs but didn’t take them, raising the question — what happened to the other drugs?
  • The numbers continue to rise — Every year there’s an increase in people receiving deadly drugs and in those taking them.  It should also be noted that other studies have shown that the overall suicide rate increases in states where assisted suicide is legal.

No matter how the advocates try to twist the language (using the Orwellian term “aid in dying”, as opposed to “assisted suicide”) or spin the numbers, we all know where this is going.  In the European countries that have legalized suicide, it has led to widespread euthanasia, including involuntary killing of patients who never asked for suicide, the killing of children, and the establishment of stand-alone suicide clinics.  Advocates here have already said that they intend to extend the reach of assisted suicide beyond the terminally ill.

The facts are clear — the danger is real.

The Burden of Proof

February 9th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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