This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Edward M. Kennedy

When Senator Kennedy's brother was running for President, there was question as to whether he would be under the control of the Vatican. How things have changed in 50 years. Now, liberal Catholics, such as Ted Kennedy, were seen as at odds with the Vatican while right wing Catholics and Evangelical Prostetants are seen as doing the Vatican's bidding on life issues. Of course, perceptions can be deceiving, as was demonstrated by conservative objections to the Holy Father's encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. The encyclical builds on prior encyclicals, some of which were used as a guide to design our Social Security system. Indeed, Msgr. Ryan helped President Roosevelt develop this legilsation. The legislative record of Senator Kennedy is a testament in no small measure to his belief in further extending Catholic Social Theory into public life. Indeed, his charge that Health Care is a right, not a priviledge (or a simple commodity) is first found in that body of doctrine.

Many of the comments today in the Catholic press bemoan Kennedy's position on abortion. Frankly, I think most misunderstand it, largely due to the "pluralist" position on the issue first popularized by Governor Mario Cuomo. Such a position is actually respectful of the Hierarchy, since it does not directly challenge Catholic teaching on this issue. One can imagine that directly challenging the Hierarchy would be considered disrespectful by the general Catholic public, which was already just a bit polarized by controversies over changes to the Church resulting from Vatican II and the emergence of a more educated and empowered laity. Catholic attitudes about change within the Church and the politics of the day, particulary around both abortion and economics, seem quite consistent - especially one listens to the ravings of some dissatisfied conservatives. This has allowed open resistence among them to the Catholic Social Teaching championed by the Senator. More is the pity.

There are good reasons that many progressive Catholics disagree with the Hierarchy about the question of the legality of abortion - and not its morality. It is due almost entirely to a misunderstanding of the issue by the Hierarchy and conservative Catholics. The problem is not their position but the way they explain it. The Church has a position on legislation liberalizing abortion, however this position is not applicable in the United States where abortion laws were struck down as unconstitutional, largely based on the plain language of the 14th Amendment and on the lack of state government jurisdiction on the issue. There is no "abortion law" to support or oppose until someone in Congress pursues a federal measure granting the unborn legal recognition under its 14th Amendment enforcement powers. Of course, if this happenned, the National Right to Life Committee and the Republican Party could no longer demagogue the issue at election time. Kennedy and the current generation of Catholic and non-Catholic libreral politicians (the President among them) correctly see that the best way to reduce abortion is to enact a more economically just society, especially in the areas of educational opportunity and health care reform. There is still a ways to go, especially with regard to living wages, but at least there is more awareness of the issues. Senator Kennedy's legacy is a much larger awareness of these issues in public life.

Kennedy has another legacy, which comes in how he treated people. Though rich, he had the common touch and it was not feigned in an attempt to look "authentic." Ted Kennedy was the real McCoy. When I was an intern working for the freshman Senator from Iowa when I first came to Washington in 1984, Senator Kennedy was in the office across the hall. He always had a nod and a smile for me when we passed eachother in the hall. It didn't ...matter that I was just an intern from the other party. He was a kind and decent man and will be missed. God rest his soul and bless his family.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The battle over gay marriage is heating up

The battle over gay marriage is heating up in the District of Columbia, as the forces against it are about to launch an initiative stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The prospects for this initiative are not good, since on its face, it violates the District's Human Rights Act as much as the prior attempt at a referendum to prevent the District from honoring gay unions performed in other states. With a Speaker of the House from San Francisco, it is unlikely that any District law on this subject will be negated by Congress by legislative veto.

Furthermore, any such initiative would likely not pass the equal protection test in the courts, even if it were allowed on the ballot. Colorado citizens tried to negate all gay rights protections by a state constitutional amendment. The federal courts found that the motivation for this amendment was malice against gays, which is not a rational basis for inequality. There is currently a suit in California, filed by former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, alleging that Proposition 8 carries the same flaws, leading to the likely repeal of not only Proposition 8, but all such gay marriage bans, including the one enacted in Virginia in 2006. The Virginia Amendment, which even went so far as to negate "marriage like contracts" has not yet been challenged, since the Lambda Legal Defense fund is waiting for a better Supreme Court to move forward with these challenges - although waiting gave them Alito and Roberts in the interim.

Of late, the Catholic Church has been supporting amendments in support of traditional marriage. Indeed, the latest papal encyclical, Caritas in Veritate mentions defense of marriage between a man and a woman explicitly. The question I have is, is this a good idea?

The Sacrament of Marriage has a complicated history. In biblical times, polygamy was an accepted fact of moral behavior. Indeed, when rebuking the Sadducees, our Lord calls the patriarchs, who were polygamists, among the living. If their way of life were damnable, he could not have done that.

