Posts Tagged ‘Pro-Life’

Judges — Not Tribunes of the People

Monday, February 6th, 2017

The President has nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the current vacancy on the Supreme Court. This has excited and inflamed many people, and the battle over his confirmation will be a wild one. Filibusters and nuclear options are all on the table, and it will be very interesting to see what happens.

One thing that has already become clear, though, is that a great many Americans have no idea what a judge is really supposed to do. It may sound too trite to even be mentioned, but the fundamental truth is that a judge’s job is to decide cases. Nothing more.

A great deal of the commentary that you will see from the opponents of Judge Gorsuch is startlingly uninformed. After the announcement, people were already labeling him as “dangerous” and “extreme”, even though they hadn’t heard of him five minutes before. They were portraying him as some kind of wild-eyed maniac who somehow had managed to get on the Circuit Court of Appeals. Never mind that he was confirmed unanimously by the Senate for that position and that he has served there for the last decade without the Republic collapsing or anyone moving to impeach him.

The reality is that these advocates couldn’t care less about who Judge Gorsuch is (a pillar of his church and community), what his background is (both Columbia College and Harvard Law School, a few years behind me), or his years of outstanding public service (clerking on the Supreme Court and in a high position in the Justice Department). The reality is that these advocates only care about having a Supreme Court Justice who will enact their favored policy positions from the bench. And based on their rhetoric, the only issue that really seems to matter to them is abortion — they desperately want to keep abortion on demand legal in this country, and they don’t care how many people they have to calumniate and destroy to do it.

This campaign against Judge Gorsuch also betrays a complete lack of understanding about what a judge is supposed to do, and it illustrates how important it is for a judge to have a coherent philosophy of the law and a firm grasp of the essential principles of the American constitutional order.

Judges are not supposed to be super-legislators who make sure that their favored policies are embodied in their interpretation of the Constitution and statutes. Policy-making is the province of Congress and the President — the political branches that are subject to oversight by the electorate. The only job of the Supreme Court, as anyone can see in Article III of the Constitution, is to decide cases and controversies that arise under the Constitution and laws as well as certain other specific cases (like disputes between states).

Our Supreme Court has been violating that limited role for a very long time now. At least since the Progressive Era and especially since the New Deal, the Court has seen itself almost as a body of Platonic Guardians who can discern new meanings in the Constitution that nobody saw before. This is the body of judges who had the gall to say in the case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood:

Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.

What gaseous nonsense. I defy anyone to find even a hint of such a role for the Court in the Constitution or in any of the writings of the Founders of our Republic. Madison, Hamilton and Washington would be appalled by such a pronouncement.

This highlights the importance of a sound judicial philosophy and a coherent understanding of the structure and principles of our Constitution. Too many Justices are on the bench already who lack this, and instead are ideologues (like Justices Ginsberg and Sotomayor), smart but lock-step liberals (Justice Kagan and Breyer) or vacuous pragmatists (Justice Kennedy). They appeal to a non-existent entity they call the “living constitution” and use that to make up new laws as they go along. If you want to see how it’s done, see Obergefell v. Hodges. And in doing so they hijack the proper roles that the Constitution gives to Congress and the President.

Judge Gorsuch, on the other hand, is an “originalist” and a “textualist”, which means that his philosophy is to discern the actual meaning that Constitutional provisions had when they were adopted and the actual meaning of the words that appear in laws enacted by Congress. Then, in the common law tradition, he would see his job as applying those principles to decide the actual case or controversy that is before him. No vaporous pronouncements about grand roles of the Court, and no discoveries of new rights and liberties hiding in invisible ink in the penubras, emanations and miasmas of the Constitution.

This restrained approach to the law is what actually scares the advocates who oppose the judge. They have become so used to judges enacting their favorite policies that they can’t imagine one who does otherwise. They are desperate to hold onto their policy gains, and they dread putting them before the elected branches for an open democratic debate.

In ancient Rome, there was an office called the “Tribune of the People”. He had the power to veto any law or government action, and he was absolutely unaccountable to anyone — nobody could overrule him or even lay hands on him. That is not what our Constitution envisions when it gives the Supreme Court its “judicial power”. Judges should decide cases and controversies, give effect to the laws that were actually enacted by “we the people”, and not set themselves up as unaccountable rulers.

