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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Mar 03

With over ninety lawsuits in courts for over two years contesting the government’s violation of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, this one may be emblematic.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, and order of nuns founded in the 1800′s to care for the elderly sick and the poor, have to go to court again to fight for the right to continue to do so. As Congressman Jeff Fortenberry told me on radio Monday, “they were already providing affordable care!” And doing so long before the president’s law by that name required compliance in providing drugs and services that violate consciences.

Understand the basics here, because the Little Sisters’ case starkly reveals them.

Under RFRA [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act], the government must establish it has a compelling interest to infringe upon the religious liberty of its citizens. The HHS mandate asserts that the government has a compelling interest to require that all employers provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs. The government claims such coverage is on par with preventive medical practices such as immunizations and cancer screening.

From a medical perspective this is ludicrous. Preventive medicine prevents disease and maintains health. Pregnancy is not a disease and fertility is not a disorder.

Full stop here. Because enough said. The Little Sisters – and all the other groups pursuing lawsuits to defend their right to continue doing their work and providing the healthcare coverage they were providing and applying their principles and moral beliefs to their work and services – are not trying to change what has already been easy access to birth control and morning-after pills. They’re trying to preserve their rights as they stood before the HHS mandate came out of nowhere and required coercion in a birth control delivery scheme that made these drugs part of the federal healthcare plan, masquerading as ‘women’s preventive health’.

And though this is an ‘aside’ to the main argument of government coercion to violate consciences, the HHS slipping in these drugs under that umbrella term bears scrutiny. So consider this aside:

Rather than maintaining health, contraception takes a perfectly healthy reproductive system and renders it non-functional. The methods used to achieve this state of sterility are fraught with health risks. The government’s own information page on contraceptives indicates they are associated with substantial risks including blood clots, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and liver cancer. Recent studies have demonstrated the use of hormonal contraceptives double the risk of transmission of the AIDS-inducing HIV. Women who use hormonal contraceptives increase their risk of the most aggressive form of breast cancer by at least 100 percent. The increase in breast cancer risk is greater the younger women are when they begin using hormonal contraceptives.

Some women choose to accept these risks and utilize hormonal contraception in order to be sexually active and avoid pregnancy. This is an elective lifestyle choice and not a necessary medical intervention. The government should have no more interest in whether or not women are accessing contraception to avoid pregnancy than whether or not women are using Lasik to improve their vision or using Botox to get rid of their wrinkles.

So, getting back to the two-prong test of RFRA, the first one was just addressed, that the government does not have a compelling interest to infringe on the religious liberty of its citizens.

However…

Even if we were to allow that there is some government interest in ensuring all women have access to highly risky elective medical procedures, the HHS mandate fails to meet the second demand of RFRA that the government utilize the least restrictive means to satisfy its compelling interest. Since 1970, the federal government has funded contraception through a program known as Title X. When the HHS mandate was first introduced, supporters were quick to claim that virtually every American woman utilized contraception and supported their assertions with data from the Guttmacher Institute. There were many problems with their analysis of the Guttmacher Institute statistics, especially when it concerned the number of Catholic women utilizing contraceptives, but the information did indicate that access to contraception is not a problem for American women. Title X funding of women’s health clinics is working as intended. Therefore, the push to force all insurance policies to include coverage for contraception is addressing an access problem that does not exist. The least restrictive course of action would be to continue the current Title X funding mechanism and avoid infringement upon anyone’s religious liberty.

On March 25, the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in two key cases challenging the constitutionality of the government’s HHS mandate.

In the meantime, all sorts of injunctions have been granted to employers and organizations to stave off the harsh impact of this mandate until it’s settled by the high court. That includes the New Year’s Eve injunction granted the Little Sisters by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Followed by the full Supreme Court ruling continuing that relief until the 10th Circuit took up the case again.

Now the Little Sisters have gone back before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, seeking justice.

“We are thrilled the Supreme Court temporarily protected the Little Sisters from having to violate their conscience or pay crippling IRS fines. We are hopeful the Tenth Circuit will give them more lasting protection,” said Mark Rienzi, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and lead counsel for Little Sisters of the Poor. “The federal government is a massive entity that has lots of ways to deliver contraceptives to people–it doesn’t need to force the Little Sisters to participate.”

The injunction from the Supreme Court provided the Little Sisters short-term protection from being forced to sign and deliver the controversial government forms authorizing, ordering, and incentivizing their health benefits administrator to provide contraceptives, sterilization, and drugs and devices that may cause early abortions. Instead, the Little Sisters simply had to inform HHS of their religious identity and objections.

