Light a Candle for Freedom

December 18th, 2015

The wonderful Jewish holiday of Hanukkah ended the other day, and in honor of the event, I went back and re-read the Books of Maccabees.  They are a fascinating and sobering read — full of heroism and bloodshed, honor and sacrifice.  They also are an important reminder of the need for people of faith to stand strong for our freedom to worship God as he commands, and not as the powers of this world wish to dictate.

The story is fairly straightforward.  In the Second Century BC, the Greek kings of the Middle East, for a variety of reasons, decided to suppress the religious practices of the Jews.  They used various measures.  The mildest was to induce them to adopt Greek ways of living.  The most serious was to blaspheme the Temple in Jerusalem by desecrating the altar of sacrifice, and erecting a statue to one of their pagan false gods.  This led to warfare, suppression, and gruesome torture.

Throughout it all, a strong body of the faithful remained firm, and resisted.  They ultimately were successful, and rededicated the Temple to the worship of the One True God.  The great event is remembered still today, by the lighting of eight candles to honor the eight days of the ritual purification of the Temple — the holiday of Hanukkah.

This commemoration should remind us of the importance of fidelity to our faith, and the need to be willing to sacrifice and even suffer for it.  It is a lesson that is being demonstrated in our midst by the Christians who are being brutally persecuted around the world, especially in the Middle East.

The suffering of our Christian brethren can barely be imagined by those of us in the comfortable West.  The facts are clear and available to anyone who wishes to see them.  Unfortunately, far too many people prefer to avert their eyes, or even to pretend that it is not happening.  Even our government, which bears some considerable responsibility for creating the conditions that led to the persecution, refuses to call it by its real name — genocide.

At this time, it is incumbent on us all to rally with our Christian brethren.  We must speak out and make sure that this crisis is an important part of the conversation during this election year.  We should press our government to provide direct material aid to Christian refugees, including allowing them to come into the safety of our nation.  We should give generously to organizations like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Aid to the Church in Need, that give material support to those who are suffering.  And we need to pray without ceasing for the rescue of those who are persecuted, and for the conversion of their persecutors.

Like our Jewish friends, we should light a candle to remember the need to defend our faith.  According to the ancient Hanukkah tradition, there wasn’t enough oil to light the original candles.  But a miracle occurred, and there was enough oil for all eight days of light.  There’s a lesson for us there — if we have faith, and remain steadfast with our God, He will provide all that we need.

On the Move

December 18th, 2015

This blog is moving to a new address, on the main Archdiocese website:

Comments on the new blog site are not yet enabled, so if you want to post a comment, send it to me by email ( and I’ll figure out some way to post it.

Lawless and Arrogant Judges

December 2nd, 2015

I frequently refer to judges as our “Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Rulers on the Courts” because of the consistent record of the modern judiciary to invent new laws based on their own policy preferences.  They often run roughshod over the proper role of courts in a constitutional republic, and particularly over traditional moral values that have been enshrined in law and culture since time immemorial.

They have arrogated to themselves the ultimate authority to decide the laws of our nation, and are unaccountable to anyone for the decisions that they make.  All one needs to do is look at the arrogant and imperious decisions in abortion cases (particularly Planned Parenthood v. Casey) and the redefinition of marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges) for all the evidence you need to see what I’m referring to.

Usually, judges are careful not to let on about what they’re up to.  Very few will actually admit to making momentous decisions based on their own preferences, or to disregarding the plain text and meaning of the Constitution when it stands in the way.  This is part of an implicit social contract in our legal and political establishment — everyone knows what is going on, but few will pull back the curtain.

But every so often, the mask slips.  Take the case of Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.  Judge Posner is one of the most respected jurists of our generation, a brilliant scholar of law and economics and a public intellectual who has written on a wide range of issues.

He is also an astonishingly arrogant Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Ruler on the Courts.  In two recent public statements (on in the Yale Journal and the other in a speech at Loyola Law School), Judge Posner made some breathtaking statements about his view of the Constitution, the role of judges, and how he makes judicial decisions.  Consider:

I’m not particularly interested in the 18th Century, nor am I particularly interested in the text of the Constitution. I don’t believe that any document drafted in the 18th century can guide our behavior today. Because the people in the 18th century could not foresee any of the problems of the 21st century.

