Let’s March for Science

April 25th, 2017

Last Saturday, there was a large gathering in Washington called the “March for Science”. I didn’t attend, but I gather that the idea behind the march was a call for society in general and government in particular to rely more heavily on the input of scientists when making public policy in the areas of their expertise. It seemed also to have a lot of messages about accepting the reality of global warming and the adoption of policies that would address it.

All of that is well and good, and I’m all in favor of it.

But while we’re marching for science, how about if we include a little bit of the science of embryology when we make public policies?

Embryology is the study of life at its earliest stages. Human embryology is quite an advanced science, and there is an abundance of amazing resources that have been produced by scientists that can educate us about its truths. A quick Google search will uncover amazing photographs and models of embryonic human life. If we want the quick version, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start.

Here are some of the basic truths that have been revealed to us by the science of embryology: “A human begins life as a fertilized ovum” ( University of Utah medical school website); “The first week of human development begins with fertilization of the egg by sperm forming the first cell, the zygote” ( University of New South Wales, Australia, website); “Human development is a continuous process beginning with fertilization and continuing throughout pregnancy, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and into old age.” ( the Endowment for Human Development website); “Fertilization is the event most commonly used to mark the zero point in descriptions of prenatal development of the embryo or fetus” (okay, this one is Wikipedia, there were too many medical websites to keep citing them all).

So how does all this science relate to the making of public policy? Consider these quotations:

“During the first trimester, the predominant abortion method is “vacuum aspiration,” which involves insertion of a vacuum tube (cannula) into the uterus to evacuate the contents.”

“D&E is similar to vacuum aspiration except that the cervix must be dilated more widely because surgical instruments are used to remove larger pieces of tissue… Because fetal tissue is friable and easily broken, the fetus may not be removed intact. The walls of the uterus are scraped with a curette to ensure that no tissue remains.”

“Because the fetus is larger at this stage of gestation (particularly the head) [after 15 weeks], and because bones are more rigid, dismemberment or other destructive procedures are more likely to be required than at earlier gestational ages to remove fetal and placental tissue.”

“There are variations in D&E operative strategy… However, the common points are that D&E involves (1) dilation of the cervix; (2) removal of at least some fetal tissue using nonvacuum instruments; and (3) (after the 15th week) the potential need for instrumental disarticulation or dismemberment of the fetus or the collapse of fetal parts to facilitate evacuation from the uterus.”

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists describes the D&X procedure in a manner corresponding to a breech-conversion intact D&E, including the following steps: 1. deliberate dilatation of the cervix, usually over a sequence of days; 2. instrumental conversion of the fetus to a footling breech; 3. breech extraction of the body excepting the head; and 4. partial evacuation of the intracranial contents of a living fetus to effect vaginal delivery of a dead but otherwise intact fetus.”

All of those blood-chilling quotations are from the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Stenberg v. Carhart, which struck down a state ban on partial birth abortions. That opinion was authored by Justice Steven Breyer and joined by four other Justices. All of those Justices were highly intelligent and educated people, all of whom attended Ivy League or similar prestigious colleges and law schools. Presumably, they were all reasonably well educated (for laypeople) in basic scientific principles. One would expect that at some point their education included the basic facts of human embryology. That opinion was written in 2000, so Wikipedia was certainly easily available for quick reference.

Yet they still upheld the legal right to kill members of the human race in the most barbaric means imaginable — dismemberment while still alive. They obviously knew the science, but ignored it.

So by all means let us march for science. More public policy decisions should be made based on the facts uncovered by scientific research. But we cannot fool ourselves. Science alone is not enough to make good laws and to promote social justice in our society. We need a proper sense of morality, which cannot be discovered by the scientific method. For that, we need to listen to the voice of God, either in the natural moral law written in our hearts or in his revealed Word.

When we ignore the truths of the moral law, we make even worse mistakes than when we ignore the laws of science. Let’s march about that.

Our Challenge on Earth Day

April 22nd, 2017

Today is the annual “Earth Day”, a secular holiday of sorts that encourages people to pay attention to the state of our world’s environment and particularly the threats to the beauty and purity of our material world. That’s all well and good and we should certainly do so.

