Zero Tolerance for Abuse

September 22nd, 2017

[I was invited to submit an op-ed to the Catholic News Agency about important remarks the Holy Father made about child protection, stressing that the laity must be held to the same zero tolerance policy as the clergy. The article appeared here and with their permission I’m reposting it here. I should stress that the opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Archdiocese of New York.]

In his September 20 remarks to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis stated the important point that “the Church, at all levels, will respond with the application of the firmest measures to all those who have betrayed their call and abused the children of God.” That reaffirmation of the Church’s commitment to child protection cannot be said too often or too strongly.

The Holy Father then went on to say something new and very significant: “The disciplinary measures that the particular Churches have adopted must apply to all those who work in the institutions of the Church… Therefore, the Church irrevocably and at all levels seeks to apply the principle of ‘zero tolerance’ against the sexual abuse of minors.”

This is an unambiguous call to action. The Church in the United States has been a world leader in child protection, and we have an opportunity now to lead again.

Since its adoption in 2002, the Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People has been the foundation for the Church’s immensely successful efforts to provide a safe environment for children in our institutions and to ensure accountability for the implementation of those efforts. As successful as the Charter has been, however, it has always been missing a very significant piece — on its face, it only applies to cases of misconduct by clergy and not by laypeople.

For example, the term “sexual abuse” is defined in the Charter by reference to a canon law provision that applies only to the clergy. The definition is ambiguous, and fails to provide sufficient guidance about what behaviors are proscribed. This leaves diocesan officials to rely on an ad hoc standard of their own creation or on potentially differing opinions of theologians, civil or canon lawyers, or review board members.

This is not a good practice — “sexual abuse” cannot mean one thing in one diocese and a different thing in another, one thing when it applies to clergy and another when it’s a lay person.

The Charter’s definition of “child pornography” suffers from the same problem. The only guidance in the Charter is a reference to a Vatican document that has an empty and unhelpful definition that is limited to conduct by clerics. An ambiguous standard for this heinous crime isn’t acceptable, and it must apply to laity as well.

In addition, although the Charter discusses procedures for handling cases involving the clergy, it says nothing about how to handle cases about lay persons. And most importantly, while the Charter clearly applies the “zero tolerance” policy of permanently removing an offending priest or deacon, there is no defined penalty for lay persons who have committed an offense.

This is a very significant gap. We must assure everyone that no person, lay or cleric, will be permitted to be with children if they have committed an offense. Failing to do so leaves an erroneous impression that sex abuse is uniquely a problem with the clergy, which ignores all the evidence of the incidence of sex abuse and unfairly stigmatizes our priests and deacons.

This omission could have an impact on the credibility of our child protection programs. The annual audit requires information about background check and training of lay people and detailed information about clergy abuse cases, but no information is gathered about cases involving lay people. Including the laity explicitly under the Charter will ensure a greater level of accountability and trust.

One would expect that every diocese has already adopted policies that cover lay people as well as clergy. We certainly have in the Archdiocese of New York. But local policies don’t send a strong enough message. The Charter is the public expression of the United States Church’s full commitment to child protection. It is imperative that we make absolutely clear that the same rigorous standards apply to all who work with children, across our entire nation.

This is not hard to do. Clear and usable definitions of “sexual abuse” and “child pornography” can be developed that unambiguously cover laypeople. We can draw on the vast experience reflected in state and federal law, which define numerous sexual offenses with great detail and specificity. Uniform disciplinary procedures for handling lay cases do not have to be developed at the national level, since those will be shaped by local personnel policies and laws. Nor do we have to worry about inconsistency with canon law, since that only applies to clergy cases.

It can also be stated plainly that all allegations will be immediately reported to law enforcement and full cooperation will be given to the authorities. All dioceses probably already do this — in the Archdiocese of New York we have strong protocols for cooperation with law enforcement. But again, a strong statement in the Charter will demonstrate our commitment across the nation.

Most important, after the Holy Father’s mandate, it is vital that the “zero tolerance” policy clearly applies to the laity. There can be no room for doubt about that.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been working on a revision of the Charter, and it has not yet been finalized. The Holy Father’s timely call to action now gives the Church a great opportunity to be proactive and ensure that our rigorous policies apply equally to all who work with our children.

