May 05

In a split decision, the majority upheld the tradition of the US since its founding.

This needs closer scrutiny.

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers said before meetings of an Upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion; the justices cited history and tradition.

“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court’s conservative majority.

This was an important test, yet again (a previous one being Hosanna-Tabor) of the true provision for the free exercise of religious liberty in America by the Founders.

The ruling reflected a Supreme Court that has become more lenient on how government may accommodate religion in civic life without crossing the line into an endorsement of a particular faith. All nine justices endorsed the concept of legislative prayer, with the four dissenters agreeing that the public forum “need not become a religion-free zone,” in the words of Justice Elena Kagan.

However, since everything is so political and partisan these days, there’s a clause to follow.

But there was sharp disagreement after that, and the majority ruling could encourage public bodies to give more leeway to religious expression in their ceremonial prayers and less deference to the objections of religious minorities.

The court’s five conservatives said legislative prayers need not be stripped of references to a specific religion — the prayers at issue often invoked Jesus Christ and the resurrection — and said those given the opportunity to pray before legislative meetings should be “unfettered” by what government officials find appropriate.

“Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation,” Kennedy wrote.

Once again, as is usually at issue in these court cases, the complaint was that the prayers tended to be Christian. And in this case, it was alleged that the opening prayer might somehow coerce everyone in the courtroom to hold a certain belief, or prejudice or intimidate those involved in grievances up for consideration before the governing body.

Kennedy began by referring to history: The same founders who wrote the First Amendment — with its prohibition on the establishment of a government religion but also protections for religious liberty — provided money for congressional chaplains, he said.

“Legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ at the opening of this Court’s sessions,” he wrote.

And he said there was no evidence that Greece town council members “allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer.”

The court’s majority split on how to judge whether prayers amount to coercion of nonbelievers.

“The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity,” Kennedy wrote in a part of the opinion joined only by Roberts and Alito.

Still, the religious divide was stressed in the case and the reporting of it.

“The rule announced by the Court today authorizes elected officials or clergy to give sectarian prayers in the name of Jesus, Hashem, Allah or any other deity before Congress, state legislatures, or local town boards,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “The religiously divisive implications of this new rule are troubling in any of these contexts, however it is particularly disturbing at the local level.”

But David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, praised the ruling.

“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” he said. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”

It’s most interesting to recall that the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in Hosanna-Tabor that the State has no right to interfere in long established and protected matters of religious freedom. But building to the high court’s decision on the HHS mandate severely restricting that right, a decision expected by June, this case is only adding to the drama building around that decision.

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May 01

Hollywood has a lot of power. But people are increasingly going around them to get stories told.

So this power duo of Ann McElhinney and her husband Phelim McAleer were doing what they do best, producing and directing documentary films like FrackNation, Mine Your Own Business, and Not Evil Just Wrong, among others with messages they believe in, without any affiliation with pro-life organizations or causes or much thought about it, in the film world. They were working on something else when they learned of the trial of notorious, infamous, murderous abortionist (a redundancy) Kermit Gosnell. They dropped everything once they learned the truths about the abortion clinic dubbed by authorities as a ‘house of horrors’, what went on there, what the team in Hazmat suits who investigated found there, what that abortionist did to women and babies, and how the media went silent on the trial once Gosnell went to court, with the full blown grand jury report detailing the most grisly acts and crimes again humanity, while media seats in the courtroom remained strangely empty.

Ann and Phelim swung into motion and started planning a film to document this historic moment in the the culture that spiraled out of control since abortion on demand became legal. It’s the logic of abortion taken to it’s conclusion, after all, and this case was emblematic. They had formerly worked with Kickstarter to fund FrackNation, and went back to that crowd source funding process for this project. After all, as Ann’s bio records,

FrackNation bypassed traditional funding methods and instead turned to Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. In 60 days, 3,305 backers donated $212,265 to tell the truth about fracking. It was one of the most successful campaigns in Kickstarter history.

However, this time, Kickstarter kicked them out. The language used in the film was too offensive, the site organizers decided, and it had to be edited out and toned down.

