In virtual seminar, Catholics urged to stand for faith in public square

PHOENIX — Ahead of what has been described as one of the most contentious elections in the United States, the Diocese of Phoenix offered a perspective on the role and responsibility of Catholics in the voting booth during its recent “Catholics in the Public Square Seminar” livestreamed from the Diocesan Pastoral Center.

This biennial event normally draws several hundred attendees. But this year, pandemic restrictions limited in-person attendance for the event, and the livestream of the event received more than 6,000 views on YouTube and Facebook.

In his homily for a Mass opening the Oct. 3 events, Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said Jesus told his disciples in the day’s Gospel reading he had given them “the power to tread upon serpents’ and scorpions” (Lk 10:19), a passage the bishop said “sounds like it was meant for the desert of Arizona.”

Just as He sent the disciples, “Jesus is sending you and me as his witnesses in a nation experiencing calamity of sin, division and vitriol, to be his faithful disciples” and also “faithful citizens of our nation,” the bishop said.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted preaches the homily during a Mass opening the annual Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. (Screenshot from YouTube)

This means “forming our consciences well and recognizing that there’s a hierarchy of issues that are involved, including that innocent human life is always a priority,” he explained.

Putting on the armor of God, he said, means Christ-like attitudes and actions, and “since love always wills the good of the other, Christ impels us to speak what is true whether convenient or inconvenient; whether understood at the moment or not.”

Suffering for the sake of the Gospel, the bishop said, has the power to bring about good, not harm. “Whenever suffering unleashes love, Satan is defeated.”

“Let us not hesitate to engage in the battle that’s raging around us, that’s distorting the dignity of both men and women, especially children in our nation.”

Local author and blogger Claire Dwyer addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

The seminar shares its name with Bishop Olmsted’s booklet, which is a part of the “Shepherd’s Voice” series of booklets written by bishops from throughout the country touching on various topics. Now in its fifth edition, 350,000 copies have been printed and will be distributed to parishes throughout the diocese.

Phoenix-based blogger Claire Dwyer who is a has contributed to multiple national Catholic media, served as master of ceremonies for the seminar after the Mass.

“This should serve for us as a trumpet blast and a call that as faithful and loyal Catholics to engage more actively in the Public Square,” said Luigi Baratta, state secretary for the Knights of Columbus, which helps publish the booklet.

Luigi Baretta, state secretary for the Knights of Columbus Arizona State Council, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

In his presentation, Mike Phelan, director of the diocese’s Office of Marriage and Respect Life, said he’d often heard the vocation of marriage reduced to the idea that the Church’s teaching is a very high ideal land that in the real world, families don’t experience that ideal in their daily lives.

“Nonsense!” Phelan declared. “We would never encourage a single good, young man to the priesthood with such a description of the priestly life. We would never encourage a young woman to enter the consecrated life as a consecrated virgin or as a member of a consecrated order with such a low view of the calling of the human person.”

Of course, all are sinners, he said, but we’re also Catholic.

“The Church never speaks to what’s lowest in us,” said Phelan. “We are not just sinners — we are also an unrepeatable image of God in the world.”

Mike Phelan, director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Echoing Bishop Olmsted’s remarks regarding a hierarchy of issues, Ron Johnson, director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, said there are some issues that can be debated and decided using prudential judgment, others are always wrong or intrinsically evil.

“There is a hierarchy of issues, namely in the form of abortion and euthanasia, that is paramount,” said Johnson. “All the other things we’re concerned about — and we’re concerned with a lot in our Catholic teaching — are false and illusory if we don’t start with the fundamental right, the right to life.”

In addition to being ranked the most pro-life state in the country by Americans United for Life, Arizona is No. 1 in school choice, Johnson said.

The state’s tax credit program allows for taxpayers to donate to charities, such as Catholic school tuition organizations and social service programs, like Catholic Charities.

“Their donations have just skyrocketed through these credits,” Johnson said. “The reason it’s so huge is because they come without government strings. Faith-based groups are able to utilize these credits — crisis pregnancy centers and others that otherwise would rightfully have some concerns about getting government money.”

Johnson also addressed the importance of voting in elections, citing the Arizona bishops’ recent statement endorsing a “No” vote on Proposition 207, which would legalize recreational marijuana in the state.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference — the official public policy arm of the Catholic bishops of Arizona, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

“We’re called to be Catholics not just one hour a week at Mass, but all the time. We’re all called to be saints, every day, every hour, wherever we are,” he said.

Alan Sears, KSG, founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm dedicated to defending religious liberty cases, highlighted the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States and stressed that it is “time again for Catholics, indeed, all Christians, for all people of faith, to act, to step boldly back into the public square.”

