Obama Administration Opposes Religious Freedom

The Department of Human of Health and Human Services came out with a statement today, January 20, 2012, regarding a decision for which Obama is ultimately, and should be held responsible, which requires employers to include contraception in their health insurance plans, removing the exemption for organizations opposed to contraception on account of religious convictions. Instead, they are to be allowed an extra year before they are forced to include contraception in their plans — until August 1, 2013, instead of just till August 1, 2012.

It is said that "This decision was made after very careful consideration, including the important concerns some have raised about religious liberty. I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services." This looks like a case of extreme mental reservation. It seems probable that Obama did not want his opposition to religious freedom to have all its consequences this year, because he knew he would then not be re-elected, and is hoping that the decision and postponement of enforcement will please the left, without alienating Catholics, other Christians and believers all too much.

Bishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, expressed his and the U.S. bishops' opposition to the mandate. "The Obama administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand," he stated. "The Catholic bishops are committed to working with our fellow Americans to reform the law and change this unjust regulation."

I don't know what the bishops will be seeking, but I wonder whether it might be most prudent not to seek to have the unjust decision repealed immediately, but to deal with it in such as to see to it that the issue ensures that Obama is not re-elected, and that it is repealed by the next president (or recognized by the supreme court as gravely contrary to the first amendment).

Homily for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year B)

Dear brothers and sisters, we stand today on the boundary between Christmas and the liturgical ordinary time. The Christmas crib and Christmas trees are gone, we are clothed in green for the cycle of ordinary time. But the readings, especially the Gospel, continue the grace and mystery of Christmas. Jesus was born as a child, came into the world, and was revealed to it. He showed himself to the world. He also spoke and still speaks to the world, in a particular way through his call, of which we hear in the readings and in the Gospel.

"Behold, the Lamb of God!" says John. These words, which we hear at ever Mass, are decisive words. John was a charismatic man, who excited and challenged people. Disciples gathered around him. But John does not want to remain his disciples. He points to Jesus! "Behold the Lamb of God!" With this pointing he fulfills the meaning of his own life. Every one of us seeks meaning in life, and find it in various ways. But very few recognize the meaning of their life so clearly as John. He lives, he exists for one thing alone, to point to Jesus. That is the high point of his life, with which he attains the greatest joy. Now it but remains for Jesus to grow; he, John, may diminish.

What does John set in motion? At first glance it doesn't seem to be anything special. We don't hear of any great stories, any wonders, any astonishing discourses–only a few personal meetings and talks. But these meetings and talks were unforgettable. Certain special happenings – a great, unexpected success, the news of a death or assassination attempt, the "Yes" of a beloved – remain to their small details in our memory. We recall where we were, with whom, when he happened, and so on. It was this way with the disciples who encountered Jesus. This meeting made such an impression on them that they could remember years later at what hour of the day it occurred. It was the tenth hour – 4 PM. And this meeting had so inspired them that they couldn't hold themselves back; they had to go quickly to a relative or friend and say to them, "See whom we have found! He is the one for whom we have all waited, on whom we have set our hope!"

John pointed to Jesus, and the disciples followed him. They felt his mysteriously attractive power, but did not yet really know him. They wanted to know who he really is. So they ask him, "Master, where are you staying?" Where are you at home? What is it like to live with you? Jesus did not give them a quick answer, but invited them: Come and see! Or rather, come and you will see! And this answer developed a lifelong for the disciples. They learned through Jesus' words and through experience that he is a special way present in the Eucharist, as he promises "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him." (John 6:56) And they learned that Jesus is in all his beloved friends; he lives in us when we allow him, when we open ourselves to his love.

God calls everyone of us. But there are many forms that God's call takes. It is few who are called as successors of the apostles. It is perhaps few who experience God's call in as impressive a way as Samuel. But what is essential remains the same, that there is someone from whom we somehow hear, "See him! Listen to him! He is the one who fulfills your longing and your hope, who will make you happy!" and that we have the confidence to say this also to others. Or as in Samuel's case, "Listen to these words, to this teaching, to these thought! Thus you will be led well!" And that we are seek to learn every more intimately who Jesus, to ask him anew "Where are you staying?", and to experience his presence with us in the celebration of the Eucharist, and in our fellow men and women.

In this Mass, let us pray that we, who have heard and followed his call to faith, may experience still more this longing to know him, and believe and experience ever more strongly his presence among us.

