The Radicalism of Roe v. Wade

December 17th, 2014

During his tireless campaign to promote abortion here in New York, Governor Cuomo has repeatedly alleged that his Abortion Expansion Act would do nothing other than codify the law as established in Roe v. Wade in our state law.  Journalists and editorial boards have parroted this argument.

It’s essential that we grapple with this baseless claim, for several reasons.  One of the best ways to do so would be to pick up a copy of Clarke Forsythe’s new book, Abuse of Discretion.  In this very important work, Forsythe examines the shoddy, unprofessional way in which Justice Blackmun and his allies on the Supreme Court invented the holding in Roe without regard to basic principles of justice and fairness, and without any concern about the dangers to women that would come from legalizing abortion.

There are four important points that we should consider, so that we understand just how radical Roe really was, and thus how extreme the Governor’s proposal is.

First, we have to understand that the legal standard established in Roe was extremely liberal, and established a regime of abortion on demand, for all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason whatsoever.  Also, courts used it to strike down virtually every abortion regulation passed by state legislatures.

This can be seen clearly in the history of abortion decisions after Roe — virtually no regulations affecting abortion survived judicial scrutiny, including many common sense proposals like health and safety regulations and parental involvement laws. In essence, the entire abortion industry was exempted from any accountability or oversight.

Second, we also have to recognize that even the Supreme Court eventually backed away from the extremism of Roe, and eventually adopted a standard that permitted more leeway for states to regulate abortion. This led to the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In that case, the Court transformed the applicable legal standard in a way that made it possible for states to regulate abortion in more ways (e.g., by enacting bans of partial birth abortions, clinic health and safety regulations, etc.).

As a result, the governor’s proposal would actually enshrine the high-water mark of liberal abortion law, and ignore the subsequent legal developments that have pared that standard back towards a more reasonable system. It would lock in place an abortion law that is extremely permissive and hostile to any attempt to regulate or restrict the practice in any way.  It would create a system of abortion with impunity.

Third, we have to appreciate what a terrible piece of law Roe actually was — which speaks volumes about why we shouldn’t want anything to do with it here in New York.   I’m pretty cynical about what goes into judicial decisions, but even I was appalled at Forsythe’s account — backed by meticulous research — of the way that the Justices manipulated, schemed, and maneuvered in preparation for the Roe decision. They heedlessly took the case under false pretenses (supposing that it was to be decided on merely a procedural point of law), and disregarded the need for any facts about the nature and impact of abortion. They irresponsibly failed to consider the devastating impact their decision would have on public health as a result of invalidating every abortion law in the nation, and removing abortion from any possibility of further regulation.

Finally, and most importantly, Forsythe exposes, based on an astonishing number of scientific and medical studies, just how bad abortion on demand has been for women’s mental and physical health.   This includes short and long-term physical side effects and complications from the surgery, a correlation with a host of mental health problems, increased risks of breast cancer, plus the horrors that have occurred at unlicensed and unregulated clinics.  The simple fact is that abortion is not good for women.

This is the tragically misguided abortion regime that our Governor wishes to foist upon New York. I heartily recommend that people should read Clarke Forsythe’s excellent and important book, Abuse of Discretion, to understand just how radical, and how dangerous, that would be.

Truth and Torture

December 12th, 2014

The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a scathing report about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program.  I have read the Executive Summary of both majority and minority reports, and some of the articles from the Washington Post and the Times that provided the basic facts from the report.

It’s very hard to read such horrible things that were done in our name, and to realize that they were done essentially with impunity, and that nobody will ever be held accountable for it. It pains me personally to know what kinds of physical torments were inflicted upon human beings in those places.

How can we respond to this disturbing situation?

Last weekend, there was a book review in the Wall Street Journal for a biography of the great Czech dissident and statesman, Vaclav Havel. The review contained this passage:

Havel’s personal and political philosophy can be summed up in a phrase from his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”: “living within the truth.” The world imposes great burdens on men, Havel argued, the first of which is a collective responsibility to be honest about the society they inhabit. In Havel’s political context, “living within the truth” meant speaking plainly about an inhuman political system—communism—and the lies and humiliating routines it forced its subjects to tell and endure.

