A Post-Election Personal Letter to American Catholics

Dear Fellow Right-Minded Catholics,

First, I'm not going to bother to be politic or to dance around sensitivities in targeting this letter. By "right-minded," I mean who uphold the hierarchy of teachings and values given to us by the Holy Spirit through the Catholic Church. I'm addressing this letter to those who had an appropriate concern for religious liberty, the protection of marriage, and especially for the lives of the unborn as they approached the polls in these latest general elections. I know there are those who consider themselves Catholic and yet don't accept the assignment of values priority that the Church gives us and which the U.S. Bishops reiterated in the days leading up to these elections. I'm sure such people would take umbrage at my insinuation that they are somehow "wrong-minded." This letter isn't to them.

The 2016 general elections have closed. Well, not completely--the electors still need to make their way to the nation's capitol and cast their final votes for the presidency. But at least the states' popular election part of the presidential selection process has closed, and the general elections of many governors and congressmen, both state and national, is over.

With the combined retainment of a Republican Congress and the election of a Republican president who at least has made promises (of however dubious credible) to do the right thing, when it comes to life issues, there may be a temptation to celebrate. Such celebrations should be short and measured. Even if Trump turned out to be the perfect pro-life president--even if he were, say, a second coming of Ronald Reagan--we should not consider his election a vindication or triumph for the pro-life cause. We should not even consider it a victory. At best, it's an opportunity which we dare not squander.

First, there is much that is needed in our country that the president alone (for good reasons) simply cannot do. While Trump may have an opportunity to nominate candidates for several Supreme Court seats during his presidency, that will not automatically result in the overturning of a growing mound of precedent rulings that are hostile to humanity and the dignity of the human person. Even if a court that would have the combination of conviction and courage to make such a sweeping move, the court cannot simply come together and vacate or reverse past rulings. It has to hear cases in which, to rule the correct way, a past precedent would need to be overturned. This would require such a case to be escalated to the Supreme Court.

Second, even though Trump can immediately repeal the infamous "HHS Mandate," the structure of law that permits the mandate would remain in place and a future president could reinstate it. The president, of his own accord, cannot repeal a law. The Congress needs to do that. It's possible that the current Congress would take that step, in relation to the Affordable Health Care Act, so-called "Obamacare," but such a movement would be some time in coming and would be met by much opposition from the minority Democrat elements in both houses of Congress. Furthermore, even the Republicans might think that to simply repeal it would not be a good idea without replacing it, in the same act, with a health care reform bill of their own devising. Such a product might end up being just as bad as Obamacare, in terms of the powers it gives to the president, and the project might not be completed by the end of Trump's first term. And, while he may get a second term, we should not assume that he will.

Third, there are still two unfortunate truths about this latest presidential race: The first one is that a lot of people voted for Clinton. In fact, of any ten randomly selected voters, typically four or five of them will have voted for Clinton. The second one is that many of those who voted for Trump did so for reasons that they clearly prioritize above protecting the lives of babies. Ultimately, what should concern us more than anything is that we are still a nation defined by our willingness to place other concerns over preventing the destruction of innocent life within our own borders.

If Trump makes good on our hopes relating to the pro-life cause--in the appointment of justices, for example, or in rescinding the HHS mandate--then it means we won't have to spend energy lobbying for those specific objectives. That's the opportunity this presidency represents. If there is a lull in the federal government's all-out war on religious freedom, then it means we can take advantage of that to direct that energy towards changing the hearts and minds of individuals. That's the only thing that will finally lead to a victory in matters of life. Such a victory can never be entirely against the masses who have been seduced by the culture of death. Ultimately, it must be a victory shared by them, as well, with their own conversion back to a culture of life.

Sincerely in Christ,
Dan Engel

A Personal Letter to Catholic Americans

November 1, 2016

Dear Fellow Catholic Americans,

In one week, we're going to be electing a number of representative government officials, including the President of the United States. Four years ago, when you exercised this privilege of Providence, a full half of you voted for the man who now occupies that office, Barak Obama, the most adamantly pro-abortion president this country has ever seen.