In a USA Today column in the midst of this ongoing struggle, Kirsten Powers – who believes in government mandated birth control delivery on the face of it – called on the administration to give the Little Sisters of the Poor a break.

This is a very strange case. The government has argued that signing the form is meaningless because the nuns’ insurer, the Christian Brothers Employee Benefits Trust, is exempt from the mandate. Yet it has fought the Sisters all the way to the Supreme Court to make them sign it. What’s going on?

The government’s brief to the Colorado court provides a clue. It drips with contempt. The Obama administration finds the nuns’ complaint “implausible” and alleges that the Sisters are “fighting an invisible dragon.” Oh, you silly, simple-minded nuns! Just stop imagining things and do what the government tells you.

The Sisters reject the government’s contention that the form does nothing, as did all six lower courts to consider the claim in other church plan cases. They are wise to be leery of Uncle Sam’s intentions.

The dismissive tone of the administration’s brief is consistent with its overall attitude toward religious liberty issues throughout the implementation of the contraception mandate. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius never bothered to consult the Justice Department to determine whether the mandate was consistent with the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, despite requests from Congress.

When asked whether she consulted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over their complaints about an effort to find an “accommodation,” Sebelius said she didn’t. Considering it was the primary group complaining, why not?

These are questions I’ve been asking for the past two years, and few in big media have bothered to. I’m glad Powers asked.

The administration’s indifference to religious liberty complaints is not limited to issues arising from Obamacare. In 2011, the government made the argument in Hosanna-Tabor v. the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that churches do not have special rights under the First Amendment but merely association rights, like unions. Justice Antonin Scalia called this “extraordinary,” and Justice Elena Kagan said it was an “amazing” claim. Another word that comes to mind is “disturbing.” A unanimous court rejected the administration’s claim.

However, nine days after that unanimous Supreme Court ruling rejected the administration’s claim to the right to infringe on religious freedom in Hosanna-Tabor, the HHS mandate was issued. This is, in a word, relentless.

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Mar 01

Some big questions have demonstrably true answers. But when they don’t fit powerful narratives, some powerful people are making the questions irrelevant.

Or coming up with pragmatic answers, you know, whatever works at the moment to dodge the truth.

As the Planned Parenthood president just did this week, saying that when life begins is not really relevant to the abortion debate.

“It is not something that I feel is really part of this conversation,” Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos on Thursday. “I don’t know if it’s really relevant to the conversation.”

When pressed, Richards said that in her view life began for her three children when she delivered them.

She explained that the purpose of her organization is not to answer a question that “will be debated through the centuries,” but to provide options for pregnant women.

People who choose to deny the facts may find them debatable or beyond their ability to debate, or just reduce them to an incoherent diversion.

But it is not debatable when life begins. It is scientific fact.

Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards dodging the question of human life by saying it’s irrelevant to the abortion debate is seriously dishonest and disingenuous, at best. It provides the occasion to recall former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, one of the original architects of the abortion movement in America, telling the story behind the lies and deceptions for many years after his conversion. Late in his life, in a dramatic effort to help secure legislation in South Dakota that would strengthen informed consent laws, he made this video admission that as one of the original founders of NARAL, they made up the numbers and the ‘facts’, to ‘save abortion at all costs.’

His lesson about the importance of devising and driving a narrative “at all costs” applies to the whole choice movement, and Richards’ response reveals where incoherence inevitably leads.

It happens in other kinds of politics, too often. Remember Hillary Clinton facing a congressional task force inquiry into what really happened in the notorious Benghazi attacks, finally and angrily shouting ‘what difference does it make?

Political commentator Charles Krauthammer says there’s all the difference.

There’s a difference between the truth and a lie. The difference is that people in high office with public trust ought not lie. And if it was a lie, for whatever political or other reason, it shouldn’t have happened, and the administration itself should have traced it down and corrected it. And they didn’t. And that’s what is disturbing and remains disturbing.

And some people are still seeking the truth about that.

Ans, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught, there is an eternal truth, and it applies to all social issues. And those who seek it will find it.

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Feb 20

Wait. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Why is the federal government studying the plan of putting monitors in media newsrooms?

The Obama Administration’s Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is poised to place government monitors in newsrooms across the country in an absurdly draconian attempt to intimidate and control the media.

