Apr 14

We have devolved.

That’s not news, except to those people who haven’t been paying attention. How long ago did we actually exercise our right to disagree with facility and reason, in this representative republic, this exercise in democracy? And especially, with dignity?

Voltaire allegedly said ”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Though he did not, his biographer did. But it’s a noble sentiment.

So about the concept and reality of dignity, let’s look at what’s happened lately in the cultural meltdown over social moral issues, or anything that even refers to the word ‘moral.’ Fires ignite. Flamethrowers start lighting their torches. That’s bad enough. But one of the disturbing things among many, is that we’ve lost the meaning of words in the first place, so what’s moral isn’t sometimes what’s legal, and vice versa. Which leads inevitably to the throwdown challenge, who decides.

As if there’s no reference point. As if it’s a matter of consensus maybe? Because that’s what drives our culture.

Just as the Little Sisters of the Poor lawsuit put the spotlight on government encroachment on religious liberty, the meltdown that put white hot light on the decline of our civilization is the whole Brendan Eich/Mozilla affair over the issue of gay marriage. This need not have happened this way.

So, what happened?

A rundown:

First Things ran this, under ‘Anonymous’, such is the atmosphere of fear of retribution these days.

Silicon Valley is in an uproar. Angry blog posts have been written, resignations tendered, and boycotts organized, with no sign that the furor is likely to abate. Seeing such ruckus, a casual observer might assume that some fallout had finally resulted from the shocking revelation that several of the largest names in the technology industry—including Google, Apple, Intel, and others—have secretly colluded to drive down wages among software engineers and executives for the better part of the past decade. In fact it concerns nothing of the sort, but rather the appointment of a man named Brendan Eich to the role of CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser.

The one thing all sides can agree on is that Eich, on paper, is very well suited to the job. His most notable technical achievement is the invention of the Javascript programming language, and while some of us might sniff at the poor design decisions which made that language notoriously unpleasant to work with, it is incontestable that it forms the underpinnings of much of the modern web. Indeed, a great deal of the complexity in a modern web browser is devoted to interpreting JavaScript as quickly and correctly as possible, and a staggering amount of work has gone into finding ever more baroque methods of optimizing its execution. Eich himself is quite familiar with all of this labor, having served in senior technical roles at Mozilla since he co-founded it. In fact, he has worked there almost continuously for the past sixteen years—an aeon in Silicon Valley—and is widely-known and liked within the company, the non-profit foundation that controls it, and the broader community of programmers around it.

Why, then, the ruckus? Amazingly enough, it is entirely due to the fact that Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign urging a ‘yes’ vote on California’s Proposition 8. When this fact first came to light, Eich, who was then CTO of Mozilla, published a post on his personal blog stating that his donation was not motivated by any sort of animosity towards gays or lesbians, and challenging those who did not believe this to cite any “incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”

That is honesty. He’s saying, basically, ‘everyone has an opinion, a belief, and this is mine. By holding this belief I have in no way dishonored any person, or treated them disrespectfully.’

Then he reached out further.

Upon being named CEO last Wednesday, Eich immediately put up another post which among other things pledged in direct terms first that he would ensure Mozilla continued offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; second that he would allocate additional resources to a project that aims to bring more LGBTQ individuals into the technology world and Mozilla in particular; and third that he would maintain and strengthen Mozilla’s policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s worth emphasizing that Eich made this statement prior to the storm of outrage which has since erupted, and that with these policies and others Mozilla easily ranks among the most gay-friendly work environments in the United States.

Emphasis added there, because that’s a remarkable effort to show goodwill. It wasn’t made in response to outrage, but in advance of it. How many work environments have that policy in the US? Or anywhere?

None of this, however, would do him any good. Since then, the Internet has exploded with statements expressing horror, sadness, and anger at Eich’s appointment. Two board members of the Mozilla foundation have resigned, ostensibly because they felt the search committee was unduly weighted with insiders, and dozens of more junior employees and volunteers have left as well. Several major corporations have released official statements encouraging Eich’s resignation, though it is difficult to tell whether they are motivated by genuine moral outrage or by the potential for cheap publicity. Of course the tech media, preternaturally hungry for pageclicks, cannot get enough of the story.

One of the most widely-shared and lauded of the countless statements issued in response to the appointment was written by Owen Thomas, managing editor of Valleywag, a self-described “tech gossip rag.” This is such a remarkable document that I can’t help quoting from it extensively:

Go there and read it if you will. This post is long enough already.

Andrew Sullivan responded to the torching of Brendan Eich with his own horror.

The guy who had the gall to express his First Amendment rights and favor Prop 8 in California by donating $1,000 has just been scalped by some gay activists. After an OKCupid decision to boycott Mozilla, the recently appointed Brendan Eich just resigned under pressure:

‘In a post at Mozilla’s official blog, executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker confirmed the news with an unequivocal apology on the company’s behalf. “Mozilla prides itself on being held to a different standard and, this past week, we didn’t live up to it,” Baker wrote. “We didn’t act like you’d expect Mozilla to act. We didn’t move fast enough to engage with people once the controversy started. We’re sorry. We must do better.”

‘The action comes days after dating site OKCupid became the most vocal opponent of Eich’s hiring. Mozilla offered repeated statements about LGBT inclusivity within the company over the past two weeks, but those never came with a specific response from Eich about his thousands of dollars of donations in support of Proposition 8, a California ballot measure that sought to ban gay marriage in the state.’

End of statement. To which Sullivan responds:

Will he now be forced to walk through the streets in shame? Why not the stocks? The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

Thank you, Andrew Sullivan. That is intellectual honesty. You made my point. Those who rightly expressed outrage at being bullied are now bullying others. Simply because they can. Which makes them just like their former opponents, certainly no better.

Joel Kotkin says it’s The spread of ‘debate is over’ syndrome.

In many cases, I might agree with some leftist views, say, on gay marriage or the critical nature of income inequality, but liberals should find these intolerant tendencies terrifying and dangerous in a democracy dependent on the free interchange of ideas.

There’s the key to understanding or at least beginning to see what’s going on here. There is no free interchange of ideas. Some ideas are not only vilified, but crushed to the point where those who hold them must be professionally ruined or destroyed.

This shift has been building for decades and follows the increasingly uniform capture of key institutions – universities, the mass media and the bureaucracy – by people holding a set of “acceptable” viewpoints. Ironically, the shift toward a uniform worldview started in the 1960s, in part as a reaction to the excesses of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the oppressive conformity of the 1950s.

But what started as liberation and openness has now engendered an ever-more powerful clerisy – an educated class – that seeks to impose particular viewpoints while marginalizing and, in the most-extreme cases, criminalizing, divergent views.

Harsh words maybe, but well stated certainly.

Mollie Hemingway wrote this exceptional, challenging commentary and analysis.

Libertarian Nick Gillespie said he was “ambivalent” about Eich’s removal but that Eich’s resignation simply “shows how businesses respond to market signals.” And even conservatives weren’t rallying behind Eich on the grounds that marriage is an institution designed around sexual complementarity so much as by saying that even if he’s wrong, conscience should be protected.

At the end of the day, they’re all wrong. Or at least not even close to understanding the problem with Eich’s firing. Political differences with CEOs, even deep political differences, are something adults handle all the time. Most of us know that what happened held much more significance than anodyne market forces having their way. And Eich shouldn’t be protected on the grounds that one has the right to be wrong. See, Eich wasn’t hounded out of corporate life because he was wrong. He was hounded out of corporate life because he was right. His message strikes at the root of a popular but deeply flawed ideology that can not tolerate dissent.

And what we have in Eich is the powerful story of a dissident — one that forces those of us who are still capable of it to pause and think deeply on changing marriage laws and a free society.

Now Mollie gets into territory that rivets my attention, the work and writings of Vaclav Havel…

…the Czech playwright, poet, dissident and eventual president. Havel, who died in 2011, was a great man of freedom, if somewhat idiosyncratic in his political views. He was a fierce anti-communist who was also wary of consumerism, a long-time supporter of the Green Party who favored state action against global warming, and a skeptic of ideology who supported civil unions for same-sex couples.

