Posts Tagged ‘Discipleship’

What Shall We Do to Build a Culture of Life?

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

(I was invited this weekend to speak at all the Masses at St. Augustine’s Church in Ossining, one of our beautiful parishes, for Respect Life Month.  Here is the text of my talk.)

When St. John the Baptist moved among the people, he preached to them about the approach of the Messiah.  The people kept asking him the same question — “what shall we do?”  And now, all of us who are concerned about respect for life ask that same question.  “What shall we do?”

In 1985, in his encyclical letter, The Gospel of Life, Blessed Pope John Paul II addressed the threats that are so serious and widespread that they have created a virtual “culture of death”. We see this in violent crime, war, terrorism, torture, human trafficking, the drug trade, the arms trade, and abject poverty.  But at this time, abortion and euthanasia must be the focus of our attention here in the United States. They involve unjust attacks on people when they are most vulnerable and defenseless, and they are tolerated and even approved by our society as “rights”.

But it’s important to remember that we don’t just say “no” to things, we say “yes” to becoming a people of life and for life, and to building a new culture of life.

To make this more concrete, I would like to offer a number of practical ideas.

Our first task is speaking the truth about the sacredness of every human life – about how God loves every single human person, and that every human life has dignity from the moment of conception.  This is not just a principle of our faith — we rely on the basic scientific fact, available to everyone who has seen a sonogram or a video of “life in the womb”.  Human life – the life of each one of us, the life of Jesus himself in his human nature – began at conception, and carries on until our natural death, and then on into eternal life.  Every one of us, regardless of our age, disability or diminished “quality of life”, is always and forever a human person and must be treated with reverence.  Our first task is to speak this truth about the gift of human life – always with love.

The second task is prayer.  We must pray constantly, with determination, patience and trust.  We thank God for the gift of life, and we ask Him to protect all vulnerable lives.  We do this as individuals, and we also pray as a community.  For example, praying the Rosary as a group, participating in the National Night of Prayer Vigil every December, or holding a Holy Hour on the Feast of the Incarnation of Christ (the Annunciation), or inviting people to spiritually adopt unborn children and pray for them during their nine months in the womb (kids especially love this).  We also celebrate life when we have special Masses and blessings of engaged couples, expectant parents, or new families, or communal anointing of the elderly and ill.  Life is a great gift!  And we should celebrate that in our prayer.

The third task is to serve those in need, especially the most vulnerable.  For example, we help the elderly by visiting and offering companionship, or we offer expectant mothers alternatives to abortion.  There are many wonderful groups that do that, like Good Counsel Homes and the Sisters of Life.  We can help them by taking up collections (for example, a “baby bottle” campaign to collect small change), or by running baby showers for the new moms, or by volunteering to help with simple tasks, like driving the moms to doctors’ appointments.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has been emphasizing our duty as Christians to reach out personally  to the needy and those who seem lost in our society and without hope, and this is a beautiful way to promote and defend human life.

A particularly important way we serve others is through public policy advocacy. Last Spring, the New York State Legislature came very close to passing a bill that would have expanded abortion in our state.  We already have 110,000 abortions a year.  We don’t need any more abortion, we need more life!  But this bill would have allowed even more abortion by allowing non-doctors to do abortions, and removing the few remaining regulations on late-term abortions.  This bill was defeated because citizens raised their voices in opposition, by letter, call, email, participation in public witness and prayer rallies in Albany and locally.  The bill was defeated, but it will come back, and we have to be ready.

I’d like to take a moment to say a special word about how we can serve women and men who have experienced an abortion.  The Gospel of Life is a message of hope and mercy and healing.  Those who have experienced an abortion should never give in to discouragement and despair.  Our loving God is always ready to give forgiveness and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  The Sisters of Life run regular retreats for those who have experienced abortion, and other groups like Lumina provide support for the healing process.  Pope Francis has spoken movingly about the power of God’s mercy, and how we all can invite others to experience that mercy themselves.  There is always hope and healing available.

The most important way we build the culture of life is within our own families, where we welcome and nurture new life, and where we support, comfort, and defend our elderly and disabled loved ones.  Our families should be a school of life!  So, married couples should never stop working on our marriages.  Parents can never stop working on your relationship with your children, teach them how to live virtuous, chaste lives and about the value of every life.  In the end, strong families and marriages are the foundation of the culture of life.

Each and every one of us has a role to play in this mission given to us in the Gospel of Life.  So many people are doing so much already, and God bless you for that and thank you.  But every one of us can do something.  Please speak to members of your local pro-life committee, or check out the website of the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese.