Wait. What? The language in the film was the language of the grand jury report, finding what they found at Gosnell’s ‘clinic’ and describing it in plain spoken words. In other words, the filmmakers were rejected for describing the actual scene and details of the crime, and not soft-peddling the truth with fuzzier language and actual omissions.

Instead of doing that, Ann and Phelim went to Indiegogo and launched an awareness campaign to crowd fund the film project on a deadline. They are passionate and determined.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell is the most prolific serial killer in American History, but almost no one knows who he is.

The Grand Jury investigating Kermit Gosnell’s horrific crimes said this:

This case is about a doctor who killed babies … What we mean is that he regularly and illegally delivered live, viable, babies in the third trimester of pregnancy – and then murdered these newborns by severing their spinal cords with scissors …. Over the years, many people came to know that something was going on here. But no one put a stop to it.

Gosnell is serving several life sentences but the media basically ignored his crimes and his trial. They ignored the facts that emerged from the trial, like the fact that the babies he murdered suffered terribly. Here is what a neonatologist told the Grand Jury:

The neonatologist testified… If a baby moves, it is alive. Equally troubling, it feels a “tremendous amount of pain” when its spinal cord is severed. So, the fact that Baby Boy A. continued to move after his spinal cord was cut with scissors means that he did not die instantly. Maybe the cord was not completely severed. In any case, his few moments of life were spent in excruciating pain. (Report of the Grand Jury)

The mainstream media or Hollywood don’t think this is a story.

That doesn’t matter, if enough people do, say the filmmakers.

It’s a frightening testament to the power of the media that very few people even know about Kermit Gosnell: America’s Most Prolific Serial Killer.

This is your chance to bypass the media “information gatekeepers” to get tens of millions of Americans thinking about what happened in Philadelphia.

How’s it going? I covered the Gosnell case and trial and repored here things that didn’t hit the mainstream radar, or stick for long once it did. It seemed at the time that this case may just be the one that turns the culture around on abortion, or at least generates serious public discussion about what this license has wrought in the four decades since Roe. It did that, for a short time. But things went back to business as usual soon after, and this story seems to have faded from memory in a culture that hardly grasped it in the first place.

So I was very interested in how this project is going, once I discovered it. Since I first had the dynamic Ann McElhinney on my radio show in early April, I’ve watched her and Phelim take their campaign to social media and mainstream media by leaps and bounds.

NRO reports, and get how the report comes out:

Ann and Phelim Media recently reached $1.6 million in donations to their Gosnell film crowdfunding campaign, with $500,000 left to raise before May 12.

The company switched to crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to raise the money to finance their film after claiming that their initial choice, Kickstarter, had attempted to censor the project.

On Tuesday, Ann and Phelim Media purchased a billboard ad, and placed it half a mile from Kickstarter’s headquarters in Brooklyn. The ad reads, “To Kickstarter — We Say . . . “You stink at censorship!”

Kickstarter’s CEO, Yancey Strickler, recently told National Review Online that the Gosnell project was not suppressed and the filmmakers blew an editorial exchange out of proportion.

What Kickstarter refers to as blowing “an editorial exchange out of proportion” is another way of covering up what really happened. Kickstarter couldn’t deal with the truth, in the plain language of the Grand Jury report the filmmakers report.

And as Phelim McAleer told the Hollywood Reporter:

“Kickstarter tried to censor us – it didn’t work. When faced with a different point of view, their first instinct was to censor,” McAleer said.

He adds, though, that he believes Kickstarter was within its rights because it’s a private company. “But they need to be honest and announce that certain opinions and ideas are not welcome,” he said. “It’s sad, but that’s the truth.”

With 11 days left, the Gosnell project has raised $1.66 million, 79 percent of its goal. If it reaches $2.1 million, it will become the most successful movie or TV project to raise funds at IndieGoGo.

Here’s the site.

Then there’s ‘Irreplaceable‘, a film about the state of the family across the globe. And though produced by MPower Pictures producer John Shepherd, it’s sponsored by Focus on the Family, an organization trying to shift its focus to a more pro-active effort as this, and it’s an admirable effort. I saw it last week in a private screening, and know what it’s about, how it’s done, and how it affected the packed theater in which I viewed it. I thought it would be a good effort, and effective to sort of ‘get the ball rolling’ on re-thinking the family, since we all have one and it’s in a state of crisis around the world.