“The Power of the Powerless,” written under a communist regime in 1978, is his landmark essay about dissent. It’s a wonderful read, no matter your political persuasion. It asks everyone to look at how they contribute to totalitarian systems, with no exceptions. It specifically says its message is “a kind of warning to the West,” revealing our own latent tendencies to set aside our moral integrity. Reading it again after the Eich dismissal, I couldn’t help but think of how it applies to our current situation in the States.

“The post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline,” Havel wrote, using the term he preferred over “dictatorship” for the complex system of social control experienced in Czechoslovakia. We also have a system that is demanding conformity, uniformity and discipline — it’s not just about marriage law, to be honest. It’s really about something much bigger — crushing the belief that the sexes are distinct in deep and meaningful ways that contribute to human flourishing. Obviously marriage law plays a role here — recent court rulings have asserted that the sexes are interchangeable when it comes to marriage. That’s only possible if they’re not distinct in deep and meaningful ways. But the push to change marriage laws is just one part of a larger project to change our understanding of sexual distinctions.

This commentary is just about the best analysis of the critical issues at hand out there right now. It should be engaged. The cultural battles have devolved into incoherence.

OK, let’s step back. What does any of this have to do with views on marriage? Well, I know that we’ve had years of criminally one-sided media coverage, cowardly political leaders and elite cultural views that have conveyed to you that the only reason anyone might think sexual complementarity is key to marriage is bigotry. You may have even internalized this message. You may need to hold on to this belief for reasons of tribalism or pride. But in the spirit of Jon Stewart’s poster shown up at the top, which reads, “I may disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler,” let’s go on an open-minded journey where we seek to understand the views of others without characterizing them as Hitler-like. It’s difficult in these times, but we can do it.

She leads the reader through this dialectic journey.

So what is the difference between marriage and other relationships? There’s no question marriage has been treated dramatically differently than other relationships by governments and society. Why? Is it that it features a more vibrant or emotional connection? Or is there some feature that is a difference in kind – that marks it out as something that ought to be socially structured? We usually don’t want government in our other relationships, right? So why is marriage singled out throughout all time and human history as a different type of recognized relationship?

Well, read her article for the whole critical thinking exercise.

This is what marriage law was about. Not two friends building a house together. Or two people doing other sexual activities together. It was about the sexual union of men and women and a refusal to lie about what that union and that union alone produces: the propagation of humanity. This is the only way to make sense of marriage laws throughout all time and human history. Believing in this truth is not something that is wrong, and should be a firing offense. It’s not something that’s wrong, but should be protected speech. It’s actually something that’s right. It’s right regardless of how many people say otherwise. If you doubt the truth of this reality, consider your own existence, which we know is due to one man and one woman getting together. Consider the significance of what this means for all of humanity, that we all share this.

Now if one wants to change marriage laws to reflect something else, that’s obviously something that one can aim to do. We’ve seen the rapid, frequently unthinking embrace of that change in recent years, described one year ago in the humanist and libertarian magazine Spiked as “a case study in conformism” that should terrify “anyone who values diversity of thought and tolerance of dissent.”

Hang in there, even if you’re emotionally charged at this point. Because this appeals to reason and not emotion.

What is marriage? That’s a good question to answer, particularly if you want to radically alter the one limiting factor that is present throughout all history. Once we get an answer for what this new marriage definition is, perhaps our media and other elites could spend some time thinking about the consequences of that change. Does it in any way affect the right of children to be raised by their own mother and father? Have we forgotten why that’s an important norm? Either way, does it change the likelihood that children will be raised by their own mother and father? Does it by definition make that an impossibility for whatever children are raised by same-sex couples? Do we no longer believe that children should be raised by their own mother and father? Did we forget to think about children in this debate, pretending that it’s only about adults? In any case, is this something that doesn’t matter if males and females are interchangeable? Is it really true that there are no significant differences between mothers and fathers? Really? Are we sure we need to accept that lie? Are we sure we want to?

We are, she posits, slipping under ‘mob rule.’ But still at a warning point.

There’s much to be thankful for in aftermath of the madness of the Eich termination. For one thing, many people have rightly figured out that what happened there is terrifying. It’s not just natural marriage advocates but even some of same-sex marriage supporters most vocal advocates.

Such as the aforementioned and quoted Andrew Sullivan.

Far more than the political folks on either side, though, is the importance of what happened to the apolitical. In one sense, the most frightening aspect of the Eich termination was the message it sent to people throughout the country: Shut up or you will lose your livelihood. But in another sense, this dissident moment may spark something previously thought impossible.

Havel says that party politics and the law are the weakest grounds on which to fight against group think. Instead, he says that the real place for dissidents to fight for freedom is in the space where the complex demands of the system affect the ability to live life in a bearable way — to not be fired for one’s views, for instance. “People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being,” Havel said.

Exactly. Authentically.

It’s in this sense that Eich’s most important political work was not making a paltry $1,000 donation in defense of natural marriage laws. It was in refusing to recant.

Consider first the response of one of the activist’s calling for Eich’s head. After he resigned, activist Michael Catlin wrote that he never thought his campaign against Eich would go “this far” and that he wanted “him to just apologize.” So he was “sad” that Eich didn’t say the magic words that would have allowed him to keep his job. Yeah, he really said that.

And then think about how horrified people were that Eich lost his job for his views that men and women are different in important ways. Regardless of our previous views on marriage, we saw in Eich a dissident who forced us to think about totalitarianism and our role in making society unfree. Did we mindlessly put up red equal signs when we hadn’t even thought about what marriage is? Did we rush to fit in by telling others we supported same-sex marriage? Did we even go so far as to characterize as “bigots” or as “Hitlers” those who held views about the importance of natural marriage?

We must be able to engage these ideas, consider these questions, debate them and disagree, to hold onto and preserve our dignity and civilized society.

Whether Eich and other dissidents will crack our thick, hardened crust remains to be seen. Perhaps there will need to be dozens, hundreds, thousands more dissidents losing their livelihoods, facing court cases, and dealing with social media rage mobs. But all of a sudden, the crust doesn’t seem nearly as impenetrable as it did last week.

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Apr 07

Why the torrent of arguments and debates and angry comments in social media since this film came out, or even before it did?

Because it portrays a key event in the Bible and Torah, and offends the sensibilities of even the most open minded Hollywood insiders willing to give a creative license pass to respectable filmmakers. And the movie industry has a big impact on imaginations and subsequently, beliefs. Really.

Take it from Rabbi Benjamin Blech.

In a revealing interview with the New Yorker magazine, writer–director Darren Aronofsky shared his motivation in doing the movie with these words: “There is a huge statement in the film, a strong message about the coming flood from global warming.” Aronofsky told other entertainment reporters: “It’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now, for what’s going on this planet. … Noah was the first environmentalist.” And the reason for God’s anger with the world in Noah’s time that prompted the decree of divine destruction? Because Neolithic man was destroying his environment – although how he was able to do so without the carbon emissions resulting from a highly industrialized society is never explained.

Forget about the emphasis the Torah put on corruption and violence, or the fact that the first 10 generations never properly understood what God would later codify on the second tablet of the Decalogue summarizing the ethical responsibilities of man towards fellow man. “Now the earth was corrupt before God. And the earth became full of robbery. And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted” (Genesis 6:11 – 12).

Right. In spite of creative license, filmmakers are free to weave whatever fantastical tale they want around any story, including the Bible, the Torah, or any Sacred Scripture, or just anything they believe in.

But therein lies the problem. Everyone has a belief system. And applying an ancient, faith-based one to a postmodern one, wrought in the forging process, plays and plays havoc with people’s deeply held beliefs, traditions and narratives.

So, Darren Aronofsky takes great liberties in his whole portrayal of scriptural account of the Great Flood, especially its central figure.

And pity poor Noah for the way Aronofsky – in the person of Russell Crowe – chooses to depict him…

How embarrassing to see the feverish, self-righteous and almost maniacal Noah portrayed on the screen – a man so deluded by a supposed mission from God that he comes seconds away from murdering his infant grandchildren.