At the end of every Mass, we often hear the words, “Go, and announce the Gospel of the Lord”, or “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”.  These words don’t just mean that Mass is over – they also mean that we are being sent on a mission.  We are called — each one of us — to go back out into our regular lives and proclaim the Gospel of Life.

By bearing witness to the dignity of every human person.  By helping parents recognize that even though a pregnancy may be difficult or inconvenient, a child is always a blessing.  By ensuring that every young woman understands that there are alternatives to abortion, and that she will be given the help and support she needs.  By making certain that all of our elderly are protected against abandonment, and are always be loved and cared for.

And ultimately, our mission is to love, defend and serve all our brothers and sisters, from conception until natural death.  By our words and our deeds we can build a new culture of life in our land.  We ask the question, “What shall we do?”  And when, one day, we are asked by Our Lord, “What did you do?”, we will be able to answer, we were a people of life and for life, and Our Lord will be pleased with that answer, He will thank us, He will be proud of us, and He will receive us into eternal life with Him.

Sown and Reaped

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s tragic Roe v. Wade decision.  It is a time to reflect on St. Paul’s statement that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7).

If we go back to Pope Paul VI’s great encyclical, Humanae Vitae, he predicted certain consequences if contraception were to become accepted in society:  a decline in marital fidelity and general moral standards, loss of respect for women and an increase in the objectification of women, and the dangers inherent in the possession of such a weapon in the hand of unscrupulous governments.

Everything he foresaw about contraception has come true about abortion, and even more — millions of deaths, the corruption of the medical profession, the distortion and politicization of law, and the suffering of millions of women and men who have participated in abortion and carry the grief and guilt with them still.

“Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”.

And yet, there have been many good seeds sown over the past four decades.  We saw them today, on the streets of New York City.

Cardinal Dolan, assisted by two dozen of his brother priests, offered a beautiful Mass at 7 a.m. at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a large crowd of early risers.  The Mass was followed by a Rosary procession and prayerful witness at an abortion clinic on Second Avenue and Forty-Second Street.

It was an amazing public witness.  Just think of it.  Three hundred or more people, processing along the streets of Manhattan at rush hour, praying the Rosary.   A man carrying a huge rough wooden cross.  Sisters of Life, Friars and Sisters of the Renewal, Missionaries of Charity, diocesan and religious priests.  Regular men and women.  All giving witness to the power of prayer and the dignity of life, on the cold and windy streets of the big city.

My favorite part came while we were crossing the streets.  Manhattan drivers — especially the cabbies — are not known for patience, and we only had one police officer to help us.  So we were treated to the amazing sight of rush hour traffic being stopped on Lexington Avenue and Forty-Second Street by a Sister of Life, a Franciscan friar, and a couple of intrepid laymen.  Surprisingly little honking, though — they must have realized that this was not your usual traffic snarl.

As we walked, people stopped and stared, and some even joined in prayer.  A few asked what was going on and, when it was explained, they paused to add their prayers to ours.

The larger meaning of the event, in a sense, was to reinforce St. Paul’s statement — “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”.

Our nation has sown forty years of contraception, abortion, suffering, grief, and death.  And we have reaped the dire consequences.  But a handful of faithful witnesses continues to sow other seeds — love, compassion, service, courage, and witness.

Those seeds will also be reaped, and they bear fruit, a fruit that brings life and hope and forgiveness.

Advice from General Grant

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

There’s no way to sugar-coat it.  The results of the election were very bad for those of us who are committed to pro-life, marriage and religious liberty:

  • The re-election of the President, who made his 100% anti-life agenda a centerpiece of his campaign, and who will now have no incentive to back away from his HSS mandate that violates our religious liberty.
  • Defeats for authentic marriage in four separate state ballot initiatives — with marriage being redefined in Maryland, Maine and Washington, and the defense of marriage defeated in Minnesota.
  • The defeat of two ballot initiatives in Florida — one to deny public funding for abortion and one to repeal a nineteenth century anti-Catholic provision (a so-called Blaine Amendment) in their state constitution.
  • There were, on the other hand, some signs of encouragement:

  • The people defeated (narrowly) an initiative in Massachusetts that would have legalized physician assisted suicide.
  • There remains a pro-life majority in the House of Representatives.
  • But on the whole, it was a bad evening for the causes that we hold most dear.

    Many people are reacting to this event with dismay and discouragement.  Blame is being freely thrown around, and people are even talking about giving up and abandoning the “social issues” in the public square.