But it’s remarkable, how simply they hit the primeval sense we all have of needing to belong, and knowing that we belong or grieving the loss of belonging to others in what civilization has always known as family. It’s so fresh, stark, and basic. The narrator and main researcher is a family man from New Zealand who sets out on a journey around the world to talk with experts and regular people about family relationships, the state of the family today, not so much to focus on what’s wrong but on what we might or can do to make it better for everyone. Because God knows, we need to.

From the website:

Every member of the human race has the desire for significance—a desire to belong. And the family is where those deepest longings are fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the word “family” has all but lost its meaning in our modern cultural landscape. And the fallout has been significant. Divorce. Crime. Poverty. Addictions. Abuse. Our attempts to redefine and reimagine the family only make these problems worse, not better. When the family is weakened, society suffers. But strong families make the world a better place.

Irreplaceable is the first in a series of feature-length documentaries that will approach the concept of the family from a number of different angles. The goal of each documentary is to recover, renew and reclaim the cultural conversation about the family.

And besides the series, it’s a new movement. It launches with a nationwide event on May 6th at 700 theaters nationwide in America, and goes from there. Details on the site.

I must admit, I was inspired by the project, and impressed by the producer in an interview we did on my radio program. But when the once-only screening happened on a work night, I was pretty tired and attended with the hope that it wouldn’t be long. After it got rolling, and the New Zealand narrator/researcher started traveling, interviewing, piecing together whatever he discovered on his journey, I got drawn in more.

But something happened around or just after the middle of the film, when the packed theater settled down from their popcorn munching and bobbing around, and grew more still and silent. And it built to a point when no one in the place moved, no one turned their head away, or made a sound. It was riveting, and a couple of people around me were quietly crying. I was moved, a bit choked up, but holding together and impressed with how well they did this film.

Then it blindsided me. Because it sort of seemed to blindside the narrator/researcher from New Zealand. He didn’t expect to have the deep revelation that hit him any more than I did, and by hitting him the way it did it hit me. Maybe that’s an excuse. Maybe it would have hit many of us deeply no matter what, because of the human truths about relationships and belonging and family, or whatever it was that made people cry. And I found myself wiping away tears. It was deep and rich and raw and human. And it was okay to be wounded and imperfect.

This May 6th event is intended to start something. I hope it starts the healing process. God knows we need it.

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Apr 28

In an age of skepticism or denial of the transcendent, there’s a mighty lot of interest in the pope.

Which one, though? Surely Francis has been appearing everywhere, on magazine covers and in unexpected Italian newspaper interviews, on the other end of spontaneous telephone calls the press loves to talk about, in photos embracing the vulnerable, disabled, impaired, rejected, dejected, disfigured. Or by contrast, delighting children who break ranks to run to him, when he scoops them up to put them in the papal chair, or in the popemobile, or on stage  in an audience. Or enjoying countless groups of young people and married couples lined up for their ‘selfies’ with the Holy Father which promptly get posted on social media.

That Francis has been very busy lately with the end of Lent, Holy Week, Easter, preparations for the canonization of two of his predecessors, a major event Sunday which was attended by his immediate predecessor, the first Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI. He, of little popularity with pop culture and pop media, which is irrelevant to their contribution to the eternal truths and hopes for humanity.

If the media had followed the daily homilies of Pope Francis through Holy Week and other times as much as they follow the ‘big moments’ when they can excise certain lines from his impromptu interviews and build false narratives around them, the media would (presuming honesty on their part) see a different Francis than they’re presenting to the world.

For the sake of brevity and pithy import, for which Francis is actually known by those who follow him daily, here’s a snip from the homily he gave at the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

In convening the Council, John XXIII showed an exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit. He let himself be led and he was for the Church a pastor, a servant-leader, led by the Spirit. This was his great service to the Church; he was the pope of openness to the Spirit.

In his own service to the People of God, John Paul II was the pope of the family. He himself once said that he wanted to be remembered as the pope of the family. I am particularly happy to point this out as we are in the process of journeying with families towards the Synod on the family. It is surely a journey which, from his place in heaven, he guides and sustains.