Our first commitment is always to the truth. The essential question, in my mind, is what really happened in those secret prisons. The issues that have dominated the debate about the report (and most of the objections by the committee minority) are really procedural, and are not relevant to the question of whether the men in custody were tortured. On that question, we shouldn’t concentrate on party loyalty (i.e., who issued the report?), separation of powers (i.e., was Congress misled?) or raw pragmatic calculations of effectiveness (i.e., did torture “work”?).  Nor should be be swayed by arguments that essentially amount to vengeance and retribution.

The real question is, what really happened? It seems very clear — and nobody really disputes — that there was widespread and very brutal treatment of prisoners. These acts were committed by people acting under the authority of the United States government, and without regard to our laws and treaties banning torture. And there was no consideration of moral principles, which utterly forbid this kind of mistreatment.

Is this the kind of nation we are? Can we live within that truth about ourselves?

I hope not.

How the Abortion Expansion Act Would Let Non-Doctors Do Abortions

December 4th, 2014

The debate continues over Governor Cuomo’s abortion expansion plan (currently packaged as the tenth point, “Part J”, of his Women’s Equality Act). The current trope being used by the WEA’s backers and abortion supporters is that in opposing the bill, we are not being truthful in saying that the bill would allow non-doctors to do abortions. Part of the way that they make this argument is to ask “show me where it says that in the bill”.

Permit me to do so, in four easy steps.

Step One — Current New York law permits only doctors to perform abortions (see Penal Law section 125.03(3)).

Step Two — The WEA states that:

No prosecution or proceeding shall be brought or maintained under the penal law or otherwise for acts that are authorized or permitted pursuant to this section or by this chapter and the education law (Part J, Section 1, emphasis added)

Step Three — Title 8 of the Education Law governs the practice of various health professions (e.g., doctors, nurses, physician assistants, midwives, etc.) health professionals. Under that law, the New York State Education Department has wide authority to define the “scope of practice” for professionals — in other words, what procedures they can perform within the law. As a result, the WEA would give the New York State Education Department Office of the Professions the authority to permit non-doctors to perform surgical and chemical abortions, simply by re-defining their “scope of practice”.

Step Four — Disregard everything I just said, and listen instead to the words of Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, one of the leading experts in health care law and policy in the Legislature, and a co-sponsor of the WEA. In a letter to constituents, Mr. Gottfried says:

The current New York law only allows a physician to perform an abortion. However, there are forms of abortion that are well within the ordinary scope of practice of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Since, under Roe, abortion should be regulated on the same terms as other health care, the physician-only provision should be repealed and the ordinary rules of scope of practice should apply. The WEA language would do this. (emphasis added)

There it is, plain and simple.  So, the next time a newspaper editorial accuses us of lying, or a public official asks “where does it say that in the bill”, just hand them a copy of this blog post.  And then ask them, “do you really think it’s a good idea for non-doctors to be doing invasive, risky surgery on women?”

You Can Come In Off the Ledge Now

November 11th, 2014

In recent days, I’ve been approached by several friends who are very upset and even frightened about the state of the Church, and where things are going.  I’m a worrier by nature, so I can sympathize with them, but I can’t help but think that things are getting a little over-blown.  The Church is always in trouble, but I’m not seeing any icebergs in the immediate future.

Let me offer a few suggestions to my friends who are feeling such deep anxiety.

The first is to relax.  The best way to do that is to ignore everything being said by the mainstream media and the secular pundits (including most of the Catholic pundits). The news reports are obsessed with their favorite issues, and don’t understand anything that they’re talking about. As far as the pundits go, they’re all projecting their own agendas (and fears) onto the Holy Father and Church. Don’t read any of them. Just think of Mark 8:33.