This past Sunday, the marital comparison to the Church in St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians was the Epistle for the week. It contains the phrase "the two shall become one flesh." This terminology is echoed in the Gospel of Matthew, written later, almost word for word. This phrase has two meanings. One is sexual but the other is legal. It reflects the underlying truth that when one is married, one is divorced from one's family of origin and one with one's spouse.
A main impetus for gay marriage is the lack of recognition in family law of the rights of the gay spouse in relation to the family of origin, especially regarding inheritance and end of life issues. Such couples function as a de facto family, but there is not recognition in the law. The law is not catching up to the reality of their situations - and it is recognizing that if a heterosexual couple can, with one act, gain recognition of their rights as a family, that is is an onerous burden to force a gay couple to execute a multitude of legal instruments to gain the same rights - some of which are still out of reach, particularly with regard to the Social Security system. The latter provisions are indeed anti-family, as sometimes the gay couple has custody of children and the natural parent is the one who has died. An equal application of the law would provide survivors benefits to the remaining custodial partner rather than forcing the child into the foster care system, or to an unfit parent. There is no sensible logic which can state with a straight face (pardon the pun) that breaking up an existing family unit at such a time is in any way "pro family."

These legal developments will, of course, affect the way the Church deals with marriage, since from ancient times the celebration of the Sacrament has followed the civil rite - and still does in much of Europe. The United States is unique in the use of religious authorities to celebrate civil marriage at the same time. The Sacrament was originally a simple blessing of the civil action. It later evolved into a separate set of vows. It is also recognized that the vows that a couple makes are made to each other. The Church witnesses the marriage, but it is performed by the parties themselves. Given that fact, any teaching that gays cannot marriage seems out of step with reality. They seem to do it all the time now, regardless of what the Church says.

Some object to gay marriage and gay sex overall because it cannot produce children. Marriage, of course, is as much about caring for children as producing them. Gays are perfectly capable of doing that, and in fact do it because people sometimes enter into gay relationships with children in tow. While religious leaders talk about the role of procreation in marriage, the ability to procreate is not a requirement in either civil law or canon law to marry - (Canon law requires only the ability to function - although it still regards sodomy as disordered). Of course, the very concept of disorder requires that there be a natural order outside of human experience to damage (since God cannot be damaged). If the natural order is considered a sophistry then the disorder argument carries no weight, especially given the biological evidence that homosexuality is simply a natural variation in the species. If inability to procreate is not a bar to marriage among heterosexuals, it cannot be so for homosexuals.

The distinction needs to be made here between marriages, which exist before God regardless of what we say, and weddings. Weddings, going back to the Old Testament, are a joining of two families as well as the separation of the couple from each family, as is dictated in the New Testament. Weddings are an opportunity for each family to give their tacit consent to the new situation (in some ceremonies, it is still asked "who gives this person in marriage"). Usually, the parent has no choice in the matter, yet asking the question was a recognition of the fact that the child is transitioning out of the family of origin. To not celebrate gay weddings deprives Catholic families of the chance to come to grips with this within the comforting embrace of the Church. As such, it is an insult not to the couple, who often care less what the Church thinks - since the Church appears to care less about them, but to the Catholic families who willingly or unwillingly, give their children in what is soon to be recognized as legal marriage.

Such recognition is inevitable, since there is no rational basis for the family of origin to maintain superior rights in relation to a gay spouse when it does not have these rights over a straight spouse. There is certainly no biblical justification for such a distinction if the two are considered one flesh. Indeed, it is more likely that the gay couple has separated from their families of origin, so the irony that the family of origin has more legal rights is stinging and will not stand the test of equal protection law.

Finally, the Church will see it in their interest to recognize these marriages, since if it gives the Church a platform to teach that monogamy is a good thing for gays and lesbians that it does not have now as it counts both monogamous and promiscuous gay sex as the same thing, even though it is not the same thing at all. The morality of the sex act is not the act itself, but how it is used. Promiscuity is always a selfish act, where committed sexuality is unitive, natural and an expression of how the person was created. If God created people to be gay, as we are finding, who are we to argue with God? Indeed, how can we expect gays and lesbians to trust the Church when we talk about God when we do not trust them when they say that they were created to be Gay and were well made? If the current teaching on homosexuality is a barrier to evangelization, and indeed an impetus to suicide for gay youth, how can it stand? My answer is that it can't and it won't. Hopefully the changing legality of gay marriage will be an impetus to a further examination of this fact.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Crossroads comes to Washington, but why?

Last Sunday in my parish, we had a guest speaker from Crossroads speak to us after Communion. Crossroads is a young people's ministry which has as its mission "Building a culture of Life." They were inspired by Pope John Paul II's challenge to take the cause of life to the streets. They have taken it literally by walking for across the country in Pro-Life tee shirts, with their journey ending in Washington, D.C. They also have regional and Canadian walks.

