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Religious Liberty and the Freedom of Conscience

Last August, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) announced new rules and regulations aimed to improve women’s health. On January 20, the DHHS announced a revision to its religious exemption clause that exempts health plans provided by religious employers that primarily employ and serve people who share the employer’s religion.

It is this exemption clause that concerns many people, since it would force organizations (such as Catholic hospitals and universities) to spend their money on something that violates their conscience.

Am I concerned about religious liberty and freedom of conscience? We all should worry about attacks on people because of their faith:

  • A menorah on the lawn of a private residence in the town of Plainview, NY was vandalized during this past Hanukkah
  • A church’s Nativity scene that included depictions of gay and lesbian couples was vandalized in Calrmont, CA.
  • In New Jersey, three adults and two juveniles were charged with bias intimidation and harassment after they allegedly pelted two Orthodox Jewish teens with eggs and told them, `You better move on you Jew boys.`
  • In Los Angeles, a Korean church was set on fire and racist graffiti was scrawled nearby.
  • The increasing number of anti-Muslim hate groups, such as Stop the Islamization of America.

Do I think the Obama administration is waging a war on religion in pursuit of a secular socialist agenda? Not so much.

More likely, the administration is trying to do the most good for the most people. In a nation as large and as diverse as the United States, this is a difficult task. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail (of course, “success” and “failure” is relative–if you  are a Republican, anything this administration does will be a failure, almost by definition.)

At worst, the administration made a bad policy decision that is pissing off a lot of people, myself included.

But I accept Secretary Sebelius’ reasoning for what it is. I may disagree with her, but I believe that she is a good person who is simply trying to do the best job she can. But I also agree with my bishop,  R. Daniel Conlon, of the Diocese of Joliet:

Now, it is no secret that many Catholics dissent from the Church’s longstanding teaching on artificial contraception, elective sterilization and abortion. However, pursuing old arguments on these issues will sidetrack us from the real one at hand. The Health and Human Services directive is a violent breach of the wall of separation between church and state. For the government to force a religious body to pursue a course of action that contradicts its beliefs, particularly where no public interest is at stake, is completely unacceptable.

But I don’t think the half-time entertainment at next year’s Super Bowl will include Christians being fed to lions. We must be careful to distinguish between public policy decisions with which we disagree (however strongly) with serious attacks on people because of their faith. Failure to do so subjects the victims of such crimes to a double indemnity: the crime itself, followed by the crime neglect.

Here is a copy of a letter I sent to President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and Secretary Sebelius. Not that I think it will have much of an effect. But at least I am trying to do something constructive.

I am writing to express my concerns about the new HHS rule regarding religious exemptions. Religious liberty is necessary to achieve the common good. However, religious liberty is more than just the freedom to worship in safety and security. Religious liberty also includes the freedom to teach the faith and live the faith.

Jesus instructed his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” and “[teach] them to observe all I have commanded you.” (Mt 28: 19, 20). Jesus instructed his disciples not only to preach the Gospel to all creatures but to also serve the world: “He summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.” (Mk 6: 7).

This ministry of mission is a key element of our faith. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [Faith] of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (Jas 2: 14, 17).

The Department of Health and Human Services will require religious institutions like Catholic hospitals and universities to spend their money in ways that contradict their faith, thereby limiting the Church’s ability to do good works. It is an attack on the faith itself. “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (Jas 2: 26). In no way does this protect religious liberty. In no way does this promote the common good.

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, George Washington explained the importance of the freedom of conscience: “All possess a like liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. . . . For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

To the extent that the Catholic Church supports the interests of the Government of the United States in promoting the common good of all its citizens, the Department of Health and Human Services must respect its liberty of conscience. The new religious exemption clause fails in this endeavor. The religious exemption clause must be expanded so that religious institutions may exercise their faith in freedom and liberty.

Thank you for your service, and may you and your family be blessed with peace and all goodness!


An Open Letter to Speaker Boehner, et.al.

I would like to share with you my reasons for opposing the Keystone XL pipelinewith the hope that, after thoughtful reflection and prayer, you will join me in my opposition.As a Catholic who identifies with the teachings and example of St. Francis of Assisi, I have come to understand that humanity is part of Creation, which is a special and precious gift from God that helps us to know and love Him. Wrote Thomas of Celano, “[Francis] rejoiced in all the works of the Lord and saw behind things pleasant to behold their life giving reasons and cause. In beautiful things he saw Beauty itself; all things to him were good.”