Among the rights protected by the First Amendment is the right to worship, he said, noting that Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco has been fighting city ordinances that restrict worship to 25 people indoors and 50 outdoors — accounting for only 1% of the archdiocesan cathedral’s capacity, for example — while other businesses, such as gyms or salons that require one-on-one contact, are allowed to operate with at least 10% capacity. The Church in Nevada has faced similar issues, Sears said, with casinos allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity while churches remain practically empty.

“Sadly, buy a 5-4 vote, our U.S. Supreme Court allowed this discrimination to continue,” said Sears. “Justice [Samuel] Alito, dissenting, said, ‘the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. It says nothing about the freedom to play craps or blackjack.’

“No one protesting this discrimination is suggesting that churches create a public health crisis or act irresponsibly. The church has been among the most compliant and supportive of public health measures and protecting our people while we maintain our ability to worship,” Sears added. “But our folks need and want the Eucharist.”

Alan Sears, KSG, founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Watch Alan Sears’ talk

He also addressed the case of Colorado baker Jack Phillips who won a case with ADF’s help in the Supreme Court in 2018.

“The so-called Human Rights Commission decreed Jack must keep a running tally of every request made for his artistic services and report to the government which jobs he took and which jobs he declined, and to tell the government why,” Sears recalled. “He and his employees, including his 90-year-old mother, were ordered to undergo government re-education to convince them that the teachings of their faith and their conscience were wrong.”

Phillips has continued to face lawsuits, one of which is still in progress. A similar case closer to home, involved a Phoenix-based calligraphy studio that faced fines of up to $2,500 per day “for every day they would not surrender their conscience to the state and create art that violated their conscience.”

There is hope, Sears said. This term, the Supreme Court struck down the infamous “Blaine Amendments” designed to deny funding for Catholic institutions in states across the country in the late 1800s after Congressman and future presidential candidate James G. Blaine proposed amendment failed at the federal level. Another case, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, upheld the “ministerial exception” in certain hiring practices.

“Catholics have lived through much worse times than these, with much more adversity, and have, with faith empowered by the Eucharist, persevered and upheld the causes of life, religious liberty and family, and have built great families, institutions and nations.”

Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo A. Nevares, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Helen Alvaré, a professor at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University in Virginia, said that because the culture is so obsessed with sex, it “makes it appear as though we, the Church are sexually obsessed and preoccupied, when in fact the world is so very preoccupied with these questions and keeps throwing their challenges at one of the last institutions that still has something to say about it.”

During her presentation, Alvaré discussed the legal history of religious freedom, stating that in 1990’s case Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, the Supreme Court decided that if a state passes a law that is “neutral and generally applicable” on its face, then religion has to lose.

“In a shocking display of national unity, almost a unanimous House and Senate passed a law signed by President (Bill) Clinton, with the ACLU and the USCCB marching arm in arm toward victory,” she said, referring to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

But it was a three-year process to reach a carefully negotiated RFRA these various groups could come together to support, that Congress could pass and Clinton could sign in 1993.

RFRA states that even if a law is neutral on its face, if it impacts religions differently, the law cannot stand, unless the state has a compelling state interest, exercised by the least restrictive means, said Alvaré. Another Supreme Court decision ruled the act was only applicable to federal law, leading states to pass their own versions of the law.

“Then came the same-sex marriage issue, and Religious Freedom Restoration Acts were now declared an enemy of LGBT people, and almost exclusively on the strength of that issue, the old coalition of left and right fell apart,” Alvaré said, and the passage of the state versions came to a stop.

Offering an example currently headed to the Supreme Court, Alvaré mentioned the case of Catholic Social Services in the Philadelphia Archdiocese being denied the right to place foster children because it won’t place children in same-sex or cohabitating unmarried households for religious reasons. This goes against what the city mandates.

Helen Alvaré, a professor of law at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, addresses the Catholics in the Public Square Seminar Oct. 3 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center. The annual seminar was also livestreamed. (Screenshot from YouTube)

Watch Helen Alvaré’s talk

“Literally two days after (the city) withdrew permission” for the agency to continue placing children, Alvaré said, city officials announced they now “had 250 kids that they had nowhere to place.”

“Catholic Social Services had families who were ready that day,” she said. “In the name of adults’ interests and of ideology, the children were not able to be placed with Catholic Social Services families.”

Alvaré then criticized the statements of many Church institutions who hide behind the right to Church autonomy in defending themselves rather than offer a clear response outlining the Church’s teaching. She cited the case of one Indiana Catholic school that appeared to offer praise for a teacher involved in a same-sex relationship that was let go, while seemingly blaming the bishop with a “our hands are tied” attitude.

Alvaré said Catholics need to have a clear, robust response to these issues that combines the church’s mission with its theology “in a way that the law can understand, but also for the court of public opinion.”

“People aren’t going to have confidence if our teaching isn’t excellent, if our institutions don’t fill them with a sense of pride. And not just pride in a jingoistic sense of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ but pride because it’s based in a deep intelligence and faith,” she said.

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