And again,

Federal constitutional law is the most amorphous body of American law because most of the Constitution is very old, cryptic, or vague. The notion that the twenty-first century can be ruled by documents authored in the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries is nonsense.

This, from a judge whose position was created in that very same Constitution in order to decide cases and controversies that arise pursuant to that very same Constitution, and who swore to faithfully discharge his duties under the very same Constitution.

Not that this seems to matter much to Judge Posner.  When asked about his oath of office, this is what he had to say:

The oath is not really to the original constitution, or to the constitution as amended. It is to some body of law created by the Supreme Court. You can forget about the oath. That is not of significance.

When solemn oaths are deemed insignificant, one can only wonder what kind of justice is meted out in his courtroom.  Actually, we don’t have to guess, because Judge Posner has made it clear:

My approach with judging cases is not to worry initially about doctrine, precedent, and all that stuff, but instead, try to figure out, what is a sensible solution to this problem, and then having found what I think is a sensible solution, without worrying about doctrinal details, I ask “is this blocked by some kind of authoritative precedent of the Supreme Court”? If it is not blocked, I say fine, let’s go with the common sense, sensical solution.

In other words, law with the law left out, nothing more than ad hoc seat-of-the-pants rulings based on his idiosyncratic view of what is common sense on any particular day.  Of course, this should really come as no surprise from a man who has expressed his great admiration for the Friedrich Nietzsche, the moral nihilist and apologist for the powerful dominating the weak.

This kind of cynicism, unfortunately, is the mindset of far too many lawyers and judges in the United States.  When I was at Harvard Law School, the professors openly told us that there was no objective moral content to the law, but that it was just a vehicle for powerful people enacting their political preferences.

A nation ruled by such people is no longer a functioning democracy or republic.   It is a despotic judicial oligarchy.

What’s Going On?

November 29th, 2015

I was born at the tail end of the 1950’s, and grew up in a completely white Irish and Italian neighborhood. There were no blacks in my elementary school, or on any of the sports teams I played on. I didn’t personally meet a single African-American until I went to high school. My parents watched the news every night, so I saw the cities burning in the summer riots. But beyond some vague fears of race riots in New York, it really didn’t mean much to me.

My introduction to racial reality came when I went to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.  I met African-American boys and girls for the first time, but it didn’t really strike me in any way, because I thought they were just like me.  But one day, my freshman religion teacher, Mrs. Mary Doyle, showed us a film of some of the civil rights marches in the South. I was appalled to see the police using fire hoses and setting dogs on the marchers. One of the wise guys in the class made a smart remark, probably something racist.  I was shocked, and can vividly remember to this day, watching Mrs. Doyle become so upset at the boy’s callousness that she started to cry.

That was the first time I realized that something was going on with race in America, but I didn’t really have a clue what it was.

During the rest of my high school and college times, I came to know a number of African-Americans personally. But I never became friends with any of them. I was unknowingly living a segregated life.

In 1981 I went to law school, but I followed at a distance the ugly fight over housing and school desegregation in my home town of Yonkers. I read the news stories, and even saw video of some of the public meetings, and was disgusted by the open racism that was being expressed.  Yet it still did not have a real impact on my life.  I still knew very few African-Americans, I had no idea what life was like in their neighborhoods and families.  I was still living a segregated life.

After law school, I became a prosecutor in Manhattan.  For the first few years, I worked on street crime cases — thefts, assaults, robberies, and the like.  Interacting with the victims, witnesses, and defendants, the majority of whom were all African-American, gave me a new view of life in New York City.  It introduced me to life in the African-American neighborhoods, which were inundated with drugs and crime and poverty and hardship.   But I really still didn’t understand, and I was still living a segregated life.

