Category Archives: Moral Theology

Fredric March & the University of Wisconsin

(Oshkosh Examiner) On Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, nearly 40 individuals and departments associated with the University of Wisconsin Madison and the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh were emailed this letter, which criticized each school’s treatment of the legacy of acting legend Fredric March and asked them to reconsider their decisions to remove his name from campus facilities.

The signatories, also listed below, include the two top officials of the NAACP, Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr., the late Ed Asner, eminent scholars and activists, and descendants of March.

Rebecca Blank, chancellor of UW Madison, responded by writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times, which broke the news of the March letter.

Also below is an open letter from historian George Gonis in reply to Blank’s arguments.

SUBJECT: Racial-Justice Icons, Flagship Civil Rights Groups Ask UW, UWO to Reconsider Fredric March

September 2021

Dear University of Wisconsin-Madison & University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Communities,

We the undersigned write you today because it has come to our attention that – due to the efforts of well-intentioned, nobly motivated students, administrators and community members guided solely by social-media rumor and grievously fact-free, mistaken conclusions – the name of Wisconsin native and Golden Age acting icon Fredric March (b. 1897) was stripped from both UW-Madison’s Fredric March Play Circle (in late 2018) and UW-Oshkosh’s Fredric March Theatre (in late 2020). These name removals took place when enough people chose to believe mere word of mouth that the two-time Oscar winner and two-time Tony winner was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (or its offshoot) and a white supremacist.

We know emphatically that not only was Fredric March not any of these —  by a measure of 180 degrees — but that he was, to the contrary, for more than five decades one of 20th-century Hollywood’s earliest, greatest and most boisterous racial-justice activists. Indeed, for 30-plus-years – through the end of his life – he was a close ally of the NAACP upon whom the organization knew it could rely.  And so we remain confused as to why, on both Wisconsin campuses, the avalanche of readily accessible primary- and secondary-source materials detailing Mr. March’s loud, concerted and enduring lifetime commitment to fighting racism and anti-Semitism was never pursued, discovered, consulted, heard or made public – and why neither UW-Madison nor UW-Oshkosh has moved to correct this clear and unconscionable rejection of conspicuously demonstrable historic truth and academic rigor.

Moreover, our statements here have been supported on the public record by a number of nationally revered and respected progressive academics and historians – and by individuals who actually knew Mr. March – including Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III (founding director of the John Lewis-birthed National Museum of African American History & Culture); civil rights author and professor Raymond Arsenault; performer/activist Harry Belafonte; actor/activist James Cromwell; and late UW-Madison professor Max Otto (Clarence Darrow/“Fighting Bob” La Follette intimate, NAACP compatriot and internationally acclaimed humanist philosopher).

When it comes to labeling Mr. March a civil rights hero, what other conclusion could one come to about a man who: Continue reading

What Next in Clergy/State Relations?

At least here in Wisconsin, ALL clergy are now eligible for the Covid vaccine because we are “part of health care personnel who provide spiritual care to the sick” (see link below). In an immediate sense, this is important not only to clergy personally but also our families and congregations.

It is also an acknowledgement by the state of Wisconsin of the work clergy do in caring for others. Understandably, many clergy were upset when we were told we couldn’t attend to our hospitalized parishioners. This was, for me at least, not an issue since (thank God), none of may parishioners were hospitalized.

At the same time, the inclusion of clergy now suggests that these earlier regulations, however heavy handed and tone deaf these earlier orders were, were not necessarily the result of a bias against religious believers.
 Assuming good will of those who disagree with us is essential not only for those of us who represent Christ as priests, ministers, pastors and preachers, but as citizens committed to the common good and the ability of all Americans to live together peacefully.
For me at least the real question is this. How can clergy and elected officials work together to avoid a repeat of our earlier mutual misunderstanding?
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

WI DHS press release:

COVID-19 Vaccines, Abortion & the Use of Fetal Cells

Later this afternoon, I will get vaccinated against COVID-19. I won’t know until I get to the county health department whether it will be the first of two or a single injection.

The manufacturers use of cells from aborted children has raised ethical reservation about the vaccine itself. As you may have seen in various media reports, several Catholic bishops have discouraged their faithful from receiving the various vaccines for this reason. This has lead some to question the morality of getting the vaccine even when doing so would likely mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and life of both the recipient and others.

On these points, a group of Catholic Pro-Life scholars have published a statement addressing the moral acceptability of all the different COVID-19 vaccines. The analysis is excellent. While too technical for general distribution, it address with clarity and charity, the manufacturers’ use of cells from an aborted child and the concerns this raises in the hearts of many.

Acknowledging this concern they statement goes on to say write that

While there is a technical causal linkage between each of the current vaccines and prior abortions of human persons, we are all agreed, that connection does not mean that vaccine use contributes to the evil of abortion or shows disrespect for the remains of unborn human beings. Accordingly, Catholics, and indeed, all persons of good will who embrace a culture of life for the whole human family, born and unborn, can use these vaccines without fear of moral culpability.

