Column: Looming Issues for Next Session

1280px-2009-0521-ND-StateCapitolThe next legislative session is, depending on how you look at it, “only” or “still” five months away.  Either way, the session is approaching and now is a good time to recognize some looming issues for the next session.

The Budget 

The state budget is already the dominant issue.  The legislature just had a special session to address declining revenues, but the real work remains for the regular session.

On the one hand, North Dakota is, by some standards, doing well financially.  Unemployment is low and the state is funding some very real needs in infrastructure and education — though still not parental choice.  On the other hand, oil revenues are very low and agriculture commodity prices are taking a hit.  This means that the state is not expected to bring in as much revenue as previous years, which leads to new and difficult challenges with spending and collecting revenue.

Expect heated debates about the budget to dominate the session from Day 1 to sine die.

Human Service Needs

In February Governor ordered a set of across the board cuts for all state agencies.  These cuts hit the provision of human services especially hard.  For one thing, despite the fact that Department of Human Services targeted “new” programs for elimination, the fact remains that these were still needed programs and they were identified as such by the legislature.  Secondly, the truly needy are most impacted and are in less of a position than most of us to adjust the reduction or elimination of services.  Thirdly, some of those reductions, especially in the area of long-term care, resulted in additional losses in federal matching funds.

The Department of Human Services was spared in the second round of reductions that occurred in August, but it will likely have to present a reduced budget for the next biennium.  Just as the Year of Mercy closes, concerned citizens will have to work to make sure that our most vulnerable citizens are not left behind.

Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse

Just about every observer agrees that the state is in a crisis when it comes to behavioral health and substance abuse.  The situation was already bad before the opioid and fentanyl epidemic hit the state.  Nevertheless, while most would agree that something needs to be done, not everyone agrees on what should be done or whether there is enough funding and will to get it done.

The Department of Human Services is already in the process of reforming its delivery system through the Human Service Centers and the State Hospital.  In the meantime, an interim legislative committee has studied the matter and is preparing draft legislation for the next session.   Some of the proposals will require state funding.  There will exist tremendous pressure to not devote new funding to mental health and substance abuse services in light of the state’s budget problems.  Not acting, however, could put even more of our neighbors at risk and cost us more money in the long run through incarceration.

Incarceration Reform

Addressing our incarceration numbers is linked to addressing our behavioral health needs.  North Dakota locks up too many of its non-violent citizens for low-level drug-related crimes.  The situation is financially unsustainable and short-sighted as a policy matter.  Recommendations to lower penalties for non-violent offenses and offer alternatives to incarceration have met with some resistance.  Meanwhile, it is certain that any serious effort to address our skyrocketing incarceration rates must work in tandem with efforts to provide better and more extensive mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Medicaid Expansion

Over 19,000 North Dakotans have medical coverage as a result of Medicaid expansion passed by the legislature in 2013. Passage of the legislation, which the North Dakota Catholic Conference and the state’s Catholic health care facilities supported, was difficult.  To appease some concerns, the legislation was given a “sunset” of July 31, 2017.  This means that the legislature must renew the program during the next legislative session or thousands of North Dakotans will lose or lack health care coverage they otherwise would have.  The families impacted usually earn too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but don’t earn enough to receive subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.

There is a peek at some of the issues facing the next Legislative Assembly, and space does not allow me to write about the refugee program, revision of the state’s marriage laws, and protecting legislation to help the unborn and their mothers.  Stay tuned to the conference’s Facebook page and be sure to ask your candidates about these issues.

Column: Mercy in Anxious Times

berlinwallchurch2These are anxious times.  We have witnessed orchestrated acts of terror so senseless it boggles the mind.  Nearly 65 million people are displaced worldwide and there seems to exist no will or agreement to resettle them.  Mass shootings driven by hatred, despair, or mental instability seem to have become more commonplace.  A U.S. Supreme Court driven by abortion ideology has thrown-out decades of legal precedent.  Never before have the presumptive nominees for president been so disliked by the American public.  Christians and other religious minorities continue to face persecution and martyrdom around the world. Ideologically zealous bureaucracies are forcing people to embrace “gender philosophies” contrary to their religious beliefs and common sense.  Some political candidates seek a return of the use of torture.  Others support the use of drone strikes on civilians.

It is enough to think that we are living in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But we’ve been here before.  And we will be here again.

