Fortnight for Freedom: The Battle for Religious Liberty in America

Throughout the United States, American Catholics are participating in a Fortnight for Freedom. This two-week period, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is a national campaign for religious liberty. The campaign comes at a time during which “[o]ur liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power— St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More,  St. John the Baptist, SS. Peter and Paul, and the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome.” Additionally, the campaign is a period of prayer, fasting, civil disobedience, and other activities devoted to defending religious liberty.

Religious liberty is under attack in more realms than one. The current focus, however, is on the Department of Health and Human Services mandate, which forces the Church to provide coverage for abortion inducing drugs, contraceptives, and sterilizations. The Supreme Court is currently ruling on the constitutionality of the healthcare policy on the grounds of enumerated powers. Other challenges have been brought forth on the grounds of the First Amendment also. According to this article, “forty-three Catholic dioceses and organizations across the country have announced religious liberty lawsuits against the federal government to challenge the Obama administration’s contraception mandate.”

I attended mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Huntley, Illinois yesterday on the Solemnity of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist and on the First Sunday in the Fortnight for Freedom.

Fr. Jonathan Bakkelund delivered the homily. He spoke with great fervor and urgency on the issue of religious liberty.

He began by discussing the history of religious persecution in America. Then, he said, “This is not a republican or a democratic, a conservative or a liberal issue. This is not a Catholic issue.This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. This is an American issue which threatens the God-given, inalienable rights of every Muslim, every atheist, every man, woman, and child of this great nation. This is an issue of Religious Liberty.”

He explained that so-called accommodation in the mandate for religious employers.
“To qualify for an exemption, you must employ primarily those of your own faith, and serve primarily those of your own faith.  Parishes would be exempted, but Catholic hospitals, universities, charitable groups, relief organizations, and publishing houses would all be excluded. […] It’s never been the government’s job to tell us which babies we can clothe or whose mouths we can feed…it’s never been the government’s job to tell us we’re gonna have to start asking for baptismal certificates at the door.”

In this video, Bishop Joseph R. Cistone says, “The word accommodation is a strange one to me. We have a right to religious freeedom. And so that right has been infringed upon. And now we hear of an accommodation to protect us from that infringement. We want to go back to the right itself. There is no need for an accommodation.”

Fr. Bakkelund continued, “If you study your history books well, every single epic in the history of the world when the Almighty State has attempted to privatize religion, and force her into seclusion, removing her from the public square… every single one of these epics has seen the degradation of the human person.”

He spoke sincerely saying, “As a young priest, I pray, God willing, to serve Our Lord and His Church as a priest for the next fifty years. I am deeply concerned that in those fifty years I could see my work and my ministry become illegal.”

He ended with the following quotation of Pope Saint Pius X:
“Kingdoms and empires have passed away; peoples once renowned for their history and civilization have disappeared; time and again the nations, as though overwhelmed by the weight of years, have fallen asunder; while the Church, indefectible in her essence, united by ties indissoluble with her heavenly Spouse, is here to-day radiant with eternal youth, strong with the same primitive vigor with which she came forth from the Heart of Christ dead upon the Cross. Men powerful in the world have risen up against her. They have disappeared, and she remains. Philosophical systems without number, of every form and every kind, rose up against her, arrogantly vaunting themselves her masters, as though they had at last destroyed the doctrine of the Church, refuted the dogmas of her faith, proved the absurdity of her teachings. But those systems, one after another, have passed into books of history, forgotten, bankrupt; while from the Rock of Peter the light of truth shines forth as brilliantly as on the day when Jesus first kindled it on His appearance in the world, and fed it with His Divine words: “Heaven and earth shall pass, but my words shall not pass” (Matth. xxiv. 35).”

The entire congregation stood and applauded this message. It was the first time in my life that I have heard a homily that roused the whole congregation to such a response.