Readings for this Sunday: 1 Sam 3:3-10,19; 1 Cor 6:13-15,17-20; John 1:35-42

USA Supreme Court Gets It Right on Religious Liberty

Yesterday, January 11, 2012, the USA Supreme Court ruled unanimously and decisively in favor of Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School's right to complete freedom in hiring and dismissing its ministers, regardless of provisions of civil law concerning employment such as those of the Americans with Disabilities Act. A case alleging unfair discrimination had been brought against the school by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission et al. and Chreryl Perich. (Summary statement, full judgment and concurring opinions [PDF])

"Cheryl Perich" had been hired by the school and had later accepted the position of a "called" teacher (in contrast to a "lay" teacher). She had taken disability leave at the beginning of the 2004-2005. She then wanted to return to work the following February. The school's principal stated that it had contracted with a lay teacher to fill her position for the remainder of the earth, and school administrators expressed their opinion that she was unlikely to be physically capable of returning to work that year or the next, and offered to pay a portion of her health insurance premiums if she would resign as a called teacher. She refused, showed up to work on the first day when he doctor cleared her medically for work, February 22. The congregation considered this behavior and insistence inappropriate, and voted to rescind her "call", thereupon terminating her employment. She filed a charge against the church and school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that her employment had been terminated in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and prohibits retaliation for making a charge under the ADA. The EEOC then brought a suit against the Hosanna-Tabor church and school, claiming that she had been fired in retaliation for threatening a lawsuit under the ADA. Hosanna-Tabor argued that the suit was barred by the First Amendment because it concerned the freedom of a religious institution to regulate its own affairs and ministers, that Perich had been fired for a religious reason, namely that her threat to sue the Church violated the Synod's belief that Christians should resolve their disputes internally. (Following St. Paul in Corinthians 5).
A district court had originally decided in favor of the school. The Appeals Court reversed that decision, and the case finally came to the USA Supreme Court in 2011.

The Supreme Court ruled that (1) the "ministerial exception" to legislation concerning employment of ministers was valid, and that (2) Perich was a minister for the purposes of this exception.

The justification given for the "ministerial exception" to legislation concerning employment of ministers was that the employment of ministers is intimately linked to religious belief.

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

The EEOC and Perich had argued that Hosanna-Tabor's stated reason for firing Perich, namely that her way of acting had violated the church's religious beliefs, was merely a pretext, and that the real reason was her disability. To this the court noted that it is irrelevant what the "real" reason for firing Perich was. "The purpose of the [ministerial] exception is not to safeguard a church's decision to fire a minister only when it is made for a religious reason. The exception instead ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful — a matter "strictly ecclesiastical," — is the church's alone.

The court did not, however, affirm that the discernment of who is a "minister" lies outside the court's competence. The opinion of the court, as delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, suggests that it does lie within the court's competence; the court gives a number of reasons why Perich is to be considered a minister, of which one reason is the fact that she was called and considered such by the church. For this reason, Justice Thomas noted his own opinion in a concurring note that "the Religion Clauses require civil courts to apply the ministerial exception and to defer to a religious organization's good-faith understanding of who qualifies as its minister." He notes that "a religious organization's right to choose its ministers would be hollow" if it lay in the competence of secular courts to determine whether a given person is or is not a "minister", "if secular courts could second-guess the organization's sincere determination that a given employee is a"minister" under the organization's theological tenets." Whether an employee of a religious organization is a "minister" is of itself a religious question, and therefore to be decided by the religious body. This opinion seems right to me, and it is unfortunate that the court did not adopt this view as a whole — though that need not overshadow the value and importance of the important and correct decision of the court.

The summary judgment suggests that there is a certain tension between the state's interest in regulating employment to foster justice and hinder unjust discrimination, and the freedom of religious groups to regulate themselves, but that the judgment here comes principally on the side of religious freedom.

The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission. When a minister who has been fired sues her church alleging that her termination was discriminatory, the First Amendment has struck the balance for us. The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.

The suggested tension is also, in my opinion, a real one. As St. Augustine, e.g., and St. Thomas Aquinas point out, human law cannot punish or forbid all wrongdoing, since while seeking to do so, it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the common good. (De libero arbitrio I, 5,6, Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 91, a. 4 & q. 96, a. 2). Opinions may differ about whether American government's regulation of employment even in general benefits the common good by fostering justice and hindering injustice. But in any case, such lawful regulation can in principle be so beneficial. It can hinder various injustices. Given the realistic supposition that some such injustices will be present in religious organizations, the government could hinder those injustices by refusing to recognize the right of religious organizations to govern themselves, prohibiting and punishing those injustices, but this would be to do away with particular injustices by means of an even graver injustice.

The Pain of Hell

Is God a torturer?

A difficulty some persons have with the doctrine of hell is the impression that hell implies vengeance and torture, which are incompatible with loving God. It is of course quite understandable that the more caution humans are in establishing punishments, the less they look at punishment as a deterrence and the more they look at it as a corrective for criminals, the harder it will be for them to understand an eternal punishment that is only employed in order to keep men from sin and evil through fear of this punishment.