Pro-Life Judges

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love for Animals, Danger for Humans

Friday, October 9th, 2015

I had the pleasure of attending a very interesting lecture at Fordham Law School, entitled “The Law, Science, and Ethics Behind the Nonhuman Rights Project and Its Struggle to Achieve Fundamental Legal Rights for Nonhuman Animals”. The principal presenter was an attorney, the leader of that project, who deeply loves animals.  He has brought numerous lawsuits attempting to persuade courts to declare chimpanzees to be legal persons, and thus entitled to rights and protection under the law.

This subject is particularly interesting to me, and I am completely in support of the argument that we have a moral obligation to love and treat animals humanely.  I am a vegetarian, and I have very serious moral objections to the way that industrial farming treats animals.  Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, was very firm in insisting on the immorality of animal cruelty and the duty to treat animals humanely.

But even more important to me is the issue of legal personhood.  In the law, only those entities that are deemed “persons” possess the ability to assert rights, duties, freedoms and immunities that are legally enforceable.  In essence, the law will only recognize you and defend your rights if it considers you to be a “person”.

Under current American law, legal personhood is recognized for human beings (with an important exception I’ll discuss in a second) and entities that are created under the law and called “juridical persons” (e.g., governments, corporations, partnerships, and other associations).  No American law has ever recognized legal personhood in non-human animals.

Unfortunately, the two most notorious Supreme Court decisions in history both specifically denied personhood to a class of human beings.  The Dred Scott decision held that blacks were not persons under the law and thus “they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” — so they could be held as chattel slaves.  The Roe v. Wade decision similarly held that “the word ‘person,’ as used in the Fourteenth Amendment, does not include the unborn” — and thus they could be killed with impunity.  An equally appalling New York State Court of Appeals decision, Byrn v. New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, also specifically denied that unborn human beings are legal persons and thus have no rights that are bound to be respected by those lucky enough to be already born.   

That brings us to the lawsuits that seek to have chimps defined as legal “persons”.  It would be easy to view these actions as ludicrous, and I imagine that most people would dismiss them as such.  As a legal matter, I believe that the cases are meritless.  Their theory rests on the inconsistency of the law recognizing some humans as persons, while denying that status to others — which is true, but irrelevant when it comes to animals, which are, by definition, non-human.  And it relies heavily on an eighteenth-century English case that decided that slavery was not recognized under English common law.  But if you cite the common law as authority, you have to accept it whenever it’s contrary to your position too.  And English and American common law — as well as statutory and constitutional law — have never treated animals as persons, and always considered them to be property.  Wishful thinking and good intentions can’t make the law into something that it has never been.

But an unconvincing legal theory is not the most dangerous thing about these lawsuits, and the entire effort to have animals recognized as legal persons.  The animal personhood effort is premised on the fundamentally flawed idea that there is no relevant moral difference between humans and other animals — a rejection of “human exceptionalism”, which has been an axiom of law and society throughout history.  Instead, they seek to define personhood by reference to characteristics such as whether the animal is “autonomous and self-determining”, or whether they “possess the complex cognitive abilities sufficient for personhood” (to quote from the chimp’s court filings).

But these are inherently arbitrary.  Who decides what is sufficient, and what is not, and by what standard?  Do we draw the line at the “complex cognitive abilities” of chimps, or at dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, insects, etc.?  Who is to say what degree of  “autonomous and self-determining” is enough to grant rights, and when it is not?  How an anyone tell, without any bright line standard — such as the obvious difference between the human species and an animal species?

Even aside from the legal chaos and arbitrariness that would result, there’s an even greater danger — if that’s the standard for determining personhood for animals, what if the same standard is applied to humans?

We know that the courts have no problem deciding that unborn children aren’t persons.  But what about newborn babies, who clearly are not “autonomous and self-determining” yet, and haven’t developed to the point where they “possess complex cognitive abilities”?  How about those who are in a permanent vegetative state?  Or advanced Alzheimers patients?  Will they be defined as non-persons, so that they have no protection under the law — and they can be treated as property to be mined for their organs,  or killed if they become too expensive to maintain?

This is not an idle set of questions, or a speculative “slippery slope”.  There are people, like the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who would gladly exclude from legal personhood those humans who lack sufficient “complex cognitive abilities” to satisfy his personal standards.