I tend to be politically conservative, and so are most of my friends and associates.  It is commonplace in conservative circles to dismiss claims of racism, or to minimize the lingering effects of racism.  Conservatives tend to have great faith in personal responsibility and initiative, and at times there is a distinct aroma of judgmentalism directed towards poor people, as if it is all their fault for remaining in poor and disadvantaged areas.  There also tends to be an emphasis on the social pathologies that afflict African-American communities — the breakdown of the family, poor schools, and so on.  All of this may have some truth to it, but is has never satisfied me as a good answer to what’s really going on.

We are now in a time where racial tensions are at the highest that I can recall.  The reality is that there are many, many people in the African-American communities, people of good will, who believe that there is systemic racism in America. It does nobody any good to deny this or to explain it away as a mis-perception, or a politically-motivated stunt.  It is a cliche to say that we need to have a “national conversation” about race, but it is also true.  But this has to begin by having personal conversations, to develop a better understanding of how we really live, so that we can begin to address the problem.

I still live a segregated life.  None of my close friends are African-American.  A handful of my neighbors are African-American, but aside from nodding “hello” to them in the street, I don’t interact with them at all.  With only two exceptions, none of my close co-workers is African-American.

Pope Francis consistently talks about the need to reach out to those on the periphery of society.  But I think I’m the one who is on the periphery when it comes to race in our nation.

Because there’s a serious problem with what’s going on.  And I still don’t understand.

Dissent and Heroic Witness

November 24th, 2015

I had the honor the other day of attending a luncheon hosted by Alliance Defending Freedom.  They are one of the leading public interest law firms in the nation, dedicated to promoting and protecting life, marriage, and religious liberty.  The purpose of the event was to highlight several people who have been suffering legal attacks, as a result of their public witness to their faith principles regarding human life and marriage.

These kinds of events are very important.  It’s all too easy to deal with issues of religious liberty as abstractions, or as arcane constitutional law questions.  That drains the life out of the issue, and prevents us from seeing what is really at stake.  This panel provided a powerful reminder that religious liberty is a real-world issue, with real people suffering from real effects on their lives, careers, and businesses.

It can also be a story of real heroism, as exemplified by the people on this panel, all of whom have been defended by ADF:

  • Baronelle Stutzman, who faces the loss of her florist business, her home, and her life savings, all because she declined to provide flower arrangements for a same-sex “marriage”.  The State of Washington and the ACLU have been hounding her, and she faces crippling fines and legal fees.  She also was the target of a deluge of hate calls, threats, and disruptions of her business. She described the ideology of her persecutors in stark terms: “If you don’t bow down to an agenda, you will be destroyed”.  Yet she stands firm.
  • Kelvin Cochran, who is pretty much everything you would want as an example of the American dream.  An African-American from Louisiana, he grew up in dire poverty in a single-parent household, yet he was taught to rely on faith, patriotism, and hard work.  He became a fire-fighter, and rose rapidly through the ranks to become Fire Chief of Shreveport, and then of Atlanta.  He was even hired by President Obama to head the U.S. Fire Administration, before returning to Atlanta again.  In 2014, he was summarily suspended from his job and ordered to undergo “sensitivity training”.  His offense?  Publishing a book expressing his belief in the Biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality.  Despite never having engaged in any discrimination — and having been a leader in fighting for equal opportunities — his career was ruined because he dared to speak out for his faith.
  • Cathy DeCarlo, an immigrant from the Philippines who is a dedicated nurse from New York.  She was coerced by her hospital employer into participating in a 22-week abortion, despite her objections due to her faith.  She was threatened with being fired and having her nurse’s license revoked.  As a result, she literally lived through a nightmare — having to witness the brutal dismemberment of a baby, being forced to inspect and dispose of the child’s remains, and then reliving the horror in her memory and dreams.  She sought legal recourse against the hospital, only to learn that neither state nor federal law gave her the right to sue for this egregious violation of her rights.  Her words:  “How could this happen in America?”
  • Blaine Adamson, a small businessman from Kentucky.  His T-Shirt company specialized in servicing Christian organizations, and was very careful not to get involved in printing any messages that were contrary to his faith.  So when the local gay and lesbian organization tried to place an order, he referred them to another printer.  So began his descent in to the Kafkaesque world of “human rights” commissions.  He was found guilty of discrimination, ordered to print the T-shirts, and required to consult with the government any time he thought about turning down a job because of the message.  Even worse, he had to undergo “diversity training”, an Orwellian concept that is designed to use the muscle of the government to force him to admit that his ideas — his faith — is wrong and must be rejected.  He too remains firm:  “If no one stands up and says something, they win.”
  • Jeanne Mancini, the President of the March for Life, which is the largest annual human rights event in the entire world, dedicated to defending life from the moment of conception.  Her organization ran afoul of the evil HHS Mandate, which would have required them to provide health insurance and pay for drugs and devices that cause abortions — directly contrary to their mission.  Because the March for Life is not a religious organization, she had no alternative but to sue in order to defend her rights.  At the heart of their case is a simple principle — the right to life isn’t just a religious issue, it’s a human right.  So, as she said, “We couldn’t not fight it”.