And here Rabbi Blech makes a most important point.

The Noah of the movie is not a depiction but rather a distortion of the Torah figure chosen to be spared by the Almighty and with his family to begin the story of mankind anew. To know that millions of viewers, after seeing this film, will internalize Russell Crowe’s Noah as well as many other parts of the film’s storyline that have no basis in the Bible or any other reputable sources should be cause for much concern by all those respectful of Torah and the guardianship of its truths.

It was precisely in this spirit that the prophetic sages of the Jewish people years ago proclaimed the day of the first translation of the Torah into another language, the Septuagint, as a day (of) fasting. What troubled them was that a translation might become considered as much the word of God as the original text. Just imagine how they would’ve felt about a film that transforms a biblical story into a work of personal imagination with a contemporary agenda that bears no relationship to the original.

That’s representative of many other reviews, blogs and social network posts on this film that was considered a ‘dog’ by its investors, according to Hollywood insiders, unless it could whip up Christian reactions to it and cause a buzz. That seemed to have worked.

Hollywood insider Brian Godawa has been out in front of this from its pre-release through the first week it hit the screens.

The Noah movie is ugly. It’s anti-human exceptionalism. It’s enviro-agitprop. And it’s poorly done. I can’t recommend this movie, not just because of it’s godawful theology (or should I say “earthology”), but because it’s godawful filmmaking. Like The Last Temptation of Christ. All the controversy overshadowed the fact that it was just plain terrible storytelling. Same here.

And people complain about Christian movies being so bad because they are agenda driven while suffering from poor storytelling and preachiness. Well, how about a new term: “Bad atheist movies” that suffer from poor storytelling and preachiness.

That’s some candid analysis. So is this:

Christians, you are tools being played if you think that this movie is anything BUT a subversion of the Biblical God and an exaltation of environmentalism and animal rights against humans. Don’t listen to those who say that hurting the earth is just part of the sins of mankind in the story. No matter what “sins” of man that are portrayed in this story, they are clearly only expressions of the ultimate sin, which is to sin against the earth. Every time it talks about man’s sin and God’s intent, the context is always “creation” not God, and not man as God’s image. The guy who preaches “man as God’s image” is the villain. “Creation” as in “Nature” is the metanarrative here, NOT God.

For those of you Christians who are fooling yourselves, just ask yourself this: Does Aronofsky believe in the God of the Bible as holy or in the earth as holy? I think you know the answer. And it ain’t both.

The very first thing said and repeated later is “In the beginning, there was nothing.” Now folks, Aronofsky is an atheist. He is subverting your Creation narrative that says “In the Beginning God…” not “Nothing.” Atheism believes that everything came out of nothing. And they say Creationists believe in irrational anti-science fairy tales!

Even in the end, Aronofsky’s humanism subverts God when Noah has his revelation about God’s purpose. Why didn’t God tell him whether or not to kill those little granddaughters so that the human race would never again corrupt Mother Earth? He kept asking, but God was silent. His daughter-in-law tells him “because he wanted you to decide if man was worth saving.” You see, it’s all up to man. God is not the one to decide if man is worth saving, MAN is. Because of course, in Aronofsky’s humanistic atheistic universe, God is only a belief, not a real being, and man must make the ultimate decisions of value and dignity.

After I read Dr. Brad Mattson’s commentary ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ I had a far better understanding of this thing. It’s long but worth the time to read.

Godawa follows up with this.

In our postmodern world that has argued the death of the author, there is a disdain for objective meaning rooted in the text or authorial intent. Therefore, we have embraced a very subjective “reader response” way of interpreting things. People tend to be more concerned about what they see or get out of a story than what the author may have intended. Thus our narcissistic culture obsessed with what we subjectively feel over what is objectively true.

So since the film was released just over a week ago, there has been a torrent of reviews and responses, Christians battling Christians over the film’s meaning and importance, or some perception of its artistic rendering of such, that’s given the thing more press than it probably deserves, on its own merits.

Furthermore…

The problem is that dissenters against the film have been unfairly smeared as being obsessed with an unreasonable fidelity to factual Biblical details. Other than the usual few extremists, many of us do not mind that there is creative license taken. Earth to cynics: We get it. It’s okay to make changes to fit the theme of the movie or limitations of the medium. I took a lot of creative license with my own novel, Noah Primeval, and Christians have not attacked me (except for those handful of extremist fundamentalists). What we are concerned about is what the changes add up to mean.

Stay with Godawa here, he’s making good points.

What is the storyteller making the story to mean? In this way, dissenters are respecting the director more than the defenders. And since the “auteur” himself has expressed certain aspects of his worldview, such as being an atheist, and humanist with a touch of Kabbalah fancy, we would do well to consider that in our understanding of his movie.

And yes, just because the filmmaker is an atheist doesn’t mean he can’t retell a sacred story, or even do it better than some Christians could. But in many cases that atheism or humanism can actually “repurpose” the story to another view — and it often does. And that is what has happened. The sacred story of Noah has been subverted into a humanistic but ultimately pagan narrative.

Consider this thought experiment, he continues:

If someone made a movie about Martin Luther King Jr. and portrayed him as a religious nut who had hallucinogenic delusions thinking they were from God, and almost murdered white people before turning pacifist, the African American community would rightly be adamantly opposed to such a story (And Hollywood would never do that, would they?). It wouldn’t matter if the filmmakers said, “Hey, lay off, we showed that in the end he brought about real change for civil rights didn’t we?” It matters how you get there…

I don’t know how much clearer it can be. Aronofsky is an atheist. He does not believe in the God of the Bible. If you doubt this, ask him yourself, “Do you believe that the Biblical Yahweh really exists and is the one true God?” He has said that he believes the Noah story is merely a myth that is not “owned” by the Judeo-Christian worldview. So, Christians and Jews, when he is retelling your sacred narrative about Noah, God is merely a metaphor to him for something else much more important to him. For a different god. It has to be, by his own self-definition…

Of course, the original sacred narrative requires a “god” in the story, but an atheist director wants to deconstruct that god into a being who is merely believed in, but ultimately is no different than humans making our own meaning. Effectively there is no difference between this “god” and no god at all. This is a common belief of humanism that even if there was a God, he wants us to decide for ourselves. To give us all those nasty commandments is just a jealous judgmental deity who doesn’t want us to grow up and be mature and decide for ourselves what is right and wrong.

Sound familiar, all you Bible scholars? Call it the influence of gnosticism, call it humanism, call it atheism, or not. Just throw out all the “isms” if it’s all too much academic-speak. The point is that all these trajectories have the same origin point: The lie of the Serpent. They all try to circumvent God by positing that man can “know good and evil” for himself. Man is to decide his fate and destiny, NOT God.

Take away God’s propositional personhood and you’ve already reduced him to the functional equivalent of mere subjective belief, which is no different than delusion. This is using a story about God to subvert that God.

That’s only a drop in the bucket of the flood of reactions to this film. Deserved or undeserved, it’s getting a startling amount and degree of attention. So potential viewers, be aware.

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Apr 03

That headline fires the imagination.

The visit was the long overdue, according to the protocol and history of presidents meeting with popes over the decades. Former Ambassador Francis Rooney made that point in a USA Today op-ed column last October.

The past few years have seen cordial but cooling relations between the United States and the Vatican. Since President Obama took office, he has visited the Vatican just once, and the administration has demonstrated little more than a perfunctory interest in the Holy See’s diplomatic role in the world. This is a lost opportunity at a critical time for America. U.S. foreign policy has much to gain from its relationship with the Holy See, the governing body of the Catholic Church. No institution on earth has both the international stature and the global reach of the Holy See — the “soft power” of moral influence and authority to promote religious freedom, human liberties, and related values that Americans and our allies uphold worldwide.

Ambassador Rooney was my guest on radio to talk about all this, because he has unique insights into this relationship, and he feels strongly about the importance of maintaining strong US-Vatican relations.

His commentary deserves attention.