The Keystone XL pipeline is incompatible with my Franciscan view of the world. The pipeline presents serious environmental and health risks. The Keystone XL will transport thick, toxic bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. Extraction of oil from the tar sands fragment and destroy the Boreal forest, killing migratory birds and many other species. Toxic waste from mining operations are stored in tailings ponds that already cover 65 square miles, resulting in higher rates of cancer among the Fort Chipewyan First Nations community. The destructive effects of tar sands extraction are so great that Luc Bouchard, Bishop of St. Paul in Alberta concluded that “…the integrity of creation in the Athabsca oil sands is clearly being sacrificed for economic gain. . . . The present pace and scale of development in the Athabasca oil sands cannot be morally justified. Active steps to alleviate this environmental damage must be undertaken.”

The Keystone XL pipeline will only transport this destruction into the United States. Between 2000 and 2009, pipeline accidents resulted in almost 3,000 significant incidents and over 160 deaths. In 2010, Enbridge pipelines spilled over 1 million gallons of tar sands into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, 275,000 gallons in a suburb of Chicago, and 126,000 gallons in North Dakota. If the Keystone XL were to leak, the environmental effects would be devastating.

Blocking the Keystone XL pipeline is one step we can take in alleviating the damage to Alberta’s Boreal forest, preventing future disasters in the United States, and exercising our duty to be good stewards of the environment.

“The earth is full of the steadfast love of the lord.” (Ps 33: 5) In a spirit of reciprocity, we must return that love. As Pope Benedict the XVI explained in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “The envrionment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole. . . . The protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate obliges all international leaders to act jointly and to show a readiness to work in good faith, respecting the law and promoting solidarity with the weakest regions of the planet.”

Scripture tells us that we are our brothers keeper (Gen 4, 9-10); the Lord instructs us that “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22: 39). Like St. Francis, I have come to understand the truth that all of Creation–the Boreal forest of Alberta, the waters of the Athabasca River, the migratory birds and other species, and the Fort Chipewyan First Nations–are our brothers and sisters. We have an obligation and responsibility to them that far outweighs any possible economic gain realized by the Keystone  XL pipeline.

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen 1: 31) I hope after considering my words and the wisdom of St. Francis of Assisi, you will reconsider your position on the Keystone XL pipeline and block its approval.

Thank you for your service, and may you be blessed with peace and all goodness!

In Defense of Troy Davis

The impious act because they do not understand.

The State of Georgia will execute Troy Davis on September 21, 2011 for a crime he may not have committed. He was convicted of killing a Savannah police officer in 1989, based on eye witnesses testimony. Several of those witnesses have since recanted, claiming that they were pressured by the police to blame Mr. Davis. One of those who did not recant may have been the real murderer, and that he implicated Troy Davis to save himself. No physical evidence links Mr. Davis to the crime. Judge Rosemary Barkett of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered her opinion of this case:

To execute Davis, in the face of a significant amount of proffered evidence that may establish his actual innocence, is unconscionable and unconstitutional.

Where a defendant can make a viable claim of actual innocence is facing execution, the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception should apply.

Yet the 11th Circuit still denied his appeal, Mr. Davis awaits death, and the State of Georgia risks executing a many who may very well be innocent.

With so much doubt as to Troy Davis’ guilt, how can the State of Georgia proceed with his execution? “As I Live, says the Lord, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion.” (Ez 33: 11). Indeed, “God did not send his son into the world to condemn, but that the world may be saved through him.” (Jn 3: 17) If, then, God does not wish to condemn the wicked, then who are we execute someone who may very well be innocent? Should we model our behavior on the instructions that Cain’s descendant Lamech gave to his wives?

Wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance: I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (Gn 5: 23 – 24)

Or should we model our behavior on Christ?

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him, As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Mt 18: 21 – 22)

The State of Georgia has the duty to inflict punishment in order to provide for the common good of its citizenry. The friends and family who mourn Officer MacPhail have the right to see the interests of justice served: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Mt 5: 4). But punishment also serves to correct the guilty party; the finality of death penalty precludes this hope:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (Bl. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)

Troy Davis, a man who may very well be innocent, will be executed by the State of Georgia. His execution will serve no purpose, other than to condemn ourselves and our society. “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5: 21)

The reliance on the death penalty as the “ultimate form of justice” is one that we as a civilized society need to reject. Rather, we should embrace the vision of justice that Saint Francis of Assisi showed to us in dealing with the wolf who terrorized the city of Gubbio:

But, Brother Wolf, I want to make peace between you and them, so that they will never be harmed by you, and they will dismiss all your past offenses, and both men and dogs will no longer pursue you….But, Brother Wolf, for me to obtain this favor for you, I want you to promise me that you will never harm any animal or person or dare to harm anything.

