Hilary White, Rome Correspondent

A Catholic conversation: how to save the world at lunch

Hilary White, Rome Correspondent
Hilary White, Rome Correspondent
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GARDONE RIVIERA, Italy, July 9, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Unlike nearly every other conference, particularly every other academic conference in the world, a great deal of the real work that is done at the Roman Forum Summer Symposium goes on over lunch. With the world apparently coming down around our ears, with governments increasingly regulating citizens private lives and gigantic, seemingly untouchable, transnational corporations acting without restriction, how is it helpful for a small group of Catholic scholars to convene every year in a little town in northern Italy and talk?

It has been noted by historians that most of the social and political movements over the last 200 years, whatever their outcome, started the same way; with people talking to each other. Usually over drinks.

Founded twenty years ago by the legendary Catholic thinker Dietrich von Hildebrand, the symposium is held in a small, meticulously restored and preserved medieval village in the northern region of Lombardy, on the shores of Lake Garda, a holiday retreat since ancient times. It is attended by a remarkable group of lawyers, magazine publishers, university professors, authors, engineers, doctors, artists, seminarians, homeschooling housewives, students, priests, entrepreneurs, musicians, and media people.

At the Roman Forum, the daily routine is at once simple and all-encompassing. Following a leisurely breakfast together in the flowered atrium of the hotel, the conferees will hear the morning lecture at about ten am. Then they stroll down to the main piazza to the beautiful baroque church, St. Nicholas, to hear Mass; always in the Extraordinary Form (formerly known as the Tridentine Mass) in Latin, accompanied by Gregorian chant and polyphonic motets, sung by a small schola and led by one of the Catholic world’s brightest young musical lights.

After Mass, they roll up their sleeves and get down to business: the business of saving the world. About mid-way through the two-week conference, I asked my lunch table companions if they would mind if I recorded our conversation, our work, and shared it with LifeSiteNews.com’s readers. Some agreed happily and said I could use their names, and some of them said yes, but only if I kept their identity on the quiet side. I agreed to this, posed a few questions, and we were off. This year the Symposium’s theme was “Catholic Social Doctrine: It’s Truth and Implementation; Its Friends and Enemies”.

At the table was Michael Matt, the editor of The Remnant, the little ultra-orthodox Catholic newspaper-that-could. In a world where we all seem one step away from having our iPhones surgically implanted in our skulls, Michael Matt doggedly sticks to printed words on paper, distributing his surprisingly widely read publication around the world. Like LifeSiteNews.com, The Remnant is unpopular with much the Catholic Church hierarchy and has a habit of saying things that no one else will dare to say. Next over was Professor Thomas S., a theology and philosophy professor at a diocesan seminary in the spiritually beset Catholic Church of Austria, Christopher Ferrara, a lawyer, author and the head of the American Catholic Lawyers’ Association and Angela B. a communications consultant from San Francisco.

LSN: So, truthfully, most academic conferences are, frankly, not very interesting and not at all fun. They’re for obscure academics to talk about obscure topics that hardly anyone cares about. Suitable only for people who like to read thick books with lots of footnotes.

TS: …and if they want fun, they play chess and drink water…

LSN: Precisely. But the Roman Forum is different. Maybe unique. We come here and spend two weeks in a kind of glowing haze of happiness and solidarity. And there is a thesis here, and a goal. We want to restore a lost order to our world, so we ask each other how that might be accomplished. And what it might look like in practice. Can we talk about that?

TS: [The Roman Forum] is unique because first we begin with the experience you make here, of real life and the whole life. Real life and whole life. It’s not only about lectures and scholarship, but about companionship, friendship, conviviality. It is not about the brain alone, but about all your possibilities to make experience for the whole person. Your intellect is involved, your sense of humour is involved, good food … the whole person.

CF: It’s the total reconstruction of social life. It means having real relations with other people over the table, in a genuinely human way. At Mass, during outings, [N.B. The Roman forum offers day trips to Venice and Verona to see the opera, and boat trips around Lake Garda] and intellectual gatherings. Man is a social being and a spiritual organism and the powers of the soul actually increase when he has contact with other people in meaningful social settings. Not sporting events or movie theatres, but simply sitting around having a meal, or going on a trip together, or sharing a joke together, or having some wine together. Notice we haven’t had any television here, no movies, no sporting events,   

LSN: There’s been no desire for distraction. We’re not looking to remove ourselves from this situation.

TS: There’s nothing artificial here…

CF: No, there’s a town, a church, a meal, conviviality, a social life.

LSN: And the lake…

CF: And the lake.

