A “single issue”?

I have tried to avoid using this site for direct political advocacy. I knew that would be difficult during a presidential campaign in these hyper-partisan times, and some commenters have expressed frustration that I have not been more pointedly political.

Of course, I know politics and government are central to most of the critical issues that confront us. But rather than join the cacophony of rancorous partisan debate, I wanted to try to objectively examine the moral imperatives at the core of Catholic social teachings, rather than erroneously reducing those teachings to partisan policy positions—as too many are doing already.

In that vein, I need to challenge an argument put forward virtually every election year—spearheaded this year, it seems, by several American bishops. It is the contention that the ongoing, intentional mass destruction of pre-born human life is reducible to a “single issue” interchangeable with other “social justice” issues.

I disagree. I believe, consistent with statements by the U.S. Bishops over the years, that legalized abortion violates a foundational principle, of our Declaration of Independence and the natural law of God on which it is based: that every human life, created by God, is sacred; and every human being, from the moment of creation, has a natural, unalienable right to life.

As such, legalized abortion—in the words of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, author of the “seamless garment” approach to life issues—”undermines respect for life in all other contexts.”  

It is as it was with the “single issue” of slavery in the 19th century. There the foundational principle of individual liberty—also a part of the natural law of God and also cited as a natural right in the Declaration of Independence—was undermined by the enslavement of millions of people; and America’s great experiment in human freedom could not legitimately move forward until this unspeakable violation of that foundational principle was abolished.

Today, we cannot truly build a culture of life—nor can we consistently advocate for “justice” in any credible sense—until the massive denial of life and justice to the most innocent, most defenseless of human beings is ended.

Thus I adhere to the principle set forth by the U.S. Bishops in their 1999 document, “Living the Gospel of Life”: “We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of innocent human life.”

The bishops did not say “begin and end”; of course, we must go from there to address a wide range of issues of human suffering, threats to human life and justice. But we must begin by addressing the ONLY issue where the direct, massive killing of innocent human life is government policy. Because it is that reality—that this killing is carried out “under mantle of law,” in Cardinal Bernardin’s words—that “undermines respect for life in all other contexts.”  

Moreover, by invoking abortion as a “solution” to a range of social concerns—poverty, child abuse, disability—the abortion mentality invites us to destroy the victims, rather than the causes, of human suffering. And that has implications far beyond the millions of unborn children killed every year—as if that reality were not horrific enough.   

Consider a couple of examples of how the abortion mentality negatively impacts other issues of life and justice. 

Take our responsibility to protect the environment. We constantly hear that climate change is “settled science.” I’m not quite sure what that means. Do we know that certain changes are not just cyclical? Do we know if, and how much, human activity is a contributing factor? If so, do we know what the solutions are? More importantly, do we really know what the long-term effects are? I’m not debunking this; I readily admit I don’t know enough about it. I’m trying to learn, but it is sometimes difficult to discern what is science from what is ideology.  

Contrast this with what we KNOW to be settled science—that every child in utero is a growing, developing, LIVING human being. Yet we disregard that science, destroying these lives by the thousands every day. How do we allow that settled science to be ignored, but expect to convince people to respond to the relatively less settled science of global warming?

Or consider the death penalty, which I ardently oppose. But the death penalty is not used to intentionally kill innocent people. Of course, it does result in innocent people being wrongly executed. That is one of the reasons to oppose it, though our Catholic reasons run much deeper.

But how do we sensitize people to the value of the life of even the most hardened, violent murderer, when we have become absolutely morally numbed to the massive killing of the most innocent, most defenseless, of human lives?

Of course, giving special attention to protecting the unborn does not—and should not—preclude our also doing what we can to address other issues of life and justice (allowing, of course, for differing prudential judgements; agreeing on injustices to be addressed does not require being in lockstep on solutions. That is a topic for a future post.)

The problem comes when we have to make political choices, as between one candidate who opposes abortion and another whose stands on other “justice” issues we may like, but who supports the legalized killing of the unborn.

In such cases, I would never presume to tell my fellow Catholics who they must vote for. I will, however, try to persuade them that the injustice of abortion is so massive, and so all-encompassing in its undermining of respect for human life, that perhaps they might see it as I do: as a disqualifying issue that precludes my voting for a pro-abortion candidate.