The Costs of Political Ignorance

September 15th, 2017

September 17 is the 230th anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution. That document, in addition to being our governing text, is one of the greatest accomplishment of political and legal thinking and writing. Its endurance through such a long and troubled history, and its significance as a model for other nations that yearn to have ordered liberty, cannot be underestimated. For good reason, it has been called America’s sacred text, a secular Bible of sorts, the centerpiece of our civic religion.

So why are so many Americans so ignorant about the Constitution?

A study recently published by the Annenberg Center yielded appalling results when Americans were asked about the provisions of the Constitution. Some of the findings about constitutional rights:

  • 37% couldn’t name a single one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Of those who could identify some First Amendment rights, only 15% named freedom of religion, 14% freedom of the press, 10% right to assemble, and 3% right to petition the government.
  • On the slightly brighter side, 48% could identify freedom of speech.

When it came to the structure of our government, things weren’t much better:

  • Only 26% could name all three branches of government.
  • 33% could not name a single one of the three branches.
  • 27% could only name one branch.

These results confirm what political scientists have long known — the great majority of people lack basic knowledge about how our government works and what it does. For example, the Pew Center periodically surveys people about current events, and the results are regularly dismal. Less than half of Americans can identify significant public officials and even fewer know important facts, like the approximate unemployment rate or that the government spends more on Social Security than foreign aid or that only about 13% of Americans are foreign-born.

This is a grave problem. It is true that a great deal of political ignorance is normal and rational — most political issues have little direct relevance to or impact on people’s lives. Yet the health of democracy depends on people knowing a certain amount of basic, common information if we are going to have anything like a rational public discourse.

The dangers of this political ignorance can be seen all around us. The tribalistic nature of modern partisanship is a clear example. More and more, people can be easily manipulated by demagogues or misled by propaganda that appeal to emotion rather than fact-based reason. Studies are showing that people with less political knowledge are easily swayed by changing positions of their party or leaders, instead of holding them accountable for breaking promises or betraying key principles. The scourge of racism and xenophobia is a direct result of political ignorance. In a society that inundates us with information, ignorance prevents us from sifting the wheat from the chaff.

There is a basic civic duty to be an informed citizen. It is bizarre to me that we require all applicants for citizenship to pass a civics test, but anyone can vote regardless of how much they know or care. For goodness sake, we require more knowledge to get a driver’s license than we do from voters. That civics test is really not that hard ( you can try a sample test here). Is it really too much to ask that people pass the test in order to qualify to vote?

Political ignorance is also a very big deal for us Catholics. Ignorance about constitutional rights is dangerous at a time when our religious liberty is under pressure. Anti-Catholic bigotry flares up regularly, fueled by the stereotypes that come from ignorance.

We also have a very grave moral duty as Catholics to become well-informed citizens and voters. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it very strongly:

414. Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable.

Unfortunately, what is “unthinkable” is all too common in our nation. The cost of this ignorance is the debased politics that is so dispiriting to watch. On this anniversary of our Constitution, it would be a good time to be highly resolved that “we the people” will remedy this and become well-informed, morally-responsible citizens and voters.

A Great Victory for Life

September 7th, 2017

The New York State Court of Appeals has unanimously upheld our state ban on assisted suicide. The decision is a tremendous victory for life, and will strengthen our efforts to hold off legislation that seeks to legalize assisted suicide.

The lawsuit involved was filed by persons who had terminal illnesses and several doctors. They argued that they had a fundamental right under our state constitution to what they euphemistically call “aid-in-dying”. They also argued that it violated equal protection to allow patients to decline life-sustaining treatment but deny assistance to others who wish to commit suicide. Their arguments were supported by many organizations that filed amicus curiae briefs, including groups of doctors and law professors, as well as the New York Civil Liberties Union.

The Attorney General of New York opposed the lawsuit very ably. The New York State Catholic Conference filed amicus curiae briefs in opposition, written by myself and my colleague Alexis Carra. Several other amicus briefs were filed on our side, by Catholic and Christian doctors, our allies in Not Dead Yet (a leading disability rights group), and Agudath Israel.