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Foundation for Economic Education – Liberty and the Moral Adventure

This week I am attending a Foundation for Economic Education summer seminar for college students. The seminar, which draws an international mix of students, takes place in Atlanta, Georgia. The Foundation for Economic Education is the oldest free-market organization in the United States. Founded in 1946, the Foundation has a long legacy of promoting its mission:

FEE’s mission is to offer the most consistent case for the “first principles” of freedom: the sanctity of private property, individual liberty, the rule of law, the free market, and the moral superiority of individual choice and responsibility over coercion.

This years marks the 50th anniversary of FEE seminars. Students selected to participate receive a fully-funded seminar experience courtesy of FEE and from the generosity of private donors. The seminar that I am attending is on current events. Throughout the week we have been listening to lectures and engaging in debates on such topics as: healthcare, immigration, the environment, taxation, monopolies, education, the welfare state, foreign intervention, and urban planning.

The seminar began with a lecture by FEE President Lawrence Reed. He delivered a lecture titled: Seven Principles of Sound Public Policy. He began his talk with a fun story called the Louisiana Land Title legend. Then, he proceeded to share with us the inspiring story of entrepreneurship of Will Kellogg.

The first principle of sound public policy that Lawrence Reed outlined is: Free people are not equal and equal people are not free. By this he is not referring to equality before the law or equality in terms of human dignity. He is referring to the natural inequality of talents and initiative found among human persons. He highlighted the contradiction in proclaiming “Vive la différence!” while, at the same time, seeking to promote egalitarian socialism. Socialism is a proposal to make people what they, by nature, are not. The socialist starting point is an utter fiction about the human person.

Lawrence Reed spoke to us a bit about incentives. Nobody takes care of somebody else’s property as carefully as he takes care of his own, Reed explained. “Have you ever heard of someone washing a rental car?” he asked. Reed shared with us a story about a club that he belonged to that would meet regularly at a restaurant for dinner. For the sake of simplicity, the bill would be divided evenly between the members equally. However, soon they began behaving like socialists. Members began ordering the most expensive meals on the menu because of the knowledge that their fellow members would be subsidizing their meals. When members began ordering lobster (subsidized when the bill was divided by those who ordered ceasar salad), the club became known as The Lobster Club.

Copies of the constitution were pulled out during our lunchtime debates.

Liberty is what makes us human and liberty makes life worth living, said Reed. We should aspire to be the unique and sovereign individuals that we were created to be. With liberty, we can be what we are. And “the happy life is joy in the truth.” We fufill our human purpose by living in accordance with the truth of who we are. Reed said that in 1776, government was dethroned and that, depending on our view, the creator or the individual was put in the place of government.

Anybody can be a socialist, explained Reed. All that it takes is wanting something that doesn’t belong to you and encouraging the use of coercion to get it. Liberty, on the other hand, requires that we live up to some pretty high standards. Liberty is an indispensible condition for a life of virtue. Reed encouraged us to strive to advance liberty. “Be special. Be different. Be an example.” Let us embrace the moral adventure, advancing liberty for the sake of freedom for excellence.

Thank you to everyone at the Foundation for Economic Education and to Jim Beley for making this opportunity possible.

Acton University: Day 2 – Foundations

This was my first year at Acton University and so I was enrolled in the foundational lecture series. The foundational lectures for first timers included: Christian Anthropology, The Christian Vision of Government, Economic Way of Thinking, and Biblical Foundations in Freedom.

Looking back on Acton University overall, the main lesson that I take away is the importance of a good anthropology, of a proper understanding of the human person. Thomas Aquinas began his work On Being and Essence by quoting Aristotle’s De Coelo: “A slight initial error eventually grows to vast proportions.” If an error is made at the outset, then subsequent statements will be improperly concluded. This alerts us to the importance of being grounded firmly in true starting points, in solid philosophical foundations.

During Dr. Matheson-Miller’s foundational lecture, he told us that John Paul II said, “The primary fault of socialism was anthropological in nature.” “What [Pope JPII] meant,” explained Dr.  Matheson-Miller, “is that socialism failed because it got the person wrong.”