And I would ask those who disagree: Would a Catholic in 19th century America have been justified in voting against a candidate solely because that candidate supported the continued enslavement of millions of human beings?

Or would that, too, have been unacceptable “single issue” voting? 

Reagan modeled civil discourse we need now

My wife Eileen and I are hunkered down this week under Cuomo’s quarantine, following our trip to California last week to visit the Reagan Ranch. The visit was arranged by our daughter Clare, who works for Young America’s Foundation (YAF)—and we are so grateful to that organization and its president Ron Robinson, for preserving this historic and iconic site. 

For me, our visit recalled a decade, the 1980s, that was transformative—on a personal level, as those were the years in which Eileen and I met and married, and I finally finished college and embarked on my career in Catholic communications; but also on the national and international stage, as Reagan’s presidency revitalized America, St. John Paul II’s papacy rejuvenated the Church, and together they lit the spark and kindled the flames of peaceful revolution that ended the Cold War and freed millions from the yoke of Communist oppression.

It also seems, looking backward from the vantage point of 2020, to have been a much tamer time as well. Of course, in many ways it wasn’t. The world was gripped then as now by wars, terrorism, and threats to human survival; and domestically, many of the issues that still challenge us today—racial tensions, violent crime, immigration, health care, poverty, the mass destruction of pre-born human lives—were with us back then.

But I am thinking of the public discourse surrounding our politics—and the vital role that Ronald Reagan played in promoting civility in that discourse.

Of course, politics has always had a nasty edge to it; and we were reminded during this visit of the nastiness and ad hominem attacks to which Reagan was subjected by political opponents and media critics.

Remember, he was not just portrayed as wrong on the issues—that was fair game, as when then-GOP primary opponent George H.W. Bush termed Reagan’s tax cut plan “voodoo economics.” In that realm Reagan gave as good as he got—as when he said of the economic crisis, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”

Hard-hitting, but the point was a policy one—Carter’s economic program was failing, in Reagan’s view, and a change in leadership was needed.

Contrast that with the constant portrayals of Reagan as a simplistic dolt who would starve the poor and plunge the world into nuclear annihilation. I cannot recall an instance when he responded in kind to such vicious personal attacks. If any readers do recall such an instance, I would appreciate your passing it along.

Instead, he sometimes deflected such personal attacks with self-deprecating humor. Most often he patiently strove to explain how he felt his policies would have just the opposite effect—uplifting the poor by stimulating economic growth, preserving world peace by being strong enough to deter aggression. That he did so, of course, in plain-spoken language that made his ideas accessible to all—earning him the “Great Communicator” sobriquet— drove his opponents crazy, and provoked their attacks on his intellect.

I would maintain that his civility and respect for his political adversaries was also a critical part of that “great communicator” persona. He was about persuading people as to the rightness of his ideas, not trying to demonize those who disagreed. He saved his strong moral condemnations for those world forces that were truly malevolent, like the Soviet “evil empire” that engaged in genocide and enslavement of its own people. Domestic political opponents were just that—political adversaries, not enemies—and while Reagan argued that their policy ideas were wrong-headed, one strains to recall him ever questioning their good intentions.    

His respect and civility seemed to draw out those qualities in his opponents as well. We were reminded during our visit to the ranch of his rather remarkable relationship with then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Despite often bitter battles over tax cuts and various other legislation, the two seemed to have developed a genuine respect and even personal liking for one another. Can anyone even imagine, absent an overt act of God, a similar relationship developing today between President Trump and Speaker Pelosi?

Agree or disagree with President Reagan’s policies—I agreed with many of them—we all, I think, owe him a special debt of gratitude for modeling the art of civil political discourse. Like some others of that era—I’m thinking of the conservative Jack Kemp and the liberal “happy warrior” Hubert Humphrey—he showed how one can be a strong, emphatic advocate for the policies and principles one believes in, while respecting, not demonizing those who disagree.

How we miss that positive spirit; and how well it would serve us today, amid what has become an absolutely poisonous political atmosphere.  