The United States and the Holy See remain two of the most significant institutions in world history, one a beacon of democracy and progress, the other a sanctum of faith and allegiance to timeless principles. Despite these differences between the first modern democracy and the longest surviving Western monarchy, both were founded on the idea that “human persons” possess inalienable natural rights granted by God. This had been a revolutionary concept when the Catholic Church embraced it 2,000 years ago, and was equally revolutionary when the Declaration of Independence stated it 1,800 years later.

The Church is one of the leading advocates and providers for the poor in the world, fights against the scourge of human trafficking, and advances the cause of human dignity and rights more than any other organization in the world. The Holy See also plays a significant role in pursuing diplomatic solutions to international predicaments. In 2007, for example, the Holy See helped secure the release of several British sailors who had been picked up by the Iranian navy. Its long-standing bilateral relations with Iran and the lack of such relations by the British and other western governments created an opportunity for successful intervention.

And more recently, the Holy See issued its diplomatic note concerning the civil war in Syria, calling for a “concept of citizenship” in which everyone is a citizen with equal dignity. It is urging the commissions which are working on a possible future constitution and laws to ensure that Christians and representatives of all other minorities be involved. This immediately helped place a spotlight on the plight of Christians and the ongoing exodus of all non-Muslims from most Middle East countries for the last 30 years. The power and influence of the Holy See is often underestimated. A benevolent monarchy tucked into a corner of a modern democracy, the Holy See is at once a universally recognized sovereign representing more than a billion people (one-seventh of the world’s population) — and the civil government of the smallest nation-state on earth. It has no military and only a negligible economy, but it has greater reach and influence than most nations. It’s not simply the number or variety of people that the Holy See represents that gives it relevance; it’s also the moral influence of the Church, which is still considerable despite secularization and scandals.

The Holy See advocates powerfully for morality in the lives of both Catholics and non-Catholics, and in both individuals and nations. One may disagree with some of the Church’s positions and yet still recognize the value — the real and practical value — of its insistence that “right” should precede “might” in world affairs. At its core, the Catholic Church is a powerful and unique source of non-coercive “soft power” on the world stage — it moves people to do the right thing by appealing to ideals and shared values, rather than to fear and brute force. America’s foreign policy is much more likely to succeed with the support of the Holy See.

His book The Global Vatican elaborates on that, and I was interested in his recently expressed optimism at seeing the president planning a visit with Pope Francis on his travels last week. I asked how he saw that visit, given conflicting reports on what the two leaders talked about in private, but the certainty that they agreed on some mutual goals while differing on certain principles. Ambassador Rooney responded “Well, we are, after all, a people of hope.”

What did they talk about? In advance, big media speculated the two would focus on points of agreement, on economic inequality and immigration, human trafficking and humanitarian relief. But that issue agenda was laden with problems some media ignored, especially in the areas of the administration removing the US bishops’ human trafficking relief aid, and the humanitarian relief provided by the US being tied to ‘reproductive justice.’

I’m always interested in the facts and the truth and the basics, so I wanted to cut through the spin. Fortunately, we have more of an idea of what happened between the pope and the president than we could expect from such a high level, closed door meeting. Top Vatican watcher Sandro Magister wrote this:

In his meeting with Barack Obama a few days ago, Pope Francis was not silent on what divides the American administration from the Church of that country on weighty questions like “the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection.” And he stressed this in the statement issued after the discussion.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio does not like direct conflict, in public, with the powerful of the world. He lets the local episcopates take action. But he does not conceal his own disagreement, and he is careful to maintain his distance. In the photos of his official meetings he poses with a stern expression, unlike the exaggerated smiles of his counterpart of the moment, in this case the head of the world’s greatest power.

Nor could he do otherwise, given the radically critical judgment that Pope Francis fosters within himself regarding today’s worldly powers.

It is a judgment that he has never made explicit in a complete form. But he has offered many glimpses of it. For example, with his frequent references to the devil as the great adversary of the Christian presence in the world, seeing him at work behind the curtains of the political and economic powers. Or when he lashes out – as in the homily of November 18, 2013 – against the “sole form of thought” that wants to enslave all of humanity to itself, even at the price of “human sacrifices,” complete with “laws that protect them.”

Apparently, these issues came up, diplomatically, in that meeting.

In their first face-to-face meeting, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church’s concerns with President Barack Obama’s policies on abortion, conscience rights, and freedom of religion.

A source familiar with the talks told LifeSiteNews that the Vatican press release on the meeting was “remarkably forthright” in emphasizing the fact that the pope raised these issues with the president.

According to the press release, the pope launched a discussion with the American president about the proper role of church and state, raising “questions of particular relevance for the [Catholic] Church in that country.” These included “the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life, and conscientious objection,” according to the Vatican.

The 52-minute-long meeting marked Obama’s first audience with Pope Francis. The divide between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church has deepened since his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, with broiling arguments over the president’s promotion of abortion-on-demand, same-sex “marriage,” and the HHS contraceptive/abortifacient mandate.

Just to note, a 52 minute meeting with Pope Francis by a head of state is almost half an hour longer than the usual.

Then it ended with the cordial exchange of gifts.

Pope Francis presented President Obama with a copy of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), which criticizes some public figures who attempt to marginalize the pro-life message by presenting it as “ideological, obscurantist, and conservative.”

“This defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” Pope Francis wrote. “It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”

The president said he may look at it. “You know, I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval Office,” Obama responded, “when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and will calm me down.”

A source of hope.

For his part – perhaps signaling a wish for a new springtime with the church – Obama gave Francis a collection of seeds used in the White House garden. The kicker, however, was the chest they came in: custom-made and engraved with the occasion and date, the case was fashioned of wood from the US’ first cathedral, Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption, which the Jesuit founder-Bishop John Carroll and Benjamin Latrobe – the future architect of the Capitol – designed as a monument to religious freedom in the American experiment. Against the backdrop of the Obamacare contraceptive mandate which has roiled the Stateside church for going on three years, the significance is rather rich.

With religious freedom being at stake in the two HHS mandate lawsuits before the Supreme Court, one can only hope the president does follow through a read Evangelii Gaudium in the Oval Office or anywhere, and take to hear the message Pope Francis so incisively delivers in that document. The president admires the pope. Maybe he’ll consider his teaching.

But as Ambassador Rooney repeated by the end of an hour’s discussion of ‘The Global Vatican’ and the importance of US-Vatican relations, “we remain a people of hope.”

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Mar 31

It’s not really news anymore that signup for healthcare as promised and touted by the president has hit another glitch. But that it did on deadline day generated at least some headlines.

Like Politico’s. The bottom line is more the story than the body of the story.

Public opinion polls have shown many Americans are still opposed to the law. A new Washington Post-ABC poll released Monday showed approval rising slightly, with 49 in favor and 48 opposed, but many other surveys have found more skepticism.

So, fair assessment is that we’re about evenly split over Obamacare. Allegedly.

The issues I have with it relate to life, true healthcare coverage and accessibility, and conscience rights, as regular readers here know. Those have been highlighted in the HHS mandate lawsuits over the past two years.

Here’s another detailed rundown of what’s wrong with the Affordable Care Act, which few people have actually read.

Once the Affordable Care Act became law in March 2010, the two chambers of Congress have held diametrically opposed views. The House, under Republican control since 2011, has voted many times to repeal the entire act; the Democratic-controlled Senate has resisted changes.

The Catholic bishops’ conference has not joined in either agenda. Supporters of national efforts to achieve universal health coverage for almost a century, the bishops have urged specific reforms in accord with the moral principles they articulated during consideration of the A.C.A. The bishops support basic, life-affirming health coverage for everyone, including immigrants; compliance with longstanding federal policies on abortion funding; and respect for rights of conscience.

The A.C.A. remains deficient in these areas. The bishops have urged Congress to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, including reform of the way our health laws treat immigrant families. On abortion issues—both federal funding and conscience rights—the implementation of the A.C.A. over four years has brought its defects into sharper focus.

One barrier to progress on the act’s problems regarding abortion is that many, including some Catholics, are confused about those problems or deny that they exist. Here, then, are the abortion-related problems the bishops’ conference finds in the A.C.A.

Click on that link.  Read the article. Rich Doerflinger counts the ways.