I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, much of what passes for the Catholic blogosphere is only a little bit better, and some of it is much worse. If certain Catholic blogs and websites are causing you agita, then ignore them.  They have no more authority than anyone else with a keyboard and an internet connection (such as yours truly). Or, if you can’t resist yourself, ignore the comboxes. Many of the comboxes are toxic, and bad for our souls. (In this regard, I’m reminded of a famous warning). In any event, all the suspicion and arguing that’s going on in the Catholic blogosphere encourages a spirit of division into the Church. That’s neither useful, not good for the state of our souls.

The second is to relax.  Another good way to do that is to ignore Vatican politics. I have no idea why some bishops are promoted, and others are cast aside, which cardinal is in favor and which is in Siberia, and which party or conspiracy is ahead and which is losing. And you know what? Nobody else does, either. Fretting about all that stuff does nobody any good.  Think about — or even better, pray about — Psalm 131.

The third is to relax.  One of the best ways to do that is to pray more.  We should pray constantly for each other, and particularly for our Holy Father and our bishops.  Most people have no idea how hard the life of a bishop is.  I can’t even imagine how hard the Pope’s life is.  They really need our prayers.  Our pastors, parish priests and deacons, too, are hard pressed to give wounded people the pastoral assistance they need.  They could use some more prayers too.  Prayer helps them, but it also transforms us.  And I don’t know about you, but I could sure use some major transforming.

If those suggestions aren’t sufficient for you, can I make a few more? Are you worried about how the faith is being transmitted to the youth? I don’t blame you – and I bet your parish could use your help as a catechist. Are you concerned about the state of marriage, and what’s going to be done about the separated and divorced?  You should be, we all are too — so how about volunteering for some kind of marriage ministry?  Unsure about how the Church will give pastoral care to homosexual persons?  So are we all — could you maybe give some support to the Courage apostolate, which reaches out to homosexual persons and helps them live chaste lives?

There’s no doubt that we live in “interesting times”, as the old expression goes.  When things are unsettled, it’s always good to relax, and return to Christianity 101, to make sure that we’re solid on the basics — prayer, solid belief, sacraments, charity.  If our foundation is strong, then the whole structure will withstand whatever storms may assail it.

In these times, I think it’s also particularly important to pray to the Holy Spirit, who has been guiding the Church through thick and thin, and to Mother Mary who has been tirelessly protecting her Church.

My Catholic Voting Decision

October 27th, 2014

[Several years ago, in anticipation of Election Day, I posted on my personal opinion about how to approach making a voting decision.  I've revised and combined those earlier posts, because the stakes in the current election are so high -- it is vital that we maintain a pro-life majority in our state Senate.]

Once again, Election Day approaches.  At times like these, I am frequently asked how people can do the right thing as voters, as citizens, and as Catholics.  As I understand the teachings of our Church, there are several critical questions involved here. The first is the formation of my conscience.  Our bishops have said quite clearly that

“Conscience is not something that allows us to justify doing whatever we want, nor is it a mere ‘feeling’ about what we should or should not do.” (Faithful Citizenship 17)

A good, Catholic conscience is obedient to the teachings of the Church, and open to hearing the voice of God.  It considers God’s will more important than any partisan interest that I may have.  It always directs me to do good and avoid evil, and in the case of voting,

“A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Participation of Catholics in Political Life 4)

Building on the proper formation of conscience, we can then turn to the issues and the candidates.  One thing is crystal clear at this point:  all the issues are not the same, and the defense of human life is the paramount issue for Catholics to consider. The teaching of our Church is clear:  we must vote pro-life.  As the United States Bishops have said,

“This exercise of conscience begins with outright opposition to laws and other policies that violate human life or weaken its protection.” (Faithful Citizenship 31). “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (Faithful Citizenship 28)

This means that in evaluating a candidate, we must consider, first and foremost, their position on the defense of human life.  As the U.S. Bishops have said:

“As Catholics we are not single-issue voters. A candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support. Yet candidate’s position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion or the promotion of racism, may legitimately lead a voter to disqualify a candidate from receiving support.” (Faithful Citizenship 42)