The classical understanding of the punishment and pain of hell, since the middle ages and to some extent in the Father so of the Church (although the modern view of the pain of hell also finds a basis in some patristic thought) is more or less: God wills all human beings to come to him, to love him and their neighbor, and thereby to attain their own happiness. Now, in order to love, one must forego works that contradict this love; hence, to motivate men to withdraw from these evil deeds, God established the eternal separation from him and the pain of hell as punishment for works that fundamentally contradict love. The understanding of the fire of hell as a material, physical fire corresponds well to this understanding of hell, although this understanding of hell's punishment is not essentially connected with the notion of material fire.

Some modern theologians (e.g., Rahner, Greshake, Kehl, quite possibly Ratzinger) are of the opinion that this "classical" understanding of hell can no longer be maintained, that this understanding of hell is incompatible with a God who is merciful love. If God now does everything out of love, even in relation to sinners, we cannot say that suddenly after their death God no longer acts towards sinners out of love, but only or at any rate decisively out of justice. These theologians then understand the punishment of sin as an innate consequence of guilt, not as something more added by God as a disincentive to sin. That does not inflict pain on the sinner as a punishment. The punishment is the suffering inherent in sin, the ultimately unavoidable consequence of turning away from God, the source of goodness and of peace. Sin is a rejection of love. Hell is the fixation in this unloving state. But without love a person must finally be unhappy and suffer.

Several things speak in favor of this hypothesis, of this understanding of hell. In the Christian tradition we definitely do find the thought that sins brings its own punishment with it. We also very often find the thought the God, in his mercy, punishes sinners in hell less than they deserve. But if God in his mercy punishes sinners less than they deserve, it is plausible or even probable that he has not planned more punishment for hell than necessary or appropriate in order to discourage people from sinning. Hence, if the suffering inherent in sin can be appropriately described with the words that Scripture uses, such as fire, the worm, eternal destruction, and so on, than this punishment suffices as a deterring warning from sin, and it is probably that God brings about no further pain.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also tends somewhat in this direction. It has nothing to say directly to what was traditionally called the poena sensus (the sensible or experienced pain/punishment of hell, in contrast to the punishment that consisted in a privation, in not enjoying God [poena damni]). It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs." (n. 1035) But other than by the use of the term "chief punishment" doesn't give even an hint that there is any other punishment. The phrasing does not seem to exclude the view that the principal punishment consists in separation from God, while other punishment consists in the experience of loss and loneliness subsequent upon this voluntary separation. It seems to leave open both the classical and the modern view.

Speaking about the eternal punishment of hell and the temporal punishment of purgatory, the Catechism says, "These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin." (CCC 1472) Pope John Paul the second says something quite similar, but substitutes "punishment" (castigo) for "vengeance" (vendetta): "Man… can unfortunately choose to reject [God's] love and forgiveness once and for all, thus separating himself for ever from joyful communion with him. It is precisely this tragic situation that Christian doctrine explains when it speaks of eternal damnation or hell. It is not a punishment imposed externally by God but a development of premises already set by people in this life…. The images of hell that Sacred Scripture presents to us must be correctly interpreted. They show the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." (General Audience, July 28, 1999).

On the other hand, whatever one thinks of this hypothesis of modern theologians, it would be a mistake to think that we can readily reject as impossible the classical understanding, held by many fathers and doctors of the Church. It is a mistake to suppose that God must act as we would act if we were entrusted with the rule of the universe and other human beings. It may be that the classic understanding of hell cannot be entirely understandable from a human perspective. This would not, however, immediately imply that this understanding is false. It could also be a sign of our very limited insight into the providence, love, and justice of God. As noted, the Catechism is rather careful on this question. It says "the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs", (n. 1035) suggesting another punishment besides this punishment, but maintaining silence on the question of what exactly this is.

Pastoral Recommendations For the Year of Faith

The Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, published a Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith, giving suggestions for some things that could be done on the level of the world-wide Church, on the level of episcopal conferences and dioceses, and on the level of parish and other communities to enter more deeply into this Year, to aid the encounter with Christ through authentic witnesses to faith, and the ever-greater understanding of its contents. Among other things, it suggests various steps that could be taken on these levels to help the Catechism of the Catholic Church better fulfill its task of serving the faith.

Read the full document: Note with pastoral recommendations for the Year of Faith

Living Without Mortal Sin?

Do some persons live and die without ever committing any mortal sins? Recently Fr. John Zuhlsdorf ("Fr. Z") stated that "there is only one woman ever who" was "entirely free of mortal sin throughout their life". Despite correction by several commentators, he continued to defend his claim, putting forth the arguments that (1) one cannot prove the absence of mortal sin (since God alone knows the heart), (2) "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (1 John 1:10), and (3) "by definition Original Sin is mortal sin and we all commit it. We all have the guilt of Original sin."