But Earth Day also gives us an opportunity to put enviromentalism in its broader context, informed by a Christian understanding of the nature of the human person and of the gift of creation. To do this, it’s worth revisiting Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si.

When it was released, the secular media generally portrayed Laudato Si as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”. Some people reacted to the letter with horror because it dared to cast doubt upon the modern worship of mammon in the form of “captialism”. But both of these reactions miss the point. Laudato Si challenges us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is woven throughout the encyclical. Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom. We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person.  Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers man as a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, without regard to his relationships with others. When one looks at the modern domination of our society by the ethos of economic libertarianism and  hedonistic autonomy, the diagnosis certainly rings true. The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems. In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation. The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

It is certainly important to pay close attention to the Holy Father’s comments on the specific environmental depradations that have been inflicted upon creation, particularly in the developing nations. But the true significance of Laudato Si can be found in its call to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live in peace and harmony with each other and with all creation. This has to begin, as the Holy Father said in last year’s Message on World Day of Prayer for Creation, with “a serious examination of conscience and moved by sincere repentance,”  so that “we can confess our sins against the Creator, against creation, and against our brothers and sisters”.

Today, the Holy Father got right to the heart of the matter, in the prayer he sent out on his Twitter feed:

Lord, bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

May this be our prayer on Earth Day, and throughout the year.

The American Monarch Wages War

April 8th, 2017

One of the most important stories in Anglo-American constitutional history has been the struggle over the extent of what is called the “royal prerogative”. That’s the term for the inherent power of the monarch in such areas as foreign affairs, warfare, law-making, etc.

The history of England is in many respects the history of the gradual restriction of the unlimited power of the king and the imposition of conditions and limitations that established a separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. One of the central elements of the royal prerogative was the power to make war without the approval of Parliament. Even to this day, the monarch of Great Britain has the sole authority to declare war, without the consent of the legislature.

That history is essential to understanding the foundation of the United States. If you were to read the Declaration of Independence, and focus on the “long train of abuses” in that document, you’ll understand that the misuse of royal prerogative was at the heart of the grievances that led to the Revolution. One of the driving principles in the Declaration, and later in the Constitution, was the need to limit the royal prerogative and to limit the power of the executive with checks and balances.

Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution gives to Congress the sole authority to declare war, to raise armies and navies and to regulare them. Article Two, Section Two designates the President as the Commander in Cheif of the military, which ensured civilian control of the military, but did not give him unlimited power to make war or take other actions purely at his discretion. That principle has been upheld by the Supreme Court, for instance in the Youngstown Steel case, which overturned President Truman’s seizure of steel mills during the Korean War. It has always been understood, however, that in emergency situations, the President can act to defend America against attack, even without first getting Congressional approval. That same section has also been understood to give the President very broad powers to conduct the foreign policy of the United States, including making treaties.

Add to this is that the United States has signed onto the United Nations Charter, which is thus part of the “supreme law of the land”  according to Article Six of the Constitution. That Charter permits nations to act in self-defense against an armed attack (Article 51) but specifically forbids “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (Article 2). Under the Charter, and thus under American law, the authority to used armed forces against another state is reserved to the Security Council (Chapter VII).

Over the course of our history, presidents have greatly expanded their powers over war-making. Our nation has engaged in many conflicts on Presidential decision alone, without specific Congressional approval. From time to time, Congress has tried unsuccessfully to restrain that power. In recent years, Congress has completely abdicated its authority over declaring war. With a few exceptions (e.g., the Iraq War), the United States has consistently ignored the United Nations Charter when deciding to engage in armed conflicts.

Why does this matter to Catholics? It has always been an element of Catholic social teaching that nations may engage in warfare under very limited conditions. This has generally been known as the “just war” doctrine, and can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2309. An essential element of that doctrine is that the decision to engage in war must be made according to the laws of the nation and international law by the competent legal authorites.