I’m told by a priest in the first row near the front of St. Peter’s that at that moment, when Francis said ‘the pope of the family’ and pointed out the ‘Synod on the family’ this year and next, the massive crowd erupted in such spontaneous eruption of joyful applause and affirmation, even the pope seemed startled, as were these priests gathered around him. Something was in the air, he said, and it was palpable.

For one thing, it was the presence of four popes, two of them saints, no matter how the world sees sanctity or whether it sees it or not. John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, against the advice of some experts and pundits, to renew the missionary mandate of the church. Progressives turned the reference to ‘throwing open the windows of the church’ to meaning it needed to let the modern world in. Theologians today explain, understandably to those listening closely to Francis, much less his three predecessors, that it really meant opening those windows to let the heart of the church out, to go “out to the peripheries” as Francis often says, where people are hurt and lonely, afflicted and suffering.

We hear so much these days about ‘battles’, for religious freedom and conscience rights and basic ones like the right to life (on which all other rights are based) and the recognition of the fundamental dignity of the human person. The popes have tried to reintroduce this language, at the UN General Assembly among other places, as the moral grammar on which all other rights rest.

Francis has simply re-framed the message in continuity with his predecessors that the church is the ‘field hospital’ for the embattled and wounded humanity suffering, and in need of balm for the body and soul, soothing relief and healing. It didn’t become new with Francis, he only showed a different face of the same body, the church.

As former Vatican Ambassador Raymond Flynn, friend and frequent guest on my radio show put it, this was a ‘renewal of hope’.

When I looked out at the massive crowd of people at the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in St. Peter’s Square yesterday, I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Now I know that the Catholic Church has always regarded itself as “universal,” but what I saw today was a “multicultural Catholic Church.”

Maybe it’s always been there, but I never saw it like this…

We saw the historic past at the Vatican this week, but now we are about to see its future. I got a preview of the new face of the church in St. Peter’s Square today. Frankly, I am pretty positive and hopeful, even in this chaotic and polarized world.

Some things, few as they are, transcend that. This is one.

Apr 24

When great ones pass, may they pass the torch.

I have seen a number of very moving and inspiring testimonials lately to great people who have recently passed from this world, written by those who knew and learned from them and knew how to write well of those lasting impressions. We can learn from those, and what we learn is of great and lasting value, especially the more their witness to charity and dignity is lacking in this cultural climate.

Michael Cook wrote this about Brian Harradine.

Brian began as a union organiser and Labor Party stalwart in Tasmania and rose to national prominence by dint of hard work and his steely intellect. But in 1975 he was expelled from the Party for denouncing Communist infiltration. It was a bitter blow, but he immediately stood for the Senate as an Independent and was elected easily.

Look at his witness and adherence to principles, and tenacity in not only defending but advancing them.

He spent the next 30 years in the Federal Parliament, where he fought tirelessly for his constituents and for causes that he believed in passionately – workers’ rights, Aboriginal rights, the rights of the family, and the rights of the unborn. I don’t think that there has ever been an Australian politician who fought harder and longer for the pro-life cause than Brian Harradine.

He also knew what families are all about. In 1980 his wife died, leaving him with six children. A couple of years later he married Marian, a widow with seven. The family of 15 lived in a modest house in a modest suburb.

Being an independent in Canberra was a lonely job. But all the parties respected his conviction and toughness. They had to. From 1996 to 1999 he and another independent held the balance of power and the government ate humble pie to secure his vote. He was unpretentious but he knew how to leverage his position and he drove a hard bargain…

He was also a man with a deep Catholic faith which kept him smiling through hard times at home, disappointments in politics and his years of illness. I shall miss him.

And so will the world, those who knew him and those who never did, because now they will not. Except through those who carry on the virtues and character he embodied.

Kathleen Parker wrote this about Reid Buckley.

He was, as I wrote in a long-ago Town and Country profile of him, a force of nature — driven by an insatiable curiosity, a joy of learning, and apparently a need to salvage what he could of Western intellectual tradition by infecting others with his passion. The Buckley School of Public Speaking has been a tiny incubator where minds were nourished during a brief respite from the mundane and then released back into the world with the sublime command to go forth and multiply.