Our New York Bishops have said the same:

“The inalienable right to right of every innocent human person outweighs other concerns where Catholics may use prudential judgment, such as how best to meet the needs of the poor or to increase access to health care for all.” (New York State Bishops, Our Cherished Right, Our Solemn Duty)

Cardinal Egan once confronted us, in language as plain as possible,with the choice of conscience and discipleship that we face when going into the voting booth:

Look [at the pictures of unborn children] and decide with honesty and decency what the Lord expects of you and me as the horror of ‘legalized’ abortion continues to erode the honor of our nation. Look, and do not absolve yourself if you refuse to act.”

Cardinal Egan also once said,

Anyone who dares to defend that [an unborn child] may be legitimately killed because another human being ‘chooses’ to do so or for any other equally ridiculous reason should not be providing leadership in a civilized democracy worthy of the name.

This also means, of course, that we have to inform ourselves about where candidates stand on the issues.  We can’t just blunder around the voting booth with no information.  And given the abundance of data available on the internet, it really doesn’t take much effort to find out about the position of candidates.  Just visit their websites, and see where they stand on abortion, “reproductive rights”, “choice”, and, in the case of New York State candidates, the “Women’s Equality Act” (which contains a provision that would greatly expand abortion in our state).  An example of an informational voter guide, from a reliable outside organization, can be found here.

So, from my perspective, this boils down to a very simple test that I try to adhere to, as best I can: If you think that killing unborn children should be legal, then I won’t vote for you. You haven’t earned my vote.  In my opinion, you’re not qualified to hold public office.  I just won’t vote for someone who will promote or permit grave evil.  I don’t subscribe to the principle of the “lesser of two evils”.  All that means is I’m voting for evil, and it still produces evil in the end.  If there’s nobody in a race that fits my standards, I’ll leave the line blank or write in a name.

When I pick up my ballot on Tuesday, I will see a stark choice between candidates who are pro-abortion, and others who are pro-life.  In fact, several of the pro-abortion candidates (who were baptized as Catholics, sad to say) are not just mouthing the old “personally opposed but…” sham, but are instead ardent promoters and defenders of the legalized killing of unborn children, and they have strongly campaigned on the issue.  If they are elected, there is a grave danger that the evil abortion expansion plan hidden in the “Women’s Equality Act” will be pushed forward. I cannot see how I as a Catholic could vote for such persons.

So for me, the choice is easy — I will vote only for the pro-life candidates.

(Important Note: I am going to repeat what is said in the disclaimer on the side of this blog — the opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone, they do not in any way reflect an official position of the Archdiocese, nor should they be considered an endorsement of any candidate by the Archdiocese.)

The Way Forward on Marriage and Family

October 24th, 2014

The dust has now settled a bit after the tumultuous Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.  Viewed from afar, the two-week meeting of bishops was filled with fascinating stories, from allegations of internal intrigue to the emergence of the African bishops as major players in the universal Church.  Western news sources, of course, fixated on their favorite issues — homosexual and divorced couples — and treated the deliberative assembly as if it were an American political convention (or a mixed-martial arts match).

Since the issue at hand — the health and care of the family — is so important to me, I thought it would be worth adding a few reflections of my own about what has happened.

The first thing I would note is that I have virtually no interest in the internal politics of the Vatican and the episcopacy, and I think it’s probably unhealthy for people to focus on such things.  I’ve had a limited view into the engine room of the barque of Peter for 20 years now (to use Ronald Knox’s phrase), and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that fretting about all these kinds of things accomplishes nothing for the state of my soul or to advance the Kingdom of God.

Of course, it’s still frustrating to watch the internal operations of the Church in action.   But I just don’t see that I can do anything worthwhile about it, beyond praying that the bishops and the Holy See (particularly the press office) someday become acquainted with the notion of message discipline.