Think about that for a minute. Fifty percent of you, members of Christ's Body, helped put a man in the highest office of our land who believes in a world where a baby can be killed at the mere request of the mother. A mother whose world might be shaken by the circumstances of her pregnancy. A mother who might be experiencing a new onslaught of hormones and feelings. A mother who might have been taken advantage of by a man (or a boy) who doesn't care for her at all and who cut and run at the first hint of responsibility. But a mother, nonetheless.

Think about how utterly we recoil and shudder at the thought of a mother killing the babe in her arms. You helped elect to the presidency of your own country a man who believes that a mother ought to be free to, with no more thought than she gives to getting her ears pierced, kill the babe in her womb--a distinction of place only, by the way.

What if this man, rather than promoting a public policy that says "It's OK to kill babies," promoted a public policy that said "It's OK to kill Jews"? Would you have supported him, then? Would his administration's dedication to preserving the right to kill Jews be outweighed by his commitment to promoting a higher sense of civic involvement and responsibility through youth volunteerism? Would it be outweighed by his dedication to the idea that everybody should contribute to the care of the sick, injured, and elderly? Would it be outweighed by his resistance to the ideals of irresponsible capitalism and by his calls to reject the materialism that pervades our society?What then? Would you still have voted for Obama, or would you have put killing Jews on your own, personal, "non-negotiable" list? Assume, for the sake of argument, here, that the Jews in question are not in the womb. But, again, the distinction between these hypothetical Jews and the babies that Barak Obama promotes the killing of is one of place only. Well, place and the fact that the babies are not hypothetical.

By the way, another politician ran on roughly the same platform as that described above, in a certain country in Europe about seventy years ago. The people in that country didn't have "non-negotiables," either.

But here, in the United States, it's babies rather than Jews. Well, babies unfortunate enough to be in a womb, anyway (at least, for now). Our president promotes the freedom to kill those babies without interference or hindrance from State laws, health regulations, or even parental objections.

And you helped put that man in the office of the Presidency. You contributed to the current environment of abortion license. You helped kill those babies.

The question is, what will you do now? Will you do it again? Will you prioritize an old, worn-out, tenuous alliance between Catholics and Democrats over the lives of babies? Will you prioritize the supposed political needs of your union over the lives of babies? What is it that the Democrats and Mrs. Clinton are offering, that you will prioritize over the lives of babies?

But while the question of protecting babies from being killed at will is, perhaps, the issue of highest importance and urgency, it is not by any means the only one that you, as Catholics, are obliged to consider. The Democrats, and Mrs. Clinton, have launched an all-out war on the very concept of the human person and of human dignity that was revealed to us in Jesus and that is taught by our Church. With the addition of embryonic stem cell research, same sex so-called marriage, and gender identity theory to abortion, as causes supported by the Democratic political candidates, it's far past time to abandon any illusion that you can be a good Catholic and support those candidates with your votes. If you're going to vote for people who support the mainstream Democrat causes, please have the integrity to stop claiming to be Catholic. That way, at least we faithful Catholics will have the opportunity to re-evangelize you.

That last comment is, perhaps, more flip than it needs to be. But in all seriousness, I beg you, not for the sake of the country--which may very well be at stake in this election--but for the sake of your own soul, please consider carefully that to which you are called. The Catholic Church is not a club. It's not a tool for bring about social change. It's not a group of people pumping out occasional advice about how to live our lives. The Catholic Church is the Body and Bride of Christ. You are called to live as a member of that Body and to spread the Gospel--the whole Gospel, not just your favorite parts. You are called to proclaim the Kingship of Christ and to live out your citizenship in His Kingdom.

Those who support the elevation of the union of same-sex couples to the status of marriage attack the very image that Christ used most to describe His relationship with His Church. Those who support the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research (or for other unnatural purposes) attack the teachings of St. Paul about the common share in dignity of all members of the Church. Those who support abortion support killing babies. What more needs to be said of that?

What will you do?

At the beginning of this letter, I referred to your power to vote as a "privilege of Providence." Within the civil construct of American law, it is a right; but within the plan of the cosmos, and the plan of God, it's a privilege. You are privileged by the Providence of God to be born into a place and time where you can vote for the composition and activities of your government. God, who has given you the mission, as members His Son's Church, to proclaim His Son's Kingship, has given you an awesome tool by which you can do so. In doing so, He has given you a terrible responsibility. Your vote is not separable from your identity as a Christian and a Catholic. Whether you want this to be true or not, when you vote, you vote as a Catholic. You vote as a member of the Body of Christ.