Reid was nourished in turn by the transformation of students who under his tutelage morphed from timid mumblers into Shakespearean actors. Reid taught confident articulation by applying the debate skills he mastered first at Yale, where he was president of the debate club, and later as an itinerant debater opposite his liberal counterpart, Max Lerner. The two performed formal debates on college campuses during the 1960s, disagreeing civilly on the issues of the day.

The transformation wasn’t only practical but also spiritual. There was something magical and transcendent about entering Reid’s world. He immanentized the eschaton even though, theologically and politically, he opposed such utopian fantasies. Perhaps it was the intoxication of jasmine growing along the school’s antebellum porch. Or maybe it was the smell of hundreds of books, a fair portion of which were written by various Buckleys. Mostly, I think, it was exposure to knowledge, truth, and beauty, and delight in feeling a part of something truly special. He raised your game and made you want to be a better human being.

Of how many people can that be said today, with such reverent and eloquent tones?

Reid might not have known who Oprah was, but he could quote Thomas Merton or Socrates or Yeats with the ease of mortals ordering dressing on the side. A devout Catholic, he was serious about his faith but counted atheists among his friends. Ultra-conservative, he claimed most of his friends were liberals because they were more fun. Ultimately, he was a sensualist in love with beauty in all its forms.

This all seems like a bygone era, right? It shouldn’t and needn’t be, especially because the intellectual progeny who spent time in that world are still in this one, disagreeable and uncivil as it is.

To the 5,000-plus students who passed through his school, he was the lamplighter who waved the burning torch and showed the way out of the subterranean tunnels of rigid thinking. If, alas, I am a tad verbose in my praise, please pardon the indulgence. My cup runneth over.

However, it continues to spill forth…

There’s so much more to say. He was a novelist, essayist, and raconteur, a friend to movie stars, bullfighters, and everyday folks. If he had a snobbish bone, he kept it well hidden. His charm lay partly in his eager willingness to accept all men and women as his equals, intellectual and otherwise. He was the happiest of warriors, madly (madly!) in love with his Spanish wife, Tasa, to whom he professed his love nearly every time they spoke. (He did this in Spanish, but I listen in Spanish.)

A devoted father to their ten children, he called family meetings when any child had a problem to solve. He cherished weekends riding a tractor on his farm, inviting friends to stash and drink wine at his country cellar, and summers writing in his beloved Spain. More than anything, he loved his family, his God, and, by no means least, his dogs — all of them regulars at the school.

This is the fullness of a life well lived, and I was riveted by the account of it, inspired by the sheer nobility of such a witness to discipline, study, hard work, teaching, mentoring, conversing, debating, socializing and sharing, treating everyone with equal dignity and humanity. In other words, a gifted intellect who realized his gifts, a believer who lived his beliefs in every fiber of his living and being, and therefore witnessing faith, hope and charity. To the end, when it was clear it was the end.

When another staff member, Caroline Avinger, visited, Reid urged her not to be sad. “We’re believers, dearest,” he said. “We know how the story ends.”

We are all inconsolably sad, anyway. With Reid Buckley’s earthly departure, Western civilization has lost one of its fiercest gladiators and God has gained the delightful company of one of his most joyful servants. Reid’s parting words at the end of each seminar seem a fitting close to these recollections and a testament to an examined life well lived:

Through your efforts you have advanced in a mighty and terrible power, the art of persuasion. It can be used equally to advance good or evil. May you exercise this power always in the love of truth, decency, and the defense of the poor and weak.

Do you own to a god, may He be your witness and your judge should you betray this trust; if you do not own to a god, may your conscience be your scourge and also your salvation. And so help you, may the lucidity of your reason be guided by the purity of your heart.

Amen.

Yes. Indeed.

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Apr 21

But in what passes as public discourse, it will keep trying.

So my last post below wondered aloud whether we’re still able to disagree with civil discourse, or not. It was kind of a rhetorical exercise, because the reality has been obvious for a while now, rendering the term ‘civil discourse’ almost quaint.

Since then, we went through what Christians have traditionally known and observed as Holy Week, and Jews the Passover. A time of spiritual reflection and prayer, of sacrifice and service, of shared humanity and salvation history.