AB: I also think for Americans, we come from this really religiously sterile landscape. Whereas, even in Italy, even with the decline of faith, it’s still in the soil. And that forms part of the ambiance of the symposium. There are things here in the public square that would not last five minutes in the US. The little wayside shrines, the statues and frescoes on the sides of buildings or a large crucifix. They would be desecrated, destroyed. 

TS: We’ve been sitting here until half past twelve at night, on this piazza, singing. If you did that in Austria, the police would be in here immediately.

MM: What [symposium organiser] John Rao is doing is recreating Christendom. Saying this is what it feels like. This is what it looks like and smells like and tastes like. And this is how fun it was. And this is what we’re fighting to preserve and restore.

TS: This is the real thing you’re experiencing here, not something artificial. It is not the Disneyland version of history here. It’s not a Christendom theme park. 

MM: So culturally, spiritually, academically, it’s a restoration that’s going on here. And that’s why everyone is so happy here, because they sense that this is real. And what’s happening back in the States or at the EU and in the UK is not real. Everyone senses it’s not real which is why there’s so much discontentment. And here you find something that really works. In fact, it worked for nearly two thousand years.

LSN: So I’ve heard people here say that you can’t take the constitutive ideas of a modern liberal democracy, these Enlightenment ideas of authority deriving from the bottom up, and Christianize them, and make them work to restore a rational social order, one where the unborn and elderly and vulnerable are protected and everyone has a meaningful place in society. And life makes sense, according to the Natural Law…

CF: Leo [Pope Leo XIII, r. 1878-1903] makes this clear in his encyclicals on this question that the form of government …we all agree that monarchy would seem to be the most natural form of government, the universe after all is ruled by a Monarch … But Leo was at pains to say again and again and again, that democratic institutions as such are not irreconcilable with the faith provided the proper source of political authority is recognised.

If rulers recognise the source of authority, and respect it there will be self-imposed limitations on what legislatures do, what presidents do and what tribunals do.

LSN: So you can trust your rulers not to be crooks. But we’ve got a situation now where the people are radically divorced from the political class that rules them because these rulers represent an ideology that is completely anathema, unknown and unlovable to the ordinary people, and to the Natural Law.

CF: Francis Fukuyama says in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, that the modern liberal state, founded by the philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, is in a state of constant struggle with its own subjects. But that’s the liberal state. But if you take the democratic form, invest it with a Christian understanding of the source of authority, the subjection of positive law to divine and Natural law, and make it work.

AB: We have to remind people, ‘Where are the sainted politicians?’ as opposed to the sainted medieval kings and queens? The only one that comes close is Gabriel García Moreno [president of Ecuador 1869 – 1875, who reformed Ecuador, fought government corruption and gave his salary to charity and was the only ruler in the world to protest the loss of the Papal States to the secularists in 1870] Why don’t we demand this kind of moral virtue, even heroic virtue from our rulers?

CF: Moreno was assassinated for reconstructing Catholic social order. He used democratic institutions, and predicted his own assassination.

LSN: So how do we bring about such a reconstruction now? Preferably without getting assassinated.

CF: You need believing Catholics and evangelical Protestants to form an alliance, which is exactly what happened in Hungary. And with the new Hungarian Constitution.

LSN: …that the EU is howling about, furious. But they can’t stop it…

CF: Yes. That was pushed through by an alliance of Protestants and Catholics.

LSN: And something similar has been happening in the pro-life movement since the 1970s. So, how do we at the Roman Forum forward these great societal goals by coming to Gardone and having lunch together every day?

CF: Well, we don’t. We’re having a good time and exchanging ideas. But you hear about them here, you clarify them, and then you go back where you live and spread them, and promote them. Don’t forget that the most influential books in the history of the western world were only ever read by about 5000 people. You just have to reach the right 5000 people. Speaking for myself, it’s a stimulus in terms of researching and thinking …it’s been like a graduate school for me.

You need little cells like this to get things moving.

TS: There are people who are interested in keeping this knowledge from coming out. And we have to break through that barrier.

~ * ~

I have now attended two of the summer sessions and my own experience of the Roman Forum has been that it is more like a club than a conference. In fact, I might go further and say that it has an almost tribal aspect. Bill, an engineer from Ottawa, when we were on our charter bus to Milan airport, pulling away from Gardone and waving madly to the few staying behind, remarked, “Only here can you come in a complete stranger, and go away feeling like you’ve found your long-lost brothers.”

This tribal experience of the Roman Forum is something that I’ve experienced in the pro-life movement and I think is the most important characteristic of the Christian community as a whole. Though we may be widely separated by geography, no one, once brought into the tribe, is ever again really alone.