Those requirements have been consistently flouted by our militarized government. We have now come to a place where the President has no accountability to anyone — not Congress, the Supreme Court, or the Constitution. And so we are engaged in on-going wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and now Syria, all of which are being waged without any regard to the Constitutional limits on presidential authority.

It is as if we never separated from Great Britain. In effect, we have a monarch with unlimited royal prerogative to wage wars on other nations. These decisions are too important to leave morality out of the calculus. As Catholics, we must bring moral principles into the debate.

Failing the Dred Scott Question

March 24th, 2017

As I have already written, I have great concerns about some of the answers given by Judge Neil Gorsuch during his confirmation hearings. I consider his originalist legal philosophy to be perfectly sound and likely to produce decisions that are favorable to the cause of human life. But when asked the most important question, his answer was an utter failure.

One of the Democratic Senators, Richard Durbin, was questioning Judge Gorsuch about a book he had written about assisted suicide and euthanasia. In the book, Judge Gorscuh proposed a principle that could be used to justify laws against suicide and euthanasia, which he called the “inviolability-of-life principle”:  “All human beings are intrinsically valuable, and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

Senator Durbin then asked the judge how he could square that principle with legalized abortion. This exchange then took place:

Gorsuch: Senator, as the book explains, the Supreme Court of the United States has held in Roe v. Wade that a fetus is not a person for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment—and that book explains that..

Durbin: Do you accept that?

Gorsuch: That’s the law of the land. I accept the law of the land, Senator, yes.

I appreciate Judge Gorsuch’s respect for precedent and the original meaning of the Constitution. But I wonder if he realizes that in his answer, he was echoing one of the worst possible Supreme Court precedents — the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. In that decision, the Court held that, based on their reading of the original meaning of the Constitution, African-Americans were not “persons” within the meaning of the Constitution:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…. [and the provisions of the Constitution] show clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed.

In a concurring opinion, one of the Justices said this:

The correct conclusions upon the question here considered would seem to be these: That, in the establishment of the several communities now the States of this Union, and in the formation of the Federal Government, the African was not deemed politically a person.

Is that really the kind of precedent that we want Supreme Court justices to respect?

What’s especially disheartening about Judge Gorsuch’s answer is that he didn’t have to say that at all. He could have easily deflected the question — as he did with pretty much every other substantive question — by saying that the issue of the personhood of unborn humans was likely to be litigated before the Court and that it was thus inappropriate for him to comment. The fact that he did give a substantive answer means that he considered the non-person status of unborn humans to be so clearly and finally settled that it is uncontroversial.

I still think that Judge Gorsuch should be confirmed, and that he will likely rule positively on incremental pro-life regulations of abortion. But any hope that he would overrule Roe v. Wadeappears to be a mirage.

The most important threshold legal question in any case is whether someone can count on the protection of the law to defend their basic human rights. Judge Gorsuch failed that question.

Concerns About Health Care Reform

March 23rd, 2017

The House of Representatives is poised to vote on a proposal to reform the Affordable Care Act. The new bill, called the American Health Care Act, is being pushed forward under a procedural rule that permits a bill to pass by only 50 votes in the Senate, to evade the usual Senate rule that 60 votes are required to close debate and vote on the substance of the bill itself. The bill is going to be yet another major piece of legislation that will be supported only by one of the parties, and opposed by the other — there will be virtually no bipartisan support for the bill in either the House or the Senate.

This bill has some significant reforms that are very positive developments for the cause of human life:

  • Restriction of Federal Funding for Abortion — The bill will not permite federal tax credits to be used for any health plan that covers elective abortions.
  • Codifying the Hyde Amendment — This very important measure limitats federal funding for abortion to those cases involving rape, incest, or to preserve the life of the mother. While we do not consider this to be ideal in principle, it is a recognition that taxpayer money should not be used for the vast majority of abortions.
  • Limits on Funding for Planned Parenthood — The bill would prohibit Medicaid funding for Planned Parenthood clinics for one year. Murder Incorporated gets over half a billion dollars a year in grants and reimbursements, so anything that would cut any part of their money stream is a good idea.
  • Supporting Pregnant Women — The bill would retain the requirement that insurance plans cover maternity care, which would be deemed an “essential health benefit”.