    At times like these, I’m reminded of Gen. Ulysses Grant, after the Battle of Spotsylvania in May 1864.  He had recently taken over command of the Union armies, and they had just endured two grueling, bloody battles in northern Virginia.  The battles did not produce the decisive victory that Grant was hoping for, and there was sure to be political pressure on him as a result.  Union casualties were high, and everyone expected him to retreat and regroup.

    Instead, Grant gave the order to advance, and penned his famous line, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”.

    The battle of the Culture of Life against the Culture of Death is a long, twilight struggle that will go on for our entire lives.  It is fundamentally a spiritual battle (see Eph 6:12).  It is a contest for the hearts and souls of individuals, and thus our culture, and our laws.  It is not decided by one election, or one defeat, or even one victory.  There is no room for defeatism or despair.  We need to fight with confidence in the Holy Spirit, and determination to carry on, no matter what.

    Will you join me in taking General Grant’s advice?  Because I certainly propose to continue the fight.

    A Question of Identity

    Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

    A recent news item has led me to reflect on a question that I think is crucial for all Catholics, indeed all Christians, at this time — the question of who we are.

    The “news” story (actually a commentary in the form of a news article) appeared in the Washington Post.  It describes the decision of the Arlington Diocese to require all their catechists to make a profession of faith, and the decision by a handful of catechists to resign rather than comply.

    The Profession of Faith is the same one prescribed by the Holy See for teachers in seminaries, pastors, and the heads of religious institutions, and is quite unremarkable.  It essentially asks if a person accepts the Apostles’ Creed and authoritative Church teaching –in other words, if a  person accepts what the Church has proposed for belief.

    To a person of common sense, the request by the Arlington Diocese is unexceptional:  if you are teaching the Catholic faith to children, we would like to make sure that you actually believe and accept the Catholic faith.  It’s like when a person assumes a public office — they have to swear to uphold the constitution and laws, and faithfully execute their office.  Or, think of it as a consumer protection pledge, like a “God Housekeeping Stamp of Approval”.

    To the author of the WaPo piece, and to the dissenting catechists, it is a shocking thing.  Pretty much anyone who has read religion articles in the press could write the story, since it hits all the media tropes — mean and authoritarian hidebound male bishops, courageous free-thinking women following their conscience, references to partisan politics and the health care law, and the Nazi’s even make a cameo appearance.   Naturally, it’s not as if the former catechists are Monophysites or anything too theological for the ordinary reporter to explain.   Their dissent  stems from all the usual trendy pelvic and gender issues, which the press loves to report about.  It’s pretty shoddy journalism.

    This story is striking to me because it involves deeper questions, which are not just being asked by the Arlington Diocese to their catechists, but which are in fact being asked of all of us:  What do I believe?  What does it mean for me to be a Catholic?

    For many people, both now and throughout history, being a Catholic has little to do with actual beliefs.  It is instead a cultural identity, or an ethnic characteristic, or a social custom.

    But that surely is not enough.  To be a Catholic means to hold certain beliefs in common with our brethren throughout the world, and throughout time.  It means to affirm the same faith that was preserved for us by the great saints, many of whom sacrificed their lives so that I might know that faith. It means to hand on to others, what was handed on to us.

    But on an even deeper level, it means to come to know the truth about somebody, about a person who loves me more than life itself, and who has given all of himself so that I may know and love him.  You can’t really love someone unless you know them, deeply and intimately.

    I know nothing of God — Father, Son, or Spirit — except what has been taught to me by the Church, and given to me by Her by Word, Sacrament, and Work.  I could never love God — the real God, not the flawed one I would rather create in my own image — if I had not received the truth about Him from the Church.

    That is why professions of faith are so significant to us as Catholics, and why we should be proud to affirm the truths of our faith, as taught to us by our Church, and to proclaim those truths to our world.

    A Prayer for Our Beloved Nation

    Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

    Just over four years ago, Peggy and I had the privilege of attending the beautiful Mass offered by Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium.  Like many in the Stadium, we were caught up in the power of the event — the leader of the Church around the world had come to our home town and was celebrating the Eucharist for us.  It was the pinnacle of the Holy Father’s visit to our nation, and a wonderful moment for us as Catholics.

    Throughout his visit to America, the Holy Father spoke in such positive terms about our nation’s legacy of freedom.  At the time, it would have been easy for most Americans to overlook the significance of remarks like these:

    In this land of religious liberty, Catholics found freedom not only to practice their faith, but also to participate fully in civic life, bringing their deepest moral convictions to the public square and cooperating with their neighbors in shaping a vibrant, democratic society. Today’s celebration is more than an occasion of gratitude for graces received. It is also a summons to move forward with firm resolve to use wisely the blessings of freedom, in order to build a future of hope for coming generations.