Convention prayers

Should Catholic clerics accept invitations to lead prayers at political conventions? 

This question resurfaces every presidential election year, and 2020 is no exception.

Writing a guest column for CNN, former Augustinian priest Brian Frawley scolded Cardinal Timothy Dolan for offering an invocation at this year’s Republican National Convention.

Frawley apparently had no objection to Jesuit Father James Martin leading a prayer at the Democratic National Convention. For as he made clear, the issue for him was not the propriety of a Catholic cleric praying at a political convention. The issue for him was Donald Trump.

After listing a range of issues on which he finds Trump unacceptable, Frawley concluded: “Dolan should understand the power of his presence at the convention and be mindful that this gesture will be seen by many as an affirmation of the President.”

Of course that was not Cardinal Dolan’s intention, anymore than it was his intention to be politically partisan when he gave the benediction at the 2008 Republican convention—and was vilified for it, until he silenced his critics by accepting a subsequent invitation to also pray at the Democratic convention. Doubtless he would have done so again this year, if asked.    

The point is that—even as we exercise prudential judgment in choosing which candidates and political parties to support—we, and certainly our faith leaders, are called to pray for all who aspire to positions of leadership. Whether we agree with some, all or none of their policy positions; whether we find their rhetoric inspiring or offensive, we pray that God will guide them, in their words and actions, toward service to the common good.

“Pray we must,” Cardinal Dolan intoned: yes, for the baby in the womb, but also for immigrants and refugees; for those suffering from hunger, addiction, or war; for the sick and the elderly; for those afflicted with the coronavirus and those treating them; for those suffering from religious persecution; for peace in the world and in our own city streets; for religious freedom.

There was nothing partisan about his prayer; which will not, of course, stop those with their own agenda from reading into it.   

Others were troubled by Father Martin’s prayer at the Democratic convention, given that party’s increasingly extreme pro-abortion absolutism. But Father Martin too included the unborn among “those most in need” for whom he prayed, including those unemployed, immigrants, the homeless, those on death row, blacks threatened by racism, LGBT teens who are bullied.

Not so the prayer of Sister Simone Campbell. The leader of Network, which calls itself a “Catholic social justice lobby,” joined the Democrats in pointedly excluding the unborn from her social justice agenda. Protection of the unborn is “above my pay grade” she had said before delivering a convention prayer for the “most marginalized”—the poor, immigrants, victims of racism, bigotry, sexism—but not unborn children. Several years ago, in fact, she stated her opposition to making abortion illegal.  

Republicans, too, featured a Catholic nun at their convention: Sister Deirdre Byrne of the Community of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Sister Deirdre spoke forcefully in defense of the unborn—not, she made clear, to the exclusion of other marginalized groups, but precisely because of her consistent commitment to the sacredness of all human life. This has been manifest in her decades as a doctor and a Catholic missionary, “working to serve the poor and the sick in Haiti, Sudan, Kenya, Iraq and in Washington, D.C., ” and ministering to refugees “fleeing war-torn and impoverished countries all around the world.”

While these suffering peoples “have all been marginalized, viewed as insignificant, powerless and voiceless,” Sister Deirdre stressed, “the largest marginalized group in the world can be found here in the United States. They are the unborn.” Hers is a truly consistent ethic of life, that holds all life as sacred but recognizes that true social justice is contingent on our protection of the “innocent, powerless, voiceless life” in the womb.

Recall these words from none other than the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, author of the “seamless garment” approach to life issues:

“A society which destroys human life by abortion under the mantle of law unavoidably undermines respect for life in all other contexts. Likewise, protection in law and practice of unborn life will benefit all life, not only the lives of the unborn.”

Obviously, Sister Deirdre would agree. Sister Simone apparently not, as she could not bring herself, while praying as a Catholic sister on national television, to include the unborn in her prayers for the vulnerable.

Frawley wrongly suggested that Cardinal Dolan treats abortion “as the only Catholic issue that ever matters.” In fact, three of these four Catholics who offered prayers at the conventions included the unborn within a wide range of marginalized, vulnerable people they prayed for.  Only Sister Simone did not. Instead, she treated the mass destruction of unborn human life as virtually the only issue that does not matter to her. And that, not Cardinal Dolan’s non-partisan prayer at the Republican convention, is what should sadden us.  