Dr. Matheson Miller stressed the issue of the common acceptance of the Rousseauian account as an alternative to the creation narrative in Genesis. “Individualism is false,” Matheson-Miller said, “We are born into families.” It is a totalitarian tendency rather than an expression of liberty to impose our relentless fictions on the nature of reality. He also maintained that there are no individuals, but only human persons. The family is a natural community that is pre-political. It is not a construct, but a biological and social reality, he explained.  

Biblical theology and Greek philosophy are the pillars of western civilization. In Greek philosophy we have the Socratic recognition of the limits of knowledge in the story of the Delphic oracle. In biblical theology, we have the Judeo-Christian recognition of the limits of human goodness in the story of creation and the fall. G.K. Chesterton called original sin “the only provable Christian doctrine.” Socrates affirmed his own ignorance. The humility necessary to recognizing limits is a unifying aspect of both biblical theology and Greek philosophy.

Peter Kreeft says that we come to know truth by its goodness, but that goodness is ontologically dependent on truth. The paradoxical nature of Christianity is easier to reconcile when we see that our philosophical tradition equally attests to a humble recognition of limits so as to grow in knowledge and holiness in order to lead lives worthy of men on earth.
Retaliation against biblical theology for its account of the weakness of human nature is an equally problematic retaliation against western philosophy. In both cases there is a rejection of the limits of knowledge. This tends consistently to boundlessly rationalistic system construction oriented to perfection that cannot be attained because, as Genesis and Thomas More have illustrated, of human pride.

If we could achieve perfection in knowledge, would we not be able to be perfectly good? If we could achieve perfection in our goodness, would it not be through the perfection of our knowledge? And yet, as St. Paul expressed so succinctly, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Like Augustine we are confronted with the perplexity that arises when we realize that we have become mysteries to ourselves. Augustine confesses, “For in your sight I have become a riddle to myself and that is my infirmity.”

What does it mean to be a person? What is human nature? These questions are fundamental and they matter for every discipline and for every person. Modern rationalism, system construction, and freedom apart from human excellence are roadblocks to arriving to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the Christian anthropology. Let us take all of the other anthropologies and test them against the Christian account of persons as images of God, who discover true liberty when they love the law that God has written upon their human hearts… that they might abide in Him and be loved by Him, held in His Order and Truth.

In gratitude for his good lectures and advice, this post is dedicated to Dr. Michael Matheson-Miller.

Acton University: Day 1 Kick-off with Ambassador Novak

Acton University is a four-day exploration of the intellectual foundations of a free society. An initiative of the Acton Institute, Acton University draws hundreds together in Grand Rapids for an ecumenical conference on morality and markets.

During the flights, I alternated between reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and conversing with my fellow travelers. (And by that I do not mean fellow travelers in a communist sense but fellow travelers in the sense that there were interesting people on the plane with me.)  

Upon arrival to the airport, I struck up a conversation with a young woman named Sarah-Beth. She is a Master’s student at Louisiana State University. Making the typical introductions, we learned that we have a great deal in common. We are both studying political science with an emphasis on political theory and we both take a great interest in bioethics.

After registering at the conference, I settled into the hotel. There I met my roommate Tessa from Seattle. She studied international relations and now works at a think tank called the Discovery Institute.  We discussed American and Canadian politics and quizzed one another on the historical basics of our respective countries. After she kindly converted the forecast into Celsius on her computer for me, we got ready and returned to the Devos Convention Centre for dinner.

“Power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.” – Dr. Samuel Gregg

The room was filled with more than eight hundred conference attendees from about eighty different countries. Acton Institute Research Director and emcee for the evening, Samuel Gregg noted the diversity of attendees highlighting that there were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox, and Straussian participants. In fact, this was my first conference during which people teased one another about being Straussians or Voegelinians.

After Dr. Gregg’s introductory remarks, Acton Institute Founder Fr. Robert Sirico hosted a conversation with Ambassador Michael Novak. As a theologian, author, and former United States ambassador, Novak brought a wealth of experience, insight, and joy to share with all of us.