These admirable people are on the receiving end of the new intolerance, the message of which is stark — “conform to the orthodoxy of sexual liberationism, or be crushed”.  This attitude is a danger to everyone, not just those who have the audacity to dissent.  As Alan Sears, the admirable head of ADF, said (quoting Martin Luther King): “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Pope Francis, on his return flight after visiting the United States, said very clearly:

I can say conscientious objection is a right, and enters into every human right. It is a right, and if a person does now allow for conscientious objection, he or she is denying a right. Every legal system should provide for conscientious objection because it is a right, a human right.

Very few people are standing up to defend this basic human right.  ADF is doing so, the Holy Father is doing so.  And we all need to do so.


The Absurdity and Danger of Gender Theory

November 4th, 2015

Recent news has once again brought to the forefront the issue of “transgender” people.

This phenomenon is based on something called “gender theory”. The whole idea of “gender theory” is, in my opinion, so patently absurd that it is actually hard for me to accept that anyone could possibly believe it. The theory is that “gender” is not determined by one’s biological sex, but is a separate matter that is defined according to the subjective desires of an individual. To them, one’s biological sex is a matter that is “assigned” at birth, and has no intrinsic connection with one’s sexual identity.

This is an echo of an ancient philosophical, scientific and anthropological error of dualism, which separates the body from one’s mind or soul. It rests on the proposition that one’s real essence is separate from, and merely resides in a physical shell, which can thus be used or manipulated however one wants.  This denies the integrity of mind and body, and soul and body, and makes a person’s identity something that can be determined independent of biological reality. This error — which was also an ancient Christian heresy of Gnosticism — continues to pop up in different forms, and the latest is “gender theory”.

It is a dehumanizing point of view, because it denies the logical and scientifically clear understanding that biological sexual difference is essential to human nature. Sexual difference has enormous significance for our biochemistry, physical structure (not just our reproductive system, our brains too), behavior, and psychology.  This is also at the heart of Christian anthropology, which recognizes the inherent complementarity of the sexes, and their dignity as creatures made in the image of God.

This is a critical matter in our modern world, and not just because of arguments about who can use which bathroom. It goes directly to the very heart of human nature, and errors about that key question can have disastrous effects on morals and on society.  The separation of mind from body inevitably leads to the misuse of the body, and even of nature in general.

Several years ago, Pope Benedict addressed this point definitively in his annual address to the Curia — what you might call his “State of the Church and the World Address”. His comments are worth quoting at length (my emphasis is added in bold):

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

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

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

Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. Man and woman in their created state as complementary versions of what it means to be human are disputed.

But if there is no pre-ordained duality of man and woman in creation, then neither is the family any longer a reality established by creation. Likewise, the child has lost the place he had occupied hitherto and the dignity pertaining to him. Bernheim shows that now, perforce, from being a subject of rights, the child has become an object to which people have a right and which they have a right to obtain. When the freedom to be creative becomes the freedom to create oneself, then necessarily the Maker himself is denied and ultimately man too is stripped of his dignity as a creature of God, as the image of God at the core of his being. The defence of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.