This is the essence of the Roman Forum, and its great value. At it, we attempt, with some success, to recreate some of the humane intimacy, the inter-connected, inter-dependent community that was the norm of human life in Christendom for the first 1500 years of its existence.

The atomisation, the isolation that modernity creates is deadly. Literally. It is probably the single most common motivation behind abortion, which has taken uncountable millions of lives. In nearly every case, women who abort their children can only do so because they are or believe themselves to be profoundly alone. We have created a society addicted to individualism, in which those who cannot cope have only the state to turn to.

On its face, this year’s symposium was about the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church, what they really are, how they have been mostly abandoned by both the secular world and the Catholic intelligentsia since the 1960s, and how they can be revived and applied to our current situation.

But the purpose of the gathering, its real heart, was to live those Social Teachings day to day, in this little town, talking and briefly living together in community, as a tiny microcosm of that old, pre-revolutionary world. And as an experiment to get a taste of what it would be like if the whole world were to return to that communitarian way. At the end of the two weeks, of course we all go home to our respective countries, families and work. But we are refreshed, not exhausted, and are given a hope that the lessons of Gardone can be given out to the whole aching and confused world.

A day in the life of the Roman Forum

Christopher Ferrara on the Roman Forum

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Brian Fisher

Birth mothers: real heroes of the pro-life movement

Brian Fisher
By Brian Fisher
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What does it mean to be brave? Is it the doctor who dedicates himself to improving the health of a third-world nation? Is it the woman who faces her third round of chemotherapy to fight the progression of cancer? Is it the teacher who forgoes the comforts of a suburban school to reach minorities in the inner city? All of these are examples of bravery demonstrated in exceedingly challenging circumstances. And our society longs for stories of bravery to inspire us and fill us with hope.

As someone who works day in and day out with those on the front lines of helping rescue babies from abortion, I’m no stranger to stories of bravery. I see courage every day in the eyes of the men and women who sacrifice their time and energy to help women facing unplanned pregnancies. I see it every time a young mom — despite being pressured by her parents or significant other to get an abortion — chooses LIFE. And perhaps more profoundly than in any other situation, I see it when an expectant mom with no relational support, job, or income chooses to place her baby for adoption rather than abort her son or daughter.

This was Nicky’s situation.

When Nicky found herself pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, her life was already in shambles. During her 26 years, Nicky had already given birth to and surrendered sole custody of a little girl, committed several felonies, lived in her car, lost several jobs, and barely subsisted on minimum wage. So when she met up with an old boyfriend, Brandon, Nicky believed she was being given a second chance at happiness. “Our first year together was beautiful. We were getting to know each other and deciding if we would stay together forever.” Unfortunately, a positive pregnancy test result changed everything.

“When I told him I was pregnant, Brandon sat down on the bed, looked me in the eyes, and told me to ‘get an abortion’.” Nicky says those three little words changed everything for her. “I became depressed living with someone who wanted his child ‘dealt with.’”  Like thousands of women every day, Nicky began searching online for information on abortion, hoping her boyfriend would eventually change his mind. Through our strategic marketing methods, Online for Life was able to guide Nicky to a life-affirming pregnancy center where she received grace-filled counsel. “The woman I sat with was beyond wonderful. She helped me to just breathe and ask God what to do….And so I did.”

Nicky left the pregnancy center that day with a new resolve to choose life for her child, even though she still wasn’t sure how she’d financially support a child. “I was alone with just $10 in my pocket…and without any type of plan for what I was going to do.” So Nicky relied on the support of the staff she met at the life-affirming pregnancy center. With their help and through a chain of fortunate events, Nicky was put in contact with the couple who would eventually become her daughter’s adoptive parents.

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After meeting this couple face to face and coming to terms with her own desperate situation, Nicky conceded that the best thing for her unborn child would be to place her in someone else’s loving home. She told Brandon about her plans and he agreed that adoption would give their child the best chance at a happy and secure future. He even returned home to help Nicky prepare for the birth of their child. “The weeks leading up to my delivery were filled with a mixture of laughter, tears, protectiveness and sadness,” Nicky recalls. But one sentiment continued to be shared with her. “Brave…so brave.” That’s what everyone from the life-affirming pregnancy center to the adoption agency to the birthing center kept calling Nicky. “The nurses kept coming up to me and telling me they were honored to care for and treat someone like me.” After several weeks of preparation, Nicky finally gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and she made the dreams of a couple from the other side of the country come true.