Yeats wrote his poem immediately after World War I, a war so violent, deadly, senseless, and sudden that it shook the Western world to its core. A mere twenty years later we experienced another world war.

How do we, as Christians, respond when troubling and chaotic times? Do we withdraw from the world, judging it irredeemable?  Do we embrace the changes, gradually or quickly, “going with the flow” enough so we can still make a difference elsewhere?  Do we let our anxieties and passions overtake us and join a worldly movement fighting in reaction to the changes and chaos?  Do we let our resistance become hatred of this world?

St. Paul instructs us to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Phil. 4:6)  This does not mean, however, that we should withdraw from society and only pray.  We are social creatures created to serve God and others.  We serve others not only through individual acts of charity, but also through social and government institutions.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has this to say about times of trouble:

“When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. This vision is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it absolute. Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.” (382)

Three points come to mind when reading this passage.  First, it relies heavily on the Book of Revelation, which was written during a time when persecuted Christians were tempted to lose hope.  Second, the Beast of the Apocalypse, is not necessarily a ruler or world government. It could be a human-made ideology, like many of the false ideologies from the left and the right popular today.  Third, the lesson is that, by the cross and resurrection, Christ is victorious and overcomes every contrary power.

The Compendium goes on to note that we humans must perceive these truths and seek to fulfill, in social life, “truth, justice, freedom and solidarity that bring peace.”  We cannot withdraw.  Nor can we succumb to false man-made “solutions.”  Finally, we cannot be overcome by anxiety or despair.  Mercy is not served by any of those reactions.

Ten years after Yeats’ Second Coming, T.S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday.  A passage of the poem expresses this Christian idea of being in the world, caring for the world, but not being of the world, all the while embracing St. Paul’s call to prayer.  He wrote:

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Catholic Bishops — Abortion Decline Due to State’s Commitment to Human Life

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 4.19.08 PMBismarck, North Dakota -Bishop John Thomas Folda of Fargo, speaking as President of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, issued the following statement about the record low abortion numbers in North Dakota:

Forum Communications is reporting that the number of abortions conducted in North Dakota in 2015 was a record low.

This is good news.  Abortion destroys human life while wounding women and society.  

Raw numbers alone, however, do not tell the whole story.  According to the numbers provided by the state Department of Health, 6.77% of pregnant women in North Dakota had an abortion in 2015.  This is the lowest percentage since 1998, the earliest year for which we have such information.

This percentage continues a downward trend that started fifteen years ago.  It is a testament to the hard and often difficult work of pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, maternity homes which have expanded and touched so many women and children during these years.  It is also a testament to the commitment of North Dakotans to the culture of life at every level. 

In this special Holy Year of Mercy, let us rededicate ourselves to continue to build a world where every human life is respected.

Forum Editors: Restore local zoning of factory farms

13102825_10154637655125663_7099294328534931039_nThe Fargo Forum is calling for the restoration of local zoning when it comes to concentrated animal feeding operations.

This is consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.  In fact, the North Dakota Catholic Conference testified against removing local input as far back as 1999.

“This principle recognizes that human dignity requires that persons and communities should possess the ability to exercise responsible self-governance. Subsidiarity means that while larger governments have a role and sometimes a duty to involve themselves in local affairs, they should give deference and due respect to local communities. Specifically applying the principle of subsidiarity to rural issues, the bishops stated that local communities should be allowed to enact land use ordinances to further the common good. House Bill 1397 violates that principle by stripping counties of their rightful position to regulate for the common good of the larger community.”

You can read the full testimony here.

The great thing about Catholic social teaching is that it is timeless and prophetic.  The same principles for a good society that applied in 1999 apply to today and will apply seventeen years from now.

Catholic Conference: Supreme Court Decision Disappointing But No Direct Impact on North Dakota Law

logosharpsmallBismarck, North Dakota -Christopher Dodson, Executive Director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference issued this statement on the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a Texas law requiring abortion physicians to have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

“Although today’s Supreme Court decision is a setback for women’s health and common sense, it should have no direct impact on North Dakota law.

“The opinion upholds facts found by a trial court in Texas concerning a Texas law’s impact in Texas.  The facts are very different in North Dakota.

“To name just two of the differences: the Texas law purportedly caused many abortion clinics to close.  No abortion centers have closed in North Dakota due to this state’s law.  In Texas, some abortion providers could not obtain admitting privileges.  All of North Dakota’s abortionists have admitting privileges at a local hospital.