What will you do?

Consider how you would feel towards someone who scorns, attacks, and wounds your spouse. How do you think Christ will respond to those who score, attack, and wound the Church? When society invites people to think of Church teaching as backwards and in need of an upgrade to the times, it is wounding the Church by pulling those vulnerable to such suggestions away from her. When society actively promotes a view of humanity that is contrary to nature, it is attacking the Bride of Christ, which is the restoration of Humanity to its created nature. How do you think Christ views those who participate in such activities? How do you think Christ views those who enable or support such activities? How do you think Christ views those who, although they are members of His Body, refuse to even speak out against the forces in society that attack and wound His Bride?

What will you do?

Will you use the privilege God has given you, to promote the Kingship of His Son and help create a society for the flourishing of His Mystical Body--His Bride, the Church? Or will you squander God's gift of placing you in this time and place to promote a regime of selfishness, a culture of death, a society that scorns humanity as God created it?

What will you do on November 8?

Will you be a defender of the Bride of Christ and a proclaimer of the Gospel? Or will you stand by and watch the Bride of Christ be ravaged by those who would promote every aberrance of human behavior in the name of selfish license?

If you revere the Bride of Christ, build up His Body, and serve His Kingdom, then the country will benefit. But more importantly than that, if you refuse to do so in how you vote next week, then you risk terrible consequences for your own relationship with Jesus and for the ultimate state of your own soul.

Please consider this truth with the care and gravity that it deserves.

Sincerely in Christ,

Dan Engel, a fellow Catholic American Voter

What would it mean, to truly support Freedom of Speech?

The following is my comment on this very good article at The Catholic Thing:

I completely agree! But then, in some ways completely disagree.

One of the most perturbing aspects of modern (and it seems for much of the history of the United States!) discussion of individual rights (and limits to those rights) focuses around whether a particular right is in the Constitution. This has had a two-pronged effect: On the one hand, claims of true individual rights are discarded or not even put forth because they are not in the Constitution. On the other hand, by torturing specific provisions of the Constitution, novel rights are discovered, which are not at all rights in the natural order.

The adjudication of high matters, such as the definition of personhood, is a fine line to walk for the federal government. Get it wrong and things go VERY wrong, which is probably the strongest argument for following the "procedurally correct" course of referring such matters to the States until there is a solid consensus among the population--solid enough to embed the answer to such a question in the Constitution, either by a general referendum or through the normal process of proposal by Congress followed by ratification by the States.

In the meantime, though, getting to that consensus is a messy matter. Doing so correctly in a pluralistic society (and ensuring the greatest freedom for the Church to operate and bring the Light of Christ to shine on such matters) means letting people be wrong. It even means letting them exercise their wrongness in personal decisions--decisions that they make both in their individual interactions and in how they run their businesses and establishments. I'm not talking, here, about letting them do wrong things, but about letting them do things wrongly.

Some of the early fall-out of the horrendous Obergefell decision is that Christian businessmen are now being persecuted, by being forced to support something that they find deeply offensive. One can make the argument that laws should carve religious freedom exemptions from whatever regime of standards would force people to do that. Or one can recognize that there is an inherent natural right to be the arbiter of one's own decision-making process in whether to engage in a business transaction. No such right exists in the Constitution, but it certainly exists in the founding principles of this nation. If, within the context of transacting business, one has a right to go left or right, then the law properly has no rightful claim over the decision-making process that leads one to go left or right.

Disclaimer for the following: Racism is wrong, absolutely. I don't want anybody to get the impression that I believe otherwise. The following (and the preceding) is a discussion about how to handle wrong ideas in a pluralistic society.