1) Under existing federal jurisprudence, federal funds appropriated by the A.C.A. are available for elective abortions.

He doesn’t just make the claim, he backs it up. Do read on, especially about the protections put in place and upheld for decades under the Hyde Amendment. It’s very instructive.

2) The act violates the policy of all other federal health programs by using federal funds for health plans covering elective abortions.

Here’s just a snip from that section:

The A.C.A. forbids insurers to inform consumers about their abortion coverage except as part of the long list of benefits provided to those already enrolling. It also forbids them to reveal how much of the enrollee’s premium will go into the separate account for abortions. Thus a common impression that enrollees will write a “separate check” for abortion, which pro-life dissenters might try refusing to sign, is apparently false—the funds are separated at the insurer’s end. Some states have said that every health plan on their exchange will cover elective abortions.

This is troubling in light of polling commissioned by the bishops’ conference during consideration of the A.C.A. Most survey respondents opposed measures that require Americans to support abortion with their tax dollars or their premiums; 68 percent said that if the choice were theirs they would not want abortion in their health coverage. On each question, women gave stronger pro-life responses than men. The majority of American women who oppose abortion coverage will now often face a sad dilemma: Either pay for abortions anyway or have greatly reduced options when looking for a health plan to meet their families’ needs.

Next:

3) The A.C.A. lacks important conscience protections.

Most of this is contained within the HHS mandate, a ‘birth control delivery scheme’ objected to by a great number of Americans for many reasons, most enumerated in those lawsuits linked above. But note this, which isn’t well known (along with most everything else in Doerflinger’s article):

More broadly, the final version of the A.C.A. deleted an important conscience provision from the original House-passed bill, which incorporated the Hyde/Weldon Amendment that has been part of Labor/H.H.S. appropriations bills since 2004. That law withholds Labor/H.H.S. funds from a federal agency or program or a state or local government that discriminates against health care entities that refuse to provide, refer for, pay for or provide coverage of abortion. Like the Hyde Amendment on funding, the Hyde/Weldon policy on conscience does not govern funds appropriated by the A.C.A.

And then:

4) Finally, it has been said that federal judges in Virginia and Ohio have ruled there is no abortion funding in the A.C.A. That is not quite true.

He explains. And then, the bottom line:

The great majority of American men and women do not want to support abortion with their taxes or health premiums. A recent poll of obstetrician-gynecologists showed that only 14 percent perform abortions, and the latest abortion statistics show abortion rates and the number of abortion providers at their lowest since 1973. To all but the most committed enthusiasts for abortion, that tipping point cannot arrive too soon.

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Mar 28

In a discussion about Tuesday’s oral arguments on two cases challenging the government’s coercive mandate, one legal counsel said “it was really oral arguments“.

The courtroom was lively and the justices engaged. A couple of pieces that pinpoint key moments to light.

Kathryn Lopez aptly refers back to the ‘parade of horribles‘ to describe the women justices’ engagement of the ‘what ifs’ involved in this case. Government attorneys tried to use it in their arguments.

One of the expected themes — because it was in the Department of Justice’s brief — during the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood case before the Supreme Court yesterday was the idea of a parade of horribles that would come should the companies win their religious-liberty claim. Ed Whelan has written about this here…in response to the brief. The way the argument goes is that if you let employers opt out of abortion-pill and contraception coverage next employers are going to claim religious objections to sexual-harassment laws, minimum-wage laws, Social Security taxes, and vaccine coverage.

As Ed points out:

“The fact that the Obama administration has provided an exemption from the HHS mandate for houses of worship and the so-called “accommodation” rule for religious nonprofits shows that it recognizes that the HHS mandate substantially burdens religious exercise. Nothing comparable exists for DOJ’s examples.”

The “burden” test is essential to these cases and the whole HHS birth control delivery scheme. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (known by shorthand as RFRA) which passed with full bipartisan support under the Clinton administration, holds a two-pronged test, that government cannot restrict religious freedom unless it produces convincing evidence of a compelling reason to do so,  and it is pursuing that action by the least restrictive means possible.

The government cannot pass that test on either count on the HHS birth control delivery mandate. Their attorneys have failed to produce anything approaching convincing evidence that they can pass that test, time and again, in the many lawsuits across the country over the past two years.

But here’s the real money moments in the dramatic exchanges in the high court Tuesday. Justice Anthony Kennedy was grilling the government’s attorney on whether allowing this mandate to go forward could extend government powers to authorize the compulsion to pay for abortions on a broader scale, since government attorneys had at that point conceded that IUDs can be abortifacents, and IUDs were part of the mandated coverage. The US Solicitor General (Don Verrilli) objected, saying current law “is to the contrary.”

But Kennedy persisted, saying the government was making a legal case that would permit that.

Verrilli continued to resist Kennedy’s simple hypothetical question, treating it as though he could not answer it unless there were really such a law on the books…

And then the chief justice intervened:

Chief Justice Roberts: I’m sorry, I lost track of that. There is no law on the books that does what?

Verrilli: That makes a requirement of the kind that Justice Kennedy hypothesized. The law is the opposite.

Roberts: Well, flesh it out a little more. What—there is no law on the books that does what?

Verrilli: That requires for-profit corporations to provide abortions.

Pay attention to this line of questioning.

Justice Kennedy began to speak at this point, and Chief Justice Roberts cut him off by pursuing Verrilli like a hound who has treed a raccoon:

Roberts: Isn’t that what we are talking about in terms of their religious beliefs? One of the religious beliefs is that they have to pay for these four methods of contraception that they believe provide abortions. I thought that’s what we had before us.

What Kennedy treated as hypothetical, in other words, Roberts pointed out is not hypothetical at all. It’s actual. It is this case. Hobby Lobby is an abortion case (emphasis added), and at this moment in the argument, Roberts may just have sewn up Kennedy’s vote. Not because Kennedy is morally perturbed by abortion itself; I doubt he is, much. But because he is probably very concerned, and rightly, with a regulatory mandate that forces people to violate their religious beliefs about the sanctity of life by providing and paying for abortions. Roberts spoke circumspectly about the employers’ “religious beliefs” about the drugs and devices that cause abortion, and it was right for him in this context not to say more. But they do cause abortion, and so this is, in a way that should be very important to Justice Kennedy, an abortion case.

Conclusion at this point:

Yes, this is an abortion case, and a religious freedom case, and a government-overreaching-its-authority case.

The Supreme Court will rule in June.

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Mar 24

Or put bluntly, the government mandate to violate your conscience.

It’s as simple as that. No matter how much spin has been spun, and there has been much, it comes down to this.

Do Americans enjoy religious-liberty protections when they are at church, or do Americans enjoy religious-liberty protections when they are Americans?

That’s it. The Supreme Court hears oral arguments this week on that question.

Hobby Lobby is owned by a trust controlled by the Green family, observant Christians who make a point of carrying their faith into the marketplace, stocking Christian products and closing their stores on Sundays. They refuse to comply with parts of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, specifically the provision of products that they regard as actual or potential abortifacients, including intrauterine devices and the so-called morning-after pill, both of which can function to prevent an embryo from implanting in the uterus and thus surviving. Whether these products are properly regarded as abortifacients is a matter of some controversy, but the relevant question is not a technical one about the mechanisms by which these drugs and devices prevent pregnancy. Federal law protects religious liberty with no proviso that matters of conscience must be argued to the satisfaction of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists before legal protections kick in.

Now here’s the money paragraph, the important explanation of the whole thing that helps understand what’s at stake in the claims to protection against government encroachment of religious freedom and conscience rights. Those claims are grounded in the Constitution and RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

While the issue is at heart a constitutional one, Hobby Lobby is not in this instance appealing to the First Amendment but rather to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was passed by a unanimous House, a near-unanimous Senate, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, and certified as constitutional as applied to the federal government in a 2006 Supreme Court decision. The act sets a high standard that the federal government must meet when it burdens the free exercise of religion and was enacted in response to court decisions that had narrowed First Amendment protections. It is intended to reinstate the “Sherbert test,” which holds that in a case in which the involved parties hold a sincere religious belief and the federal government places a substantial burden on the exercise of that belief, then the federal government must both prove a “compelling state interest” in burdening religious exercise and — perhaps most important in this case — demonstrate that it has sought to secure that compelling interest in the least restrictive fashion.

