Thursday, March 31, 2005

A great diocesan paper editorial

The newspaper for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio (my wife's home diocese) has an excellent editorial on Terri Schiavo's passing. I highly recommend you read it.

(Hat tip: TS O'Rama)

there are plenty of Catholics who simply do not understand the Church's position on end-of-life issues. I myself am the first to admit that I do not have a complete and thorough grasp of all the nuances. But I do know a few things, or at least a few things more than the author of this Commonweal editorial seems to know.

The editorial makes at least two major errors. First, it consistently refers to nutrition and hydration through a tube as extraordinary means, without ever really explaining why they are extraordinary. In one place it reads, "By any moral measure, fifteen years in PVS is an "extraordinary"--even heroic--burden for someone to bear." Okay, that's fine, but it has absolutely no bearing on the issue of food & water as extraordinary. How is that not obvious?

Second, it says, "advances in technology that needlessly prolong dying can be a threat to human dignity." Absolutely. But Terri wasn't dying! There is a big difference between dying and PVS!

It disappoints me that this editorial can't even make these basic distinctions in discussing an issue of such great import.

NYTimes editorial

The Times has an editorial dedicated to Terri Schiavo. In one spot, it refers to the "vicious court fight for control of her body". Control of her body? Her body? Do you see what's between the lines here? They weren't fighting for her, just for her body... as if there is a difference. The Times' editors give further evidence of a erroneously dualist anthropology at work within the secular worldview, an anthropology which understands the body not as an inherent good, as good in itself, but as an instrumental good, as a good merely to be used. These error has all sorts of bad implications, as most bad ideas do. For more, read Robert P. George's "A Clash of Orthodoxies".

Then near the end, the editorial reads, "Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die."

Let me see... how about this: Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that slavery is legal.

Or this: Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that women cannot vote.

Or this: Some people hold religious convictions so heartfelt that they could not bow to public opinion or the courts and accept the fact that not all human beings have rights.

As well-meaning as this editorial is, it betrays serious, substantial, and consequential errors in thought.
"Elites" aren't

Hugh Hewitt has a great post on what he calls "religiousrightitis": the recent tendency rage against the religious right (whoever they are... can people please define their terms?). Along the way he comments on today's column from Tina Brown, specifically the following excerpt therein:
    The current mania for any story with a religious angle is just the latest index of the post-election angst in executive suites about the terror of being out of touch with suburban mega-churches and other manifestations of the supposed Real America. God forbid, so to speak, that anyone should stand up and suggest that Mozart might be as worthwhile as NASCAR, or that it might be as important for the soul to read Philip Roth as the hokey bromides of 'The Purpose Driven Life.'
Hugh retorts:
    Tina's suggestion that those praying people head straight from church to the NASCAR race and never have heard of Mozart tells us that she hasn't been inside a church in a long long time, and her suggestion that Philip Roth is way to earthly happiness and eternal salvation, well, that's one for the ages: "The Philip Roth-Driven Life." (Perhaps some music and worship pastors might send Ms. Brown their liturgies/orders of worship from this past weekend to educate her on how Mozart and his colleagues and Christian worship aren't exactly strangers.)

Elsewhere in the column, Brown says that "Elites are supposed to lead, but mainstream media and the conglomerates that own it are the most docile followers of all." Well put, especially the note that elites are supposed to lead. The problem is this: being described (by oneself or others) as an elite does not one make. I don't know if Ms. Brown considers or is considered an elite, but I sure wouldn't follow someone who clearly doesn't have a clue about religious culture or the culture of middle America. Like Hugh, I'm dumbfounded by her implication that religious folk don't know high culture (by the way, isn't her extolling of Mozart judgment-making, and isn't that a no-no?). She must have the worst possible caricature of religous people, and I'm afraid that there's little hope for shining a light into her tiny world anytime soon.
The way to avoid misunderstanding it to teach clearly
Encourage your priests