But some believers and non-believers alike have either kept one foot in both that realm and the rough cut real world, or kept wholly and entirely flailing in the cultural abyss that gets no one anywhere but falling downward. Time and again, political power brokers have derided the lack of civil discourse and called for it as a new campaign, just after another tragic crime of some sort. And less than a week later it’s back to politically partisan sniping with media as complicit messenger.

On the news consumer level, people go at the messenger and each other in comments sections, or com-boxes, as if words have no meaning or whatever meaning suddenly assigned them for pragmatic purposes, as if there are no consequences for actions which include the act of character assassination or at least denigration. Pope Benedict often warned that modern man lives as if God does not exist, a re-statement of different Psalms decrying people acting ‘as if there is no God’.

Who will stop this?

Pope Francis is among the latest to try. Here are a few of his messages from the holiest days of the liturgical year.

Good Friday:

“In the Cross we see the monstrosity of man, when we allow ourselves to be guided by evil; but we also see the immensity of God’s mercy who does not treat us according to our sins, but according to His mercy”. This was the message at the heart of Pope Francis’ brief unscripted address Friday evening as he presided at the traditional “Via Crucis”, or Way of the Cross, service at Rome’s ancient Colosseum.

His scripted messages are already like little darts, targeted at our follies of idolatry (including making our own ideas into false idols, our opinions into little gods, until we’re so turned in on ourselves and ‘self-referential’ we lose side of ‘the other’ and feed into ‘the globalization of indifference’). His unscripted ones seem like deep sighs or sudden impulses that cry out to our shared humanity – shared, he’s quick to claim, by him – to stop and look and see, to listen and hear, to drop what we’re doing and be still, and then maybe notice that the ‘existential peripheries’ to which he urges us to go, to show the face of love to others, might be right in front of us.

However…and this is important to get…the ‘culture of encounter’ he keeps calling us to create, does not mean jumping into the culture of confrontation.

Easter Vigil:

Returning to Galilee, he noted, “means above all to return to that blazing light with which God’s grace touched me at the start of the journey.”

“From that flame I can light a fire for today and every day, and bring heat and light to my brothers and sisters,” the Pope said, highlighting how “that flame ignites a humble joy, a joy which sorrow and distress cannot dismay, a good, gentle joy.”

That’s a good place to pause and take a good look at how we’re doing with that, Christian and anyone of goodwill. Are we bringing more heat than light? Do the flames we light ignite joy? Or do they singe and burn, causing distress?

Pope Francis then explained that there is “a more existential ‘Galilee’” in the life of every Christian after baptism, which is “the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission.”

Christians should pay attention. Non-Christians can benefit from a good existential message about recalling the first time they experienced the transcendent, a higher power they knew was not them and beyond them. For all, it’s the first encounter with the power of love and redemption.

Addressing those in attendance, the Roman Pontiff encouraged each to ask themselves: “What is my Galilee? Where is my Galilee? Did it go away or I remember it? Have I forgotten it? Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?”…

“This is not to go back in time; it is not a kind of nostalgia,” the pontiff clarified, but rather “it is returning to our first love, in order to receive the fire which Jesus has kindled in the world and to bring that fire to all people, to the very ends of the earth.”

Again, encounter the fire and consider what we’re doing with it.

Easter Sunday:

“The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death,” he preached on April 20.

The Holy Father emphasized the power of God’s “unconditional and faithful love” for every human situation, praying for the many areas of the world suffering from violence or conflicts, and urging Christians to seek paths of peace and reconciliation…

“In every human situation, marked by frailty, sin and death, the Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast… “Come and see!”: Love is more powerful, love gives life, love makes hope blossom in the wilderness.”

So now that we’ve celebrated Easter, and the Passover comes to completion, and those who don’t observe but have watched and felt something, whether longing or fulfillment, hope in the face of despair, seeing so many of the world’s believers recall the depths of human trials give them over to the heights of divine triumph and celebrate the mystery and gift of it all…here’s a question.

Have we been changed? Do we want to be? For believers, the Resurrection is the ultimate ‘re-set’. Love finds a way.

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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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