The Year in Review: A Look Back at the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in 2019

COMMENTARY

A major victory for religious freedom in 2019 was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bladensburg cross.
A major victory for religious freedom in 2019 was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bladensburg cross. (photo: Courtesy of FirstLiberty.org)

When the Register asked me to write a piece on the 2019 nation in review, I sighed. How to capture a full year, let alone in 1,200 words?

The endeavor can be dispiriting as well as challenging, given the political-cultural climate.

Nothing has dominated news the past weeks and months like impeachment, impeachment and impeachment.

Our nation’s lonely eyes turn to Washington all the time, to the constant political sport of President Trump vs. the Democrats. The cable news channels are sickly obsessed with it. Click on the news anytime, and it’s all you hear.

But what might a Catholic look back at 2019 look like? At least through the eyes of yours truly?

Personally, I was struck by several stories. Some good, some bad, some ugly. Here’s my take:

The Good: Catholics remain troubled by the status of our religious liberties, which have been under assault by secularists, especially in the wake of the 2015 Obergefell decision that redefined marriage in the United States and with the fallout from the Obama administration’s Health and Human Services’ mandate. We’ve seen Catholic dioceses, bishops, universities and even nuns — the Little Sisters of the Poor among them — go to battle in courts to protect their First Amendment freedoms and rights of conscience.

While this has made us pessimistic, a case in 2019 proved uplifting: A major victory for religious freedom was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Bladensburg cross. The case concerned a 40-foot-high “Peace Cross” erected in 1925 in Bladensburg, Maryland, in honor of fallen veterans of World War I, designed by the Gold Star mothers and local American Legion.

Known as The American Legion v. The American Humanist Association case, the “humanists” argued that the memorial is unconstitutional because it’s fashioned in the shape of a cross on government property.

They demanded it be bulldozed or (by one judge’s recommendation) that the arms be cut off.

It was an absurd undermining of religious freedom, one that Justice Samuel Alito rightly argued constituted a “hostility” toward religion.

The good news: The secularists lost in a 7-2 decision, with two court liberals joining the majority.

The ruling speaks well for future cases and to the thinking of the two most recent high-court justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Also good news for Catholics in 2019 was the cause of Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty, who was tortured and terribly mistreated in the last century, including via questionable treatment by Pope Paul VI’s Vatican in the 1970s.

Rectifying some of those serious injustices, on Feb. 13, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Pope Francis announced that Cardinal Mindszenty had been declared “Venerable,” a major step toward beatification. Catholics everywhere will now learn of the man’s heroic struggle — a man we should view as the “Venerable Crime Fighter.”

The Bad: Talking about the bad is an easy target in modern U.S. politics and culture. Socialism is on the rise, especially among millennials.

Rising icons include the so-called “Squad,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who are literal members of the Democratic Socialists of America recently elected to Congress.

One front-runner for the Democrats going into the 2020 presidential race is Bernie Sanders, a lifetime socialist who received 13 million votes in the Democratic Primary in 2016. Suddenly surging among Democrats is South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the son of a Notre Dame professor who was an expert in critical theory (a form of Marxism focused on culture) and Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Joseph Buttigieg died in 2019.

His son, Mayor Pete, is a man “married” to another man, and in America in 2019, was been polling No. 1 for Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire and leads Donald Trump 47%-44% in a head-to-head poll for November 2020. It is truly a new era for America.

Tragically, not only is socialism on the rise, but communism isn’t doing too bad, either.

In a shocking statement this past summer, the Jesuit-run America magazine published a piece titled, “The Catholic Case for Communism,” along with a note by the magazine’s editor in chief justifying the decision.

Needless to say, the Catholic Church has long considered communism evil, going back to 1846, with Pope Pius IX’s Qui Pluribus. Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Divini Redemptoris described communism as a “Satanic scourge.” Pope Pius XII’s 1949 “Decree Against Communism” laid out a process for the excommunication of communists. John Paul II obviously condemned communism.

And yet, in 2019, America magazine begs to differ. It is apparently taking a different path.

Finally, a particularly distressing sight during the last year commenced on April 15, when the Cathedral of Notre Dame went up in flames in Paris. We can be thankful the damage was not as dreadful as we initially feared.

The Ugly: To me, the ugliest developments for Catholics in 2019 concerned news on the abortion front. Among them were Catholic politician Joe Biden’s reversal on the Hyde Amendment, flipping from a position he held for four decades. Biden clearly succumbed to pressure from pro-abortion Democrats vying for the party’s presidential nomination.

Especially awful has been the ongoing and heightening persecution of David Daleiden for his work exposing the monstrous policies of Planned Parenthood. If ever there was a grave injustice, this is it.

Daleiden’s continued harassment by Planned Parenthood and liberal judges came in a year when Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims harassed and berated a woman quietly praying a Rosary in front of a Planned Parenthood business in Philadelphia — the top abortion facility in the state.

And yet, the likes of Daleiden get prosecuted. Very sad.

Even then, few spectacles in the abortion battle compare to what happened on Jan. 22 in New York, when Andrew Cuomo, the state’s Catholic governor, joined his legislature in memorializing Roe v. Wade with a heinous act.

In a macabre scene in Albany, Cuomo and allies made abortion possible right up until the moment before delivery and even stripped the baby of protections if he or she accidentally survives the scalpel.

Perhaps more macabre, even diabolical, was the sheer jubilation by Cuomo and friends. In celebration, Cuomo ordered the city’s Freedom Tower (among other monuments) to be lit up in delight over the state’s triumph. “I am directing that New York’s landmarks be lit in pink to celebrate this achievement and shine a bright light forward for the rest of the nation to follow,” said a beaming Cuomo.

A man usually marked by a snarl rather than a grin, Cuomo looked into the cameras and glowed: “Today we are taking a giant step forward.”

His words were echoed by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the New York assemblywoman who championed the bill. She was thrilled: “It is time for New York to again serve as a progressive beacon to the nation.”

Quite the contrary, New York in 2019 gave the nation a sign of something wicked.

I’ll end on a positive note, one that literally beatifies.

Though the process has recently hit another regrettable delay, we should rejoice that in 2019 Pope Francis gave the green light to a miracle approved by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints: He approved the way for Fulton Sheen’s beatification.

The miracle that made it possible was a stillborn baby who showed no signs of life for 61 minutes, until he suddenly came to life with a perfectly normal heartbeat and vital signs — and no brain damage.

For little baby James Fulton Engstrom, named for his miraculous intercessor, and for the faith of us all, it was truly glorious.

And maybe that’s a good way to look back at 2019 and ahead to 2020: Even amid the craziness and often wickedness all around us, truly blessed things can and do still happen.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in

Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include

A Pope and a President 

and The Divine Plan.