That’s a two-pronged test the government cannot possibly pass in imposing the HHS mandate.

While it is hardly obvious that there is a compelling state interest in subsidizing access to contraception, which is widely available and inexpensive (a woman who required an emergency dose of Plan B once a quarter would still spend more annually on toothpaste), it is entirely implausible that the least restrictive way of achieving that subsidy is a nationwide legal mandate for coverage of those products at no out-of-pocket expense by every employer in the country offering health insurance — and the federal government will penalize them if they don’t offer it.

So…

Whatever the federal government might have done differently, the express purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is to prevent it from doing what it has done in the Affordable Care Act: ride roughshod over the free exercise of religion whenever doing so proves politically convenient.

The case is about more than the Green family and Hobby Lobby. There are in fact 94 related cases involving 300 plaintiffs representing nearly half the states, from Southern Baptists such as the Greens to Catholic nonprofits and Amish cabinetmakers. The objections to the ACA mandate are neither narrow nor sectarian.

Split decisions from the appellate courts all but guaranteed a Supreme Court hearing of the issue, which will begin tomorrow. The decision will be only incidentally about what kind of health insurance we have — it will be about what kind of country we have.

So here we go.

Whatever the federal government might have done differently, the express purpose of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is to prevent it from doing what it has done in the Affordable Care Act: ride roughshod over the free exercise of religion whenever doing so proves politically convenient.

The case is about more than the Green family and Hobby Lobby. There are in fact 94 related cases involving 300 plaintiffs representing nearly half the states, from Southern Baptists such as the Greens to Catholic nonprofits and Amish cabinetmakers. The objections to the ACA mandate are neither narrow nor sectarian.

Split decisions from the appellate courts all but guaranteed a Supreme Court hearing of the issue, which will begin tomorrow. The decision will be only incidentally about what kind of health insurance we have — it will be about what kind of country we have.

This is about that, and more.

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth. People of a vast array of traditions of faith live here in a harmony that would have been unthinkable in most of the world for most of human history.

One of the ways America has fostered and protected this diversity is by nurturing a robust understanding of religious liberty that includes granting certain exemptions to people who need them in order to be true to their religious faith. Religious exemptions protect people in situations where legislative or executive acts might otherwise unnecessarily force them to violate their consciences…

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse nations on earth. People of a vast array of traditions of faith live here in a harmony that would have been unthinkable in most of the world for most of human history.

One of the ways America has fostered and protected this diversity is by nurturing a robust understanding of religious liberty that includes granting certain exemptions to people who need them in order to be true to their religious faith. Religious exemptions protect people in situations where legislative or executive acts might otherwise unnecessarily force them to violate their consciences.

In a free, representative republic, it’s hard to imagine why or how government acts would possibly force citizens to violate their consciences. Surely, that cannot stand.

The reason that government is likely to lose in the Hobby Lobby case, however, is that there are so many ways for the government to distribute these drugs—on its own exchanges, through the Title X family-planning program and by cooperating with willing distributors—that do not require the forced participation of conscientious objectors. That presumably is why an effort is now being made to cut back on the robust conception of religious freedom that once united Americans of all faiths and even unbelievers.

The Establishment Clause argument should also fail. That provision exists to prevent the establishment of a national religion or the granting of superior standing to a religion that happens to have the support of most citizens. It would be perverse for a court to use it to punish the laudable practice—dating all the way back to George Washington’s decision to excuse Quakers from his army—of accommodating the free exercise of religion by protecting people whose religious beliefs or practices are not shared by the majority from being compelled even in the absence of a compelling reason to violate their consciences.

The two-pronged test of proving a compelling government interest in pursuing an edict that requires citizens to violate their religious beliefs, and then proving that the means of doing so constitute the least restrictive means possible to do so, is a test the government cannot pass with the HHS mandate, without the help of an activist court.

Oral arguments begin. The court ruling will come later. Stay tuned.

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Mar 20

Or not, any longer?

I’m pulling for you, Stanford. You’re a great university. And great universities are based on the great intellectual tradition of teaching and learning in the classical pedagogical exchange, speaking and listening, reasoning and debate, engagement in the arena of ideas.

Controversies erupted there, as they did across campuses in the U.S. over the years, but you’ve worked to address those.

…these campus controversies from the 1980s and early 1990s have an interesting and little known postscript. Close observers of the campus political scene know that during the past 25 years Stanford has actually done a relatively good job of keeping campus political controversies out of the news. In fact, some people have speculated that Stanford has made a deliberate effort to admit a larger number of undergraduates with interests in the hard sciences, engineering, and computer science – hoping these sorts of students would be less likely to engage in political activism or create controversy around campus.

When I was pursuing my doctorate in political science at Stanford between 1997 and 2002, the campus was certainly liberal, but conservative ideas could still receive a hearing.

Only to a certain degree, as alumna Jennifer Bryson points out in her excellent article in Public Discourse. The sincerity of her regret that Stanford is back in the news for intolerance of free speech comes through clearly in this piece.

Stanford University is once again facing controversy about freedom of speech on campus. Today, the issue is a student group, the Stanford Anscombe Society, which supports man-woman marriage and plans to hold a conference in early April. Students active in LGBTQ causes would like to prevent this conference from taking place.

Stanford has been through sharp controversy before; in the 1980s, for instance, students favoring legal abortion physically prevented a speaker hosted by Stanford Students for Life from speaking on campus. Back then the university’s response to this was a resounding affirmation of the university’s (unofficial) motto, “The winds of freedom blow” (“Die Luft der Freiheit weht”).

During the 1988-1989 academic year, when I was a senior at Stanford, I was involved in Stanford Students for Life. One evening, we brought pro-life activist Randall Terry to speak at the university.

On the evening of that event, Annenberg auditorium at Stanford was full. It was clear that a significant portion of those attending opposed Randall Terry and Stanford Students for Life. They were welcome to attend the event. Yet problems began when Terry tried to speak and opponents in the audience refused to become quiet. The heckling became progressively louder and more aggressive. After several minutes of this escalation, Terry told the audience that he would do something he normally does not do. He would forgo the talk he had planned to give and would instead make himself available for the entire event to answer questions from the audience.

At this, the heckling only got even louder and more aggressive. Opponents of the event started to stand up and shout, and—as more and more people rose from their seats—they began to spill over into the aisles. Terry was trying to listen to questions from the audience, but they could not be heard. Tensions rose as opponents moved down the aisles, flooding the stage and seizing the microphone out of Terry’s hands. At that point, the event ended.

That’s a shame, isn’t it? Whole groups of people shouting down the voice of one person representing a view they oppose is so unreasonable, uncharitable and unjust. And frankly, intolerant. Which is a rich irony.

Administration officials tried to make amends, to their credit, and Bryson does indeed grant that well deserved credit as “a testament to the excellence of Stanford University.”

This university administrator requested that if, in the future, Stanford Students for Life were to invite another controversial speaker, that we would notify the university in advance. That way, the university could provide security to assure that freedom of speech was protected at Stanford.

Fantastic.

This experience increased my respect for Stanford and has remained strong in my memory. However, that does not mean that Stanford was always an easy environment for me. And that’s okay. Because, let us not forget, the mission of a university is not to coddle its students with homogeneity.

Regarding her opposition to the upcoming Anscombe Society conference, Stanford undergraduate Brianne Huntsman said, “A lot of students who are queer come to Stanford because it’s one of the most LGBT-friendly places in the world.” While this may be one factor in their decision to attend Stanford, the primary reason for students to attend Stanford should be to pursue an education. Stanford is, at its essence, a university. It is not a club. It is not a support group. The mission of Stanford is not to provide a comforting environment for those who have the fortune of spending time there. Rather, as a University, Stanford should challenge students to grow, to explore, to seek what is true, to pursue excellence, and to develop capacities that will enable them to serve the welfare of society and human flourishing.