Dom Bettinelli commented Tuesday on the decision of Portland, Maine Bishop Richard Malone to avoid opposing a state bill which he thinks, if passed, might lead to greater support for same sex marriage [sic]. In remarks to a local paper, Bishop Malone said,
    I think I read in your paper that 38 percent of all hate crimes were committed against homosexual people. That is just outrageous. That goes against everything that our faith stands for as well. I was afraid that in that climate, my decision here could give the wrong message.
Dom comments,
    Rather than surrender, the bishop could have instead made sure to articulate the message that while we don’t condone immorality, we also don’t condone violence against those we say are living immoral lifestyles. By capitulating, the bishop has as much put the stamp of admission on the claims of the author of the op-ed that those who oppose gay rights bills are slack-jawed, rednecks; backward, unsophisticated hatemongers.
I completely agree. There are definitely times when a doctrine is likely to be misunderstood, but the solution to the problem is not to avoid proclaiming it, but to go the extra mile to proclaim it clearly and indicate what it is and is not. I definitely agree with Bishop Malone's desire to avoid fostering hate, but I disagree that that desire is best served by not taking a public stand on a controversial issue.

I bring this up because I've seen it happen all too often... out of an understandable concern for pushing people out of or away from the Church, priests (and sometimes, bishops) avoid the hard issues. What's the solution? Well, primarily I think we need to let them know that we support them when they do teach and preach the truth, even (and most especially) when that truth is countercultural. This doesn't require getting in your priest's face... it just requires, well, first, actually getting to know the guy (invite him over for dinner!) so that you can establish a relationship, and then letting him know that you and other parishioners support him when he teaches hard truths. Many of them need to hear that, guys. Don't just complain when you don't like something... encourage and thank when you do like something.
Social Security Reform

Last night one of the local newscasts ran a story on social security reform, focusing on the remarks of Senator Tim Johnson (D) at a townhall meeting, and the remarks of a couple people who are or will shortly be retired (i.e. no one from Gen X or Y). As one might expect, none of these folks thought there was any need to get serious about reforming social security anytime soon. Why would they? As long as they get theirs, they're apparently happy.

Today, Jon Schaff at South Dakota Politics comments on the coverage the Argus Leader (the local paper) gave to Senator Johnson's remarks and the issue in general, aptly noting,
    What’s the AARPs solution? Worry about it later. For all their talk about worrying about leaving debt to future generations, the AARP and Democratic plan for the coming disaster in Social Security (and even worse in Medicare) is to do nothing but pander to senior citizens. That’s leadership for ya. The question is not whether Social Security will cause us to take on debt. The question, it seems to me, is whether we want to take on a relatively small amount of debt now or a huge amount of debt in the future as Social Security goes into insolvency. I vote for the smaller debt today rather than the massive debt tomorrow.
For all the talk from some about "the children," when the rubber meets the road, the focus is on me, mine, and making sure I get it.
Requiescat in Pace

Terri Schiavo died this morning.

Her adulterous husband didn't allow her parents to be at her side in the last hours of her life.

FYI, this wasn't euthanasia... literally & philosophically, euthanasia means "good death," i.e. killing someone painlessly to ease their suffering.

Starvation & dehydration don't exactly constitute painless killing, now do they?

Pray for Terri, her family, and most especially her husband.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Catholic Carnival

Needless to say, my Lenten absence meant that I wasn't contributing to the Catholic Carnival, but I hope that the ir/regular readers of this blog were doing so.

CC XXIII is up at Living Catholicism, here. And yours truly hopes to (re)start contributing.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Others, and the Question of Dissent and Ahistoricism

First, there are a couple more Catholic blogs I neglected yesterday: Amy Welborn and HMS Blog.

Also, there are a number of blogs (including mine) that straddle the fence between theology and politics. One that leans towards politics (and related issues) but from a distinctly Catholic perspective is that of Professor Stephen Bainbridge, a law professor at UCLA. I read his blog regularly, and recommend it as well.