    How much things have changed, and how prophetic the Holy Father has proven to be.

    Just a few years after that papal visit, we are faced with a panoply of threats to our fundamental religious liberty, which few could have foreseen — the legal re-definition of marriage; the mandates for insurance coverage of sterilization, abortion drugs, and contraceptives; forcing people to pay for insurance coverage of direct abortion; the refusal of our government to recognize the conscience rights of religious institutions.  The path forward is daunting, and we are likely to see more and more restrictions on religious participation in public life.

    In these times, it is all the more important to go back to basics, to recapture those essential ideals of America about which the Holy Father spoke.  And to turn to God in prayer for our nation.

    This is what is motivating the United States Bishops in their call for a prayerful “Fortnight for Freedom”, from June 21 through July 4.  They are asking us to join in “a great hymn of prayer for our country”, with special liturgical events like Holy Hours and litanies, and public witness like the ringing of church bells and processions.  It is an event of public devotion and worship — directed to God, on behalf of our beloved nation.

    Of course, the Fortnight for Freedom risks being misunderstood by our modern culture, with its obsession with electoral politics.  The Fortnight is not about partisan politics, it has nothing to do with elections, and it is not concerned with who holds public office.  It is a call for all Americans — Catholics and non-Catholics alike — to recapture our sense of priorities.  The goal is to reawaken our sense of dependence on God for the well-being of our nation, and our commitment to transforming all of society in the light of the Gospel.

    I believe that, in his homily at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict foresaw the need for the Fortnight for Freedom, and anticipated its message and its importance.  He spoke of our daily prayer for the coming of the Kingdom of God, and dedicating ourselves to its growth throughout our society.  Speaking of the significance of this prayer, he added:

    It means facing the challenges of present and future with confidence in Christ’s victory and a commitment to extending his reign. It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness… It means working to enrich American society and culture with the beauty and truth of the Gospel, and never losing sight of that great hope which gives meaning and value to all the other hopes which inspire our lives.

    We are proud to be Americans, and we are proud to be Catholics.  We will gladly join together with our brothers and sisters across our nation during the Fortnight for Freedom.  We pray that our beloved nation, under God, will respect our fundamental human rights, particularly our right to religious liberty, and that this freedom will always be held sacred and secure.

    The Disgrace of Georgetown

    Thursday, May 17th, 2012

    There’s a very fine Jesuit priest who is a professor at Georgetown University, Fr. James Schall. In a recent column, he said this: “Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are.”

    The reason for the question is the appalling decision by Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute to have HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as the speaker at their commencement. The president of Georgetown has stated that this platform is being given to the Secretary because of her “long and distinguished record of public service”.

    Yes, you read that right.  An allegedly Catholic university, giving a platform of honor to the current Administration’s point person to advance its anti-life agenda.

    Let’s review some of the highlights of Secretary Sebelius’ “long and distinguished record”, for those at Georgetown who don’t have access to the Internet:

  • She has spearheaded the recent attacks on human life and religious liberty by promulgating the infamous HHS contraceptive and abortion mandates.
  • She notoriously declared at a pro-abortion rally that “we are in a war” to defend the right to kill children in the womb.
  • She has associated with, and embraced the support of, the infamous late-term abortionist George Tiller — she even hosted an event at her governor’s mansion in honor of him and posed smiling for pictures with him.
  • As Governor of Kansas, she consistently opposed pro-life legislation, and has repeatedly vetoed bills like a ban on partial birth abortion.
  • Her record was so bad in Kansas that her own bishop, after trying privately to convert her, had to publicly admonish her not to present herself for Communion until she publicly repudiates her pro-abortion positions.
  • Georgetown loves to boast about how it is a university “in the Jesuit tradition”. At the heart of the Jesuit charism is the Spiritual Exercises of their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola. During the second week of the Exercises, those who are on the retreat receive a meditation on the Two Standards. This is a powerful expression of the very meaning of Christian discipleship.

    The meditation asks bluntly — whose standard or flag will we follow, Christ’s or Satan’s?

    Satan’s standard, of course, is the one that the world finds most attractive, because it superficially appeals to our fallen human nature. It offers us the desire for worldly possessions, power, honor, and a false view of freedom that is a disguise for immorality. In the end, though, it leads only to destruction.

    Christ’s standard, on the other hand, is the one that the world finds unattractive, because it appeals to values that are exemplified by Our Lord himself, whom the world rejected. It offers us humility, poverty, sacrifice, and authentic freedom that involves willing adherence to God’s will. And in the end it leads to glory.

