The controversy over placing refugees in the state reminded me of a story about a Sixth Century Egyptian monk. The story goes like this:
Going to town one day to sell some small articles, Abba Agathon met a cripple on the roadside, paralysed in his legs, who asked him where he was going. Abba Agathon replied, “To town, to sell some things.”
The other said, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.” So he carried him to the town.
The cripple said to him, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” He did so.
When he had sold an article, the cripple asked, “What did you sell it for?” And he told him the price. The other said, “Buy me some bread,” and he bought it.
When Abba Agathon had sold a second article, the sick man asked, “How much did you sell it for?” And he told him the price of that also. Then the other said, “Buy me this,” and he bought it.
When Agathon, having sold all his wares, wanted to go, he said to him, “Are you going back?” and he replied, “Yes.” Then he said, “Do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me.” Once more he picked him up and he carried him back to that place.
Then the cripple said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.” Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man, it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him.”
(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward.)
Abba Agathon’s attitude of acceptance and charity is one we should emulate, not just in our personal lives, but also in how we act as a society. It is one modeled after Christ himself, who embraced and healed, rather than distanced himself from, the lepers. (Please, readers, do not dismiss Jesus’ actions as unrealistic for us because, being the son of God, he could heal himself. Jesus was also man and capable of catching disease. Besides, he was surrounded by disciples who could also could also become infected.)
Not only did Abba Agatha not refuse to take the cripple to town, the monk didn’t even ask the man why he needed to go to town. Abba Agathon was probably selling items he had made in his desert cell for sustenance. But he did not refuse the request to use the money raised to buy the cripple what was asked. The story does not say what other items were bought. They might not have even been needed in Abba Agathon’s mind. The monk did not ask for an accounting. He just gave as asked.
Jesus likewise did not choose who to heal. We know that one of the lepers was a Samaritan, a foreigner. He did not ask them to what they planned to do after they were made whole. He did not go and check on them later to see if they were behaving.
This attitude of acceptance should be the starting point of our policy toward refugees. This does not mean we should throw caution to the wind. We have obligations to protect others in the community. Nevertheless, we should start with and always shape our policies and community responses with the spirit of Abba Agathon.
Instead of a position that says, “Well, you can come in if you do this and this and you don’t do that,” our position should be, “Welcome, if there is a problem with this or this, we will help and we hope you don’t do that.”
If there are gaps in security screening, then we should fix them rather than shutting our doors. If there are burdens to the local schools, we should help the schools, not turn our backs on children. If there are impacts on the social service system, we should step up our support for the system and increase charitable responses in the community.
Refugees do not choose to come here. They are not abandoning their homelands. They come here because they have to.
Some people expect refugees and the agencies that help them to meet all the burdens with placing refugees in our communities. They also act like accepting refugees and whatever burdens doing so may bring as an unnecessary inconvenience far removed from the core functions of government and society.
This attitude is wrong. Because our nation is built upon a principle of extending a helping hand and because we as a society, especially Christians, believe in doing what is morally right for others, we should view it as our job to accept refugees, just as Abba Agathon must have viewed it as his job to do what the cripple asked. Welcoming those forced to flee should be viewed as part and parcel of who we are, burdens and all. We, not the refugees, should be expected to make the needed adjustments to our lives and communities.
Abba Agathon, pray that we embrace refugees as you embraced the angel of the Lord.
by Most Rev. John T. Folda, Bishop of Fargo
“This election will determine the course of our nation’s life for the next decade or more. So, as people of faith, we should pray for our nation, and we should pray deeply before we vote.” – Bishop John Folda, Diocese of Fargo
Over the last months, I have heard numerous people, many of them Catholic, express frustration at the current state of our nation’s political life. We will make big decisions next month about the future leadership of the United States and of our state, and many are unhappy with the choices before us.
I could list a litany of flaws in each of our presidential candidates, but that is being done on a daily basis in the media. I won’t repeat what we have already heard or read many, many times over. This should remind us, however, that there is no perfect candidate, and there is no perfect political party. No one candidate or party fully represents the Church’s thinking on issues of public life.
For this and many other reasons, the Church does not endorse or identify with any particular candidate or party. To do so would limit our freedom to address and engage all people of all political persuasions.
But the Church does raise its voice on issues of public policy because the Church has a responsibility to promote human dignity, the care of creation, and the common good. For that matter, every Catholic and every citizen shares in that responsibility. This is why Catholics should be well informed and active in the public life of our community and our nation. Each of us has a contribution to make to the wellbeing of our fellow citizens and future generations.
As Catholics and as citizens, we also have a responsibility to exercise the right to vote and to do what we can to work for the common good. The realm of politics can be frustrating and disappointing, but it is that place where each of us can make a stand for what is right and good. As I have written before, there is a growing effort in our society to silence the public voice of believers and to thwart their involvement in the public life of the nation. All the more reason, then, to exercise our right to speak and act in accord with our most deeply held beliefs.
The issues in public life and in this year’s election are increasingly complex, but fortunately, there are good resources to help us as we prepare to vote in November. The North Dakota Catholic Conference, which acts on behalf of the Catholic bishops of North Dakota in areas of public policy and social teaching, has issued “Your Faith, Your Vote.” This resource offers pertinent questions to ask candidates regarding their positions on key issues, like the right to life, religious freedom, family life and care for the poor. It also gives us principles to follow as we discern how to cast our vote. “Your Faith, Your Vote” can be found on the NDCC website at ndcatholic.org.
The Catholic Bishops of the United States have also reissued their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” (available at usccb.org). It too contains important principles of Catholic teaching that we should consider when voting, including the dignity of the human person, the common good, solidarity, and the formation of conscience.