However, there are problems with the bill, also from a pro-life perspective:

  • Caps on Medicaid funding — The bill would convert Medicaid from an open-ended entitlement that is guaranteed federal funding into a block grant to the states with a fixed upper limit. The argument for this is that it will encourage the states to increase efficiency and control costs. However, it is basic economics that any time the supply of any kind of commodity (such as health insurance payments, in this case) the result can be rationing enforced by the government. This is very troubling. The great bulk of Medicaid expenditures is for elderly, handicapped, and terminally ill patients. Our concern is that a cap on Medicaid spending may lead to pressures to limit life-sustaining treatments that are morally obligatory — which would lead to involuntary euthanasia (causing death by omitting treatments) and increased pressure for people to choose assisted suicide.
  • Continued Mandatory Contraception Coverage — Contraception would continue to be included as a required benefit. This is both immoral and unnecessary. Since some forms of “contraception” actually cause early abortions, it also undercuts the bill’s limitations on funding for abortion.
  • Lack of Conscience Protection — Current federal conscience protections are not adequate either in substance or in enforcement. Greater protections have to be enacted into law that will prevent discrimination against individuals and institutions that decline to participate in morally offensive activities, such as abortion, contraception, sterilization, assisted reproduction, suicide and euthanasia.
  • Large Numbers of People Losing Health Insurance — The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that as many as 24 million people will lose insurance coverage under this bill. While those numbers have been disputed, there is no disagreement that fewer people will have coverage. This is very troubling, since the most likely people to lose access to health care will be poor and disabled people, and may increase incentives for women to have abortions.

The current Affordable Care Act is deeply flawed in many ways. But any reform effort should be sure to correct those problems and not cause other problems. The USCCB has written to Congress about these concerns. We have to press Congress to address those concerns and guarantee true and morally acceptable health insurance coverage to all Americans.

“Precedents” and Justice

March 22nd, 2017

We are now in the midst of yet another set of hearings on the nomination of a new justice of the Supreme Court. As with prior hearings, it has been considerably less than edifying, given the political grand-standing and speechifying. But once again, some of the more illuminating exchanges have centered on the concept of “precedent”.

“Precedent” is a legal term for a previous judicial decision. In many cases, courts will consider precedent to be the controlling legal authority. For example, lower courts must follow the precedents of higher courts in all similar cases. This is an important feature of a common law-based legal system, like ours. It means that once a legal issue has been resolved, there is a strong preference for respecting and giving deference to that decision, so that there can be some clarity and predictability about what the law is. The fancy Latin term for this respect for precedent is “stare decisis”, which means, basically, “maintain what has been decided”.

Of course, not all previous judicial decisions are worthy of being followed. It has always been understood that prior decisions are not controlling if they are “flatly absurd or unjust” or “contrary to reason” (to quote the great legal scholar William Blackstone). Courts frequently overrule prior decisions when it becomes clear that they were wrong or poorly reasoned. In fact, in the words of another great legal scholar, Chancellor James Kent, “If, however, any solemnly adjudged case can be shown to be in error, it is no doubt the right and the duty of the judges who have a similar case before them, to correct the error” (emphasis added).

The Supreme Court has overruled prior cases, or declined to follow them, many times. The most famous example is Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled the earlier erroneous decision by the Court that endorsed legal racial segregation. There have also been other cases that are universally seen as unworthy of being followed, even if the Court has never formally overruled them. For example, we have the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that African-Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect”, or the case of Buck v. Bell, which upheld the involuntary sterilization of mentally handicapped persons since, as the Court said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”. Clearly, those “precedents” are not worthy of any respect.

This brings us to the current confirmation hearings. The Democratic Senators on the Judiciary Committee are repeatedly asking the nominee about his views on the cases of Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and their ilk. They have invented a term, “super-precedent”, to indicate that they believe these decisions are beyond any further judicial review and can never be overturned — a concept so foreign to our Constitutional order and to the rule of law as to be laughable.