Nicky’s adoption story continues to be riddled with a strange combination of pain and joy. “I cry every day, but I know my baby, who came out of a very bad time, ended up being loved by people from across the country.” When asked what message she’d like to share with the world about her decision to give up her child for adoption, Nicky responds, The voice of the mother who gives up a baby for adoption isn’t heard. We need to change that.”

To learn more about Online for Life and how we’re helping to make stories like Nicky and her daughter’s story a possibility, please visit OnlineforLife.org.

Author, speaker, and business leader Brian Fisher is the President and Co-Founder of Online for Life, a transparent, metric-oriented, compassion-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to helping rescue babies and their families from abortion through technology and grace.

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New York farmers stop hosting weddings after $13,000 fine for declining lesbian ceremony

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By Dustin Siggins

New York farmers Robert and Cynthia Gifford, who were ordered last week to pay $13,000 for not hosting a same-sex "wedding," say they are closing that part of their operation.

"Going forward, the Giffords have decided to no longer host any wedding ceremonies on their farm, other than the ones already under contract," said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) lawyer James Trainor. ADF represented the Giffords in their legal fight against New York's non-discrimination law.

Last week, the Giffords were ordered to pay a $10,000 fine to the state of New York and $3,000 in damages to a lesbian couple, Jennifer McCarthy and Melisa Erwin, who approached them in 2012 about hosting their "wedding." The Giffords, who are Roman Catholic, said their religious convictions would not let them host the ceremony, but that McCarthy and Erwin could hold their reception on their property.

Unbeknownst to the Giffords, lesbian couple recorded the two-to-three minute conversation. After declining to hold the reception on the Giffords' farm, on which they live and rent property, the lesbian couple decided to make a formal complaint to the state's Division of Human Rights.

Eventually, Judge Migdalia Pares ruled that the Giffords' farm, Liberty Ridge Farm, constitutes a public accommodation because space is rented on the grounds and fees are collected from the public. The Giffords argued that because they live on the property with their children, they should be exempt from the state law, but Pares said that this does not mean their business is private.

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Trainor told TheBlaze that the Giffords' decision to end wedding ceremonies at Liberty Ridge “will hurt their business in the short run," but that was preferable to violating their religious beliefs.

“The Giffords serve all people with respect and care. They have hired homosexual employees and have hosted events for same-sex couples,” he said.

However, "since the state of New York has essentially compelled them to do all ceremonies or none at all, they have chosen the latter in order to stay true to their religious convictions," Trainor explained to LifeSiteNews. "No American should be forced by the government to choose between their livelihood and their faith, but that’s exactly the choice the state of New York has forced upon the Giffords."

"They will continue to host wedding receptions," said Trainor.

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South African mom files ‘wrongful life’ lawsuit on behalf of Downs son

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By Thaddeus Baklinski

A South African woman has launched a "wrongful life" lawsuit against the Cape Town-based Foetal Assessment Centre, claiming a failure to inform her that the child she was carrying was at risk of having Down Syndrome prevented her from aborting her baby.

A twist in this lawsuit is that, unlike other "wrongful birth" lawsuits, the mother in this case missed the time limit to file the claim on her own behalf, so she is asking the South African Constitutional Court to allow her to sue the center for “wrongful life” on behalf of her now-born son.

“You have a duty to tell my mother carrying me that I'm malformed so that she can make an informed decision as to whether or not to carry me to term,” the statement of claim against the Foetal Assessment Centre reads, according to SABC News.

“It is not as if the foetus is sort of putting up its hand and saying why you didn’t destroy me," the mother's lawyer, Paul Hoffman, explained to Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. "The foetus is complaining that its malformation, its development is the result of the bad advice that was given.”

The SABC report did not say what compensation the woman is seeking.

The scope of the case is similar to that of a New Zealand couple who won a lawsuit claiming monetary compensation after a routine 20 week ultrasound scan failed to discover that their daughter had spina bifida.

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The mother, whose name has not been released, claimed that the continuance of the pregnancy was a “personal injury,” and, had she been given the correct diagnosis after that scan, she would have aborted her daughter.

"We consider that the continued pregnancy of the appellant following a misdiagnosis in the 20 week scan is capable of being an injury suffered by the appellant,” the court ruled, and directed the New Zealand Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) to make the woman eligible for compensation for the ongoing surgical and physiotherapy expenses incurred by their child.

New Zealand disability advocate Mike Sullivan said the underpinning attitude behind the decision is that those with disability, both born and unborn, are seen as a burden on society.

“This is what happens,” Sullivan said, when “the children become reduced to nothing – wrong even to exist.”

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