    So here’s the question for the Georgetown administration — which standard have you chosen? As Fr. Schall said, “Tell me who you honor and I will tell you what you are.”

    The Power of the Powerless

    Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

    In my last post, I outlined the need for resistance against unjust laws that threaten the freedoms of religious and pro-life people.  In this post, I’m going to present a “menu of resistance” — essentially a list of things that people can do to give actual life to their conscientious objections to injustices like the contraception and abortion mandates, attempts to force the recognition of same-sex “marriages”, restrictions on free speech, and the like.

    Before presenting these suggestions, I would like to stress several important points.

    First, this is not an official statement or position of the Archdiocese of New York — it is my opinion, and mine alone. Take these ideas for what they’re worth, but they are not attributable to the Archdiocese in any way.

    Second, I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion here — some of these suggestions may lead people into legal difficulties with the authorities.  Governments generally are very intolerant of dissent and civil disobedience.  So people should assess their level of risk, and prepare themselves to accept the consequences of their actions.

    Third, and most important, the watchword of resistance to injustice is always that we speak the truth with love.  That is non-negotiable.  Our aim is the conversion of hearts, not the exertion of power.

    With that having been said, here are some suggestions about how people can

  • Learn about your rights.  Most states have laws that grant protection to religious belief.  For example, here in New York, our Human Rights Law contains fairly broad protection against discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for believers.  Courts in New York have already held that opposition to abortion is protected under these laws.
  • Take advantage of the law.  Many unjust laws provide for exemptions and appeals.  For instance, private employers can file for an exemptions from the HHS abortion/contraception mandate.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if HHS received a letter from every parish, every school, every hospital, every nursing home, every Catholic employer in the United States — thousands of requests for exemptions that they would have to process?  Do you think that might let them understand how significant an intrusion their mandate is?
  • Use the government’s own legal process.  Appeal any denial of a request for an exemption.  File complaints with civil rights offices of government agencies when they try to force you to cooperate with unjust laws.  Explain to them that complying with the law would violate your Constitutional rights.  For example, you can file a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of HHS here.  All states (like New York) and most localities also have human rights commissions — file complaints with them as well.
  • Be persistent.  Protest letters to government agencies are likely to be ignored at first, or summarily denied without any reason.  If that happens, appeal to higher authorities at the agency, and go up the ladder, all the way to the person in charge.
  • Ask your elected officials for help.  Send copies of your complaints and appeals to your representatives in Congress or the State Legislature.  Ask them to intervene with the agency on your behalf.  Insist that they send you a response.  Go to their district office and ask for help in person.
  • Always tell the truth. Never tell a lie to a government official — if it’s a federal official, that’s a crime.  So, for example, if you are called upon to fill out a form, and it asks for an answer that you cannot honestly give, leave it blank and write a cover letter explaining your objection.
  • Don’t pay for injustice.  Refuse to pay fees for insurance coverage for abortion and contraception.  Write to your health insurance company and ask for a rebate for any funds spent on abortion.  When they ignore you, write to the board of directors and the president of the company.  If they insist that you pay, send them the fee in pennies, write a polite protest letter.
  • Write to your elected officials.  Make clear to them that you want them to pass just laws, and repeal unjust laws.  Do it over, and over, and over.  Join email networks like the New York State Catholic Conference Advocacy Network and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment and send easy emails to your representatives.
  • Write to candidates.  Explain to them that you will never vote for them unless they oppose unjust laws.  If you can’t think of anything else to say, tell them that you agree with Cardinal Egan:  “Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name”.
  • Don’t vote for them.  Speaking for myself, I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, I won’t vote for you.  I refuse to choose “the lesser of two evils” — because then, all I’ll ever get is evil.
  • Participate in public witness.  It is vitally important that we be seen by the general public as sane, reasonable, committed people.  Participate in prayerful and peaceful vigils like those run by the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants.  Join positive, well-informed rallies like the ones sponsored by “Stand Up for Religious Freedom”.  Always obey the law.  Remember — numbers don’t matter — witness does.
  • Support lawsuits against unjust laws.  There are many great organizations that are fighting in court to defend religious liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund and the Becket Fund.  If you have some extra, send them some cash.  Join their lawsuits — wouldn’t it be great if a million Catholics joined a gigantic class action suit against the contraceptive and abortion mandates?
  • Refuse to speak the lie. Always tell the truth — abortion is not health care, contraception is bad for women, men and society, marriage is only a union of one man and one woman, and religious belief is not hatred or bigotry.  Remember, your silence may be taken as agreement or surrender, so make sure that you speak out.
  • Don’t cooperate in the lie.  Don’t do anything that will recognize the lie.  For example, don’t give your employees information about contraception or abortion coverage, erase it from your company’s plan books, refuse to recognize any same-sex marriages.  Remember that human rights laws protect religious liberty.  If you think your rights are in danger, use the magic words — “I’m going to consult with a lawyer”.  Then call a group that defends liberty, like the Alliance Defense Fund.
  • Stick together. One of the things that people find demoralizing is the sense that they’re all alone, and that nobody agrees with them.  But we are not alone — we’re a gigantic movement.  So, write letters to the editor of your newspaper, post comments on friendly blogs (and ignore the flames that come back in response), put the truth up on your Facebook page (even if people will “unfriend” you), pass around supportive emails, join a pro-life organization like the Knights of Columbus or your local pro-life committee.
  • Pray, pray, pray.  For everyone involved — those being oppressed as well as their oppressors.  This is not going to be easy.  But remember what St. Paul said:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)
  • Resistance reminds people of a sense of their power, even when they appear to the whole world to be powerless.  The truth, expressed with love, is an enormously influential force.  Worlds and lives can change, when people have the courage to testify to the truth.  We can lift each other up by our steadfastness.