The case was very well argued on both sides, both at oral arguments and in the briefs. The lower courts all rejected the plaintiff’s arguments in opinions that were very thoughtful and well done. But in the end, it was all up to the Court of Appeals, the highest court in our state and the final authority on our New York State Constitution.

Thanks be to God, the Court categorically rejected all of the plaintiffs’ arguments. With strong opinions — the unanimous opinion of all five judges and several concurrences — the Court firmly rejected the absurd notion that “aid-in-dying” was somehow excluded from the current definition of suicide. They also followed the United States Supreme Court’s holding in the 1995 Quill v. Vacco case that neither the Due Process Clause nor the Equal Protection Clause supported the creation of a fundamental right to assisted suicide.

Most significantly, the Court strongly upheld the strong and unequivocal state interest in prohibiting assisted suicide. The various opinions cited major concerns that were raised by our side, including the risk of expanding assisted suicide to voluntary or even involuntary euthanasia, the stigmatization of disabled persons, the degradation of the medical profession, the need to protect vulnerable populations, and the risk of abuse and misuse of medications. These opinions will be of great assistance to us in opposing further efforts to legalize assisted suicide in the Legislature.

It’s easy sometimes for pro-lifers to get discouraged, especially in a state like New York where the deck seems stacked against us. Victories are few and far between, and defeats are all too common. This lawsuit was the most significant battle that we have had in the pro-life cause in New York in the last twenty-plus years.

God has been good to his people of New York by granting us a victory in this case. We can legitimately say, with Psalm 98, “O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory!”

Betraying the Dream

September 5th, 2017

The President has announced that his Administration will end the program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. This was put into effect in 2012 by President Obama. The recipients of DACA are frequently called “dreamers” after the Dream Act, a bill that would have established the program by statute, but which has failed to pass Congress.

There is a great deal of controversy about the way President Obama created the program. Naturalization of citizens is under the exclusive authority of Congress according to the Constitution, so many allege that unilaterally creating DACA by executive order was an unauthorized exercise of Executive power. Others respond that the President has inherent authority under the Constitution to use his discretion in how to enforce the law. Regardless of the merits of these arguments, President Trump has rendered them moot, and it is now up to Congress to act or the dreamers will be betrayed.

The DACA program is widely misunderstood — it’s not an “amnesty” by any means, it doesn’t create “open borders”, it doesn’t deny that the US has a right to enforce our immigration laws, and it doesn’t mean that people should be rewarded for breaking the law.

The requirements for DACA are quite strict. They have to have arrived in the US before 2007 when they were under 16 years old and they can’t be older than 30 as of 2012. They have to have lived continuously in the US since 2007. They can’t have any criminal convictions or pose a threat to national security. They have to have graduated from a US high school or be enrolled in school now, or served in the armed forces. If they qualify, they receive a “deferred action” form that prevents their deportation for two years, and they also receive employment authorization documents that allow employers to hire them legally during that time. It’s estimated that about 1.3 million people would be eligible for DACA, but about 800,000 people actually have it, including about 42,000 New Yorkers.

Under the President’s decision, there will be no change in DACA for six months, but after that the deferred action permits will expire at the end of their term. This six-month delay will allow approximately one-quarter of all DACA recipients to renew their permits for another two years. The rest will have their permits expire, all will expire by early 2020, unless Congress acts.

I wonder if would be possible for a moment to talk about this issue as if it actually involved real, live human beings, and not just numbers on a spreadsheet or slogans on talk radio.

The average age of DACA recipients when they arrived in the US was 6.5 years old. Many arrived as infants. That means that a great number of DACA recipients don’t even remember what their homeland was like and they haven’t been able even to visit there. Many of them didn’t even know their illegal status until they were teenagers and found out that they couldn’t get a driver’s license, financial aid, or have a Social Security number so they could work on the books.

This is the only home they’ve known. All their friends and memories are here in the US. They’ve gone to school and worked with us and our children. They sit in the same church pews that we do. A quarter of them have children who are American citizens. Many have now been able to work on the books, and their income has risen as much as 80% — and they’re now paying taxes. Some have started their own business and bought a home. Hundreds have served honorably in our armed forces. They’ve put down roots among us. They are our neighbors.