This is all well and good, however aside from providing a witness to the "cause of Life" they don't really define what that means. This is the second time they have visited my parish at the conclusion of their walk and they have never defined the term Pro-Life. In order to do complete research for this article, I checked the Mission Statement on the Crossroads web page at Again, there is not definition of what it means to be Pro-Life. Considering that they are asking for financial support, you would think that they would have some kind of agenda to support. They don't. This leads me to ask the question, are they trying to change the law or the culture? While ambiguity is fine when you are trying to recruit partners and funders, it does not help at election time when you are trying to determine who to vote for. If the agenda is not defined, everyone can be considered pro-life by saying so, unless of course they say that they respect the equally vague term "a woman's right to chose." This makes the term "pro-life" more a matter of tribalism than a term with actual meaning.

The question I would like to ask the leadership of this organization is, what do you mean by Pro-Life? Are you witnessing to young women who may be thinking that abortion is an option? If that is your goal, it is an admirable one. I share that goal. Most people share that goal, since no one (not even most providers) really like abortion. If you have other goals, however, you should put them out there for all to see if you are asking us for money.

I am not just picking on Crossroads here. Many people, especially pro-life politicians at election time, like to say that they are Pro-Life. They often do not say much more. Sarah Palin got caught in this quandary when pressed by Catie Couric as to what she meant when she said she was pro-life. The fact that she fumbled her answer was the first clue to many that she was unprepared. We shouldn't be to unkind to former Governor Palin, however, since most Pro-Life politicians and activists are in the same boat. They don't like abortion but they are not specific about what they would do about it. If pressed, many say that they believe in a federalist solution, letting the state's decide. Federalism is a separate issue, however. One can be against abortion and think that the federalist solution which many in the movement cling to is code for a states' rights posture that goes back to the antebellum south and more recently to opposition to the changes of the civil rights movement and even more recently to opposition of any federal recognition of the rights of gays and lesbians. One should not have to agree with such policies to be considered pro-life, especially since many of us on the left consider this concept of federalism to be constitutionally abhorrent.

The Fourteenth Amendment is rather clear on who is in charge in saying who can and who cannot grant legal recognition to persons. While the default provision is birth, which the Court relied on in Roe v. Wade, the Congress has enforcement power, including the power to alter who is and who is not protected under the Constitution. Rather than continuing to insist that the goal of the movement is the overturn of Roe, especially on federallist lines, it is well past time for the movement to focus on congressional action to protect the unborn at some stage during pregnancy, as specified in the Constitution itself. The President said as much himself in his last debate with Senator McCain. As Catholics, we should not only support the President in his desire for a legislative solution, but encourage him strongly to get to work on one, especially those of us who voted for him.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Taxpayer funding of abortions

There has been a great deal of attention in the Catholic media to the issue of whether abortion services will be paid for with taxpayer money as part of health care reform. For many years, the Hyde Amendment prevented federal taxpayer funding of Medicaid abortions nationwide, as well as local taxpayer funding of abortions in the District of Columbia - although providers got around that by using the Medical Charities fund until the Control Board got wind of it in 1997. The issue now is whether any public option funded by taxpayers includes abortion services. An abortion neutrality amendment was passed on the House side in committee and then reconsidered by Chairman Waxman and overturned, so it is a burning issue for Catholics.

The question I would like to raise is whether it should be. The public option will not be funded by taxpayers per se, but will allow individuals to use their own money and that of their employers to buy insurance offered by the government. Taxpayers will not subsidize abortions under this plan any more than they currently do. This is what most people don't know. Currently, private insurance provides abortion services for many people. For those with employer provided insurance, the employer gets a tax break for providing this insurance. In other words, employers pay lower taxes, in what is called a tax expenditure, to provide health insurance, including abortion services, to their employees. Because of this tax expenditure, we all pay higher taxes. In other words, we all pay just a bit for every insurance funded abortion, albeit remotely.

This topic is actually addressed in Catholic Ethics textbooks. In the book used when I went to Catholic College, Fagothy's Right and Reason, the question of whether one can pay taxes at all if some of the money is used to proved abortions was addressed. The answer was that in a pluralistic society with a representative government the decision to fund abortions is so remote from the taxpayer and the amount is so indirect that the requirement to pay taxes is not overcome by the public funding of abortion. I believe the same principle can be applied to health care reform. Now, I am not saying that we, as Catholics, should not try our best to get abortion neutrality inserted into the bill - however be forwarned that this will not stop tax expenditures for abortion services. Like the Hyde Amendment, such a victory would be largely symbolic - it would not stop the majority of abortion and should not be the reason to oppose health care reform. Indeed, the Bishops have made clear that, like a living wage to provide food and shelter, health care is a basic human right. As long as some are denied that right, it is the responsibility of Catholics to make sure that this denial ends.