However, in response to one of those questions, the nominee said: “”Once a case is settled, that adds to the determinacy of the law. What was once a hotly contested issue is no longer a hotly contested issue. We move forward.”

That is a very unfortunate way of thinking. Roe, Casey, and their progeny have excluded unborn children from virtually any legal protection, declared them not to be “persons” under the law, and permit their destruction with impunity. They have established the unborn as a virtual underclass, whose rights no man is bound to respect. They violate the fundamental principles of natural law and justice, and the promise of universal equality under the law and the right to life as expressed by the Declaration of Independence. They are widely recognized as being poorly reasoned, even to the point where legal scholars who favor abortion rights have derided them.

It is therefore very troubling that the new Supreme Court nominee has called these decisions “precedent” and “settled”, and that we have to “move forward”. When a law — either a statute or a judicial decision — violates the inherent, inalienable rights of any human being, that law can never be considered to be “settled”. It can never be respected or given deference as a binding “precedent”. Such a law is not really a law at all, but is instead a usurpation of power and an act of violence. A true respect for authentic justice means that it must be opposed and changed.

Justice must take precedence over “precedents”. Otherwise we do not have an authentic rule of law for all, and we will never fulfill the dream of respecting the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator, particularly the right to life. I hope that the nominee will consider this more carefully when he is on the Supreme Court, and take seriously his right and duty to correct the injustice of the Court’s abortion decisions.

Thanks to My Patron Saints

March 7th, 2017

(Today is my birthday, so I thought I would re-post a blog that I wrote several years ago, for the same occasion)

If you’re like me, you have lots of favorite saints, and lots of saints who you think are looking out for you and helping you.  That’s one of the best things about being Catholic — a regular, daily awareness of the communion of saints. And also, if you’re like me, you had the good fortune to be born on a day on which the Church honors the memory of particular saints.

I’m old enough to have been born when the old Roman Calendar was still in effect.  As a result, I was born on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas.  I have received many graces through his intercession, including a keen interest in theology and my middle name.  Thomas led a fascinating life, and he wrote so beautifully and deeply on all aspects of the faith that he has been a great gift to my faith.  I am particularly mindful of one of his final thoughts, after having some kind of mystical experience.  He ceased work on a project, and upon being asked by his secretary why he didn’t finish the work, replied “all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  That’s a good reminder that nothing that we could do in this life could ever stand comparison to the glory of God.  As St. Paul said, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:7-8)

When they reformed the Roman Calendar in the Sixties, they decided to move Thomas’ feast to January 28.  Oddly enough, they chose the day that they “translated his relics” — that is, the day they dug up his body and moved it from one resting place to another.

Although I still have some hard feelings about them taking Thomas from me, I have to say that I lucked out again when the Church restored the ancient feast day of Saints Perpetua and Felicity to their proper day.

If you aren’t familiar with Saints Perpetua and Felicity, you should immediately drop all that you are doing and correct this.  Perpetua, a Roman noblewoman, and her slave Felicity, were martyred in 203 A.D., in Carthage.  Perpetua was nursing her baby when arrested, and Felicity was pregnant. Perpetua’s child was taken from her by her family, but Felicity gave birth while imprisoned and the child was adopted by a Christian family.  Perpetua wrote an account of their ordeals in prison with other Christians — one of the earliest written records by a Christian woman.  The story of their witness to Christ is vivid and moving, and should be required reading for all Christians who want a glimpse into the heroism of our ancestors in faith.

The night before their martyrdom, after having celebrated a “love feast” (the ancient name for the Mass) with her fellow prisoners, Perpetua had a dream about being led to the arena by one of the men who had already been martyred, who beckoned her to come and join them.  In the arena, she was beset by a mighty enemy, but she vanquished him and was called to enter the Gate of Life.  Realizing the significance of this dream, she wrote, “I understood that I should fight, not with beasts but against the devil; but I knew that mine was the victory”.

The next day, March 7, Perpetua, Felicity and their companions were taken to the arena, whipped, attacked by wild beasts and slain by gladiators.  They have been honored ever since.  As Tertullian said, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”.