It's in this sense that subsidiarity, perhaps, needs to be more closely examined. For much of what is being foisted on the nation by today's liberal agenda-driven regime amounts to a legally-enforced conversion of social conscience. The liberal left is using the federal government as a carrot and stick to lure/drive society as a whole into a specific kind of society--a specifically non-Christian kind of society. The reason why the conservative right ("right" in more ways than one!) tends to lose ground in this particular war is because they rightly recognize the wrongness of using the federal government for that purpose. That's why they are loath to engage the liberal left in their own game. When someone presents a conservative with the question of "Hey, should the federal government force everybody to accept gender self-identification or should it force everybody to reject it?" they will always respond "neither." In matters such as these, subsidiarity would suggest that the right localization is not a government entity at all, but the individual, with the upbringing of his family and the guidance of his church.

At the same time, though, the conservative right is hesitant to say "Each person should be free to decide what he is going to accept for himself, and he should be permitted to live out his life--his whole life, including how he runs his business--accordingly." The left have long ago left off even pretending to support that principle. But because it (improperly) brings up images of the Jim Crow South, even conservatives are not willing to go there. That leaves conservatives in an awkward position of saying "People should be allowed to live our their convictions in how they run their businesses. Well, except for these particular convictions. Nobody should be allowed to have or live by those."

The discussion is, supposedly, settled on "discrimination." You can't do it. Even though such laws, when applied to businesses and individuals in the private sector, amount to Orwellian thought-crime laws, since they address not the object of a transaction but the decision-making process that leads to the decision to transact, we have, as a nation, decided that it's OK to sacrifice that particular aspect of the First Amendment and that particular aspect of human dignity. In certain areas, even though the law doesn't have anything to say about what you do, it does have something to say about why you do it.

Early indicators of the effects of Obergefell, along with some recent extra-legislative movements by the Obama administration, suggest that maybe it's time to "unsettle" that question. The courts have done (and will do) what they will. So will administrations, both conservative and liberal. What conservatives could be doing, through all of it, is taking every measure to ensure that it remains OK for people to state what they believe, and to live by that--both personally and in how they make business decisions. Conservatives could be making an argument to re-claim our individual right to be the sole arbiters of the decision-making processes we use in our personal interactions and business transactions. Given a pluralistic society, only an environment that is truly supportive of the freedom of speech--supportive in a way that our nation has ceased to be--will allow the Church to thrive in the promulgation of her message. That message, the Gospel, is the only light that will successfully guide the nation through the questions that seem to plague us today, and on which the downfall or prosperity of our nation just might hinge.

Bad Grandpa, Brock Turner, Orlando, and Pope Francis

Three or four years ago, I was in a theater with my wife, to see some movie. I don't recall which one. One of the previews shown prior to the start of the movie was for Bad Grandpa, which was released in 2013. I've never seen the movie Bad Grandpa, but the premise seemed to be a journey, of sorts, shared between a young boy and his grandfather. The boy appeared to be eight to ten years old. The grandfather has an ornary sense of humor and leads the young boy through a series of "shock humor value" adventures while a film crew stands by to record the reactions of lookers on.

A scene from Bad Grandpa shown in the preview featured the young boy donning a wig and a little girl sailor costume to enter a young girls' beauty pageant. The boy is performing some insipid dance to the song My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean. At one point, the song changes and the boy rips off his feminized sailor custume to reveal a bikini and panties constume of an exotic dancer style. He then proceeds to finish out the piece in a mock exotic dance style, using the mast of the sailboat prop as a dance pole. Meanwhile, the grandpa shovels dollar bills at the dancer, in strip club fashion. The boy's dance was complete with simulated sexual thrusting at the pole.

The preview was one thing; it was disgusting to see, to say the least. What really got me to thinking, though, was the movie audience. The biggest reaction to the preview, one of guffaws and applause, occurred at the point where the boy was thrusting at the pole. This wasn't an example of a child inadvertantly doing or saying something that grownups recognize as having an alternate or double meaning, and snigger out while trying to hide the reaction from the child. This was an explicit, deliberate simulation of a sexual act by a young child, and people were openly applauding and laughing.

What this episode highlights is that, as a society, we treat sexual inappropriateness as something funny. It's something to laugh at and applaud. Displays of sexual inappropriateness are valued by us for their entertainment value, even when--perhaps especially when--they involve young children in very inappropriate ways. It makes one wonder: How young would the boy have to have been, for the movie audience to have reacted in disapproval instead of delight at the simulated sexual display.