Deporting DACA recipients makes no sense — in fact, it would be cruel. It would subject them to terrible poverty and oppression in nations they are unfamiliar with and may not even speak the language. It would take parents away from their young children, leaving them without a stable home life. Imagine being deported to Pakistan or Venezuela — you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. But our government will be doing it to people who have served in our military. Wrap your brain around that one if you can.

DACA recipients aren’t criminals, and don’t deserve to be treated so inhumanely. These are people who want to be Americans and share the prosperity and freedom that we hold up as ideals and take for granted — and which they’ve experienced for most of their lives. To pull the rug out from under them would be, in the words of the President of the US Bishops, nothing short of reprehensible. Our nation is better than that

Liberated by the Truth

September 1st, 2017

I recently was asked to give a class on gender ideology. I’ve written about this many times before, but I was once again struck by how nonsensical gender theory is. It is a soup of very strange ideas — my biological sex is irrelevant to my self-determined “gender identity”, the “male/female binary” is oppressive and must be eliminated, there are an infinite number of possible genders, and everyone’s choice of gender identity must be accepted and affirmed by the government and other people.

Gender ideology is a symptom of a significant modern intellectual disorder — a rejection of objective truth. This is so severe that it affects not just theories of sexuality, but it infects our political dialogue and is a serious problem within the Church. The need to hold firm to the truth is more important now than ever. Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, wrote in the 17th Century something that so clearly applies to our own age:

Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.

Two recent news items exemplify what happens if we aren’t fully dedicated to seeking the truth.

This week, a group of Evangelicals issued a document called “The Nashville Statement”. It is a re-statement of very basic Biblical values about marriage, sexuality, homosexuality, and gender theory. It re-affirms that God’s basic plan for humanity is that we are male and female, that sexuality is designed to be expresses solely within a marriage between a man and a woman, and that homosexuality and transgenderism are not consistent with God’s plan. The Statement was nothing earth-shattering, in that it was really just a brief summary of Christian Morality 101 as the Church has always believed, just applied to the hot issues of the day. All orthodox Christians — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — should have little difficulty assenting to it.

Of course, nothing in Christian Morality 101 is uncontroversial in this age. Many liberal Protestants and some Catholics denounced the statement as judgmental and un-Christlike, and claimed that its tone is antithetical to the need for dialogue and inclusiveness. One even called it “evil”. A satirical religious website aptly skewered the flap with a story entitled “Progressives Appalled As Christians Affirm Doctrine Held Unanimously For 2,000 Years”. This is what happens when the truths that have been handed down to us become optional.

The second news item was a wonderful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by Cardinal Robert Sarah. It was titled “How Catholics Can Welcome LGBT Believers” (the article is unfortunately behind a paywall, but you can read a decent account of it here and here). If a piece with that title had appeared in the New York Times, written by any of the usual suspects, it would have said all of the tediously usual things — dialogue, acceptance, affirmation, a rejection of allegedly “hurtful” statements in the Catechism, bridge-building, etc., etc. The notions of sin, immorality, repentance, and conversion would have been conspicuously absent.

But Cardinal Sarah’s op-ed offered a refreshingly different approach. His theme was that God loves all of us and wants us to be happy. The most loving thing that we can do for our “LGBT” brethren is to present them with the full and unalloyed teaching of the Church and to encourage them to live lives of chastity. He also stated plainly what the Church has known forever, namely that sin is bad for us but living according to God’s will brings us fulfilment and joy.

In other words, the truth is the best medicine for what ails all of us, including homosexuals and transgenders. Our disordered desires lead us to the slavery of sin rather than the liberation that comes from a life in Christ. And the desire to act against God’s will is not, and cannot be, a gift — it is a curse.

This is the reason that we are so insistent on defending our religious liberty and freedom of speech against all threats. We are seeing bills that would impose criminal penalties on those who fail to use a transgender person’s favored pronouns, school policies that restrict students’ ability to speak about their faith, and laws that seek to punish businesses that don’t want to participate in same-sex “marriages”. We have to resist such measures, so that we can share the truths that will allow people to live according to God’s will and to be set free to a life of joy.

Both the Nashville Statement and Cardinal Sarah make a crucial point. Living a life of chastity is undoubtedly difficult, especially since we will have to act against some deeply-ingrained inclinations and desires. But the grace of God is sufficient for us in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). It offers us forgiveness and healing and will enable us to live in accord with His holy will.