Ambassador Novak reminded me of Preston Manning. Novak spoke about his life, work, and faith in a manner that was humble, down-to-earth, and friendly. He spoke about growing up in poverty and said that he wrote articles to make enough money to get by. Novak said that he became a critic of the left from the left and did not have a road to Damascus conversion to conservatism. He noted that it was initially because of the abortion issue that he became a Republican. A lover of truth and order, Novak learned that there is not a need to have a command system to achieve order. In fact, such systems are essentially opposed to ordered liberty.

Ambassador Novak became frustrated with liberation theology and was inspired to begin insisting to people: Show me how liberation theology helps the poor. He discovered that it doesn’t.

Novak described his experience of losing friends over his principles and clashing with his own publisher who argued against publishing his book with “capitalism” in the title. Yet, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism became his greatest masterpiece and was published underground in Poland in 1984, and after 1989 in Czechoslovakia, Germany, China, Hungary, Bangladesh, Korea, and across Latin America.

The best indicator of genuine development, explained Novak, is how many small businesses are being created. He insisted that education, low-interest credit, and the ability to incorporate businesses quickly and cheaply are among the key development solutions oriented toward promoting human flourishing.

A question was posed to Novak about Vatican II. Ambassador Novak said that he was in favor of the mass in the vernacular, but reminded us that it was not expected that the Latin would perish. He emphasized the elevation and succinctness of the Latin that requires a special mental discipline and contributes to the liturgical beauty. Novak said that people who do not experience the Latin mass are likely missing out. He also made a few remarks on his general views of the English language; he called English “a down-to-earth language with a natural Aristotelian bent.”

After his keynote, I had a few minutes to visit with Ambassador Novak. He grasped my hands in a warm, grandfatherly way. I told him that when I was in Cuernavaca in Mexico, I insisted on a Spanish speaker translating a few pages of his book Will it Liberate? aloud to me. I told him I was starving for some common sense in order to help me deal with the troubling liberation theology that I had confronted down there during Easter. He smiled and said, “Who would have known that my book would help put a pretty young woman to sleep?”

In the evening, I visited with many of the Acton University attendees. We discussed theology, politics, economics, history, the evening program, and the sessions that we anticipated in the week ahead. It was energizing to be among a crowd of people so motivated in striving for a civilization of love, a culture of life, and a free and virtuous society.

Global Vision’s National Youth Ambassador Caucus in Ottawa

Global Vision is an organization that was created in order to train young Canadian leaders. Terry Clifford founded the initative in 1991 while he was a Member of Parliament. Global Vision has trained more than 25,000 Canadians, many of whom have travelled on economic trade missions to represent regional and industry-related interests abroad.

I arrived to the Ottawa Residence Commons Building (or “90 U” as it is called here). The building was familiar because I had toured it when I was discerning which university I would attend. Though I did not choose to pursue a degree here, I was excited to be staying on campus for the weekend. Conferences and events provide the opportunity to be a student at many more places than one could possibly study formally. It is a delight to taste the student experience in different contexts.

In the evening I chatted with a former Sudanese refugee, a former Yugoslavian refugee, ate poutine, drank St-Ambroise, and debated abortion, national parks, and prison spending. It is always good to return to the nation’s capital!

Jacob, from South Sudan, told me his story. He was separated from his family when he was seven years old and spent fifteen years in a refugee camp. He lamented the lack of opportunity, belonging, and purpose among the youth in his country. I proposed that the student protesters in Montreal have, to a different degree, a similar lack of purpose and belonging. Jacob agreed with the comparison. We then discussed the urgency of having worthy aims to strive for, goals towards which one can direct passion and from which one can derive meaning.

My new friend Vanja, who was born in former Yugoslavia, also had some good stories. Realizing my interest in refugees and immigration, he took out his BlackBerry and showed me an image of his Grade 2 class list. “When I was a refugee in Germany,” he began, “I lived in a small town and the phone numbers were only four digits. Here is a class list. What do you notice about the names of those students who have no phone numbers listed?” He explained that he and the other immigrant families were not allowed to have telephones. He also told a story of an apartment occupied mostly by immigrants that was graffitied with the words, “Immigrants Out!” Police did not respond to complaints about this. Yet, when some of the immigrants graffitied a nearby garbage bin with the words, “Germans In!” the police prosecuted the vandalism. It was amazing to be hearing this from someone my own age. I take Canada for granted.