As far as the substance of the Synod, it seems clear to me that the Holy Father has a pastoral agenda that he intends to implement to lead the Church.  It’s laid out in the Aparecida document (issued by the Latin American bishops in 2007, which the Holy Father helped write when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  It’s a renewed focus on evangelization and outreach, particularly to those who are marginalized and alienated, with an emphasis on the basic proclamation of the Gospel as a source of meaning and hope.  The bishops as a body are generally on board with that agenda.

In the context of the specific topic of the Extraordinary Synod, I think that it may prove to be a significant turning point for Church, and that it will help the bishops to focus on responding to the real problems with the family and marriage.  Instead of getting bogged down on the “hot topics” that the Western media is obsessed with, I hope that the bishops will now be able to recognize the real crisis in marriage — under the baneful influence of moral relativism and gender and sexual liberation ideology, as well as the sinful human tendency to hedonism, society has lost a notion of the importance of authentic marriage, and why it should be encouraged and supported.  I don’t know what the pastoral strategy will ultimately be in response to this, or how the bishops will respond to the special cases of divorced people, or those living in same-sex relationships.  But if they can keep their eye on the ball of how to preach the truth about marriage, and work to strengthen actual marriages, I think they’ll be on the right track.

So for me, the challenge is to prayerfully assent to the will of the Church, as expressed by Her hierarchy, to be obedient to my superiors, and not to be too distracted by speculation and second-guessing. Psalm 131 is wonderfully consoling to me in this regard.  In the meantime, I have to continue the apostolic work that God has given me, and strive to develop the virtues necessary for that work, trusting that God’s providence is somehow guiding it, and guiding the Church as a whole.

Tone and Substance

October 15th, 2014

There has already been a great deal of controversy in the Catholic blogosphere over the document released on October 13 by the Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  The Relatio, as it is technically called, is an interim document that essentially is a summary of the discussion so far by the bishops at the Synod, and a prelude of the next phase of the discussion.  It bears no doctrinal weight at all.  It’s like a working early draft of what will be discussed at the regular Synod of Bishops in 2015, and that eventually may form a part of an apostolic exhortation to be issued by the pope in 2016.

Much of the controversy has centered on the alleged change of tone in the document regarding homosexual persons.  And, admittedly, the document says some startling things about the proper attitude we should have towards our homosexual brethren, such as:

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies… must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.

Or this:

These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Or even this:

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Scandalous abandonment of the traditional Catholic condemnation of homosexuals, right? How could they have forgotten to say this:

The Church furthermore affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.

Well, actually, the first three passages aren’t from the supposedly-liberal/radical Relatio at all — they’re direct quotations from the allegedly arch-conservative Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 2358 and 2359, issued by Pope John Paul II and written under the direct guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who later became Pope Benedict XVI).  Only the last passage is from the new Relatio.  

Maybe it’s not such a ground-breaking ecclesiastical earthquake, after all.  The fact of the matter is that the Relatio reflects a mindset among the bishops that is very much in keeping with the Catechism, and that is — or at least should be — old hat among Catholics.  While we cannot accept the morality of any sexual sin or the validity of same-sex “marriages”, we still have to relate to homosexual persons as people made in the image and likeness of God, subject to the same sad legacy of concupiscence (i.e., “disordered inclinations”) as all of us, but who are loved by God and should be loved by us.

That’s nothing new in Catholicism, even if we have sadly failed to make it clear in our public statements.  I am as guilty of this as anyone.

There are some rather striking passages in the Relatio, in which the bishops note the existence of positive elements in imperfect relationships (such as cohabitation of men and women, and in same-sex unions).  In my mind, this is a crucial hint as to the pastoral strategy that our bishops — and most likely the Holy Father — are leading us towards.  It will not involve the slightest adjustment of doctrine, but it is indeed a change in tone and emphasis.

To get this, we need to think long and carefully about what, to me, is the most interesting phrase in the Relatio.  It is a very striking statement about the mission of the Church:

Following the expansive gaze of Christ, whose light illuminates every man (cf. Jn 1,9; cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22), the Church turns respectfully to those who participate in her life in an incomplete and imperfect way, appreciating the positive values they contain rather than their limitations and shortcomings.

