Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Could someone please explain this to me?

There's an interesting piece in the Telegraph by Professor Stuart Campbell, a London obstetrician who discusses his "technique for producing detailed 3D images of the developing foetus that show it smiling, yawning, rubbing its eyes and apparently 'walking' in the womb."

He continues:

"Though I perform these scans every day, I am still overcome by the excitement and the wonder of the foetus that is learning to be a baby. By 20 weeks it smiles, makes crying expressions and sucks its thumb. At 23 weeks, it begins to open its eyes and develops quite complex patterns of behaviour. It can survive outside the womb.

. . .

"I have been accused of sentimentality, but the fact is that, in these images, foetuses are baby-like. To me it is almost barbaric to abort foetuses between 20 and 24 weeks. In fact, the procedure is so unattractive and distressing that few doctors will perform the operation after 20 weeks."

Campbell, however, advocates reducing the amount of red tape involved in procuring an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. (The current law in Great Britain requires two doctors to sign off in such cases, though in practice this is basically a formality, according to Campbell.) Here's his reasoning:

"Delay is bad. Anything that speeds up the process and enables an abortion to be carried out more expeditiously once a woman has made her decision, is to be welcomed.

. . .

"Some GPs are less keen on performing terminations than others. While they go through the laborious formalities of seeking independent signatures, a woman may be left waiting for two or three weeks before her termination. In that time, the foetus is acquiring the startling human characteristics seen in the scans carried out every day in hospitals around the country."

Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but the way I understand it, this obstetrician's position with respect to unborn babies is, Hurry up and kill it before it starts doing anything too cute that might convict my conscience!

I can't understand how anyone could be intellectually satisfied with such a position. Aborting a 20-to-24-week-old fetus is "almost barbaric," but aborting a less-than-20-week-old fetus is apparently morally neutral, a process to be streamlined? There's a very strange philosophical scheme at work here, one that establishes a firm chronological cut-off point for determining the humanity of an unborn baby, based largely on the emotional response the baby evokes.

Such a scheme seems, to me, intellectually unsustainable. What if you're faced with a particularly precocious 19-and-a-half-week-old fetus? Would aborting that baby be barbaric, or no? What is it, exactly, that happens at that magical 20-week threshold that universally transmogrifies non-humans into humans?

Is there an ontological difference between a 20-week-old fetus and a 19-week-old fetus? Between a 19-week-old and an 18-week-old? Between an 18-week-old and a 17-week-old, and so on?

Could someone please explain this to me?

Pope Benedict reflects on his visit to the U.S.

In case you missed Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States a couple weeks ago, or if you just couldn't quite assimilate all that he said while he was here, here's a very brief wrap-up of his visit. It's basically an abridged version of his weekly audience today, courtesy of the Vatican:

"My recent Apostolic Journey to the United Nations and the United States of America was inspired by the theme, 'Christ our Hope'. I am most grateful to all who helped in any way to make the Journey a success. My visit was meant to encourage the Catholic community in America, especially our young people, to bear consistent witness to the faith, and to carry on the Church’s mission, especially with regard to education and concern for the poor. American society traditionally values religious freedom and the need for faith to play its part in building a sound civic life. In my meetings with President Bush, and with Christian leaders and representatives of other religions, I reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to cooperation in the service of understanding, peace and spiritual values. My address to the United Nations stressed the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grounds respect for human dignity in a universally valid ethical order. In a particular way, my visit to Ground Zero, charged with sober silence and prayer, was a moving testimony to the hope which is stronger than evil and death. I ask all of you to join me in praying that this Visit will bear abundant spiritual fruit for the growth of the faith in America and for the unity and peace of the whole human family."

"U.S. trip helped pope, Catholic Church image: poll"

From Reuters:

"As a result of what they saw and heard during the trip, 65 percent of Americans have a more positive view of the pope, while 21 said it made no difference and 14 percent said their opinion was now less positive."

Mission accomplished.

Pope Benedict can finally breathe a sigh of relief, and maybe give a Sally Field-esque "You like me!" speech.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The greatest book I have ever read

When I first read G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy in November, I remarked that it was a book that would bear repeat readings over the years. Well, I think I underestimated my enthusiasm for this book. In the five months since my initial reading, I have already re-read the book and listened to it in audiobook form. (Please do yourself a favor and download the free audiobook here. I promise you will not regret the investment of six hours of your life.)

Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy in 1908, so it's 100 years old this year. Some people say it's the best book of the 20th century. Now, not having read all the books written in the 20th century, I'm in no position to comment on the veracity of that rather sweeping claim, but I will take a stand and say that Orthodoxy is at least the greatest book I have ever read. As far as I'm concerned, it's the perfect book -- short, funny, thought-provoking, and utterly brilliant.

It's a cliché to observe that Chesterton's writing is as fresh and relevant today as it was 100 years ago, but it's so true that I'll risk the cliché. Chesterton understood everything. His vision penetrated to the heart of every intellectual fashion and cultural trend of his time, and he saw with seemingly prescient clarity how such trends would play out in the long run. He understood the year 2008 better than most people today do. Change out a few of the names and specific cultural references, and you'd think the book was written last month.

If I let myself get going, I could quote dozens of favorite passages, but for now I'll just give you one that never fails to make me smile. It's from Chapter 4: The Ethics of Elfland:

"All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness. The very speed and ecstacy of his life would have the stillness of death. The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, 'Do it again'; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, 'Do it again' to the sun; and every evening, 'Do it again' to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat, or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his positively last appearance."

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pray for Aliza Shvarts

It’s been more than three days since I first read about Aliza Shvarts – the Yale senior who claims to have artificially inseminated herself “as often as possible” during the past year and then taken abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages as part of her senior art project – and I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. I will provide a brief run-down of the situation for those who may not have heard about this yet.

On Thursday morning, the Yale Daily News ran a story about Shvarts’s project entitled “For senior, abortion a medium for art, political discourse.” The Drudge Report and other news outlets picked up the story, and it quickly permeated the Internet. Later in the day, a Yale spokeswoman released a statement saying that Shvarts had informed Yale officials that she had never actually impregnated herself, that the whole thing was just “performance art.” Shvarts shot back that the Yale administration was simply trying to dissociate itself from her in response to negative media attention, and that she really had repeatedly inseminated herself and self-aborted as she claimed. On Friday, the Yale Daily News ran a column by Shvarts in which she explained what she considered the artistic significance of her project and gave this account of how she had proceeded:

“For the past year, I performed repeated self-induced miscarriages. I created a group of fabricators from volunteers who submitted to periodic STD screenings and agreed to their complete and permanent anonymity. From the 9th to the 15th day of my menstrual cycle, the fabricators would provide me with sperm samples, which I used to privately self-inseminate. Using a needleless syringe, I would inject the sperm near my cervix within 30 minutes of its collection, so as to insure the possibility of fertilization. On the 28th day of my cycle, I would ingest an abortifacient, after which I would experience cramps and heavy bleeding.”

Since she always timed her ingestion of the abortifacient to coincide with the expected start of menstruation, Shvarts says she does not know whether she was ever actually pregnant.

The Yale Daily News gives this account of Shvarts’s plan for the presentation of her project, which will be exhibited at Yale’s Undergraduate Senior Art Show from April 22 to May 1:

“The display of Schvarts' project will feature a large cube suspended from the ceiling of a room in the gallery of Green Hall. Schvarts will wrap hundreds of feet of plastic sheeting around this cube; lined between layers of the sheeting will be the blood from Schvarts' self-induced miscarriages mixed with Vaseline in order to prevent the blood from drying and to extend the blood throughout the plastic sheeting.

“Schvarts will then project recorded videos onto the four sides of the cube. These videos, captured on a VHS camcorder, will show her experiencing miscarriages in her bathrooom tub, she said. Similar videos will be projected onto the walls of the room.”

Here ends my impartial recounting of this situation.

When I first read about this, I was physically sickened. I was appalled, angered, disgusted, dumbfounded … and deeply, deeply saddened. I wanted to decry this abomination as an act of pure, distilled evil – and so it is. And I wanted to condemn this girl as a demon, an inhuman and menacing monster. These were my visceral reactions – and the apparent reactions of many people – to this story, and they were, I believe, completely natural.

But outrage should not be the only – or even the primary – reaction to this heartbreaking situation. When I first read the story, it took me only a few seconds to realize that righteous indignation and disgust, while almost unavoidable, were not what this situation most desperately needed. And so I prayed.

I prayed that God would have mercy on this girl’s soul and that He would hold in His loving embrace the souls of any babies she may have conceived and killed. I prayed that God would heal this girl of whatever terrible affliction – whether psychological, demonic, or otherwise – led her to believe that her actions were acceptable. I prayed that God would make His loving presence known to this girl and that she would come to understand and repent for what she had done. I prayed that God would comfort all those for whom this story is a source of great pain. I prayed that God would have mercy on us all.