When law is made, laudable motives are not sufficient.  It’s wonderful that the Nonhuman Rights Project loves animals, and we absolutely need to grant greater legal protection to our fellow creatures. But the unintended consequences of legal changes must also be considered.  And the inevitable result of the animal personhood legal theories would be dangerous — and deadly — to humans.

The Politics of Principle

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last five years.  This post was written in memory of Jack Swan, a great warrior of faith and politics, who entered eternal life on February 2, 1998.  God sent Jack into my life to teach me these lessons about politics, and I’m just a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant.  As time goes by, I see more and more a need for us to recapture the politics of principle.  Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lessons right.)

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently perceived as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. 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, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

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.

The Politics of Principle

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

(This is a repeat of a post from this same day the last four years.  It was written in memory of Jack Swan, a great warrior of faith and politics, who entered eternal life on February 2, 1998.  God sent Jack into my life to teach me these lessons about politics, and I’m just a pygmy standing on the shoulders of a giant.  Jack, please pray for me, that I get the lessons right.)

In the mind of most people, “politics” is the struggle of candidates, political parties, and their supporters to gain power and influence in the government. That is certainly true up to a point, and it makes for interesting entertainment.

I write a good deal about politics on this blog and elsewhere, and I’m frequently perceived as being “political” in that sense — of being”partisan”. That completely misses the point.

There is a deeper, more significant nature of politics. It is the way we order our society together, so that we can live according to our vocations and be happy, and ultimately attain eternal life. In this understanding of politics, the partisan theater is an important reality, but it is not the main focus. What really matters is principle.

Without principles, politics becomes mere pragmatism, where the question is whether something “works”, or, in the less elevated version of the game, what’s in it for me. Now, don’t get me wrong. Pragmatism is important — we want our government to be effective. But again, principle is more important.

I received much of my tutelage in the real world of politics from a man who devoted his life to being a practitioner of the politics of principle. I learned that it was fine to be keenly interested in the partisan scrum, but only to the extent that it advanced the principles we hold dear — defense of human life, protection of marriage, family and children, and religious liberty. The promotion of those principles is more important than party label, and the idea is to support — or oppose — politicians based on their fidelity to those principles, not based on what party label they happened to be wearing this week.

That’s how I try to practice politics, in my small and limited way. I have opinions and judgments about many pragmatic issues, and what kinds of national security, economic and other policies would “work” better than others. But none of those pragmatic issues matter at all, compared to the core principles.

Here’s how it works for me. If a politician doesn’t protect human life, I don’t care what his position is on other issues. If he can’t understand that human life is sacred and must be protected at all stages, I have no reason to trust his judgment about any other issue. And, very frankly, anyone who does not understand that basic principle is not, in my opinion, fit to hold public office.

The same holds for the other core issues. 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, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

This means that I am perpetually dissatisfied with our political process and our politicians. But that’s fine with me. They are all temporary office holders anyway, here today and gone tomorrow, and their platforms are passing fancies that nobody will remember in a short time. The principles, however, remain perpetually valid.

Listen, Our Lord made a very simple request of us. He said, “Follow me”. He didn’t say, be a Republican or a Democrat, a Socialist or a Whig. He demands that I be his follower. So I need to look to the Lord for my principles, and in this age that means I have to listen to the Church. That’s what Our Lord wants me to do — after all, he said to his apostles “he who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). We happen to have in our midst the successors of those apostles — the Holy Father, our bishops, and my bishop in particular. As a Catholic I must listen to them, and get my political principles from them, not from Fox News, CNN, talking heads of the left or the right, the editorial page of the Times, or either the Democratic or Republican Parties.

This, to me, is the way to live as a disciple of Christ in this crazy political process. I realize that this will be considered odd by many, and even dangerous by some.

But we hardly need more party loyalists at this, or any other, time. And we certainly need more practitioners of the politics of principle.

A Tragic Polarization

Monday, January 28th, 2013

The annual March for Life was held on Friday, in remembrance of the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.  Several hundred thousand people joined in the largest annual civil rights demonstration in America, to witness to the cause of human life and its importance to our society.