“North Dakota’s law has not placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and has, if anything, furthered women’s health in cases of emergencies.

“For further information, we concur with the statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Supreme Court decision: http://www.usccb.org/news/2016/16-079.cfm.”

# # #

Keywords: North Dakota Catholic Conference, abortion, health care, pro-life, Texas abortion law, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, U.S. Supreme Court

Year of Mercy: Care for Creation

“Mercy calls us to always include the common good and the environmental good, even if doing so is not required by the law and even if it means that others will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”IMGP0048

In my last column I suggested that a key to understanding mercy is the call to never abandon. Not abandoning also means to be in relationship, including a relationship with the created world.

The environment, however, is not a person. How can we be in relationship with something that is not a person?

The key to understanding this challenge is to recognize that God the Father blessed us with this world and that he wants us to live within it according to his will. In Laudato si, Pope Francis states that Genesis teaches that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (No. 66.) Sin disrupted these relationships. To walk right with the Lord, to walk in mercy, means to walk again in relationship with all three.

The importance of including creation in this triad of relationships should be apparent. God made us with physical bodies in a physical world. At this very moment you are touching the physical world. Christ became incarnate and lived in this same physical world, breathed the same air, ate the same fruits of the same earth, and walked on the same ground. By his life we learn that our bodies and the material world in which they roam are not just valuable, but also that they are part of God’s will for us. We were made for this creation and it for us. He means for us to be in right relationship with the environment.

Care for creation, therefore, is not just care for creation itself. Care for the human person is central to our care for creation and flows from our acceptance of the Father’s plan. Pope Francis explains that because of this relationship “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (No. 49, emphasis is Pope Francis’.) It also means that the “human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. . .” (No. 48.)

Contrary to portrayals in the news and social media, Pope Francis is not just talking about specific environmental problems, though he has done a little of that. Building upon what already is Christian teaching on creation, Laudato si consists mostly of a call to live with respect to the environment as a Christian. In other words, in right relationship with God.

The rupture which began in Genesis has become so great that it threatens the earth on a global scale and especially the poor of the world. Perhaps more damaging, however, is that it has become so engrained that we do not see the broken relationship in our daily lives, especially our public life.

Our relationships with God, others, and the environment should be an integral, not secondary, part of our economic and public life. Environmental concerns should not viewed as just limits on what we can do.

This is especially true with agriculture. John Cuddeback, a professor at Christendom College puts it this way: “Stewardship issues are not something that place an exterior limit on agriculture, as though we were to say: ‘Do your farming, but remember to be careful and don’t damage the earth too much.’ Rather, true farming is intrinsically environmental and stewardship minded.”

Nor would it be right to say: “I’ve followed all the laws and I’m just doing what I need to do to make a profit” or “we have to do it this way to compete.”

Here is where care for creation and relationship with others relates to mercy. Remember: mercy is about going beyond what required. Certainly, laws should protect people and the environment from practices harmful or detrimental to both natural resources and the common good. The political and legal system, however, often falls short. Mercy calls us to always include the common good and the environmental good, even if doing so is not required by the law and even if it means that others will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In its testimony against legislation to weaken the state’s anti-corporate farming law — legislation being put to the voters in June — the North Dakota Catholic Conference noted that Pope Francis has called the relationship a farmer has with the land as like the relationship that exists with in a family.

The same principle applies to all economic and social activity. As human persons we are called to be in relationship with God, others, and creation in all that we do. As agents of mercy, we are called to go beyond what is required, just as we do for family.

Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori to Congress: Support the Conscience Protection Act

handsCardinal Timothy M. Dolan and Archbishop William E. Lori – as chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, respectively – wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives, March 31, urging support for the Conscience Protection Act of 2016 (HR 4828).
The Conscience Protection Act, they wrote, is “essential legislation protecting the fundamental rights of health care providers…to ensure that those providing much-needed health care and health coverage can continue to do so without being forced by government to help destroy innocent unborn children.”
HR 4828 has a “modest scope,” they noted. “While existing federal laws already protect conscientious objection to abortion in theory, this protection has not proved effective in practice… The Conscience Protection Act will address the deficiencies that block effective enforcement of existing laws, most notably by establishing a private right of action allowing victims of discrimination to defend their own rights in court.”
Cardinal Dolan and Archbishop Lori recalled the Hippocratic oath’s rejection of abortion in the profession of medicine, indicating that the Act will benefit not only Catholic medical professionals but “the great majority of ob/gyns [who] remain unwilling to perform abortions.”
Finally, they explained that conscience protection facilitates access to life-affirming health care: “When government…mandates involvement in abortion as a condition for being allowed to provide life-affirming health care services, it not only undermines the widely acknowledged civil rights of health care providers but also limits access to good health care for American women and men.”
The full text of their letter is posted at:
For more on the bishops’ promotion of conscience rights, including a recent video about a nurse who was coerced to take part in a late-term abortion, visit:

Year of Mercy: The Dying and the Dead – New Column

If there is one theme that runs through all manifestations of mercy it is the call to never abandon.  Mercy calls us not to abandon those in prison, the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the women who have had abortions, the unborn, refugees, or those with disabilities.

True mercy also means not abandoning the dying or the dead.hands

Under the guise of “mercy” and “compassion” assisted suicide and euthanasia are becoming increasingly acceptable.  Five states – Washington, California, Oregon, Vermont, and Montana – allow assisted suicide and at least five states are considering legislation to legalize it.

Proponents portray assisted suicide as a merciful act necessary to relieve a terminally-ill person’s pain and suffering, despite the fact that most of the laws do not require a person to actually be in pain or truly be terminally ill.  They go to great lengths to avoid the fact that assisted suicide is assisted killing.

Like abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are not examples of society rising up to meet the needs of the suffering, but are instead examples of society giving up and abandoning those in need.

As one of the official documents for the Year of Mercy reminds us:

The word for mercy in Latin is misericordia. The etymology of the word derives from the Latin misere (misery, necessity) and cor/ cordis (heart) and is identified with having a heart full of solidarity with those in need. So in everyday language mercy is identified with compassion and forgiveness.

Mercy, therefore, is linked to compassion.  Compassion means to “suffer with.”  As Jason Adkins, my counterpart in Minnesota, puts it: “Sending someone home with a vial of pills to die, and perhaps even die alone, is not compassion, it’s not humane.”

Even in jurisdictions that stop short of legalizing assisted suicide, we can be tempted to abandon the frail and the dying.  North Dakotans needing long-term care, for example, are among those hardest hit by the recent state budget cuts.

The Basic Care Assistance Program funds services that provide care, service, and supervision to those unable to live alone. According to the North Dakota Long Term Care Association the recent cuts will result in a loss of 40% of service providers in the program.  Meanwhile, nursing facilities are taking a $25.1 million hit.

The lack of services can contribute to subtle pressures to relieve perceived — but not actual — burdens. Without realizing it, we can be tempted to make health care decisions, especially for those at the end of life, for reasons of convenience disguised as compassion.

God never abandons and nor should we.  True mercy, true compassion, does not mean aiding in killing or taking actions that intentionally and directly cause death by act or omission.  We must provide ordinary care, including artificial food and water, so long as it provides a benefit. We can provide pain relief and comfort care, even if the method or treatment indirectly and unintentionally shortens life.  The overarching principle is to “be with,” not abandon.

To help guide decisions, whether they are made by you or by someone speaking on your behalf, get the Catholic Healthcare Directive from the North Dakota Catholic Conference at: http://ndcatholic.org/chd/ or call 701-223-2519.

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Earthly death inevitably comes.

The traditional seven corporeal works of mercy are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.

Bury the dead stands out in this list for a few reasons. To begin with, it is the only work not mentioned in Matthew 25.  Its scriptural basis come from the Book of Tobit, specifically verses 1:17 and 12:12.  It was not until the 12th century that bury the dead was included with the six from Matthew 25.  Thomas Aquinas in the next century firmly established it as one of the seven corporeal works of mercy.

It also stands out because it does not address an immediate need of a living person.  One way of understanding its inclusion is to remember the call to not abandon.  Treating deceased bodies with disrespect and disposing them like trash is a form of abandonment, not only of the body, but also of person who was living.  Aquinas saw a connection between how we treat the dead body and how we treat the memory of the dead and Christ himself, who was also a body and was also buried precursor to the resurrection.

As with caring for the dying, there are sometimes public policy issues that affect our call to bury the dead with dignity.  Many laws affect cemeteries, cremation, and related services.  In addition, Catholic cemeteries are increasingly seeing threats to their ability to operate in accordance with Catholic beliefs.