Before you dismiss this assertion as utterly preposterous (we all know how that turned out when the Tea Party complained that it was being targeted by the IRS), this bombshell of an accusation comes from an actual FCC Commissioner.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai reveals a brand new Obama Administration program that he fears could be used in “pressuring media organizations into covering certain stories.”

Wait. Elite media have been covering the president very favorably, for a very long time. With no pressure.

As Commissioner Pai explains in the Wall Street Journal:

“Last May the FCC proposed an initiative to thrust the federal government into newsrooms across the country. With its “Multi-Market Study of Critical Information Needs,” or CIN, the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run.

This sounds so surreal.

The purpose of the CIN, according to the FCC, is to ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about “the process by which stories are selected” and how often stations cover “critical information needs,” along with “perceived station bias” and “perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.”

In fact, the FCC is now expanding the bounds of regulatory powers to include newspapers, which it has absolutely no authority over, in its new government monitoring program.

Wait. Wait. There’s everything wrong with this picture. Bias?! Who can remember when there wasn’t media bias? But bias is in the eyes of the beholder, and for the past half dozen years at least, it certainly favored Barack Obama. So what’s the administration seeing now that makes them leery enough to go where no administration has gone before? Talk about ‘red lines’, the executive branch of government does not cross over into the free press to exert its power.

I don’t usually or ever cite Wikipedia as a source, but it helps here. Why is the free media called the Fourth Estate?

“Fourth Estate” most commonly refers to the news media; especially print journalism or “the press”. Thomas Carlyle attributed the origin of the term to Edmund Burke, who used it in a parliamentary debate in 1787 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons of Great Britain…

In current use the term is applied to the press, with the earliest use in this sense described by Thomas Carlyle in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship: “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Not so in this modern era. They long ago lost their credibility with the people, as public opinion polls continue to show. However, the media always retained their power and a certain influence that went with it to tell the people what’s happening in the world, in their country, and in their government, however they see fit to print or report the news. If wielded with responsibility and accountability, that power could and should be the people’s check on the government they elected.

Now the government is thinking of acting like this is a totalitarian state, a dictatorship.

The FCC has apparently already selected eight categories of “critical information” “that it believes local newscasters should cover.”

That’s right, the Obama Administration has developed a formula of what it believes the free press should cover, and it is going to send government monitors into newsrooms across America to stand over the shoulders of the press as they make editorial decisions.

This poses a monumental danger to constitutionally protected free speech and freedom of the press.

Every major repressive regime of the modern era has begun with an attempt to control and intimidate the press.

As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

The federal government has absolutely no business determining what stories should and should not be run, what is critical for the American public and what is not, whether it perceives a bias, and whose interests are and are not being served by the free press.

It’s an unconscionable assault on our free society.

Media pundit Howard Kurtz asks ‘What is the FCC thinking?

The Fairness Doctrine, which once required TV and radio stations to offer equal time for opposing points of view, is no more, and good riddance (since it discouraged stations from taking a stand on much of anything). The Obama administration swears it’s not coming back.

How, then, to explain this incursion into the substance of journalism, which seems utterly at odds with the notion of a free and unfettered press?

An attempt at an answer in a moment. But by the way, Kurtz adds:

The government has no business meddling in how journalism is practiced. And if George W. Bush’s FCC had tried this, it would be a front-page story.

That is getting to be a tired tag line, true as it is.

So, how to explain this?

“What are they thinking?” Mr. Kurtz, it’s pretty obvious; they’re thinking no one in the mainstream press has asked them a difficult or challenging question in 7 years, so why would they start now.

They’re thinking an obsequious press that couldn’t be bothered to sustain outrage over intrusions into its own phone and internet records won’t have a problem with the government parking itself into the newsroom.

They’re thinking that if the mainstream press could forgive them for considering espionage charges against a member of the press — for doing what reporters are supposed to do — and then re-commence their habitual boot-licking, there is no real risk of media folk suddenly calling out a “red line”, or even being able to identify one.

They’re figuring that with this president, the mainstream media has no idea what “a bridge too far” might mean. Nor, “abuse of power”; nor “cover-up”; nor “mendacity”, “incompetence”, “ineptitude” or “constitutional illiteracy.”

They know that half the people in the newsroom are either married to (or social buddies with) influential members of this government, and that everyone is all comfy and nicely settled in for the revolution.

They know that the press willfully surrendered its own freedoms some time ago, in the interests of ideology, and so they really won’t mind a little editorial supervision from the masters:

. . .we no longer need wonder why the mainstream media seems unconcerned about possible attacks on our first amendment rights to freedom of religion and the exercise thereof. They have already cheerfully, willfully surrendered the freedom of the press to the altar of the preferred narrative. People willing to dissolve their own freedoms so cheaply have no interest in anyone else’s freedom, either.