I am Troy Davis, because I share with him the same beginning. You are Troy Davis because you share with him the same end; we are all Troy Davis because we are made in the same image (Gn 1: 26, 27; 2: 7; 3: 19). Now is the time for clemency; later will be the time for justice.

Now you understand. Now you can act.

To read more about Troy Davis and his case, you can read these articles from Forbes, The Atlantic, and Mother Jones provide excellent background and opinion.

To take action, the Innocence Project and Amnesty International provide opportunities for you to stand in solidarity with Troy Davis.

Peace and goodness!

Peace Dog

“As you announce peace with your mouth, make sure that greater peace is in your hearts.”–St. Francis of Assisi

“In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”–Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman

“Oh, peace is a dirty word/She used to be a dirty bird, yeah/ And war, she’s a whore/Don’t you know we love her more and more?”–The Cult

“Doug! Drop it!”

No way, man. There is no way I am letting this thing go.

“Doug! I said drop it. Drop it!” He held out his hand under my mouth and stared me down.

I looked away and paraded around the patio. The vermin’s carcass defiantly swayed from my mouth. The kill became my pennant; its blood trickled down my throat, an aphrodisiac exciting my lust for the hunt. I was a ferocious wolf: The essence of my wild ancestors pulsed through my veins.

“Drop it!” He spoke with stern authority.

He couldn’t be serious. I had been hunting this vile rodent for ages. I finally caught the thing, and he wanted me to let it go?

I stopped. He is, after all, Alpha. I lowered my head and laid the kill on the mat. He opened the sliding door and commanded, “Now get in here!” Obedient to his command, I ran inside, looped around the coffee table and sat beside him, wagging my tail. Didn’t he see? How could he not have seen? I had been hunting all spring, and I finally caught him! I protected the yard. I did what I was supposed to do: I killed the rabbit!

“Oh, Doug,” he said. He hung his head low and stepped outside. Closing the door behind him, he knelt over my kill, clasped his hands, and pressed them against his chest.

What was he doing? He needed to make sure it was dead! He needed to take it in his mouth and shake it violently! Rabbits are sneaky vermin: Did he not know that it could have been faking? I pleaded with my eyes for him to let me out. I would have taken the carcass and whipped it around until I knew for certain that it was dead!

He got up and walked around the side of the house, out of sight. I stared at the rabbit. One of its hind legs moved–it was still alive! I had to warn someone! The rabbit lived! Someone had to let me out so I could shake it!

Shovel in hand, he reappeared. Good idea! Smash it with the shovel! While not as graceful an execution as clasping it in his jaws and whipping the life out of it, smashing it would have been just as effective. The Alpha scooped the rabbit up in the shovel, and walked to a far corner of the yard. He laid the rabbit down in the grass and dug a hole. He placed my kill in the hole and he buried it. He buried my kill! Where was the justice?

He walked back to the house, and I ran in a frenzied circle as he opened the door.

“Doug, sit.”

I sat. Why didn’t you shake it? Why didn’t you flatten it? He scratched me behind my ears. and looked me in the eye. I tried to look away, but he grabbed my muzzle and stared at me. I hate it when he does that.

“Doug, I know you are a dog…”

A dog? Didn’t you see what I did? I’m not a mere dog! I am a wolf, and the wild pack calls me!

“…and you are just doing what you thought you were supposed to do. But you can’t kill Brother Rabbit.”

Brother rabbit? That’s crazy talk.

“Doug, I know you hate rabbits, and rabbits have torn up the garden countless times. But there can be no joy in its death. You must not hate them; you must not kill them. This is their yard too.”

He stood up and opened the door, and I followed him outside. He pat me on the head, and took the shovel and walked around the side of the house. As soon as he got out of sight, I ran over to where he buried my kill. I dug furiously until I uncovered the rabbit. Taking it into my mouth, I finished the task he refused to do–I shook it furiously until I knew it no longer posed a threat to the yard.