As a society, we cannot treat deep sexual inappropriateness--especially involving children--as light and funny and worthwhile entertainment, and then expect that attitude to translate into young adults who are trained and capable of behaving appropriately when it comes to sex. We should think about that when we look at Brock Turner. The sad atrocity that Turner committed was only partially his own fault, as his own father's reaction to the punishment shows. We should take the shameful Brock Turner episode as an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves, and at the kind of society we want to create when it comes to sexuality. We, as a society, are partially to blame for Turner's actions. We have become so over-licensed about sexuality, that watching a child simulate overt sexual acts is funny to us. Of course we're going to produce Brock Turners in a society like that.

The most-discussed feature of the tragedy of the Brock Turner episode, however--the feature that really has people (including myself) incensed--is that he was given only a slap on the wrist by Judge Aaron Persky, the presiding judge in his sentencing. This, even moreso, perhaps, than Turner's own actions, is a symptom of our modern cultural sickness, this attitude towards sexual license. The judge seems to feel that what Turner did just wasn't all that bad. Persky is but a product of the same culture that claps and laughs at children explicitly simulating sexual acts.

Our pattern over the past half century, of broadening sexual license, is going to only produce more Brock Turners and more Judge Persky's. The problem isn't just how we treat parodies of sex; it's how we treat aberrant sexual license in all of its forms, including those forms that have recently acquired a certain social respectability.

Which brings us to the heinous slaughter of patrons at the club in Orlando last week. The club was a "gay club," and the killer was a Muslim fundamentalist who seems to have believed he was carrying out the "will of Allah" by punishing those who, according to the Koran, are to be punished by death.

Some will try to make the episode into a societal referrendum on homosexuality and the gay lifestyle. They will try to squeeze a message from the terrorist's evil act that it's time to stop disapproving of homosexuality. That our failure to accept that lifestyle as a "good choice" from among many is leading to such rampages of hatred. That we, as a society, by allowing people to keep calling homosexuality a sin, have contributed to that particular atrocity.

Far from it. One can be both a sinner and a victim of an atrocity. Regardless of the horrific and condemnable nature of the attack by this individual, homosexual activity is a sin, and its open practice in the gay lifestyle is harmful to society. We who understand this would be doing a great disservice to those who suffer with same-sex attraction and to those who for other reasons have been suduced into the homosexual lifestyle, if we were to stop pointing this out because of the Orlando mass shooting. Regardless of the wrongness of this terrorist's actions, our culture's approbation of the gay lifestyle, along with its applaud of young children parodying sex, is part of the mosaic of our seduction into sexual license that is giving us Brock Turners and Judge Persky's.

There is another common thread linking Judge Persky's actions in the Turner case and the Muslim fundamentalist's actions in the Orlando massacre. Both incidents highlight a failure to properly apply (or even understand) what Pope Francis has chosen to make a special focus of his pontificate: Mercy.

Both actions--those of Judge Persky and those of the Muslim who shot up the Orlano night clup--failed in the application of mercy.

It's rather obvious how the Orlando shooter failed to show mercy--assuming that his actions were motivated by some sense of Islamic justice, which facts coming from the investigation call into question. True mercy doesn't make the sin out to be something less than it is. True mercy fully acknowledges the gravity of the sin, but says forgiveness is possible. Yes, homosexual acts are wrong. Yes, the gay lifestyle is wrong and harmful to our society. But acknowledging this wrongness, mercy is a response that says "Even though you've place yourself outside of our shared journey as a society, there's a way back. You can re-join us." This is the mercy offered by the Church. It's called conversion and forgiveness.

Judge Persky probably thought he was showing mercy to Brock Turner when he gave such a light sentence. However, mercy is not a failure to understand or acknowledge the wrongness or gravity of an act. Tempering a punishment because of the extreme contrition and remorse demonstrated by the perpetrator of the crime is an act of mercy. Deciding not to impose a sentence that would significantly impact a perpetrator's life because you don't think what he did was really all that bad, anyway, is as  much a failure in mercy as is simply slaughtering people for a depraved lifestyle.