After the March, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion about the pro-life cause at the National Review Institute’s Future of Conservatism Summit.  It was a very interesting conversation, covering topics such as health care, pregnancy resource centers, and the cultural and political trends in our nation.  (It was broadcast live on CSPAN, and you can watch the video here).

The audience was very appreciative of the panel, and I got a good deal of positive feedback afterwards. That’s encouraging, because there has been a good bit of talk since the election about ejecting pro-lifers from the conservative movement — which I believe would be a disaster for American society.

But the positive reaction of the conservative audience also reinforced in my mind a sad realization:  at this point in American history, it is inconceivable that I would be invited to have the same discussion at a conference of political liberals or progressives.

It has been made abundantly clear that pro-lifers are really not welcome any more in the liberal wing of politics or, indeed, in most of the Democratic Party.  The platform of the national Democratic Party stated that the party opposed any restrictions on abortion; a prominent leader of the Party in New York has announced that one cannot be a Democrat without being “pro-choice”; and the President ran an aggressively and adamantly pro-abortion political campaign last year.   Although there are some notable exceptions, the pro-life Democrat is becoming an endangered species.

This makes no sense to me.  Life is not a partisan issue — it is a question of equal justice under the law and fundamental human rights.  It is the ultimate issue of defending the little guy — as little a guy as you can get.  And traditionally, liberalism/progressivism and the Democratic Party have styled themselves as the defenders of the little guys — workers, immigrants, ethnic minorities.  They were the party of Al Smith and Sargent Shriver — two great Catholic gentlemen who were unabashed progressives and Democrats.    Even as late as the 1970’s, prominent Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson were openly pro-life.

I understand how and why this happened — it has a lot to do with the identification of abortion and sexual liberty as the centerpiece of modern feminism.  But it has polarized our nation and politics, and it is a disaster for our society.

Last week, the President delivered his inaugural address.  In that speech, he spoke about his and his party’s concern for defending human rights by alluding to Seneca Falls (the birthplace of  women’s rights), Selma (a crucible for the civil rights movement) and Stonewall (the origin of the “gay rights” cause).

Sadly, he had no time to mention the human rights of the unborn.  He could easily have done so, by a simple allusion to the Dred Scott decision, which excluded an entire class of human beings from the protection of the law.

Unfortunately, in our sad polarized politics, the liberal/progressive movement, much of the Democratic Party, and the current Administration believe, as did the misguided Supreme Court in Dred Scott, that unborn children have no rights that are bound to be respected by those lucky enough to have been born.

The View from Under the Bus

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

After the election, we have seen much discussion about why the Republican Party lost the Presidential election and failed to pick up some initially-promising Senate seats.  One of the proposals that we hear often is that the GOP should jettison “social conservatives”, or at least declare a “truce” on “social issues” like abortion and the re-definition of marriage.

Far be it from me to give advice to the sage experts who have piloted the GOP to such electoral triumphs.  Nor is it my business to get involved in political strategy for a party that I am not even a member of.

The reason I am interested in this question is that we are starting to hear a similar idea from pro-lifers — a sense that the political mission of our movement has either failed, or reached a final impasse, and that we need to re-direct our energies away from the political and public policy arenas, and focus instead on a more cultural approach to defending and promoting life.

I think this is a fundamental mis-diagnosis of the current state of things in our nation, and it falsely sets up an unnecessary either/or, zero-sum choice.

The current state of the pro-life movement’s political and public policy status depends on where you are standing.  Obviously, things may seem quite bleak in a place like New York City, which is essentially a one-party state dominated by a Democratic party that is almost completely dedicated to hard-line pro-abortion policies.  But that view can be deceptive.  In other areas of New York State, there is a functioning GOP that is at least theoretically supportive of pro-life policies, and there are still some staunch pro-life Democrats around.  The picture here in New York is quite daunting, there’s no doubt about it — but it’s certainly not time to throw in the towel.

Of course, New York is not all of America (it’s not even part of the real world, but that’s another issue).  If you were standing in Oklahoma, Texas, North Dakota, Florida, South Carolina, or many other states, the picture would be much more encouraging.  Many public officials and candidates in those states proudly proclaim their pro-life views, and they have passed common-sense pro-life laws, like parental notification, informed consent, and abortion clinic regulations.  In fact, the public policy and political successes of our movement on the state level have proven to be a consternation to the pro-abortion forces, who continually complain about how many laws we have been able to pass.