“Doug! No! Bad dog!”

What did he just call me? Did he just call me…bad? I stopped and dropped the carcass. Hiding my tail between my legs, I skulked away, staying as low to the ground as I could. I looked over my shoulder and saw him march over, shovel in hand. After returning the rabbit to the hole, he placed a slab of flagstone to mark the site.

“Doug, come here.” My master summoned me.

I laid down.

“Doug, come.”

I looked away. He was displeased; I was ashamed.

“Doug…I said come!” He pointed down at his feet. He meant it.

I slowly walked over.


I sat.

“Now Doug,” he began, “I do not wish you to kill any more rabbits. If the lion will lay down with the lamb, so too can the dog lay down with the rabbit.”

Fine, but he had better not say the same thing about squirrels.

A Just War, or Just A War?

The President’s remarks Monday night did little to reassure me about the crisis in Libya. So, I met three of my friends at a nearby Starbucks to get their opinion.

“Is this a just war,” I asked, “or just a war?”

My friend Athena picked at her blueberry scone. “If one addresses the rules for jus ad bellum, then, clearly, those requirements have been met.”

“First, we are resisting an aggressor–the brutal dictator Gadhafi–who has waged war against his own people. Second, we have the authority of the United Nations. Third, the imposition of sanctions and the freezing of the regime’s assets have not deterred Gadhafi’s aggression. Finally, our role is limited and proportional–we are striking only those assets that help Gadhafi wage war against his own people.”

Ares erupted with a contemptible laugh as he clenched his iron fist. “Spare me your weak moral concepts.” Pyroclastic words exploded from his mouth. “As you sit and debate your artificial constructs, there is terror and discord to be wrought!” The mighty warrior downed his caffe americano, stood up, and raised his fists in the air. “Why am I wasting my time, debating with you weak fools,” he bellowed. “It is time to blow shit up!”

Athena continued outlining her case for jus in bello and jus post bellum; Ares trashed the Starbucks as he shouted, “The dogs of war thirst for the blood of your heroes, and hunger to gnaw on their bones!”

Meanwhile, Gandhi sipped his chai tea quietly, calmly.

“The way of truth and love has always won,” he said in a barely audible whisper. “There have always been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible; but in the end, they always fall, always.”

The power of these meek words silenced Athena and Ares, but only for a moment before they erupted in raucous laughter.

“Bob, why are you friends with this guy?” Athena asked after she caught her breath and wiped the tears from her eyes. Ares spit on him and shouted, “Bring back the bomb! Kill! Kill! Kill!”

I handed Gandhi a napkin for him to wipe away the scorn. “Hey, Gandhi,” I said, “what do you get when you cross George Bush with a Nobel Peace Prize? Barack Obama!”

Gandhi smiled and sipped his tea quietly, calmly.

It Takes Two…

Absurdity results from the conflict between the effort to attach meaning to the meaningless. But when you take the meaningful and make it meaningless, that’s called politics.

Take, for example, the competing claims between President Obama and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY). The President stated during a March 11 press conference that “[oil] imports have accounted for less than half of what we consume.” Two days later, on Fox News Sunday, Sen. McConnell stated that “60% of our oil is coming from overseas.” They can’t both be right…

…or can they?

Both men were referring to the Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Energy Review for February 2011. And, sure enough, Sen McConnell is right–the average monthly imports for 2010 was over 60% (61.2%, to be exact). But in the next column–the column for average net imports–the total was 49.3%. So the President was right, too!

Congratulations, Mr. President and Sen. McConnell! Through your cooperative efforts, you have taken the undisputed facts of the EIA’s figures, put them in the test tubes of ideology, spun them around the centrifuge of  partisanship, and separated them from any meaning.

For such teamwork, I am proud to announce that the two of you have received a nomination for a “Stony” Award!

And who says  bipartisanship is dead?

This is NPR

Everybody picks on National Public Radio.

Day after day, hour by hour, NPR tries to provide its audience with the most honest, insightful, thought-provoking, eclectic, and entertaining programs on the air. Like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill, NPR tries to educate the public in order to create a truly enlightened democracy. But Sisyphus never had to contend with the slings and arrows of detractors who want to keep the stone on the plain, such as:

Educating America’s public is truly a Sisyphean task. In honor of this noble–albeit absurd–effort, National Public Radio has been nominated for this week’s Sisyphus Award.

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