The Supreme Court’s welcome surprise

Archbishop Aquila

Right in the middle of the Church’s celebration of the annual Fortnight for Freedom, good news came down from the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving religious freedom that should inspire people of faith. The court ruled, in keeping with the First Amendment, that Trinity Lutheran school could not be barred from a state-run playground resurfacing program because it was a religious institution.

You might be thinking, “What does a playground have to do with religious freedom?” The details of the case are revealing. Trinity Lutheran Church Learning Center is a preschool located in Columbia, Missouri that wanted to improve the safety of its playground, which consisted of gravel and grass. It applied in 2012 to a state program that provides grants to buy shredded, recycled tires and was rejected because it is affiliated with a church.

That year there were 44 applicants to the program and based on its proposal Trinity Lutheran’s application was ranked fifth best. And yet, the state of Missouri disqualified the preschool, citing its Blaine Amendment. These anti-Catholic amendments were added to more than 30 state’s legal codes – including Colorado’s – in the late 1800s and early 1900s to prevent state funds from going to Catholic schools in favor of the Protestant-dominated public schools.

The cultural force behind these amendments was the “Know-Nothing” movement, which fomented fear of Catholics as papal agents plotting to take over the country and immigrants as competitors for jobs. They earned their nickname by replying, “I know nothing,” when they were asked about their political beliefs. Among their objectives were to prevent Catholics and other immigrants from being elected for political office and denying them jobs in the private sector.

Things have improved since those days, but it is still not that case that people of faith always receive the same benefits that are publicly available to the rest of society, without being forced to check their faith at the door. Take, for instance, the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom the federal government tried to force to provide contraception through its Health and Human Services mandate.

At an even more local level, one only need to look at the Douglas County school voucher case for a recent example of this discriminatory treatment. Citing our state’s Blaine Amendment, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that the county could not provide scholarships to low-income students who wanted to attend a religious school. Rather than treating students who wish to attend religious schools the same as those who choose to attend public schools, the court ruled against the program. States with Blaine amendments use it as an excuse to override a low-income parents desire to choose the school their child attends. The implication of the court’s ruling is that they know better than parents what would be best for their children. Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Colorado Supreme Court to revisit the Douglas County case, following its Trinity Lutheran decision.

When he visited the U.S. in September 2015, Pope Francis rightly noted that “various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or […] try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square ….” Every Catholic has a right to speak in the public square and to contribute the gifts of their faith to the common good!

As we celebrate the birth of our country, let us all strive to protect and promote the valuable contribution of faith to our nation by living out our faith in the public square and through the witness of our personal holiness. Let us support one of the inalienable freedoms guaranteed by our constitution – religious freedom. May we imitate the example of St. Thomas More, who was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” May God bless our country and strengthen it in protecting religious freedom!

Featured image by Joe Ravi via Wikipedia

COMING UP: Relativism: An obstacle to the pursuit of truth

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When I was a kid, my favorite television show was The Partridge Family. Mostly because I was completely enamored of the late David Cassidy, whom I was convinced I would marry some day. But also because the show featured just the kind of mildly corny humor a seven year old is inclined to enjoy.

I remember one joke in particular. Keith (David Cassidy) is trying to give big brotherly advice to Danny (Danny Bonaduce). He says “If you just believe, you can be anything you want to be.”

Danny responds, “Great! I want to be a black woman.” Laugh track ensues. Because everybody knows that a pale white, red-headed, freckle-faced kid cannot grow up to be a black woman.

I was thinking about that scene as I was listening to Bishop Robert Barron Feb. 6, giving a riveting talk on relativism to a packed house here in Denver. As he spoke about the philosophical underpinnings of relativistic thinking, I realized that joke couldn’t be told today. Because, as a society, we don’t seem to agree that race, gender, or just about anything else, are based in any kind of objective truth.

Bishop Barron spoke of a video you may have seen. A rather short male interviewer asks college students what they would think if he told them he identifies as a woman. Then an Asian woman. Then a 6’4” Asian woman. They hesitate at times, but all ultimately agree that if that is his “truth,” then he is indeed entitled to be a tall Asian woman.

That is the ultimate expression of relativism.

Relativism, boiled down, is essentially the belief that there is no “objective” truth that is true for all. Rather, we as individuals, each establish our own subjective “truths,” and we live “authentically” to the extent that we honor these individual “truths.”

The speed with which we have descended down this path is breathtaking. When I was in my 20’s (which was not long ago at all — right???), I used to debate abortion at Berkeley. Not exactly a friendly audience — I remember mentally noting exits, including windows, that I could utilize if things got out of hand. But they showed up, and they listened, because there was still some understanding in society that there was such a thing as truth, and hence an openness to listen to others to see if together we could arrive at that truth. Or, at the very least, that I could employ the truth as I see it to convince you that your understanding of the truth is flawed.

Not so today. Open discussion of controversial issues is almost nonexistent on most college campuses. Of course. If I have my truth and you have your truth, what would be the point? We are just supposed to respect each others’ truths and move on.

But the problem is that we all have to play together in the same sandbox. Somebody’s truth has to rule our social interaction. If we can’t come to an agreement about whose truth is truer, then the only option left is force. And so, instead of listening to what you have to say, I attempt to forcibly shut you down. I smash windows. I disrupt your talk. Or, alternatively, I call on the authority of the university to do that dirty work for me while I hide in a safe space with my crayons and puppy videos.

Pope Benedict XVI called relativism a “dictatorship.” And, ironically, it is. The philosophy that purports to allow everyone to believe as he wishes, actually allows no one to believe in anything but relativism. And because there need be no rhyme nor reason behind any individual belief, enforcement through persuasion becomes impossible. Hence, the inevitable clash of ideologies. And it will be the stronger, not the most persuasive, who will prevail.

Parents, please — teach your children that there is such a thing as truth. That yes, we may disagree with others about what that truth is. That we respect people — all people — regardless of their beliefs. (Another objective truth.) But beneath the disagreement, there is a truth. There is a God or there isn’t. Jesus Christ is divine or He isn’t. Sexual expression has an inherent meaning or it doesn’t. Gender is fixed or it isn’t.

[And parents, if you want help with this, get your hands on Chris Stefanik’s book Absolute Relativism, and check out his YouTube videos on the same subject.]

In any disagreement about objective truths, someone is right and someone is wrong. Or perhaps both are partially wrong and neither grasps the full truth. But the truth is there.

In the old days, our goal was to find it.