Huntsman also said, “Stanford is supposed to be a safe space for us.” Certainly, these students should feel that there is security on the Stanford campus, as there should be security from physical harm for every single member of the Stanford community and visitors on campus.

But the university does not owe anyone an emotionally or intellectually comfortable environment. Stanford is, after all, part of the real world.

As a pro-life woman at Stanford, I never experienced Stanford as a “friendly” place, and in many ways I did not experience it to be a “safe” place. Yet instead of trying to get Stanford to silence anyone who opposed me, I felt the best response to this was to seek to become better informed and to take part in public activism to help foster an overarching culture in which women, though they may not be treated in a “friendly” way, could at least feel safe.

Read the whole piece, it’s an extraordinary witness to classical academic excellence, the role of a university, where competing ideas have a place to be heard, challenged and defended. Where minds are expanded by hearing views outside a familiar sphere of thinking, where engagement with the modern world is enlarged by encountering it openly, appreciating the diversity while holding beliefs up to the test of true light.

Which gets to the reason Stanford is back in the news now. An event sponsored by the Anscombe Society. On marriage.

Bryson continues:

I loved Stanford because it was an environment filled with challenges and opportunities to learn, filled with people very different from me from whom I learned perhaps more outside the classroom than I did inside.

The world is not an emotionally friendly place. Nor, in many instances, is the world a safe place. This is reality. I loved Stanford because Stanford was a reality-filled environment that pushed me, challenged me, expanded my horizons, and prepared me to engage in the world full-steam-ahead when I left campus.

Had Stanford silenced those who opposed me, because those who opposed me were “unfriendly” to me (and some of them were literally unfriendly to me), the university would have failed in its role as a university. I think the protestors who silenced Randall Terry, rather than listening to what he had to say, failed in this instance in their role as students.

Today, as the Anscombe Society’s conference approaches, Stanford risks a rerun of this twenty-five year-old debacle. The stakes are high, implicating not only this one university, but also our society as a whole, in which tensions over issues of marriage and sex run very high.

I have admired Jennifer Bryson since I first started reading her articles, even more so when I learned of her work and interviewed her as my guest on radio. And that respect has grown ever since, in following the work she does advocating for those discriminated against or otherwise vulnerable, for a world and global community open to diversity and freedom and human rights.

She puts it so much better than I could, in sum.

The Anscombe Society has invited speakers who seek to address these issues in a thoughtful, civil manner. Listening in a correspondingly thoughtful and civil manner, regardless of one’s views, will accomplish far more to build a culture in which we can live peacefully together than would any effort to silence the Anscombe Society and their invited guests. Mutual understanding is not the same thing as mutual agreement. Agreement is an unlikely outcome of the conference, but let us at least seek to understand each other. Only on a foundation of understanding can we seek a way to move forward, learning to live peacefully and respectfully with our differences.

Trying to silence others because one fears what they might say is no way to learn. And it is no way for a university to be a university. Instead, let the winds of freedom blow.

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Mar 17

He is the spiritual father the world is looking for, whether they realize it or not.

That’s how papal biographer and Vatican analyst George Weigel put it when we spoke the other day to mark the first anniversary of Jorge Bergoglio’s papacy.

The analysis of his first year, and what it’s the first year of, continues.

A year into the papacy of Pope Francis, however, the world and the Church continue to wonder just what this pontificate will bring — and no small part of that puzzlement, it seems to me, has to do with the “narrativizing of the pope” that has been underway in much of the world media for the better part of a year. Perhaps now, on this first anniversary of his election to the Chair of Peter, it’s time to set aside the narratives and look at what the pope has actually said and done, in order to get a better sense of where he may be leading more than 1.2 billion Catholics and those outside the Catholic Church who look to Francis for leadership and inspiration.

This is incisive.

His most significant papal document to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, showed him to be a man completely committed to reenergizing the Church as a missionary enterprise. This evangelical vision of the Catholic future, which was the dominant motif of the last half of the pontificate of John Paul II, is also in continuity with a regularly repeated injunction of Benedict XVI: The days of culturally transmitted Catholicism, or what some might call Catholicism by osmosis, are over and done with.

Though the continuity in teaching and tradition remains unbroken and unchanged, there’s a new tone and style and character in the chief shepherd’s office.

For all his high media profile throughout the world, Pope Francis is actually committed to a certain downsizing of the papacy. His recent complaint about the image of the pope as “Superman,” in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is not simply a matter of Bergoglio’s objecting to journalists’ turning him into something he knows he isn’t; it reflects his sense that, when the pope is the sole center of attention in matters Catholic, all others are getting a pass on their evangelical responsibilities. Much attention has been paid, over the past year, to what are essentially symbolic aspects of this papal downsizing…

Check them out, he names several.

At the same time, this papal downsizer has shown himself to be a deadly serious reformer of the Roman Curia: a task, he told the Corriere, that was the primary concern of the conclave that elected him. His creation of a new secretariat for the economy as one of the premier offices of the Curia, and his naming of the no-nonsense Australian cardinal George Pell to head it, is little less than an earthquake in the structure of the Holy See. Finance, personnel policy, and administrative oversight have been taken away from what Francis evidently regards as a sclerotic Italian bureaucracy. And those responsibilities have been given to what is expected to be a lean (and, when necessary, mean) operation, which in its crucial first years will be headed by one of the toughest and shrewdest of churchmen, who (not unlike Francis) combines a priest’s heart with a keen nose for corruption.

Francis’s challenge to his newly named cardinals — that they think of themselves as servants, not courtiers — is another expression of his determination to challenge everyone in the Church to greater evangelical fervor. So was his recent charge, to the Vatican office that helps the pope select bishops, to search widely — perhaps more widely than has been the case in the past — to find for Catholicism the local leaders it needs: men of proven evangelical determination, who can call both priests and people to live their missionary vocation more actively, often in difficult cultural circumstances.

Anyone who followed the naming of new cardinals noticed immediately that the pope went, literally, to the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he refers often.

Which brings us to something else that ought to have been learned about Pope Francis over the past year: this is a man with a deep, compassionate, yet searching sense of the profound wounds that postmodern culture inflicts on individuals and societies. Many regarded it as something of a throwaway line when, in one of his daily Mass sermons, the pope made a positive reference to Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, the first of the 20th-century literary dystopias. But the more closely one reads Pope Francis, especially in those daily homilies, the more one begins to get the sense that Benson’s vision, of a world in which power-madness and aggressive secularism masquerade as reason and compassion, is quite close to Bergoglio’s vision of what he has sometimes described as the idolatries of our time. The pope has spoken passionately about those who have been left behind, materially, in the world economy. But he has spoken just as passionately about the spiritual and cultural impoverishment that comes from imagining that everything in the human condition is plastic, malleable, and subject to change by means of human willfulness.

This is important, in any hope of understanding this pope and where he is leading people.

The pope knows that, amid the polymorphous perversities of postmodernity and the pain they cause, the Church attracts primarily by witness, not by argument. To those who imagine themselves beyond the reach of compassion, the Church offers the experience of the divine mercy. No one, the pope insists, is beyond the reach of God’s power to forgive. That experience of mercy, in turn, opens up its recipient to the truths the Church proposes: the truths the Church believes make for the human happiness that is being eroded by the idolatries of the age, especially the idolatry of the imperial autonomous Self. Mercy and truth are not antinomies, in the Catholic scheme of things. Mercy and truth are two entwined dimensions of God’s reach into history, and into individual lives.