    Even if we have no idea how our actions will play out, each individual moral act will have a ripple effect, the ends of which we cannot foresee.  Even if we never see the end result, we can always be satisfied that we have been faithful to our beliefs.

    And we can never underestimate the power of the powerless.  Especially when God is with us.

     

    Revision and Resistance

    Monday, May 14th, 2012

    Most people are not aware of it, but the founding documents of our nation have been fundamentally re-written in recent years.  Here is how the key passage of the Declaration of Independence has now been revised to read:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that some people are created more equal than others, that some of them are endowed by their government with certain alienable rights that can be given or taken away at any time, at the whim of the government.

    And here is part of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

    Congress shall make many laws respecting an establishment of religion, and prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

    We now live in a nation that is systematically revising its intellectual and legal foundation.  We are in grave danger of abandoning its commitment to fundamental human rights, rooted in human nature and natural law.  That foundation is being replaced by a system of positivism and secularism.  I have written on this blog many times about this trend.  For a fuller explanation of what it means, check out Cardinal Dolan’s important address to Fordham Law School.

    In concrete terms, we can see these threats to religious liberty and fundamental rights in many places: the HHS Mandate, the abortion mandate in the health care law, the radical re-definition of marriage, and efforts to suppress the speech of pro-lifers.

    In the face of these threats to our liberties, ordinary citizens frequently feel powerless.  After all, the government is very large and very powerful, and we think we are isolated and alone.  We fear for our livelihoods and our families if we run afoul of the law.

    So what can we do?

    We must resist.

    The starting place for resistance is to understand what it means, and what it does not.  I strongly urge everyone to read two key works that explain the reasons and tactics for resisting unjust laws enacted by civil governments — Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless.

    These essays stress a number of essential points:

  • Resistance is a duty of all citizens when faced by injustice.  It is not an “extra-credit” activity.
  • It must be always be grounded in the truth.  It makes no compromise with lies, and always seeks to expose them.
  • It must always be pursued with love and respect.  It is not an excuse for violence and lawlessness.
  • The goal is conversion of heart on the part of those who support injustice, not overbearing their will with power.  It’s message always is “come, join us”, and never “we will force you to agree”.
  • The most important tactic is our willingness to testify to the truth by our words and our actions, and our refusal to cooperate with injustice and lies.
  • Underlying this duty of resistance is an important understanding of the freedom of conscience.  My conscience is not just reflected in my external decisions, but it involves the very core of who I am as a human person.  It is the inner sanctuary where I encounter God’s law.   It is in my conscience that I hear the voice of God, speaking the truth to me.  It is there that I must be true to myself, and to the will of God.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the document of the Second Vatican Council, On the Dignity of the Human Person (especially paragraph 3), explain this beautifully.  These documents should also be studied with care.

    The government may attempt to coerce my external cooperation with injustice by imposing penalties, fines, and so on.  But no government, and no law, can force me to accept a lie as the truth.

    That is the heart of resistance — the ultimate freedom of the human heart.

     

    “You Can’t Be a Catholic…”

    Sunday, September 4th, 2011

    You very often hear that “you can’t be a Catholic and [fill in the blank]“.  The [blank] is then filled in with whatever the person finds reprehensible, and what they consider to be grounds for ejecting somebody from the Church.  The most common ones I hear are “you can’t be Catholic and be pro-choice”, or “you can’t be Catholic and support ‘gay marriage’”.