DOMINIC SMITH’S PAIN

I like Dominic Smith.

I’ve always liked his positive attitude as a New York Met; his tenacity in battling adversity; his team-first attitude even when his own playing time was limited; his willingness to work hard to learn a new position, left field, when rookie sensation Pete Alonso displaced him at first base last year; and finally, his fighting his way into the everyday lineup this season, when he has emerged as the team’s most productive hitter.

It also didn’t hurt that, whenever he crosses home plate, he blesses himself with the sign of the cross.

And then there is his backstory: growing up amid inner-city poverty in south central Los Angeles, drafted by the Mets after participating in a Major League Baseball inner-cities youth program. Now he gives of himself to help other youngsters in south central LA, through the Baseball Generation Foundation, which uses baseball as a tool to “foster character, cognitive skills, social skills, and self-confidence in youth from elementary school to college.” 

So when, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week, Dom Smith took a knee during the playing of the national anthem, I, for one, sat up and took notice.

Yes, Smith had some strong things to say after the unconscionable police killing of George Floyd, recounting some of his own experiences with racism and mistreatment by police. 

But this was not Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James, condemning America as oppressive while stuffing their pockets full of Nike dollars obtained on the backs of slave laborers in China. It wasn’t James, while raking in untold millions himself for playing a game, accusing NFL owners of having a “slave mentality” toward the players to whom they pay countless millions. 

Watching Dom Smith openly weeping as he explained his action after the Blake shooting, I saw a responsible, caring young man, a man who is working to better the lives of poor black youth in his neighborhood, now in deep pain over another police shooting of a black man. 

To be sure, we don’t know all the relevant facts of the Kenosha shooting. While Jacob Blake’s supporters say he was trying to break up a domestic dispute when police arrived, authorities say police were called because he was violating a restraining order related to a pending sexual assault allegation against him. That’s serious stuff.

A police union claims Blake had a knife and had violently assaulted one of the officers. The Wisconsin attorney general’s office will neither confirm nor deny the union’s version as it investigates, and caution is warranted. Recall that after the George Floyd killing, even the staunchly pro-cop New York Post deplored the tendency of police unions to automatically defend the cops in virtually every situation.

While we should all hold the vast majority of police in high regard as courageous men and women who put their lives on the line for us, we know there are also bad, even criminal, cops. I’m not certain how often racism is what motivates such cops (I suspect it is often just a lust for power) but then I don’t have the same experience with police that Dominic Smith has had as a young black male. And so I can appreciate the intense pain he feels, as he works to improve life in black America, over one more police shooting of a black man.

At the same time, it is to be hoped that he also feels intense pain for all those innocent black victims who have been killed in recent weeks as street crime soars in America’s cities in the wake of current anti-policing policies. It is to be hoped that he feels the pain of black small business owners who have seen their livelihoods destroyed by looters and rioters ostensibly protesting racism. It is to be hoped that he feels the pain of so many young black males growing up without the love and guidance of fathers—making them especially vulnerable to the lure of gangs, drugs, and violence, and surely contributing to the wildly disproportionate incarceration rate of young African Americans.

I am hopeful, without knowing him, that Dominic Smith does feel the pain of those realities, as he strives so hard to give black inner-city youth a chance. We need to support him in that work, as well as in his efforts to protest police brutality and to eradicate racial intolerance. And whatever our feelings about his decision to “take a knee” during the national anthem, we should be grateful to him for sharing his heartfelt pain, as he urges us to work together to make America a better place for all.  

Opposing “hate speech” or just hating speech?

“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist.”

That quote from Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave who became one of America’s most powerful voices for freedom, highlights an important statement issued August 11 by a distinguished group of academic scholars, faith leaders, and commentators.

The Philadelphia Statement—so named in recognition of the historic, contentious debates in that city that ultimately produced the Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution—is a call for renewed respect for the freedom of thought and expression that those documents bequeathed to our nation.