I certainly do not consider myself to be in the intellectual ballpark of Thomas, or anywhere near as courageous as Perpetua and Felicity.  But I feel very close to them, as if they were my friends, but just separated from me for a short time.  Perhaps one day, if their prayers for me are heard, I will meet them, and I can thank them for their help and friendship.

Politics, Factions, and the Church

February 15th, 2017

At the time of the founding of our Republic, one of the great concerns was the danger that political factions would undermine the fragile unity of the new nation. This was so serious that the Founding Fathers specifically and repeatedly warned about the deleterious effects factions would have on the country. For example, George Washington, in his Farewell Address (a document that is amazingly prescient and relevant in our age) said:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Likewise, James Madison in the Federalist Papers (No. 10) said this:

A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.

There is no question that the spirit of faction is very widespread in our nation and that it is driving us further apart. The past election was a particularly bad season for this, and virtually everyone can tell about divisions in their families, uncomfortable or hostile conversations at dinner, being “un-friended” or seeing vitriol on Facebook, and so on. There is not just anecdotal evidence for this. A major study by the Pew Center last year documented the rise in partisanship and animosity over politics.

American politics is becoming almost tribal in nature. A person’s political affiliation is becoming a dominant aspect of their identity and it is increasingly shapes not just their views on public issues but their friendships, associations, etc. Party loyalty is becoming one of the highest values and group-think is becoming the acceptable standard. Politics is also invading more and more aspects of life. It’s becoming increasingly common at sporting or entertainment events for some athlete or singer to inject their political views into the show. Facebook is becoming more about political rants than pictures of the kids and silly cat videos. Corporations whose purpose is to sell us stuff are now seeing it as their role to tell us how to think as well. People on both the left and the right are bemoaning the fact that we are facing the politicization of everything.

This is not news, but I raise it at this time for a reason.  The President recently said that one of his major goals is to eliminate something called the “Johnson Amendment”. That’s a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that bans certain tax exempt organizations — particularly churches — from engaging in partisan politics. This has long been a goal of many Evangelical organizations and some Catholics as well. They want pastors to be able to openly endorse political candidates from the pulpit and to lend them material support through their churches.

I think this would be a disaster for the Church and for our society — and for our souls. Politics has its place, and its place is not everywhere. A healthy society has many institutions and activities whose purpose is to bring people together, not to divide them or to “kindle their unfriendly passions”. One of the most important of these places is in Church.

The purpose of Church is not to contemplate or promote temporary solutions to worldly problems. The purpose of Church is to worship God, the Creator and King of the Universe. It is a time to separate ourselves from the Kingdom of Man and immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of God, which is our true homeland. It is a time to renew our communion with Our Lord Jesus Christ and with His Mystical Body — with our fellow sinners of all political views. It is the place where we recall our solidarity with the Communion of Saints around the world, those who have preceded us and those who will follow us. We are called to lift our hearts and minds to God, to listen to His Word, and, if we are worthy, to receive His Body and Blood. In Church, nothing should distract us from trying to come closer to God in our hearts, minds and souls. Nothing.

Factions, parties, and partisanship — whatever term we use for it — have no place in the Church. They divide us in the most important place where we must stand united. St. Paul went so far as to call “party spirit” a work of the flesh, and compare it to many very wicked sins that exclude people from the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-21). We certainly need more guidance from our Church about the principles and demands of our faith, and how we can apply that to the issues of our day.  But we cannot allow partisan politics to turn us against each other — or against the Church — and divert us from our real role in the world. In the famous Letter to Diognetus written way back in the second century, this was how the Christians were described:

… there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country… They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law… To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world…  Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

That is indeed a lofty function, one that we cannot allow to be diluted by politics or factions.

Judges — Not Tribunes of the People

February 6th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of Principle

February 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same holds for the other core issues. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. If you don’t respect human life, don’t see the need to preserve marriage as one man and one woman, and won’t defend religious liberty, they you just have to look elsewhere to get your fifty percent plus one.

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

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

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

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