The Holy Father got right to the center of the question — the debate is, at its heart, about the nature of the human person. It is in the end a question about “who created me”. The modernist approach is to create myself in my own image and likeness, making myself into my own little god, answerable to no objective or higher truth.

We’re already at least fifty years into a society-wide experiment that denies the true purpose of sexuality, and we are now moving into an unknown territory with the denial of the nature of the human person.  We’ve seen the destructive results of this experiment all around us, and can only wonder about where “gender theory” will lead us and our descendants.


October 29th, 2015

I’ve just finished reading Fr. Walter Ciszec’s amazing account of his years as a prisoner in the Soviet Union, With God in Russia.

For those who are not familiar with the story, Fr. Ciszek was a Jesuit, and was sent into Poland in the late 1930’s, with a dream of someday ministering to Catholics in Russia.  After Russia conquered the eastern part of Poland, he went into the Soviet Union to begin fulfilling his dream.  Unfortunately, after a short while, he was arrested as a spy, and then spent the next fifteen years in captivity first in the notorious Lubyanka prison, then in the labor camps of the Gulag.  He was tortured, harassed, forbidden to communicate with his family for twenty years, subjected to harsh punishments, and treated as a slave at hard labor.

But throughout it all, Fr. Ciszek never lost his faith and his trust in the Providence of God’s holy will.  Every chance he got, he celebrated Mass, heard confessions, baptized, married, and counseled the people he lived with — and was frequently punished by the Communists for doing so.  His story is a profound testament to faith, and I strongly urge people to read both With God in Russia and his magnificent spiritual memoir, He Leadeth Me. 

Throughout his memoir, Fr. Ciszek repeatedly writes about hunger.  Food was very scarce in the prison and the Gulag, and even after he was released, in the Siberian towns where he was living.  The prisoners constantly thought about food, schemed to get food, and even fought over food.  Deep physical hunger was a daily reality for these men, and it was rarely, if ever, fully satisfied.

But Fr. Ciszek also encountered another hunger — for the sacraments, for Mass, and especially for the Eucharist.  Religious practices were systematically suppressed in Soviet Russia, and the people rarely had the chance to worship and receive the sacraments.  At one point, Fr. Ciszek wasn’t able to celebrate Mass for over five years, until he finally encountered another priest in the Gulag:

… he asked me if I wanted to say Mass.  I was overwhelmed! … my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described… I heard confessions regularly and, from time to time, was even able to distribute Communion secretly after I’d said Mass.  The experience gave me new strength.  I could function as a priest again, and I thanked God daily for the opportunity to work among this hidden flock, consoling and comforting men who had thought themselves beyond His grace.

I was reading this during the Synod of Bishops, which was meeting to discuss the challenges and pastoral needs of families.  Here in America, the awful media coverage of the Synod was dominated by their obsession with two issues — whether divorced people who enter into a civil marriage can receive Communion, and how to include homosexual people in the life of the Church.

Considering these issues, I couldn’t help but think of Fr. Ciszek’s experience of hunger that so rarely was satisfied.  These issues present hard questions, because they must be confronted within the very clear and unchangeable moral teaching of the Church and of Christ himself that all sexual activity outside of a valid marriage is immoral (see Mt 5:32, and Mk 7:20-23).

Yet they must be confronted.  There is a sizable number of people who hunger for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.  Many of them have been led to believe that they may even be beyond God’s grace.   Too often, I take my daily access to Confession and Communion for granted, and can’t conceive of the hunger that must be in my brothers’ and sisters’ hearts.  I hope and pray that our bishops and the Holy Father can find an answer.

I think of the story of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4).  Jesus confronted her plainly but gently with the fact that she was living in an immoral relationship, with a man who was not her true husband.  And he spoke to her of the living water and the true food that all of us desire — His own body and blood.  This is a powerful story of Christ’s willingness to encounter and accompany the Samaritan woman — an outcast in the eyes of the Jews — while at the same time calling her to transform her life in accordance with God’s will.