    That can be a very tempting sentiment to express.  Catholics must always adhere to the teaching of the Church — God forbid that I ever say or do anything against that teaching.  There’s also something very distressing about people who proclaim themselves to be “good Catholics” or “devout Catholics”, yet take public positions or perform public acts that are inimical to that teaching.  It misleads people, and it places souls at risk.

    Now, I am no canon lawyer (I am a lawyer and some people want to shoot me out of a cannon, but that doesn’t count).  But as I understand it, the general principle in Canon Law is that once you’re baptized a Catholic you’re always a Catholic, unless you formally defect — make a formal statement to your pastor that you are leaving the Church. That’s very rarely done. It’s actually very difficult to stop being a Catholic. Merely committing a sin is not enough.

    That makes perfect sense.  The Catholic Church isn’t a country club, where you lose your membership if you violate the rules or fail to pay your dues.  It’s the Body of Christ, and we are incorporated into that Body by virtue of our Baptism — we are indelibly changed by the grace of that sacrament.  It has become a question of who I am, and not just what I believe or do.

    The key question then is not whether one ceases to be a Catholic, but to what extent a person is in communion with the Catholic Church, and thus with Christ Himself.

    Full communion with the Church can be impaired by many things, such as heresy (rejection of a truth divinely revealed), schism (no longer attending Mass, but instead joining a religious group that is not in communion with the Holy See), etc. Failing to live a life in keeping with the teaching of the Church will also impair one’s communion (e.g., openly cohabiting with a non-spouse).  Individual acts can also breach communion (like any mortal sin). In most of these cases, full communion is restored by sacramental Confession.

    The USCCB described this once as “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues…he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church.”

    Penalties like excommunication are imposed by the Canon Law in some particularly serious cases (e.g., heresy, schism, abortion, etc.).  But they do not eject someone from the Catholic Church. Instead, they are public declarations that a person has breached communion with the Church in a significant way (e.g., those who participate in the purported “ordination” of women as priests). In these cases, full communion has to be restored, often by some other public act.  The goal of these penalties is not to kick people out, but to call them to return.

    So, for example, the poor deluded people who participate in mock “ordinations” of women have breached communion with the Church by their actions. Under Canon Law they have incurred an automatic excommunication. In no way are they Catholic priests. But they are still Catholics.  Likewise with those who ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy See, or politicians who support intrinsically evil laws (such as those recognizing abortion rights, or re-defining marriage).  They haven’t stopped being Catholic, but they have gravely wounded their communion with Christ and His Church.

    Why does this technical distinction matter so much?  Because it’s much easier to dismiss people as being beyond the pale, than to grieve for their sin and to work to reconcile with them and repair the damage.  Anyone who has trouble in their family knows how tempting it is to wish that the difficult person were gone from the house, and how much harder it is for them to stay and work things out.

    Reconciliation and healing are hard.  Just ask the father of the Prodigal Son.  Just ask Jesus.

    Bold Witnesses to the Faith

    Monday, June 13th, 2011

    (On Saturday, June 11, I was honored to be invited to deliver the commencement address at the annual graduation ceremony of the Montfort Academy.  Montfort is a wonderful high school dedicated to classical Catholic education, and to fostering the intellectual and spiritual growth of their students.  I’ve been pleased to visit the school on a number of occasions for debates and other presentations, and I was thrilled to participate in the festivities.  Below 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, although in such a small way.

    We all know that high school graduation is a significant milestone in our lives.  We tend to look at it as the dawn of adulthood.  No matter how old we are, we probably remember our own graduation very clearly, and fondly.  I certainly do.

    But it also marks a significant milestone in another respect — in the call to be witnesses to our faith.  No matter where we are heading — to college, to the work world, or wherever — one thing remains true about us throughout our lives.  We are all called upon to testify to Jesus Christ.  While we do this first and foremost in our family and our home, it goes far beyond that, into a world that needs to hear a message of hope and love that only the Gospel can provide.

    Being a witness requires that we step out into the public square, into the struggle to define our culture and our laws, to determine what kind of people we are, and how we are to live together.  This public square appears in many places — in college, the workplace, the state legislature, the voting booth, our parishes, and our own homes.  It exists everywhere that we confront the world.

    And there is no doubt that the world is not very welcoming to our testimony.  Threats to religious liberties, open hostility and contempt towards religion in our media and entertainment, bloody persecutions abroad and not-so-bloody persecutions here at home, threats to human life at the beginning and end and every point in between, threats to the sanctity of marriage, and even threats to the very meaning of what it is to be a man and what it means to be a woman.  Anyone who reads the news is well aware of this.  Powerful forces in our culture would much prefer if we would sit down and shut up.  Or at least wear the modern equivalent of a yellow star, to mark our status as social outcasts.