The gaze of Christ is one of invitation, which calls us to a response, which has consequences for how we live.  But the love comes first, and that’s what will attract people to the Lord.

The Supreme Court Surrenders on Marriage

October 6th, 2014

This morning, to the surprise of just about every observer, the Supreme Court declined to review seven lower-court rulings that had re-defined marriage. For all intents and purposes, this non-decision really gives the green light to lower courts to strike down every democratically-enacted state law that defines marriage in the traditional way.

To understand how significant this surrender is, some basic background information is necessary.

Since the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, there has been a virtually-unbroken string of lower-court decisions invalidating state marriage laws.  Three of the federal Circuit Courts of Appeals had already struck down laws in several states.  Four other Circuit Courts have similar cases before them but haven’t issued decisions yet.  When you take all these cases into account, the laws of as many as sixteen states were at issue.

Petitions were filed in the Supreme Court in which all the parties to the seven lower-court decisions — both the defenders of the marriage laws and those seeking to overturn them — had asked the Court to make a final ruling on the issue.   For the Court to agree to hear a case, only four Justices need to assent to the petition (technically called a petition for a “writ of certiorari”).

Rule 10 of the Supreme Court’s rules states:

Review on a writ of certiorari is not a matter of right, but of judicial discretion. A petition for a writ of certiorari will be granted only for compelling reasons. The following, although neither controlling nor fully measuring the Court’s discretion, indicate the character of the reasons the Court considers… (c)  a state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court.

You also have to understand something of the self-image of the Supreme Court, who seem to believe that they have been appointed to be Platonic Guardians over our society.   Recall this gaseous emanation from the penumbras of the Supreme Court’s collective consciousness, in the plurality opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

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.

Now, it’s hard to imagine a more contentious controversy than the debate over the definition of marriage, or a more “important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court”.   The argument has raged since the late 1990′s, and it has been fought out in a series of state ballot initiatives and constitutional amendments, legislative battles, court cases, and political campaigns.  The Supreme Court itself created the current legal chaos and uncertainty with its decision in the Windsor case, which was mis-used by federal judges to strike down state marriage laws.  One would have thought that now was the time for this matter to be addressed by the Court itself, in its self-anointed role to”call[] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution”.

Yet the Court declined even to consider the cases.  No briefs to be filed.  No oral arguments.  No further discussion among the Justices.  There weren’t even four Justices who thought it was ripe for decision — not even the vaunted supposedly-conservative wing of the court (Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito).  Even though anyone can foresee the consequences of not taking the cases — namely, sending a signal to the lower courts that it was open season on state marriage laws.  We can now expect more lower courts to follow the Supreme Court’s lead, and the dominoes will continue to fall.

The most disappointing part of this non-decision is that not a single Justice thought it was worth writing a dissenting opinion.  Perhaps they should just raise a white flag over the Supreme Court building today.

So, by not agreeing to decide any of these cases, the Supreme Court actually issued a momentous decision, and effectively re-defined marriage in the entire United States, without giving the defenders of marriage their day in Court.  This is how democracy no longer works around here.  Thus is marriage redefined in the United States, not with a bang but with a whimper.

 

Animals and Christian Discipleship

October 4th, 2014

About ten years ago, I decided to give up eating meat.  I didn’t do it for ethical, aesthetics, or health reasons.  I liked meat, so it was a mild sacrifice, as a way of trying to grow spiritually and overcome a particular “thorn in the flesh” (see 2 Cor 12:7).  I viewed it as akin to a life-long Lenten Friday abstinence practice.

As with many ascetical practices, I found that it really bore fruit in my life, and I’ve continued with the practice ever since.  I describe myself generally as a “non-meat-eater” or a “vegetarian”, although I still eat dairy and seafood (occasionally), so the technical term for my diet would be probably be “pesco-vegetarian”.