The authors go on to point out that while there is no moral obligation to be vaccinated, those who don’t “must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.” You can find the statement here.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Reaping the Whirlwind

John Horvat writing at The Imaginative Conservative, has a great article on the philosophical underpinnings of our current situation (The Stunning Triumph of Thomas Hobbes in the COVID Crisis).Let me preface what I’m about to say that I have since the pandemic began I have continued to serve Liturgy, hear confessions, and bring people Holy Communion. While I’ve taken basic precautions (mask, hand washing, etc.), I’ve done everything I can to make sure the sacramental life of the Church remained available to not only my own parish but neighboring parishes.

Yes, all of this entailed a certain level of risk on my part (and my wife’s part by the way). But what choice did we have? To do otherwise, would mean leaving my flock without a shepherd and prove myself a hireling.

This isn’t to say that, especially in the case of clergy and laity in high-risk groups, more rigorous precautions (including quarantine) aren’t prudent. They are. But while I was supportive of the lockdown in the first days and weeks of the pandemic because we faced a high-risk situation without good information to evaluate that risk, I think we have (as the article points out) given ourselves over to fear of death.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take precautions. We should. But it’s hard to escape the author’s basic point that fear of death has now come to control our behavior as a society (a baneful abstraction but it will have to do for now).

I think the author’s point about our current situation is especially instructive:

The second problem with the Hobbesian COVID policy is that it prevents the finding of solutions to the crisis. A society bereft of risks may avoid the dangers of disaster, but it also removes any possibility of triumph. America is in chains today through such a policy.

As one quick example, here in Madison, private schools worked all summer with county health officials to develop plans to teach in person. Some of these schools ran daycare/camps all summer without incident. Nevertheless, without warning and at the last minute, the health department ordered schools closed for in-person instruction for grades 3-12.

At least as the schools tell it, they had no indication that their plans for reopening were inadequate. Indeed, throughout the summer, the corrected their plans in response to county health officials’ concerns.

We have grown fearful and we are afraid because we lack love. We are fearful and lack love because we have, as a culture, given ourselves over to self-indulgence and violence rather than self-restraint and personal responsibility to avoid the consequences of our actions

Hosea’s words are applicable to our situation:

They sow the wind,
And reap the whirlwind.
The stalk has no bud;
It shall never produce meal.
If it should produce,
Aliens would swallow it up

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


Understanding, Or Not, the Other Side

In a study I did with Jesse Graham and Brian Nosek, we tested how well liberals and conservatives could understand each other. We asked more than two thousand American visitors to fill out the Moral Foundations Qyestionnaire. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out normally, answering as themselves. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as they think a “typical liberal” would respond. One-third of the time they were asked to fill it out as a “typical conservative” would respond. This design allowed us to examine the stereotypes that each side held about the other. More important, it allowed us to assess how accurate they were by comparing people’s expectations about “typical” partisans to the actual responses from partisans on the left and the right)’ Who was best able to pretend to be the other?

The results were clear and consistent. Moderates and conservatives were most accurate in their predictions, whether they were pretending to be liberals or conservatives. Liberals were the least accurate, especially those who described themselves as “very liberal.” The biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives. When faced with questions such as “One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal” or ”Justice is the most important requirement for a society,” liberals assumed that conservatives would disagree. If you have a moral matrix built primarily on intuitions about care and fairness (as equality), and you listen to the Reagan [i.e., conservative] narrative, what else could you think? Reagan seems completely unconcerned about the welfare of drug addicts, poor people, and gay people. He’s more interested in fighting wars and telling people how to run their sex lives.

Read the rest:

Growth Beats Global Redistribution

Simple arithmetic reveals that reallocating the existing world income cannot eliminate world poverty. In Misallocated Pie, when everyone gets an equal slice, everyone gets enough. In the real world, allocating equal slices means no one gets enough. We cannot end world poverty without significant widespread economic growth.

Future-Telling & Moral Judgment

We often use future-telling as a substitute for moral arguments, so that we say “event X is the beginning of the end of our culture” or “event Y is the dawn of a new day” when we would have been closer to what we wanted to say with “event X is evil” or “Y is good and makes us happy.” The two are connected since the immoral is ultimately destructive, but there is no straight line between this event and this concretion of the ultimate.

Don’t Do the Crime, If You Can’t Do the Time?

Robert E. Wright  writing at American Institute for Economic Research has a helpful summary of the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court case overturning the safer-at-home order. While as a practical matter the decision is less than perfect, I do think the justices got it right here when they point out that the safer-at-home order imposed criminal penalties without meeting the legal standard of what constitutes a crime:

Crimes created by the Legislature in statutes must have specificity in order to be enforceable. … Because Palm fails to understand the specificity necessary to a valid criminal statute, she also fails to understand that no less specificity is required of a rule to which criminal penalties are assigned.

In US law are three (or maybe four) elements of a crime:

  1. Mental state (Mens rea)
  2. Conduct (Actus reus)
  3. Concurrence
  4. Causation

That is, you must have the intention to commit a crime (#1), must engage in a criminal act or unlawful failure to act (#2), and these must happen at the same time (#3). The last element, causation, basically means that the act or omission resulted in harm.