The statement—signed by, among others, such distinguished Catholics as recently retired Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput and Dr. Robert P. George of Princeton Law School—deplores the “Social media mobs, Cancel culture” and “Campus speech policing” that today are stifling such free expression.

“Blacklisting is spreading,” the statement laments. From corporations “enacting ‘hate speech’ policies to protect people from ‘wrong’ and ‘harmful’ content,” to colleges and universities “imposing speech regulations to make students ‘safe’” from ideas they don’t like, policies and regulations are being imposed that “foster conformism (‘groupthink’) and train us to respond to intellectual challenges with one or another form of censorship.”

“A society that lacks comity and allows people to be shamed or intimidated into self-censorship of their ideas and considered judgments will not survive for long,” the authors warn. In contrast, “dissenting and unpopular voices…have often guided our society toward more just positions.” For that very reason—fostering a more just social order—such voices, “be they of the left or the right—must be afforded the opportunity to be heard.”

Dr. George has issued several similar statements in recent years—including one as recently as July 15 of this year— with Cornel West, a philosophy and African-American studies professor at Harvard. In 2017 the two published a statement denouncing “campus illiberalism,” and supporting “truth seeking, democracy and freedom of thought and expression.” Moreover, while diametrically opposed on many issues—George identified by Inside Higher Ed as “one of the country’s most prominent conservative intellectuals,” West “a self-described ‘radical Democrat’”—they have modeled, in exchanges on various issues, how it is both possible and desirable to engage in spirited but respectful disagreement and debate. 

Of particular import, in my view, is the Philadelphia Statement’s concern about “‘hate’ labeling.” While acknowledging that free speech is not an absolute, citing proscriptions on defamation, intimidation and threats, or incitement to violence, the authors deplore the effort to silence even mainstream groups and ideas by defaming them as “hate groups” or “hate speech.” They point out that imposing “‘hate speech’ exceptions to free speech principles is foreign to our free speech ideals, impossible to define, and often used by those wielding political, economic, or cultural power to silence dissenting voices.” Instead, they call for “openness, to allow ideas and beliefs the chance to be assessed on their own merits,” trusting “that bad ideas will be corrected not through censorship but through better arguments.”

Decades ago, when our pro-life youth group used to give talks in high schools and colleges on Long Island (we were even welcome in some public schools in those days, something not likely to happen today) we were challenged one day by a particularly aggressive high school student. As I was answering her arguments, she grew exasperated and finally blurted out “Oh! Are you Catholic?”

To their credit, the two teachers present immediately rebuked her. I could have let it go at that, dismissing her apparent appeal to anti-Catholic prejudice as not worthy of a response. Better, I thought, to refute what she was implying—and others in the class may have been thinking—that our pro-life convictions were rooted solely in Catholic religious beliefs. So I took the opportunity to answer her, pointing out that nothing we had said reflected a religious argument against abortion. We had detailed the development of the baby in utero, described what abortion does to that living baby, and talked about positive alternatives to the very real crises that can lead women to choose abortion.

Was that girl’s question an example of “hate speech”? Well, it was not for us to judge what was in her heart. Confident in our pro-life arguments, our purpose was to stick to the real issues—the facts about life before birth, the sanctity of human life, and its protection and nurturing—rather than be distracted by real or perceived “hate speech” from one who disagreed with us.

And that seems to be a weakness among today’s cancel culture—particularly among those on college campuses termed “snowflakes” by some for their insistence on being shielded from hearing any perspective different from their own. They seem unable or unwilling to develop or articulate positive arguments to support their own ideas, and so instead they simply resort to labeling any opposing views as “hate speech” and shutting them down.

Are they really against “hate speech,” or do they simply “hate speech” they disagree with?

That is not a formula for advancing true social justice. Rather, as the Philadelphia Statement makes clear, it is a formula for destruction of the social order.

Amid polarized discourse, we need Catholic voices of reason

To characterize today’s public discourse as lacking in civility is, to say the least, a monumental understatement. While discussions involving politics, culture, religion have always been contentious, today such discussion has degenerated to a frightening level of anger, hatred, and intolerance. Those who hold differing opinions are not just to be disagreed with; they are to be vilified, slandered—and ultimately silenced! Across the broad scope of our public discourse—among politicians, media outlets, activist groups, on social media, and now in our streets—there runs the arrogant conceit that no ideas different from one’s own are even worth listening to; and no expression of such ideas is to be tolerated.