At the time, I really didn’t have any desire to become an ethical vegetarian.  But I’ve become more curious about the arguments surrounding that philosophy.  I read some of the writings of Peter Singer, the leading animal rights philosopher, and found them deeply disturbing.  Singer and his followers seem to me to be profoundly anti-human, even to the point of advocating grave moral evil, such as the idea that unborn, newborn and handicapped children have no right to life, since they lack certain qualities of consciousness, and thus can be killed by their parents.  As a Christian — and a human being — I find such positions to be abhorrent, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with them in any way.

So it was with great interest that I found a book by Prof. Charles Camosy, an authentically pro-life theologian at Fordham, entitled For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action.  The goal of the book is to examine how Christians should relate to animals, particularly on such issues as factory farming and the use of animals in research.  I had hoped that the book would present a convincing Christian view of the relationship between humans and animals in the plan of God. While there are many aspects of the book that I found to be excellent, I was disappointed in his basic argument.

As with many animal rights arguments, Prof. Camosy’s position seemed to rest on an assumption that there is “speciesism” in the way we treat animals.  That term refers to an unjustifiable and invidious belief that humans are not just different from, but innately superior to animals in God’s plan for creation.  But surely that is the proposition that he should be seeking to prove, not a self-evident principle on which he can base his entire argument.  I found this to be a very unconvincing form of circular reasoning — he begs the question that he should be trying to answer.

I also found his use of Sacred Scripture to be implausible.  There is no doubt that God created animals not just to be used by humanity, but as creatures who have the “breath of life” and are meant to be our companions (see Gen. 1).  Yet there also can be no question that God specifically permitted the use of animals in ritual sacrifice and for food (see generally Leviticus).  Prof. Camosy appears to reject this aspect of Divine Revelation, particularly by suggesting that the practice of ritual sacrifice was a carryover from pagan practices and was not the will of God.  That is just completely unconvincing, and it is inconsistent with the essential role of ritual sacrifice in understanding the mystery of Jesus as the Paschal Sacrifice.

However, I also have to add that I found that Prof. Camosy makes a very compelling argument about the need for Christians to reject the horrors of factory farming.  There is overwhelming evidence that modern methods of factory farming are unspeakably cruel to animals, and they are truly shocking to the conscience.  Prof. Camosy makes a persuasive case that factory farming stems from a moral deficit that is inherent in a consumerist mentality that virtually amounts to an idolatry of profit.  This represents, I think, one of the best argument against the moral legitimacy of eating meat, at least as it is produced by way of this particular structure of sin.

I wish that Prof. Camosy had not begun his argument with the rejection of human exceptionalism in the divine plan, and I wish that he had given proper emphasis to the principle that we are created in the image and likeness of God.  That is actually the best argument for the ethical and humane treatment of animals, and even for the adoption of a vegetarian diet.  If we are made in the image of God, then we must assume some aspect of His relationship with the creation that He loves, and to which he gave the breath of life.  God is the ultimate steward of His gift of creation, and we are thus called to love and serve nature and animals, and to act with self-giving love to them.

I don’t believe that this role as stewards of creation requires us to forego meat in our diet, but it certainly requires us to take seriously our attitude towards our animal friends, and how we treat them.  We are so accustomed to this in our homes.  So many people love their dogs and cats and birds, and intuitively see the breath of life in them, and treat them very well.  As Prof. Camosy points out, we need to extend that attitude of fraternity to the animals we cannot see, particularly those in factory farms and medical research facilities.  That may require a change in lifestyle — and even our diet — but that’s the case with every aspect of our Christian discipleship.

A Bleak Outlook for Religious Liberty?

September 24th, 2014

For the past few years, disputes over religious liberty has been very prominent parts of the American legal and political agenda. No observer of the state of religion in our nation can fail to be struck by the series of difficult and contentious controversies. The HHS mandate and the redefinition of marriage are just the most recent examples that have brought the conflict into stark view.

This conflict has attracted a great deal of attention from legal and political scholars.  In my view, no book does a better job of explaining its background and likely future course than the recent sobering work by Steven Smith, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom. Prof. Smith is one of the leading scholars of religious liberty, which might scare people off from this book. But his writing is remarkably accessible to non-experts, and anyone with a basic knowledge of American history would find it a fascinating and compelling read.