The role of conscience is especially important in carrying out our public responsibilities. Conscience is a judgment of reason that helps us to recognize and seek what is good, and reject what is evil. As Pope Francis states, “This does not mean following my own ego or doing what I am interested in or what I find convenient or what I like” (Angelus address, June 30, 2013). We have an obligation to form our consciences; it does not just happen.
Conscience formation requires openness to the truth as it is found in Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Church. It may be easier to base our voting choices on political ads or party affiliations, but rather than vote as members of this or that party, we should vote as Catholics. That means we submit our lives in faith to Jesus Christ and actually believe and act on what the Catholic faith holds to be true. A well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote in favor of a program or law that contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. But when voting for a person to hold office, one may morally choose even a candidate with imperfect behavior or principles, if there are no alternatives.
This can be done, positively, by seeking the greater good rather than the “lesser evil.” A faithful Catholic may also choose not to vote for a particular office if major candidates are unacceptable. This also can be an intentional act for the good in exceptional circumstances.
As responsible voters, we need to look at all the issues, but we must recognize that not all issues are equal in weight or priority. The Church even tells us that some principles are non-negotiable. The right to life is foundational to all other rights, and it cannot be counted simply as one issue among many. The integrity of marriage and family life are written in the law of God, and cannot be subject to political whim or expediency. The Second Vatican Council tells us that religious liberty is a fundamental right of the human person, and must be protected.
There are other issues of grave importance, like care for the poor and the elderly, the proper treatment of visitors and immigrants, and the decision of whether to go to war. These too are rooted in our faith, for Jesus told us, “Whatever you did to these least ones, you did to me.” There are, of course, many legitimate ways to serve and to care for those in need, so there can be legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics about how to address these and many other issues.
This election will determine the course of our nation’s life for the next decade or more. So, as people of faith, we should pray for our nation, and we should pray deeply before we vote. Voting is serious business, and even when we are faced with imperfect choices, we cannot leave this responsibility to others, who might not share our faith in the divine law of God.
We must ask God for the wisdom and courage to choose what is right and good, what will be best for the people of this great country. The right to vote and to have a say in our nation’s governance was hard-earned and should not be taken for granted. Many people around the world would make great sacrifices to have such a right. Let us then be faithful citizens and do what we can to promote the Gospel of Christ and the common good for all our brothers and sisters.
Voting as a Catholic Citizen
by Most Rev. David D. Kagan, Bishop of Bismarck
“Our votes as Catholic citizens have to focus on who and what protects human life and dignity and therefore, who will strengthen and advance the common good of us all. Take your well-formed Catholic conscience into the voting booth and then vote.” – Bishop David Kagan, Diocese of Bismarck
Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
You may recall that four years ago in October, 2012, I wrote to you about the right and privilege we have as citizens to vote. I write again in this “Year of Mercy” that each Catholic citizen has that privilege and duty to participate in our Nation’s governing by the exercise of our constitutional right to vote in national, state and local elections. As your Bishop I urge you again to exercise this cherished right.
I will not tell you for whom you should vote nor will I tell you for whom I intend to vote. However, I ask you to vote as a Catholic citizen who has properly formed his or her conscience. A properly formed Catholic conscience does not contradict the defined truths of our Catholic Faith in matters of faith and morals. I wish to explain what this means in relation to the issues on which your votes will have a lasting impact.
What is “a properly formed Catholic conscience?” The Catechism says: “A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. Everyone must avail himself of the means to form his conscience” (1798). The Catholic Church’s teachings are the means for us to properly form our consciences so that we seek always what is objectively true and good.
At the heart of all Catholic moral and social teaching is a single fact: the respect given to an individual human person must always be first and must govern every law and action so that the person’s life and dignity is always and everywhere protected and defended. In other words, from the first moment of human conception to the last moment of life on earth, the person must be respected without exception.
For the reason, there are some actions that are never acceptable and should not be made so by law, they include: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and not recognizing the unique and special role of marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
All the other social, economic, and political issues only gain importance from the fundamental issue of the respect for the individual person and the inviolability of each person’s life and God-given dignity.
If there is no respect for the life and dignity of each person from conception to natural death, then every other moral and social evil can be justified. There are some things we must never do as individuals or as a society because they are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned. A prime example is the intentional taking of innocent human life as in abortion and euthanasia.
In this election year the positions of the major political parties and their candidates are well known and advertised. What I ask each of you to do before you vote is to consider carefully what our Catholic Church teaches about the issues, and then consider how your vote for a particular candidate will contribute to the common good of us all as persons with that human dignity which must be respected and protected in all circumstances.
Ours is a representative form of government and those whom we elect therefore are supposed to represent us. When you vote, please, I ask you to vote for the candidates who represent you as Catholic citizens. This is easily discovered by reading the public statements and votes and observing the actions of the candidates. Our votes as Catholic citizens have to focus on who and what protects human life and dignity and therefore, who will strengthen and advance the common good of us all. Take your well-formed Catholic conscience into the voting booth and then vote.
I close with a timeless quote from Saint John Paul II. He wrote: “The common outcry which is justly made on behalf of human rights – for example the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture – is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination” (Christifideles Laici, 38).
May our Good God bless and guide us at this important moment and may Our Blessed Mother continue to intercede for us!
Sincerely yours in Christ,
The Most Reverend David D. Kagan
Bishop of Bismarck
The 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 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.
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.
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.
These 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.
Bismarck, 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.
The 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.
Bismarck, 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
“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 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.