This is the very antithesis of what public discourse should and must be in a pluralistic, free society. We cannot begin to address our seemingly intractable problems if we cannot even engage in civil discussion about their possible causes and solutions.

From a Catholic standpoint, of course, this breakdown in civility is deplorable not only from a practical, but also from a moral perspective. For not only does it limit our ability to freely consider all possible solutions to matters of human suffering and injustice; it also indulges an extreme judgmentalism that dehumanizes, even demonizes, anyone who dares to hold, let alone express, an opinion different from our own.  

As one who has spent the last quarter-century offering commentary from a Catholic perspective, I find this terribly disheartening. While I take a back seat to no one in stating my beliefs forcefully, I have always tried to do so respectfully, persuasively—anxious to hear and respond to opposing views, not shut them down.

I learned to do this years ago when I first became active in the pro-life movement. Filled with the fervor and idealism of youth—and not a little arrogance—I was convinced that I was right, and couldn’t wait to put our opponents in their place. Veteran pro-lifers taught me that it is not enough to win arguments—that our goal is to change minds and hearts, and that is seldom done by insulting others, demeaning their views, or silencing them.

Better, I learned, if we want a fair hearing from those who disagree, to give them a fair hearing as well, and to respond effectively to their arguments if we hope to change their minds.  

I have always found, whatever the issue, that having my views challenged helped me to strengthen my arguments—or, on occasion, to find merit in a point made by a critic and thereby modify my own thinking, or at least gain a greater understanding of the perspectives and motivations of those who disagree with me.

And that is a critical point for those who, concerned with Catholic social teaching, hone in on one particular policy approach to a problem, and dismiss all who disagree as uncaring about the issue at hand—be it poverty, health care, the environment, or criminal justice, to name a few. This goes against the clear teaching of Gaudium et spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

That document states that, while one person’s “Christian vision will suggest a certain solution in some given situation,” it “happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that some of the faithful, with no less sincerity, will see the problem quite differently”; and that “in those cases no one is permitted to identify the authority of the Church exclusively with his own opinion.” Rather, Catholics in such instances should “try to guide each other by sincere dialogue in a spirit of mutual charity and with anxious interest above all in the common good.”

That is sage advice for everyone, not just Catholics, in our dangerously polarized current environment. It is what I will try to do with this blog site, as I tried to do in my years as editor of The Long Island Catholic: articulate and defend the teachings of the Church, through my own voice or, when warranted, by inviting the contributions of those more expert than myself; offer my own views, informed by Catholic moral and social teachings, on those matters that avail themselves of differing prudential judgments; and, in those cases, welcome the differing prudential judgments of others and engage them in discussion—always with a determination to remain civil, respectful, and non-judgmental, as truly befits a Catholic exchange of ideas.

I may also eventually try expand this site to offer coverage of hard news of interest to Catholics and the Church, particularly here on Long Island; news about critical issues and public policies, to be sure, but also, as we used to do with The Long Island Catholic newspaper, news about events and activities in our Catholic communities—our parishes, schools, diocesan agencies, Catholic lay organizations. Perhaps we can look forward to including audio and visual features, even a regular podcast. Time, and level of interest, will determine whether such expansion can happen.

For now, I look forward to rejoining the local conversation about matters impacting our Church and our world. I hope you will enjoy visiting this site, not only to read what I have to say, but to share your own responses and read those of others; and I hope you will spread the word, by sharing this post and future posts through your email, Facebook and other social media contacts.   

I remain convinced, especially in these terribly troubled times, that the teachings of our Catholic Church hold true and lasting answers to so many of the crises, moral and social, that afflict our culture. So let’s talk about those teachings and together, in our own small way, work to spread them, to offer them to a world that so desperately needs them, and to explore how they best apply to the critical issues of our time.

Together, let us “read the signs of the times,” as Vatican II called us to do, “interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”

Please, let me hear your thoughts.