Time [magazine] read the Pope’s self-query, “Who am I to judge?” as the opening wedge to that long-awaited concession by the Catholic Church that it had been wrong, all along, about the sexual revolution. That is not what the pope thinks, having gone out of his way in Corriere della Sera to praise the “genius” and “courage” of Pope Paul VI for “applying a cultural brake” in the encyclical Humanae Vitae, for standing fast against the tidal wave of Sixties permissivism that has led to so much unhappiness and sorrow, and for opposing “present and future neo-Malthusianism.” When Francis asked, “Who am I to judge?” he was responding as a pastor to the particular situation of a man experiencing same-sex attraction. And as the pope said, if that man was trying, with the grace of God, to live an honest and chaste life, he ought not be judged by his temptations, any more than anyone else in this world of endless temptation. Mercy and truth, as always, go together. For the mercy that tells us that we are not beyond the pale of forgiveness is the mercy that leads us into the truths that make for genuine human happiness.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a very old-school Jesuit, and it’s clear that, as such, he is going to be pope his way, not anyone else’s…

And as such, he is capturing the world’s attention, for reasons they may not even know or be correct in identifying. All they know is that he is reaching the human heart and mind and soul on a depth not even perceptible to the senses, except for that of the transcendent. Many people who are not Catholic, including the altogether un-churched, have called him ‘our pope’. And so he is.

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Mar 13

First year anniversary of this papacy. First pope named Francis. First Jesuit pope. First from the Americas. But the 266th Peter, in continuous succession of the first rock on which the Catholic Church was built.

Though some people see his ‘difference in style and tone’ as translating to a whole new package of different governance of the church all the way to changing church doctrine, this is not the case. That needs clarification.

Fr. Bernardo Cervellera clarifies here.

One year on from the election of Pope Francis as successor to the Apostle Peter, we are becoming increasingly aware that he is guiding the Church towards a revolution, fought not by the sword but by personal witness, without throwing away the past, but by helping authentic tradition to flourish once again.

This has been evident right from the outset, that first evening of 13 March, when presenting himself to the world from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica he asked us to pray together, and silence immediately descended on the packed square, which previously had been full of restless murmurs. Instead of proclaiming programs, he called for silence to listen to God’s program (the one that “always precedes us”).

The Bishop of Rome asked for the prayers of the faithful. Some naive television commentators saw this gesture as a sign that he would dispose of hierarchical clericalism. Indeed, with his silent bow, the Pope lowered himself: to show that he is not a monarch, but a person with a mandate, someone who takes very seriously what one billion Catholics do every day with the rosary: “We pray an Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be for the intentions of the supreme Pontiff”. The most traditional element was expressed in unison with the single most revolutionary, most ….progressive element.

The uniting of these two elements, the traditional and the progressive, appears to be characteristic of Francis.

Which needs continual clarification.

From this point of view, Francis is the ripest fruit of the Second Vatican Council, and especially of a “sound” reading of the Council. In these intervening decades – as was masterfully explained by Benedict XVI – the Church has been divided between a hermeneutic of rupture and a hermeneutic of continuity. The former read the Council as a watershed between the past and present-future: the latter read the development of the life of faith in unity with the past, albeit a past that is re-read and re-applied to the needs of modern man…

And now, Francis comes along.

50 years after the Council, Pope Francis goes beyond these two ruptures, the right wing and the left wing, and reaffirms the Council and the reading thereof as an exegesis of continuity. This is why his every action is both traditional and modern; he spends time in silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, and in a moving and loving silence draws close to the long lines of the ill and sick who each Wednesday fill the front rows at the general audience, worshipping both the “body” and the “flesh of Christ.”…

However, the world and those on the fringes of the Church are precisely those unlikely to understand this Pope’s witness, in their tug of war pulling him from the right and from the left, from above and below, without ever really allowing themselves to be touched by his vital message .

That is a key insight. Stay with that thought.

Alongside those who ask him to clarify his teaching, speak out in defense of those “values ??” that contemporary society wants to rid the world of, there are those who see him merely as a representative of Latin America, an emblem of how the Church from the developing world has defeated the wealthy Church of the North Americans and Europeans…

There are those who pull him even further, applauding his “openness” (real or supposed) towards homosexuals, gay marriage, communion for the divorced, women cardinals, in a rush toward the future.

But none of these interpretations stop to consider the present: a transparent man in his faith and the joy of his relationship with Christ, which is why he does not offer the world a doctrine or an ideology, but an encounter with Christ himself.

Full stop. That is Pope Francis, summarized in a sentence. It’s the Francis the pop culture media don’t yet get.

The pope, who – in keeping with the tradition of the social doctrine of the Church – said that an economy can not exist without ethics, is accused of being a Marxist. At the same time, those who seem to applaud him as a revolutionary at every unusual gesture, are turning him into a “cult” icon of mass consumption, without being touched in the slightest by his invitation.

That came up on my radio program this week in a compelling conversation with Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow, and National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. Kathryn summarizes well here.

The viral photos. The magazine covers. “The Francis effect.”

But as my friend Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire (the people who brought us the Catholicism series that partially aired on PBS in recent years), put it earlier this week, there is a danger for the faithful and for interested observers that we treat Pope Francis a little like a St. Francis statue in a garden: It feels good to have him there. He’s popular. He’s holy. I feel good about the Church now, some say. But the point is that he wants to bring people to Christ and challenge Christians to be real. To simply feel good about him or dismiss his challenges — which are the radical challenges of the Gospel – misses the message.

The message is simple. So simple, modern culture that politicizes and complicates everything, needs help even grasping it. Here’s help.

There is something about Pope Francis that has captured the aspirations of the world. It’s something of God. He is a humble servant who points us in the direction of the compelling, joyful alternative that is the life of the Gospels. It’s a self-sacrificial alternative. He seems to be just the tender father we needed as a guide…

The pope has referred to the Church as a field hospital. We go to the doctor for checkups, for advice, for medicine. And so it is here. Come to Church, all who are weary, is again and again the pope’s message. There is love there — for you — from the Creator of the universe. There is mercy there: Never tire of asking for God’s forgiveness. There is such grace-filled liberation in this…

Perhaps that’s all you really need to know about Pope Francis: He is invitational; he invites everyone to the life he has dedicated his life to, walking other people through it, because in it he knows the peace and merciful love the world needs. It’s an ecumenical blessing as it offers healing and flourishing. And, yes, a light that illuminates everything.

The world is noticing, whether they really see what they’re gazing at or not. Yet.

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Mar 10

Who believes media accounts that the Chinese government has eased it?

For the past two years in particular, in American politics, we’ve heard a lot of allegations about certain parties carrying out a ‘war on women’ and it’s becoming a campaign slogan. That’s dishonest, disingenuous, and distracting from the real and very terrible war on women being carried out by the Communist Chinese government.

What some political groups or organizations in the U.S. see as an opportunistic way to turn people’s opinions against other groups that think differently on pro-life issues is nothing compared with the reality of powerful authorities in other countries whose thinking on women and babies and human life has led to terror and horrific violence against their own people.

This must stop, but can only be stopped by being exposed, revealed, known about, talked about and acted on. China is not the only place where human rights abuses like this are happening. But it’s one to focus on.

International human rights activist Reggie Littlejohn was my guest on radio for an hour to talk about this human rights crisis, and her work as founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an international coalition to expose and oppose forced abortion, gendercide and sexual slavery in China. She focused on the crisis, and politely answered my questions about her work, putting emphasis where it belong.

It belongs on both. The horrific crimes against humanity, the real ‘war on women,’ wouldn’t be getting much attention if not for Reggie’s amazing background and ongoing, tireless, relentless efforts.

Have you ever heard that every day, about 590 women end their own lives in China? Because the Chinese government enforces its one-child policy through brutal forced abortions, at any point through nine months of pregnancy. Because when a woman is discovered to be ‘illegally pregnant’ without a license or official permission, she is dragged off to a clinic where she may likely suffer barbarian acts to kill the child she’s carrying, sometimes dismembering it inside her womb if the child is older in weeks or months, larger, and the drugs given to the woman to induce pregnancy don’t work. Because the one-child policy has led to such overwhelming gendercide against baby girls in China that now there are 37 million more men than women there, resulting in an aggressive sex-trafficking industry targeting the women and girls who are still around.

Look at the facts, the faces and names and the unnamed, the horrors of the reality of what’s happening every day in China. And let’s all do something to stop it.

Because, as Reggie states:

It does not matter whether you are pro-choice or pro-life on this issue. No one supports forced abortion, because it’s not a choice. China’s One child Policy causes more violence against women and girls than any other official policy on earth.

We can save them, one girl and woman at a time if necessary. And wholesale policy change if possible.

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