At a time when our movement is making progress on the state and local level, it’s no time to declare defeat — or a “truce”.

But it’s more than a mere question of how many bills are passed, or how many candidates are willing to say they’re “pro-life”.  We’re engaged in a battle over our culture, which means that we’re striving to convert the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters.  Our goal is not just to make abortion illegal, but to make it unthinkable.

In this kind of struggle, it would be folly to abandon an entire field of the contest. The real question isn’t “politics or culture”, as if we can only work on one thing at a time.  Our challenge is to get better at transforming both.

We absolutely need to ramp up our efforts to provide assistance to expectant mothers and fathers in crisis — that’s ground zero in the struggle to eliminate abortion.  We definitely need to offer more resources for those who are suffering the aftermath of abortion.  We have to reverse the anti-life, anti-chastity messages of our media, which create a climate of sexual adventurism and a contraceptive mentality.  All these are legitimate areas for the pro-life movement to improve and enhance our work.

But law and politics are part of culture too.  They affect public opinion and shape private actions.  There is a growing body of opinion, especially among young people, that our nation has gone too far on abortion — that it’s a disgrace that 41% of New York City pregnancies end in abortion (the numbers are even worse in the African-American community), that horrifically unsafe abortion clinics are allowed to maim and kill women with impunity, that parents are excluded from their children’s key decisions about abortion and contraception, that handicapped children are routinely aborted, and that women are not being presented with all the choices available to them.

Fewer and fewer people are satisfied with our country having the most liberal abortion laws in the world, and with a political, media and cultural “elite” who are so degraded that they think this is a good thing.

There is a quiet cultural and political revolution on the way.  Our young brethren will lead it.  This is no time to end the struggle over abortion in the public square.

It’s time to stand firm.

Protecting our Pro-Life Brand

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

I am known among my friends and colleagues as a political geek, so I am frequently asked my opinion about particular candidates.  One of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Is he pro-life?”

I think that we pro-lifers really need to start to pay attention to protecting the integrity of our brand name, because it is becoming seriously diluted.

Certainly, lots of politicians will describe themselves as “pro-life”, when it is to their political advantage.  But what does that mean?

If they mean “opposed to stabbing babies in the neck and sucking out their brains” (partial-birth abortion), or “opposed to strangling babies born alive despite the abortion” (the Born-Alive Infant Protection Act), then that’s definitely a “pro-life” position.  If the standard is “won’t force people to pay for or perform abortions against their religious beliefs” (the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act), then that’s a “pro-life” position too.   We could go beyond individual pieces of legislation, and if the candidate “won’t appoint Planned Parenthood or NARAL ideologues to key policy positions”, then that’s a “pro-life” position as well.

So a person’s stand on specific issues, and their track record on particular policy matters, are clearly important — actions speak louder than words.

But the label “pro-life” has to mean more than just “how many boxes can I check off on this list, so that people can be convinced to call me ‘pro-life'”.  If that’s all it is, the term has become meaningless — and we will always be vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and interest groups with malleable principles but the ability to craft clever position papers.

I guess I’m just tired of hearing people describe a candidate as “pro-life” when the best that can be said about him is that he’s “anti-abortion in most cases”, or that he’s just “better than the other guy”.  We should demand more of our politicians, and we should demand more of ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll never get anything more than what we’ve been getting for years — lip service at election time, crumbs from the table afterwards.

Being “pro-life” — as opposed to merely taking “pro-life” positions — has a much broader and deeper meaning.  It involves a recognition of the sacredness of life, its inherent dignity, that views each individual human being as having inestimable value because he or she is made in the image and likeness of God.  It rejects a reductionist or utilitarian view of humanity, where lives are disposable if they are inconvenient, not “useful”, or if they came into being in a way that we disapprove.   It entails a commitment to defending each and every life against abuse, from whatever source.  It calls people to acts of direct service to the poor, the vulnerable, and the frail.  It is an attitude of reverence in the divine presence, seen in every human person.

To get a sense of what our “pro-life brand” really means, people should take a look at the beautiful statement by the U.S. bishops, Living the Gospel of Life.  Certainly, Pope John Paul’s great encyclical The Gospel of Life should also be studied.