    In the face of such hostility, the worst mistake we could make would be to withdraw into our own little community and write off the world and our culture.  I have a friend who attended a graduation ceremony at an ostensibly Catholic college, and one of the speakers began by apologizing for bringing up religious faith.  No. That’s a response of despair and defeat.  We don’t apologize for our faith.  That’s not who we are as Christians.  This is a time for heroic efforts, great deeds, ambitious enterprises, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

    So, what does this mean for us?  Let me offer a few thoughts.

    First, we should take seriously St. Peter’s admonition that we should “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).  As soon as you step out into the public square you will be challenged.  When people find out that you are a Catholic, much less a Christian, you will be the target of questions, comments, attacks.  You’ll be asked questions by your co-workers, clients, and even people on the bus or train.  Be ready for this.  It’s a wonderful time to “speak the truth with love”, and to offer the world the hope that it longs for.

    A pearl of great price has been handed on to us, and we should never be afraid to pass it along to others.  Remember, just like the early Apostles, we have a very radical goal — as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council said, our task is to “penetrate the world with a Christian spirit” and to “sanctify the world”.  The early Apostles — the early witnesses — understood this very well.  We will never accomplish our ultimate goal unless we stand up as Christians, and testify to the Gospel.  We should never check our faith at the door, before we enter the public square.

    Of course, the most important thing that we can do as witnesses to our faith is to dedicate ourselves to becoming better Christians. Before we can purify the world, we must purify ourselves.  We have to remember that our lives are always part of the argument, and that the personal example of ourselves or our fellow Christians will be used to promote — or discredit — our cause.  I am sure you learned in your logic classes that the “ad hominem” argument is a form of logical fallacy.  That means nothing in our culture, where the ad hominem is used first, foremost, and frequently.  Being reminded of our own shortcomings, and those of our fellow Christians, can be a very humbling experience.  Be ready for this.  Or, even better, be immune to it, by living a life of virtue.

    Although the way we live this out may be very varied, depending on the field we enter, the one common theme is always love — the gift of self to others.  That is the hallmark of Christians.  In the third century, the theologian Tertullian noticed that the world recognized Christians by saying to themselves, “Look at these Christians, see how they love one another”.  We have to be ready to conquer the world with love, even if the world rejects the very concept of authentic love.  We have to be witnesses of love.

    The gift of self has consequences for us.  We grow as persons, we find parts of ourselves that we never knew existed, and we become the person that God intended us to be.  It has life-changing consequences.

    For the last twenty years, Peggy and I, together with our kids, have been going to West Virginia to do apostolic work.  The primary work has been to repair homes, run activity camps and tutoring programs for kids, and visiting the homebound and elderly. The main goal is not just to patch a roof, or fix a floor. The real goal is to be with the people, to sit and share their lives, and to share their suffering. We have a chance to encounter Christ crucified, in our midst, in the suffering of the poor.  It has changed us forever — we will never be the same.  Love has a way of doing that.  You know this from your own experiences already.

    Your time of training at the Montfort Academy has prepared you well to be witnesses, and you have already shown the kind of character that is needed for this task.  The classical Catholic education you received here, rooted in both faith and reason, provides an excellent foundation for witnessing to the faith.  Your perseverance and loyalty to the school is admirable and, if I may say so, inspiring to me.  There are many others who have been in the arena, fighting the good fight for much longer than I.  We find it very encouraging that there are young people like you who are coming along, and preparing yourselves to take part in this effort.

    I think it is particularly appropriate that we are gathered here today on the feast day of St. Barnabas, on the eve of Pentecost.  He was one of the great early disciples, a man who gave up all that he had to serve God by spreading the Gospel.  He knew what it meant to be a witness, and ultimately he paid the price for it.  But he never hesitated, never faltered.  He was lifted up by the Holy Spirit to a heroic mission.  As the Lord said, he “set out into the deep”.

    You are in now setting out on the same mission.  The world is in crisis.  It is always in crisis.  Now is the time to be bold, and courageous, like the first Apostles, like Barnabas.  Those who are weak and powerless and hopeless need somebody to stand up for them, to work with them, to serve them.  The Holy Spirit is at our side, making us eager, and joyful, to step out of the safety of the upper room, stand before the world, and give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Now is the time for you to be heroes, now is the time for you to be saints.  Now is the time for you to be witnesses.

    Congratulations and God bless.