They know that if they like their newsroom, they can keep their newsroom, once it has been correctly updated. A Mad Man might sell the scheme as Prexy-Clean. Journalism “new and improved with powerful cleansing agents!”

I hope that helps, Mr. Kurtz.

And that’s as close as it gets to the truth of the matter, and truth matters more greatly than the media have collectively or in man cases individually considered in quite some time. This is what happens when you throw in with the powers that be, and those powers know they have you in their grip.

Like Elizabeth Scalia, I haven’t wanted to touch a political story lately, for quite a while. I try to find and focus on stories of human dignity and rights, faith and reason and justice in the balance. Not everything is political, but politics have invaded everything.

And now the federal government is considering going into media newsrooms.

So Scalia’s closing words here stand for both of us:

I didn’t want to write about this today. The truth is, I don’t even want to write about politics, anymore, because it’s all distraction and illusion and theater. I’d be happy to write about prayer and scripture, and nothing else, for the rest of my life, and maybe that’s what I’ll be doing, soon enough. But I am passionate about journalism, passionate about the need for a free press, and so I had to write, today. Without a curious press interested in protecting its own freedoms, there is no there, there. We might as well just put down the mics and turn out the lights, because it’s over.

Amen, sister. It’s not over, we’re still at our keyboards and mics, and our passion for a free and unfettered press will keep us busier than we want to be for a long time.

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Feb 20

It’s an ideology that sees humans as the scourge of the earth. How can any human get behind that?

But terribly many are, including people in high places. You can’t get your head around it, if you think straight and with the leveling force of reason. But those qualities aren’t necessarily prerequisites anymore for academics or legal scholars or members of government. And those groups are among the people who believe the world is endangered not by man’s inhumanity to man, but by humanity itself.

One of America’s leading experts in bioethics, Wesley J. Smith, has a new book and companion documentary out about this pernicious ideology, and we talked about it on radio Wednesday.

Wesley spent years that turned into decades fighting assisted suicide and euthanasia that turned his attention to bioethics and (as he said)

the idea that there was such a thing as ‘human non-persons’ and the idea that we could take away basic food and water from helpless human beings, as happened in the Terri Schiavo case, and then, good grief, I saw the issues of embryonic stem cell research come along, and then human cloning and then animal rights as a desire to create moral equality between animals and human beings, and it occurred to me that there is an overarching connection.

These are not just separate distinctions. What connects them is the desire to destroy the idea that there is such a thing as human dignity, which I came to call human exceptionalism. And I called it that not only because human beings have separate and unique value, which we do, but we’re also the only species with obligations and duties. So what duties do we have? We certainly have duties to each other, and we have duties to our posterity. No other species thinks about what will happen to their posterity one hundred years from now. We are the posterity of the founding fathers of the United States. They were thinking of us, and look what they gave us, because they were thinking of us.

We have duties to animals, to treat them properly, to not be gratuitously cruel. We have duties to treat the environment in a proper way. And this book is about how environmentalism has gone from that, understood as the proper role of making sure we dealt with these obligations properly, to, I’m afraid, one that is increasingly being infected with a radical view that sees human beings as the enemy of the planet.

Wesley continues, and the information continues to astound.

Sir David Attenborough, one of the great naturalists, who’s done so much in terms of his wildlife documentaries and so forth, has said that human beings are a plague on the planet. He has actually supported China’s one-child policy, which involves forced abortion, female infanticide, saying it has kept them from growing too big. But think of the tyranny of the one-child policy, eugenics.

It hasn’t stopped the population from growing, but people like Sir David Attenborough say ‘we don’t only have to stop the population from growing, we have to actively cut it.’ And if you’re going to actively propose cutting human population, you’re talking about some very drastic and tyrannous measures to bring down the numbers to ‘save the earth’. It’s very dangerous and it’s anti-human. It’s insidious because it seeks to stop human thriving and it seeks to transform us to seeing ourselves as just another animal in the forest. And then that’s precisely how we’ll act. We’re not animals. We’re not amoral agents. We have moral duties. We think in terms of right and wrong and ‘ought’. “

As he points out, the environmental movement rightly ordered has always been important. But this ideology not only undermines human beings, it also undermines proper environmentalism, which helps create a cleaner and better world for us.

It’s all documented in Smith’s book The War on Humans.

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