In overturning the safer-at-home order, the justices argued (among other things) that the state failed to meet all three (or four) of the elements of an actual crime. This matters precisely because the state was treating (or threatening to treat) violation of the safer-at-home order as a crime.

(As an aside, while they are helpful to me as a pastor the county’s directives also seem to impose rather harsh penalties: “Violation of or failure to comply with this Order is a crime
punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both. (Wis. Stats. §§ 252.03 & 252.25) and a violation of Dane County Ordinance §46.25(1) and Madison General Ordinance §7.05(6) punishable by forfeiture.” Though I’m not a lawyer, I can’t help think these might not stand a legal challenge.)

The rule of law depends upon the confidence of the citizenry that the law is just and fairly applied. When otherwise legal acts are criminalized–but only for some individuals, under certain circumstances, people lose confidence in not only the law but the lawgiver.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory



Thoughts on obeying (or not) a quarantine order

Early on I posted a short piece on my Facebook page about civil disobedience in response to the various quarantine orders. At the time I wrote that while

There is some–and I stress SOME–evidence that lockdowns are ineffective. At the same time, unlike theology, science speaks in terms of probabilities. It may very well be that lockdowns are ineffective. As for the corona virus, it may not be as contagious or deadly as we think it is. But again, none of this is absolutely certain but only “more or less” likely and then only within defined parameters.

Then as now, I would argue that while we have a right and even obligation to resist and even disobey an unjust law, the law must be CLEARLY unjust. In the case of the quarantine orders this is simply not the case.

As an Orthodox Christian and an American citizen I understand that the State has broad police powers. But this authority is not meant to turn earth into heaven but keeping it from degrading into hell. In the case of the pandemic, these police powers extend to protecting the innocent and those who cannot defend themselves. This is the MORAL justification for quarantine laws.

While we cannot say so absolutely, especially in the first days and weeks of the pandemic it is likely that the quarantine served to protect innocent lives. As Orthodox Christian this means that I had (and have) an obligation to obey these laws even if–as I did–I think they were likely an over-reaction and (as most everyone acknowledges and bemoans) based on incomplete data.

Thinking the law is likely unnecessary is not a sufficient, objective moral basis for civil disobedience. On this there can be no argument. The law must be in and of itself unquestionably unjust.

At the same time if conscience compels disobedience to an poorly thought out law AS IF IT were unjust, then those individuals who break it must accept the ALL the consequences legal as well as medical for their actions. Civil disobedience is an act by which I intend not simply to disobey a law but show the law to be unjust (not foolish but unjust) by willingly–even cheerfully–accepting the consequences of my actions.

This means, if I break the law (which I personally have no intention of doing), I must say, “I have been punished by the State because I freely chose to break an unjust law.” Likewise, in this case, I must say, “I have gotten ill (should this happen) through no one’s fault other than my own because I broke a law I thought unjust.”

But what I cannot say, to another person–to my spouse, my child, my friend “You are sick through no fault of your own but because I freely took it upon myself to break a law I thought unjust and so risked not only my health but yours.”
Civil disobedience is immoral if my actions that endanger a third party.

I was reminded of all this by a recent post by National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson:

…we are greedy, and we are childish. We want to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of civil disobedience without paying the accompanying price for them. King George would have been doing his duty to hang George Washington et al. We hanged John Brown. Henry David Thoreau spent time in jail for his antiwar activism, as did the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the cause of civil rights. Thoreau did his time happily. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” he wrote, “the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

He goes on to conclude that accepting the punishment for my disobedience

…is part of the deal, too. If we were to take leave of our senses and take seriously the proposition that Dallas County’s coronavirus order is tyranny in the sense the Founding Fathers had in mind, then surely seven days’ imprisonment would be only a modest price to pay for opposing that tyranny. By way of comparison: Sister Megan Rice, 84 years old at the time of her sentencing, served two years in a federal penitentiary for her lawbreaking anti-nuclear protests, and she might easily have spent the rest of her life there had not her conviction been overturned.

Orthodox Christians are not anarchists. We accept the State as willed by God as necessary in a fallen world. We owe obedience to the State even when doing so means our rights are compromised. In fact, we only have an obligation to disobey the State when it seeks to compel us to disobey God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

COVID-19 & Religious Liberty in Madison, WI

While I remain hopeful that my parish’s religious liberty has not been infringed upon, retired UW law professor Ann Althouse raises suggest that I might be wrong. 
Althouse writes that “No sooner was the state-wide order invalidated than my local government reinstated it — but not without changing the way ‘religious entities’ are treated.” She quotes the city/county directive that churches are now “to use technology to avoid meeting in person, including virtual meetings, teleconference.”
We have been live streaming services for several weeks so this isn’t a concern. What does concern me is Althouse’s conclusion
So, just like that, small religious groups lost their right to meet in person and must, at this late date, switch to teleconferencing. And that’s what you get when local government takes over. Why did they adopt everything else the State Department of Health Services had in its orders, but change that one thing? They rushed it out on the same day the court acted, but they had the time and motivation to go harder on religious groups? How did that happen?
Maybe Professor Althouse is wrong. I hope she is. Her conclusion, however, is worrisome.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory