Sacred Things

Our Catholic faith teaches that every human life is sacred from conception to natural death. It begs the question: How do we treat sacred things? What happens to our demeanor, for example, when we approach the sacred space of a church, or a cathedral?

We lower our voices. Men remove their hats. We become reverent. As Moses was told to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground, in a similar way, when we approach the sacred, we are called to quiet our hearts and tread lightly. We are called to listen.

If people from within or without the Church claimed that individuals or the state had a right to destroy certain churches, we would rightly protest.

If this is how we protect divinely inspired, yet man-made worship spaces that decay over time, or are destroyed by fire, how committed should we be to protecting human persons? Think of the reaction the world had to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. Donations poured out all over the world to restore it, which was a beautiful response. How should we respond, then, to the intentional destruction of the “Temples of the Holy Spirit” happening from conception to natural death?

Even those who have committed heinous crimes have an eternal soul. Like us, they were made in the image and likeness of God and were redeemed by the blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Governments have an obligation to protect their citizens from those who would do them harm. But even those who are incarcerated are invited to turn away from sin and accept what Christ has won for them. St. Dismas showed us that salvation is possible even in our last moments.

Capital punishment is not a “natural death.” Vengeance does not restore what was taken from us.  It cuts short opportunities for repentance, time to be transformed by grace, and the possibility of asking for pardon. This should be a serious consideration for those Catholics who support the use of the death penalty.

While the great founders of our country did not always adhere to the idea that every life is sacred, they intuited it when they declared that life is an inalienable right. A just government does not grant this right. It merely recognizes what is already there. This is true from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. St. Dismas, pray for us.

Odysseus and the Ideological Sirens; Pray for our Politicians

In St. Paul’s letter to Timothy he says,

Beloved:
First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.

It seems like common sense to pray for those in authority. If we want to enjoy economic stability, if we want to avoid being conquered by foreign powers, it makes sense that we should want our civil authorities to lead us well. It gets a little trickier when it comes to putting names to politicians we are supposed to pray for. At all branches and levels of government, there are people we may not particularly care for because of their policies. If we bring them to prayer at all, we may find ourselves praying about them instead of for them. It’s helpful to remember that our leaders are probably not as good as their friends make them out to be, but neither are they as bad as their opponents want us to believe. They’re just people, with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. So they need our prayers. They need God‘s grace, just as we all do. We need to remember that God sees them through the eyes of a loving father.

It’s also important to remember that in our system of government, power is not as heavily concentrated in one position, like it is with other forms of government. There is a separation of power between the three branches of government, between the state and federal government, but also, between the power that resides in the people. And I’ve heard it said, “what difference will my little vote make? It’s not going to change the outcome.”

But by not voting, we allow for a more centralized power, we allow fewer and fewer people to make important decisions. This is precisely what our system was designed to protect against. It’s like abdicating our throne of responsibility which has been handed onto us, by the sacrifices of so many.

Besides feeling like our vote won’t change the outcome, I think there is another reason many Catholics are hesitant to engage in politics. We have likely all met people who have become obsessed with politics. (Maybe we have been ourselves at points in our life.)  When the election goes their way, they become ecstatic. When the elections don’t go their way they become angry and miserable. Many people wrongly believe that this is the natural end of engaging in politics, but it isn’t true. How do we rightly engage in politics without becoming obsessed, angry and miserable people? St. Paul gives us an important way to do that. We have to be well-grounded in our faith and in prayer.

 I recently heard an interview with Judge Amy Coney Barret. She is a recent appointee to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, and a former professor of law at Notre Dame. In the interview, she was talking about how judges need to be anchored. She tells her students a story to illustrate what this looks like. Now, most of us here are not judges. But the lesson she gives applies, in a way, to all Christians as well.

The story she uses is that of Odysseus and the sirens. Odysseus is warned that the sirens’ song is so beautiful and seductive that it drives men mad, and in their desire to get near the sirens they willingly steer their ships into the rocks. Odysseus takes the warning very seriously. He orders his men to stop their ears with wax. He leaves his own ears unstopped because he wants to hear the sirens’ song, but he has his men tie him to the mast of the ship. He tells them, no matter what he says, they are not to untie him until the ship has passed the island into safety. In this way, Odysseus is able to hear the song, but is not able to do himself or his men any harm.

For Judge Barret, a judge must be able to hear the siren’s song, the ideological appeal of certain laws. But, the judge must be bound to something solid. She tells her students that the mast of the ship is the Constitution of the United States. It doesn’t matter whether a judge is sympathetic to a cause that a law is trying to promote. All that should matter to a judge is whether a law is constitutional or not. This is what prevents the ship from crashing into the rocks.

As I said, most of us are probably not ever going to be Circuit Court judges. But the point is, every one of us is susceptible to the power of the sirens’ song, the call of ideology. We underestimate this truth at our own risk. The songs often begin by highlighting an injustice against a person or a particular group. We are beckoned to enter into solidarity with that person or group. That much, we must continue to do. Like Odysseus, our ears cannot be stopped. We have to hear the cries of the marginalized and those who suffer from injustice.

But when the ideological song goes beyond the call to solidarity and the refrain settles on a person or group to blame, a scapegoat, upon which we can focus our anger, and frustration, it becomes very seductive and can even feel righteous, to the point of madness.

Any law, which holds that a body, whether an individual or a group, can set the value of another’s life at zero, puts us on the ultimate slippery slope.

In such a setting, politics become not just one important aspect of the social realm, they become the most important aspect; because individuals begin to understand that their only hope for security in this setting, is power, gaining it and maintaining it. And anyone who enjoys the slightest advantage in power, becomes a threat.

Our ship, as Catholics, is the Church and her mast is her Master, Jesus Christ, and all that he revealed to us on the cross. He prayed for his persecutors, showing that the fruit of his suffering and death was offered, even to them. The world still thinks that some things in life are worth killing for. Jesus showed us that each and every person, is worth dying for.

This is the mast to which we must be bound. That by simply being human, regardless of age or stage in life, regardless of race, religion, or any other factor, every person has a dignity which gives them an inviolable right, to be. (A just government doesn’t grant this right, it merely recognizes what is already there.)

In all of this, we must never forget that Christ revealed these same truths about our civil authorities. Yes, even those politicians we don’t like very much. If Jesus thinks that they were worth dying for, we had better believe that they are worth praying for.

In St. Paul’s words, “It is my wish, then, that in every place men and women should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument… that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, (even politicians!) that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior.

The Illusion of the Abortion “Middle-Ground”

Last year, I attended a Wyoming legislative committee hearing on an abortion bill. The debate had its “red herrings.” But, for a time, the discussion was very good.

At one point, a friend whispered to me, “I tend to agree with the person who speaks last.” He had noticed that, for the moment, debaters from both sides were right.  

How so? Because each side was highlighting one of two distinct aspects of human rights; the right to exist and the right to personal autonomy (the right to live according to one’s own values).

Even though both religious and non-religious people support pro-existence laws, some people think such laws are about enshrining religion. This is why they can claim to be personally against abortion, but don’t support abortion restrictive legislation. They believe this is the abortion issue’s “middle-ground.”

The best arguments for autonomy reminded us that no one wants to be forced to live according to the values (or lack of values) of others.

Freedom is fundamental. But both sides can agree that it has limits.

For instance, religious freedom is specifically protected by the Constitution but it is not an absolute freedom. The state could not require church attendance, for example, without violating the First Amendment’s “establishment” clause.

But, whether values are religiously inspired or not isn’t the issue. For example, some people demonstrate by their actions that they have no objection to theft. Other people, both religious and non-religious do object to theft, and may object for different reasons. Regardless of one’s personal view or what informs that view, theft negatively impacts the life and autonomy of others. Therefore, it is outlawed for everyone.

Regardless of what one believes about abortion, or what informs that belief, the question many seem to ignore is, “Does abortion negatively impact the life and autonomy of another human being or not?”

Today, YouTube has ultrasound videos of the preborn, moving, stretching and even yawning. I invite you to watch them. Look with your own eyes and ask, “Are these living, human beings?”

If you answer “no,” then you will perceive the estimated 120 yearly abortions happening within Wyoming’s borders one way.

But if your answer is “yes,” you will believe the same number of Wyomingites lose their right to exist, as well as their right to personal autonomy every year. You will see why “middle-ground” on the issue is an illusion.

Where the “Pro-Autonomy” Movement Falters

No doubt the “pro-autonomy” movement has its own list of grievances to file against its detractors. I will leave such a listing to them. Below, I list problematic areas in the movement’s efforts.

• It defies reason when it acts as if a developing human person doesn’t exist before full term delivery.

Does a child born prematurely “qualify” for human rights? At what point?

Imagine seeing an expecting couple smoking cigarettes together. Would we pretend their decisions were not impacting another?

• It defies science when it compares the preborn to an organ like an appendix.

Our society claims to reject hate speech. Yet, it tolerates unscientific euphemisms like this which are designed to dehumanize. Such speech has led to far more abortions than simple legalization ever could have.

• It claims abortion is a “personal choice,” while, at best, remaining silent as others simultaneously seek to publicly fund abortions.

• It draws the debate down the “exceptions” rabbit hole without ever conceding to a single abortion restriction outside of those “exceptions.”

⦁ It obstructs greater debate by claiming men should have no voice on the matter.

This has been very effective at silencing many men. One would think, however, that if the movement were serious about this claim, it would restrict its own testimony to the voices of only women. But it doesn’t. This inconsistency suggests the “pro-autonomy” movement doesn’t really have a problem with men weighing in on the issue. It just doesn’t like men who challenge its position.

⦁ It undervalues adoption.

• It doesn’t make an honest claim for when life begins. By extension, it refuses to identify the moment we become responsible for protecting human rights. If not from the beginning, then when? And why then?

Is it age of viability? Because given the pace of medical advancements, “viability” seems like an arbitrary, moving target. 

Do human rights depend upon location? i.e. outside the womb, and beyond “my body?” Then why oppose legislation like the “Born Alive Abortion Survivor’s Protection Act” which Congress has failed to pass, no less than 50 times?

⦁ It fails to acknowledge that abortion law sets a dangerous human rights’ standard; only those who are “wanted” get government protection. Human rights either belong to everyone, or they are guaranteed to no one.

We must, without exception, do better to help women who find themselves in desperate situations and facing unexpected pregnancies. To turn away a woman in need is unconscionable. But we shouldn’t suggest that the intentional termination of another human being is ever an acceptable solution. How can we speak against violence, if we spend so much time excusing it?

Both sides may forever disagree about the government’s responsibility on this issue. Perhaps both sides can help each other do better at keeping the discussion honest.  

Deacon Mike Leman is the Legislative Liaison for the Diocese of Cheyenne.