Thus, with death, as with dying, we need to be vigilant and never abandon.

http://ndcatholic.org/editorials/column0316/index.html

Catholic Bishops: Despite Budget Cuts, Attend to the Poor

logosharpsmallBismarck, North Dakota – North Dakota’s Roman Catholic bishops, David D. Kagan of Bismarck and John T. Folda of Fargo, have released the following statement on Governor Jack Dalrymple’s order that all state agencies cut their budgets by over four percent:

North Dakota must take its time and remember those on the peripheries when cutting the state’s budget.

In response to declining state revenue Governor Jack Dalrymple has ordered all state agencies to cut 4.05% from their current budgets. We recognize the need for the governor and lawmakers to be good stewards of the state’s resources and fulfill their obligations to the people of North Dakota.  Difficult decisions will have to be made.

At the same time, we remind all involved that the state’s budget is a moral document and will ultimately be judged on how it affects the least of us.  The poor, the marginalized, the addicted, and the ill will disproportionately feel the pain of budget cuts.

We ask the governor and state agencies to resist quick simplistic solutions such as “across the board” cuts.   A compassionate and thoughtful response requires giving due priority to needs of those who will be most hurt by a reduction of services.  This will require time and serious consideration.  It may also mean that some agencies will need to make greater sacrifices than others so that we can give priority to those most in need.

We are confident that all involved will heed the words of Pope Francis when he said: “put the needs of the poor ahead of our own. Our needs, even if legitimate, will never be so urgent as those of the poor . . .”

Mercy: Incarceration Reform

1430832550293This Holy Year of Mercy provides an opportunity for Catholics to advocate for criminal justice reform at both the federal and state levels.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation. As of 2011, close to 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons and jails. Although national incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, the federal incarceration rate has increased 500 percent during the past thirty years, with close to half of those serving sentences for drug offenses.

The situation in North Dakota is even worse. North Dakota’s incarceration rate saw a 175 percent increase from 1994 to 2014, which was the second highest increase in the country. Four years ago, the state inmate population was half what it is today and the inmate population is expected to double again in the next 10 years. The inmate population has gotten so high that the state has to send inmates to a for-profit prison in Colorado. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the state’s prison system has doubled during the last ten years.

Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance. Rigid sentencing policies for non-violent offenses have proven to be costly, ineffective, and often detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to family instability and poverty. Those who finally leave incarceration face significant challenges upon reentering society, such as finding housing and stable employment, high rates of substance abuse, and physical and mental health challenges.

Normally during a presidential election year Congress does not pass major legislation. Observers in both parties, however, have noted that criminal justice reform could be the exception this year. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed a willingness to start addressing the nation’s incarceration problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified three pieces of legislation it supports. They are:

  • The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). This is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms related sentences and make those reductions retroactive. It gives judges more discretion and allows many federal prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs in prison. Contact Senator John Hoeven and Senator Heidi Heitkamp to express your support for this bill.
  • Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some prisoners. It also gives judges more flexibility in sentencing. Contact Representative Kevin Cramer to express your support for this bill.
  • Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513, H.R. 3406). This bill authorizes funding for reentry programs that help people leaving prison reintegrate back into their communities in healthy and productive ways. These programs focus on education, literacy, job-placement, and substance abuse treatment. They are often administered by faith based groups. Contact Senator Hoeven, Senator Heitkamp, and Representative Cramer to express your support for these bills.

In North Dakota, the legislature has created an Incarceration Issues Committee to look at the issue. The committee consists of six legislators and ten representatives from the judiciary and law enforcement. They will eventually make recommendations to the legislature in 2017. In the meantime, the state’s incarceration rate will grow in an unprecedented rate.

Any success in addressing the state’s massive incarceration problem, however, may depend just as much on the recommendations of another interim committee. The Human Services Committee is conducting a comprehensive review of the state’s behavioral services. Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s incarceration boom has corresponded with a falling behind in the state’s provision of mental health and addiction services. A study from the last interim concluded that the state’s behavioral services system was “in crisis.” Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stated that the lack of access to behavioral health services is a problem leading to incarceration and to the inability to reintegrate non-violent offenders back into society.

Investing in mental health care and addiction recovery costs money, but so do prisons. North Dakotans may have to decide whether they want to voluntarily pay for a better system of behavioral health services now or be forced to continue to fund an out-of-control system of incarceration. In this year of mercy, let’s choose the former.