The basic thesis of the book is to contrast what Prof. Smith calls the “standard story” of American religious liberty, which is generally accepted and taught in academia, with a “revised story” that he proposes as a better explanation for where we’ve come from and where we’re going.

The “standard story”, in essence:

tells how, under the influence of the Enlightenment, the American founders broke away from the intolerance and dogmatism of centuries of Christendom and courageously set out on a radical new experiment in religious liberty. More specifically, the founders adopted a Constitution that committed the nation to the separation of religion from government and thus to secular governance that would be neutral toward religion.  These commitments were not immediately realized… Even now the achievement is under threat… mainly from religious conservatives…

This basic description of the “standard story” should be familiar to all, since it is reflected in Supreme Court decisions and the general public debate about the role of religion in our society.  It is the story that I learned in law school, and, I imagine, that is taught in every high school and college history and political science class.  It is the story of the alleged “wall of separation” that keeps push religious groups and ideas out of the public square.  It is the reason that our courts and legislatures increasingly find little reason to accommodate or protect unpopular religious beliefs and practices.  Prof. Smith says that the general acceptance of the “standard story” has reached such a point that nobody feels a need to explain or defend it.  Instead, it has become one of those things of which people say, “as we all know…”

According to Prof. Smith, the problem with the “standard story” is that it is actually false in many significant respects.  Instead, he proposes a “revised story” that better explains the history of American religious liberty in key ways:

  • American religious freedom is mostly a retrieval and consolidation of Christian themes (with some pagan principles mixed in), particularly libertas ecclesiae (freedom of the church), and freedom of the “inner church” of conscience.
  • The First Amendment religious clause did nothing radical or dramatically new, but instead re-stated principles that were uncontroversial at the time — a limitation on the jurisdiction of Congress relating to Churches and religion.
  • The first century and a half of our history were a “golden age of American religious freedom”.  It was not a time in which the Republic failed to live up to the ideals of the First Amendment, but instead  those ideals were allowed to grow and work out through the democratic process.  Prof. Smith proposes that this was the time of the “American settlement”, which rested on the separation of church from state (but not a strict exclusion of religion from government) and freedom of conscience, together with “open contestation” about what that meant in practice.
  • The modern Supreme Court, far from restoring the original ideals of the First Amendment, wrongly rejected the American settlement and instead declared that secularism is the controlling principle of constitutional law.  This brought an end to the open discussion and debate about our differences, and sought (usually inconsistently and incoherently) to impose hard rules to limit the role of religion in law and government.
  • The result is that religious freedom is in jeopardy, particularly when it comes into conflict with the modern ideologies of egalitarianism and sexual liberation.
  • In the end, Prof. Smith is pessimistic about the future of religious freedom in America, and he believes that life in our nation will suffer as a result.    Given all that we have seen in recent years, it is difficult to disagree with him.  One thinks of the intransigent refusal of legislatures to grant sufficient conscience clause exemptions from laws redefining marriage, or expanding availability of contraception or abortion.  Or we can cite the Administration’s denial of the right of religious organizations to choose their own ministers, according to the dictates of their faith.  And there is always the rhetorical tactic of certain politicians to brand religious believers as “extremists” who are unwelcome in their own home states. Or the tendency of judicial opinions to brand religious beliefs on marriage as irrational hatred or bigotry.

    This book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate over the role of religion in contemporary society. It provides a much-needed balance to the “standard story”, which has dominated the public discussion and the law-making process. It is essential that legal professionals, policy makers, and engaged citizens understand the true history of religious liberty.

    Prof. Smith reminds us all that religious liberty is very fragile, but it is very important to a healthy American society. Such a fundamental freedom, deeply rooted in American and Western history, cannot be so lightly thrown away, or forced to depend on narrow majorities of the Supreme Court. In particular, he warns us that “states that fail to protect religious freedom usually trample on other freedoms as well”.