There are no easy answers.  Chastity is a virtue that all must live, but it is very hard for many of us.  And the hunger in our hearts continually yearns to be satisfied.

Confidence, Generosity, and Docility

October 18th, 2015

Millions of pixels have been spread throughout the Internet, as bloggers, columnists, advocates, journalists, and cranks have speculated, fretted, and warned about the ongoing Synod of Bishops in Rome. Called to give advice to the Holy Father about the pastoral care of the family, the Synod has become something of a Rorschach test.  Catholic media has covered it as a political event like a session of Congress.  Pretty much every agenda and conspiracy theory has been projected onto the proceedings, and pretty much everybody, from the most obscure bishop to the Holy Father, has been the subject of long-distance psychoanalysis and mind-reading.  Dire apocalyptic predictions, fear-mongering and wishful thinking have all been on abundant display.

It’s all quite confusing and frustrating — the Synod, like any deliberative process, is certain to be messy and to expect anything else is unrealistic and naive.  Trying to judge final results in the middle of the event is generally a waste if time. As a result, I have resolved to read nothing of the drama aside from official statements of the Synod or the Pope.  I have, however, drawn a few lessons from all the sturm und drang.

The first lesson is that too often we lack confidence in the indefectibility of the Church.  We live in an era that is justifiably suspicious of all institutions.  The Church is not immune, and often deserves it.   She is, after all, run by fallible, sinful people.  But we have it on good authority (Mt. 16:18-19) that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church from any error on a matter essential to salvation, even until the end of time.  And that promise holds, regardless of who happens to hold ecclesiastical office.

In times of stress, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a very important point:  while human institutions will inevitably fail (ask the Byzantine emperors about that one), the Church’s divine character guarantees not just  survival, but ultimate triumph.

So a little confidence is in order.

The second lesson is that too often we are far too stingy in our understanding of God’s mercy.  The Synod is contemplating all sorts of pastoral approaches to people who are living in irregular or immoral circumstances.  In those situations, many of us think that the Church should lay a very heavy stress on sinners obeying Jesus’ own words in Mark 1:15 (“repent, and believe in the gospel”).  There’s no point in going further unless a person has rejected their sins and is living as God intends.  After all, shouldn’t the sinner bear the burden of making themselves worthy of God’s mercy?

Fortunately, the Church is much more generous than I am.  In fact, she goes very, very far beyond ordinary human standards in dispensing God’s mercy — she is almost scandalously liberal.  The Confessionals are open all the time no matter how grave the sin, the Eucharist by itself washes us clean of our venial sins, and just consider the astonishing open-handedness of the indulgences.  She takes very seriously Jesus’ admonition that her job is to forgive, over and over and over again (Mt. 18:21-22).

So I need to remember a very important point: Jesus didn’t die for me because I deserve his mercy — he died for me because I need it.  This generosity is worth bearing in mind when we talk about how far the Church should go in showing mercy to those who are stuck in their sins.

The last lesson is that too often we have forgotten the proper reaction of a Catholic to the teaching authority of the Church.  We live in an individualistic age, where we are the judge and measure of all things.  Nothing is accepted on authority, everything has to pass muster in my own court of final appeal. That’s an interesting approach, when it comes to matters of faith — if you’re a Protestant.  They believe in the authority of private judgment on matter spiritual and dogmatic, and do not consider themselves bound to accept any external authority.

But we’re not Protestants, we’re Catholics, and our response should be along the lines set forth by St. Ignatius Loyola in his famous Rules for Thinking with the Church:

We must put aside all judgment of our own, and keep the mind ever ready and prompt to obey in all things the true Spouse of Christ our Lord, our holy Mother, the hierarchical Church.

In short, our response to the teachings of our Church — not the abstract concept of a Church, but our actual bishops and our actual pope — has to be centered on the virtue of docility.

We will all have to wait and see what is the ultimate outcome of the Synod, and what the Holy Father decides.  But in the meantime, I’m thinking a lot about confidence, generosity, and docility.

Love for Animals, Danger for Humans

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.