In the past I have also heard somewhat similar opinions from other sources. So, a few remarks on the matter:

(1) The burden is on the one who claims that a person who has done wrong to prove it. If someone claims that St. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, committed a mortal sin, it is up to the one who claims this to prove it. It will not do to say "prove that it's not so!" Granted one cannot directly prove that St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, St. Maria Goretti, St. Dominic Savio, Bl. Jacinta of Fatima, etc., never committed a mortal sin, it surely lies on the one who accuses them of having committed mortal sin to prove it. To claim as a fact that someone committed grave evil is objectively slanderous unless one has some way of being sure that they did so. Now Fr. Z seems to suggest having a solid basis for making this claim in the doctrine that grace is a gratuitous gift (we can't know with the certainty of faith if we are in the state of grace), and that we all sin (1 John 1:10). However, and here lies the problem, the saints and doctors of the Church do not agree with him in his interpretation of these doctrines and their implications.

(2) From the Fathers through the Council of Trent and beyond, the assumption is that some, but not all, fall into sin after baptism. It is clear that grace suffices to in fact persevere a substantial length, and indeed an entire life, without sin. It may be a minority, but it is supposed to be at least some.

I quote also St. Thomas Aquinas, responding to an objection that grace cannot be a habit in the soul, since a habit is something stable and permanent, whereas grace is easily lost, since it is lost through a single act of mortal sin: "Although grace is lost by one act of mortal sin, it is not easily lost, because it is not easy for someone who has grace to do such an act, on account of his inclination to the opposite action, as the Philosopher says in Ethics V, that it is difficult for a just man to do unjust deeds." (De veritate q. 27, a. 1, ad 9). If mortal sins are not frequent in all Christians, then you can be sure that some have died without committing any mortal sins (since some die a few years after reaching the age of reason, some a single year afterwards, some a few months afterwards, etc.), unless, far from positing the traditional providence of God that preserves some people from any mortal sin ("caught up lest evil change his understanding or guile deceive his soul." Wis 4:11), one posits a very special providence of God seeing to it that everyone other than Mary falls into mortal sin, a rather problematic hypothesis.

(3) Moreover, we have positive, and strong evidence that individual persons have lived without committing any mortal sin: certain persons, who have been canonized as saints by the Catholic Church, have testified that other persons (also later canonized as saints by the Catholic Church) lived and died without committing any mortal sin. For example, St. Robert Bellarmine testified it of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and St. John Bosco testified it of St. Dominic Savio. This view of St. Aloysius life is moreover affirmed by the liturgy itself, in which we pray, "O God, giver of heavenly gifts, who in Saint Aloysius Gonzaga joined penitence to a wonderful innocence of life, grant, through his merits and intercession, that, though we have failed to follow him in innocence, we may imitate him in penitence." The implication of this prayer is that St. Aloysius preserved baptismal innocence, and that the vast majority of persons did not. (Updated correction: Or the prayer may mean by "innocence" that he committed not only no mortal sin, but also none or next to none fully deliberate venial sin; then the implication would be that the vast majority of persons have committed at least some fully deliberate venial sin.)

Leaving aside the theological and rational arguments (which are in favor of some living and dying without committing mortal sin), if one has to choose between St. Robert Bellarmine, St. John Bosco's, and the Roman liturgy's view, and the personal interpretation of another individual, one would be wise to side with the saints and with the liturgy of the Catholic Church.

(4) Regarding St. John's statement that "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar" (1 John 1:10), I simply recall his own statement in the same epistle, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there are some sins that are not mortal," as well as "No one born of God commits sin; for God's nature abides in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God." (1 John 3:9)". The sins we are commit, the "daily sins" (St. Augustine), are in most cases venial sins, and John is including these when talking about sin when he says "If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar."

(5) Regarding original sin, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches explicitly that original sin does not have the character of personal guilt in us, nor is it "committed" by us: "[Original sin] is a sin which will be transmitted by propagation to all mankind, that is, by the transmission of a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice. And that is why original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed" – a state and not an act.
Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam's descendants (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 404-405)"

In any event, even if one could theoretically call original sin "mortal sin" by analogy, that is not the traditional Catholic usage of "mortal sin" (Otherwise it would be senseless to ask, for instance, whether someone could be in original sin and venial sin, without mortal sin, as St. Thomas Aquinas does), nor is it the usage of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

To sum up, the testimony of the saints and of the Church is that grace can and does indeed preserve some people (and not just the Blessed Virgin Mary) from all mortal sin, and also points out some concrete saints whom grace has so preserved from mortal sin throughout their lives.