The goal of the “pro-life” movement is not just to win elections, pass particular bills, or appoint specific people to courts.  The goal is to transform hearts and minds, so that we can build a Culture of Life and Civilization of Love.

That’s the real definition of our brand, and we should protect it and market it to a culture that desperately needs it, and to people who hunger for it.  The real “pro-life” brand will sell itself, because it speaks to the truths that are already written deep in the human heart.

Controversies and Dinners

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

There is a controversy brewing in Catholic and pro-life circles over reports that the President has been invited to attend the annual Al Smith Dinner here in New York.  In my opinion, people need to take a deep breath, relax a second, and think carefully about this.

It’s important first to understand what the Al Smith Dinner is, and is not, and then what the invitation means, and what it does not.

The Al Smith Dinner is organized and hosted by the Alfred E. Smith Foundation, which is closely affiliated with but independent of the Archdiocese of New York.  It’s named after Governor Al Smith, an iconic figure in New York politics, who dedicated his life to serving the people of the state, particularly the needy.  He was a classic urban machine politician, but was also committed to working with others across party lines when he saw that it was in the public interest.  He was always proud of his Catholic faith and he defended the Church against attacks against religious bigotry.  He was certainly well familiar with anti-Catholicism, since his own faith was brutally attacked during his run for the Presidency in 1928.

The dinner is not a religious event in any way — it’s a civic/political event that raises money for Catholic charitable institutions.  It’s not held at a religious building — it’s at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  It has no religious component aside from a benediction and closing prayer — much like sessions of Congress.  A large proportion of the people who attend the Dinner are not Catholic, and the list of past speakers shows that only once in its almost 70-year history has a religious figure given the keynote address (Cardinal O’Connor).

The dinner has a long tradition of inviting New York elected officials of all parties, and candidates of both major parties for the Presidency.  It is strictly non-partisan, and an invitation to the dinner is in no way an endorsement of any office holder, or any candidate for office.

It’s also important that the politicians who speak at the dinner are not being given any honor or award by the Church, but are rather delivering an address that is one part jocular remarks written by professional jokesters, and two-parts generic political after-dinner bromides.  Any comparison between the Al Smith Dinner and the honorary degree given to the President at Notre Dame’s graduation ceremony is thus completely off-the-mark.

Everybody at the dinner understands this — it’s a civic event, much like a Veteran’s Day parade (but with a fancier menu and white tie).

Some people have been saying that inviting the President in some way undermines or contradicts the Church’s public witness in defense of life and the family.  There is no question that the President’s political agenda and policy record are deplorable from a Catholic perspective — he is consistently anti-life and is ardent in his promotion and support of abortion, he is in favor of re-defining marriage, he opposes parental choice in education, his Administration is a consistent enemy of religious freedom, and there is good reason to believe that he has dealt with our bishops in less than good faith.

Give the consistency and strength with which our bishops — particularly Cardinal Dolan — have been proclaiming the Catholic view of public policy, it is hard to see how this one Dinner could possibly lead anyone to believe that the Church is softening her defense of life, the family, and religious liberty.  When everyone wakes up the morning after, the struggle will resume.

But, as a matter of fact, an invitation to the current incumbent President to the Al Smith Dinner actually sends a message, one that is important in this time of pathologically toxic politics.  It says to us that we can vehemently disagree with a public official’s positions, but we can still show respect for his office, and for him as a person, and treat him with civility.  It gives us an opportunity to act as Christians, and show some love to our adversaries, and even those whose policies we consider to be immoral and oppressive. After all, even St. Peter told us to “honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:17).

The message is also that we can set aside our deeply-held differences and leave the partisan politics at the door for an evening, speak nicely and politely to each other, and work together for a common cause in the service of the poor.  That’s a good thing, something that Al Smith would have been proud to associate himself with, and something that Catholics and pro-lifers should also support.

 

Note:  Some bloggers and other news sources have linked to this blog post, and have said that it is a statement by “the Archdiocese”.  Please read the sidebar to this blog: “The opinions expressed by the Bloggers… are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Archdiocese of New York”.  These comments are not an official statement by the Archdiocese or the Cardinal — they represent my opinions, and mine alone.  Clear?  Okay, fire away — but in a civil way, please.