As a society, we should take Pope Francis' call to mercy seriously. Sexual license is a specific, significant illness within our culture today. If we don't acknowledge the wrongness of aberrant sexual actions and lifestyles (the "gay" lifestyle, pornography, the hook-up culture, etc.), then we can't offer people trapped in those lifestyles the mercy that they so desperately need. Furthermore, by producing more Brock Turners and Aaron Persky's, we will be guilty of the violations against victims that will continue to pile up--violations of both their person and of their right to see justice.

Some Thoughts on the Pew Research Conscience Survey

A recent survey by the Pew Research Institute found:

...most Catholics say they look inward for guidance in their lives. Roughly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (73%) say they rely “a great deal” on their own conscience when facing difficult moral problems, compared with 21% who look to the Catholic Church’s teachings, 15% who turn to the Bible and 11% who say they rely a great deal on the pope.

There are a couple of problems with how the survey was conducted and how the findings are presented. One problem is that it seems to be based on an incorrect definition of "conscience." The conscience is the process of reasoning and evaluation by which general principles of morality and behavior are applied to particular situations in order to arrive at a decision on how to act. So, when the survey is presenting "the Catholic Church's teachings" or "the Bible" as alternatives to "one's own conscience," it's presenting a false dichotomy (or a false polychotomy, as it were). When one looks to Church teaching to make moral decisions, then one is using one's own conscience to make those decisions. When one looks to the Bible to make moral decisions, then one is using one's own conscience to make those decisions. The act of applying the Church's teaching or Biblical instruction to the particular situation in front of me is an act of my own conscience.

It was instructive to ask people how often they look to the Pope for moral guidance. The Pope, in this case, represents not so much a source of general principles, but rather guidance as to how the general principles in the Bible and in Catholic teaching should apply to certain modern questions of morality. However, the Pope's direction is not generally going to apply to the specific moral quandries that we encounter day to day. Rather, it could apply to the big things, like how to decide for whom to vote in an election. Therefore, the seemingly low number might not reflect the level of disregard for the Pope's teachings and exhortations so much as the level of opportunity. However, it is disappointing that the survey didn't bring up the question of whether people look to the instruction of their local priests and bishops. These are the Church leaders to which we, as Catholics, should be looking for our day-to-day guidance. The Church is a hierarchical body, and the way we approach the Church for guidance should reflect this.

However, that has its own problems, at least for me personally. When it comes to the questions of teaching and juridical authority, I have no problem with looking to the Church hierarchy. Of course, everything is viewed in the light of the constant universal Church's Tradition and teaching, so sometimes I need to "adjust" my approach to a local Church leader's instruction. But when it comes to looking to Church's leadership for guidance in my decision-making, there just seem to be too many examples of poor judgment.

For example, the other day I had occasion to review the initial reports of then Bishop, now Cardinal, Dolan's disappointment with the Obama administration in its low treatment of conscience rights, when it came to the HHS mandate's applicability to contraceptives. Here's how it was written up in the National Review article:

Dolan said he met with the president weeks ago in the Oval Office to talk about the law. Dolan said the president gave his promise the provision would go away, but it hasn’t. “It seems to be at odds with very sincere assurances that he gave me, that he wanted to continue to work with the church in these endeavors and views and projects he shared a passionate interest in, so I can’t figure it out,” Dolan said.

“When I left the Oval Office, where I was very grateful for his invitation to be there, I left with high hopes. That nothing his administration would do would impede the good work that he admitted and acknowledged in the church,” Dolan said. “And I’m afraid I don’t have those sentiments of hope now.”

Now, it seems to me beyond surprising that someone who had been elected as president of the USCCB, and someone who was on the select list as a Cardinal, would be so gullible. I didn't hear or read that Dolan had made similarly hopeful remarks prior to the announcement which prompted his disappointment regarding Obama's intentions, but had I heard them I know I would have immediately known that we (the Catholic Church) were going to get shafted. I, just a lowly parishioner in the hierarchy of the Church, would have had the wisdom to see what apparently the president of the USCCB did not.

This is, perhaps, one reason that so few Catholics bother to look seriously towards the Catholic hierarchy for conscience formation. Our shepherds really seem clueless, sometimes.