Prof. Bainbridge reminded me of another blog that I don't frequent, but should: Mirror of Justice. This blog "is dedicated to the develoment of Catholic legal theory," and as you might guess, is populated by lawyers. Bainbridge yesterday pointed to this post by Prof. Rob Vischer, who teaches at St. John's law school. The title of the post is "Skeletons in the Closet," and Vischer wonders about previous church teachings that have been superceded later, and how that impacts on the approach a Catholic scholar takes to issues in our time. By way of examples, he points to 19th century church teachings on freedom of conscience, teaches which seem to have been reversed by Vatican II, as a result of the work of American Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Vischer wonders if the the same thing might be the case with same-sex marriages (sic); he doesn't argue for them, but seems to wonder if there might be a future development a la feedom of conscience. He closes his post with these questions:
    My concern here is not so much with the merits of the sexuality arguments [regarding marriage], but with our disposition toward them. As Catholic legal theorists, do we approach them strictly on their substance, or is there a presumption that we accept and defend the Church's position? Is the presumption rebuttable? In other words, are we to function strictly as Apostles, spreading the Church's Good News to the world? Or are we to act as the Old Testament prophets, speaking hard truths to authority, including the Church itself? Or are we to do both, and if so, how?
I'd like to offer a theologian's perspective on these excellent questions.

It seems to me that there is an understandable-yet-problematic presumption in Vischer's argument, that being that there is an opposition between what 19th century popes taught and what Vatican II taught. On the face of it, there certainly does seem to be opposition: Vischer quotes Gregory XVI, who referred to the "absurd and erroneous proposition which claims that liberty of conscience must be maintained for everyone," and to Pius IX's 1864 Syllabus of Errors, which condemned the beliefs that "every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by the light of reason, he shall consider true," and that "it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all other forms of worship."

Again, these teachings certainly seem to have been rejected by Vatican II. However, I don't think that this is actually the case. Essentially, I'd argue that what seems to be the meaning of the 19th century teachings is not actually as plain and obvious as one might think, and that the historical context in which those teachings were made are extremely significant in determining the substance of the teaching being given. Without getting into the details here, I think that once one takes the historical context into account, these teachings are not as difficult to reconcile with Vatican II as they initially seem. I wouldn't deny that there has been a development in teaching, but I also think that it is extremely easy to extract Church teaching from its historical circumstances, which results in decided effects on a proper understanding of that teaching. Let me give another example:

Many Catholics (and Christians in general) will read the New Testament and understand the title "Son of God" to be a pretty clearcut reference to Jesus' divinity. But that's not actually the case, because in the Old Testament, there are instances in which the king of Israel and/or Judah, and even the entire nation of Israel, are referrred to as "Son of God," and no one understood that to mean that the king (let alone all the Israelites) were divine. Now, it's true that over time this title as it was applied to Jesus came to be seen in its literal meaning, but Jesus' contemporaries certain would not have understood it that way. But because we too often read Scripture ahistorically and thereby impose our understanding on the sacred texts, we misunderstand (to varying degrees) what is being communicated.

The same applies to Magisterial texts. If we fail to take the historical context into account, we can unknowingly skew the meaning of the text. (Extreme traditionalists fall into this trap on numerous occasions, e.g. with regard to the alleged perpetuity of the Tridentine rite.) And I think that this is often the case when one reads passages like those Vischer cites... just to give a brief example, it seems to me that what Gregory & Pius were condemning was a notion of freedom of conscience, etc. which had at its heart a fundamental indifferentism with regard to religious questions, and this was (and still is) unacceptable to a Catholic worldview. Vatican II, for instance, affirmed that we have a duty to properly form our conscience in accordance with truth, not an ultimate agnosticism.

So when these things are taken into account, one finds that in fact there was no contradiction between Catholic teaching in the 19th and 20th centuries; again, development is apparent, but not opposition.

Finally, to answer Prof. Vischer's final questions, we as Catholic scholars are obliged to recognize that the Magisterium speaks the truth; the principles we are given (apart from how they are historically situated and couched) are in fact timeless. Our call is (in part) to faithfully yet rigorously apply the principles we are given to our own historical circumstances. With regard to the question of same sex marriage, we are faced with a principle, not a historically-contingent (and hence changeable) application thereof.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Happy Easter!

I hope everyone had a blessed Lent and Sacred Triduum... now rejoice in the Easter season.

As I work my way back into blogging, I want to (re)recommend some blogs.

For Catholic blogs, make sure you're reading Disputations, Bill Cork, Insight Scoop, Against the Grain, Jimmy Akin, and Jeff Miller. There are plenty of others I read regularly, but these are some of the best active bloggers.

For political blogs, make sure you're reading The Corner, Hugh Hewitt (definely read him!), Powerline, and Redstate.

More substance sooner than later!