God’s grace helps us to love and know the truth.  Which, we have on good authority, is what will set us free.

Don’t Dishonor Columbus

August 24th, 2017

The movement to remove some public historical monuments has gained considerable momentum after the tragic events in Charlotteville.

I am sympathetic to the removal of statues to Confederate leaders. These men fought for an evil and ignoble cause and their statues were for the most part erected to reinforce a wicked regime of white supremacy during the Jim Crow era. Calling attention to this, and cleansing the public square of these monuments, may help to reinforce the rejection of racism that our society clearly needs.

But the “progressives” in our nation have begun to turn their iconoclastic attention to other historical monuments, and in this they are not on such solid ground. In particular, by targeting Christopher Columbus, they have gone too far and have shown a deplorable lack of moral and historical sense. To dishonor Columbus would be a crime against our history.

Modern progressive ideology holds Columbus responsible for all that went wrong after the discovery of the New World. Those effects are undeniable and Columbus was certainly implicated in conduct that by modern standards are unacceptable (but which is also grossly exaggerated). Historians disagree about the extent of his involvement in that conduct, and we should leave it to them and their researches to provide the basic facts.

But on the moral level, the legacy and conduct of Columbus deserve great respect and honor. To understand Columbus, we have to appreciate the completely Christian mind with which he — along with all of his contemporaries — viewed the world. The modern mind cannot understand the centrality of faith to a man such as Columbus, a deeply devout Christian of the late Medieval era. His faith affected every part of his view of the world, and was the most significant motivation for all that he did. To him, the liberation of Jerusalem the Holy City of God and the conversion of non-believers to offer them salvation were moral imperatives of the highest order. In his view, the occupation of the Holy Land by Muslims and the fall of Constantinople were not just political and military matters, but were catastrophes that had apocalyptic significance and demanded a response by Christians.

Columbus’s nautical ventures were not purely commercial in nature, as our narrow modern economic obsession would view it. Nor was he bent on conquest and oppression, or seeking to discover a new continent, or to prove that the world was round, as our contemporary historical ignorance would suggest. It was never Columbus’s intention to spread disease or to commit genocide. Unlike Confederate generals, it was never a fundamental part of his mission to enslave anyone. To allege otherwise is to commit a vicious and ignorant historical slander.

Columbus’s mission always and at its heart was motivated by his deep Christian religious beliefs. To understand this we can just look to Columbus’ own diary, in which he explained that he sought the journey in hope that he would find enough gold and spices to finance a crusade to liberate the Holy Sepulcher, and he urged the King and Queen of Spain “to spend all the profits of my enterprise on the conquest of Jerusalem”.

His faith and trust in God was what led him to his great adventure. This is what gave him the courage never to give up on his goal, despite all the personal hardships and disappointments he suffered. He was impelled always by what he saw as God’s holy will for him, his part in the mission to bring the Gospel to the whole world, his role in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

It is clear that Columbus did not foresee the negative consequences of his journeys. But who among us can see all the results of our actions? How was he to know that the natives of the Americas would be vulnerable to European diseases (and vice versa) or that the new colonists would act as monsters? It’s also important to recall that we can say with absolute certainty that there have been enormous good consequences of Columbus’s intrepid journeys. The opening of a whole new world has offered people an abundance of material blessings and has spread the Gospel, offering the hope of salvation to billions of people. This cannot be discounted in our evaluation of Columbus. Indeed, it should be given the tremendous weight that it deserves.

It is certainly ironic to see Columbus denounced as a killer by people whose evil acts are so obvious that all can see them — particularly the remorseless killing of African American and handicapped babies in the womb, which is ardently defended and supported by so-called “progressives”. One can only hope that history — and God — will judge them with more mercy and fairness than they are judging Columbus.

Christopher Columbus was not perfect. The values of his time were not as “enlightened” or “liberal” as ours. But he was undoubtedly one of the great men of history. Even to consider removing a statue honoring Columbus would be an act of historical sacrilege, a denial of the very roots of our society, and a crime against our heritage.

Calling Out the Real Evil

August 14th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuclear War Never Again

August 10th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers warned:

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

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

Dangerous Signs of the Times

August 3rd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way of Beauty

July 26th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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