On Sunday morning we had a scavenger hunt in Ottawa. The Amazing Race included such tasks as: Get a Business Card from Any Establishment on Bank Street, Take a Photo with a Server from Zak’s Diner, Bring Back a Penny from 1974, and Find Out How Many Rooms are in the Château Laurier. (There are 684 rooms. Also, the 100th anniversary of the Château Laurier was celebrated on Friday.)

I went to mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. The church was overflowing with congregants and fifty teens were confirmed during the noon mass on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

In the afternoon we listened to: John Treleaven, a former Canadian ambassador to the Philippines; Terry Clifford, the founder of Global Vision; and Jacob Deng, Founder of Wadeng Wings of Hope.

The following day, our first guest speaker was Julie Marshall from the United Nations World Food Programme. I challenged her to address the problems of foreign aid perpetuating dependency, distorting local markets, and being unsustainable. Naturally, she shot back in desperation asking, “What’s the alternative?” Her entire focus was on food security. How can people who love life and liberty work to promote true solutions to global hunger and advance food freedom?

In the afternoon we listened to Jean-Francis (JF) Carrey, one of the youngest Canadians to climb Everest. He encouraged us to “flirt with our dreams.” He did this by making an initial visit to Nepal during which he traced some of the steps of Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Everest.

Then, JF made a t-shirt with a photo of Everest on it. “Then my goal was on a t-shirt. I had no choice but to do it since it was on a t-shirt!” said JF.

Since JF had to raise $100,000 to pursue his goal, he says that he went to dozens of events and associations. “I was going to these networking events… women in business, you name it,” he said.

JF noted that we are always reminded how dangerous things are and how people before us have failed. So we need to know what it is that sets us apart he figures. JF says that climbing Everest was not fundamentally about getting to the top but rather to experience the beauty of the sunrise at the summit. Still, JF stressed, “The summit was the cherry on top of the sundae. I encourage you to enjoy the journey.”

Another excellent speaker was Deepak Obhrai, a member of parliament. He was born in Tanzania and says that it was the socialist policies in Tanzania after the country gained its independence that is the reason for his conservatism. “That was a lesson in not being a socialist and that’s why I am a conservative,” he said. Addressing his decision to be a leader in Canada rather than in Africa, he said that Tanzania’s policies drove him out and that Tanzania’s loss is Canada’s gain. Deepak went to a school on a visit to Tanzania and asked, “How many of you would like to come to Canada?” About ten students raised their hands. “Who thinks that they could become an elected official in Canada?” he asked. Not one student raised his or her hand. “You can do it,” he told them. “I did.”

Policies of socialism and protectionism drive people out when they do not succeed in merely trapping people within. The hope for the future lies in free markets and globalization. Student attendees at this conference were encouraged to travel the world. Many of the speakers said that this is the best way to depart from the usual tendencies that students have towards protectionism and socialism.

After the conference had formally ended, I joined some of my friends who are interning for the Conservative Party of Canada at a military fundraiser event.

The following day I had lunch with my friend Matthew. Then, I saw some news reporters. As I walked by I exclaimed, “Radio Canada!” They said, “You speak French? Let us interview you!” Well, I am conversational in French, but speaking on television might be a stretch. They insisted, “You can do it!” So I asked: What is the issue of the day? It turned out the latest issue was a new casino in Ottawa. And so I made a few comments briefly in French about government’s addiction to casino revenue.

I enjoyed strolling downtown Ottawa on an beautiful summer day. Another highlight was running into one of my favorite members of parliament, MP Rod Bruinooge. He and I discussed Motion 312 and the Romney campaign briefly before he took off in his green shuttle to parliament.

This blog post is dedicated to Amy Giroux and Terry Clifford, respectively director and founder of Global Vision and to my friends who I had the privilige of visiting in Ottawa including: Mattea Shubat, Laura Mac, Matthew McGowan, Doug Chiasson, and Paul Hamnett.