More than anything else, we need to pray for this situation, whatever the situation really is. I was not surprised to hear the report from Yale that Shvarts’s project was a hoax, nor was I surprised to hear Shvarts’s insistence that it was not. I don’t know what the truth is, whether she actually inseminated herself or not, but either way, she needs our prayers. Whether she actually aborted (or at least intended to abort) innocent life for the sake of “art,” or just intended to cause havoc and widespread distress by convincing people that she did, she needs our prayers. Her actions were absolutely abhorrent either way, and either way she is so far off course that she’ll never be able to find her way back without a lot of help.

Like I say, my visceral desire is to condemn Shvarts as a monster. But I can’t do that so easily. I have to remind myself that we are all sinners, and that judgment belongs to God alone. Also, Shvarts’s words and actions reek so strongly of serious mental illness that I have to wonder to what extent she can even be considered responsible for her actions. So I’m not going to condemn Aliza Shvarts. But, oh boy, can I condemn her actions.

Shvarts’s project is disgusting. In addition to the obvious evil of intentionally conceiving and killing babies as “art,” her project spits in the face of every woman who has ever suffered a real miscarriage (as opposed to Shvarts’s euphemistic “miscarriages”). Shvarts’s whole project is, quite literally, sickening.

Shvarts’s rationale (far too generous a word) for her project is almost as disturbing as the project itself. I was very interested to read her explanation of the project to see what kind of justification she could possibly give for her actions. It was … frightening. Her account is an inhuman nightmare of intro-level deconstructionist nonsense and pseudo-intellectual buzzwords that epitomizes everything that has gone wrong with “thinking” in recent history. I hesitate to give an excerpt, but I think it’s important for people to see what passes for scholarship at elite universities these days:

“[This piece] creates an ambiguity that isolates the locus of ontology to an act of readership. An intentional ambiguity pervades both the act and the objects I produced in relation to it. The performance exists only as I chose to represent it. For me, the most poignant aspect of this representation — the part most meaningful in terms of its political agenda (and, incidentally, the aspect that has not been discussed thus far) — is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood. Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether the there was ever a fertilized ovum or not. The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading.

“This ambivalence makes obvious how the act of identification or naming — the act of ascribing a word to something physical — is at its heart an ideological act, an act that literally has the power to construct bodies. In a sense, the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term ‘miscarriage’ or ‘period’ to that blood.

“In some sense, neither term is exactly accurate or inaccurate; the ambiguity is not merely a matter of context, but is embodied in the physicality of the object. This central ambiguity defies a clear definition of the act. The reality of miscarriage is very much a linguistic and political reality, an act of reading constructed by an act of naming — an authorial act.

“It is the intention of this piece to destabilize the locus of that authorial act, and in doing so, reclaim it from the heteronormative structures that seek to naturalize it.”

If you didn’t understand any of that, it’s because it doesn’t mean anything, at least not anything that anyone with a modicum of common sense would ever fall for. No, Ms. Shvarts, there is absolutely no sense in which “the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term ‘miscarriage’ or ‘period’ to that blood.” There’s either a dead embryo in there or there isn’t, completely independent of our knowledge or our “ideological” “act of identification.” You have not “isolate[d] the locus of ontology to an act of readership” because, as every normal person knows, there is such a thing as objective reality, however “heteronormative” you may find that reality to be.

I can’t stand this kind of garbage, but it’s just sad in this case. No one comes up with stuff like this on their own. This is quite obviously the result of long-term hardcore nonsense indoctrination that has apparently deadened Shvarts’s soul.

Perhaps the one faint glimmer of a silver lining in this storm cloud of a situation is the fact that Shvarts’s actions have been almost universally denounced. The response of students at Yale seems to have been overwhelmingly negative. “My initial reaction was on par with everyone else’s,” Yale freshman Laura Gonzales told The Harvard Crimson. “I was appalled and shocked. Both sides of the abortion debate are against it.”

According to the Yale Daily News, even NARAL Pro-Choice America has condemned the project. “This ‘project’ is offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage,” said Ted Miller, a spokesman for the organization.

My fiancée, Jeanette, told me that her co-workers, many of them pro-choice, were all disturbed by the story when it broke on Thursday. One of them in particular followed the story with great interest as it developed throughout the day, trying to understand his reaction to it. He is staunchly pro-choice, so he was trying to figure out why he had such a negative response to Shvarts’s project.

I guess that would be my challenge to those who believe that abortion is acceptable in principle and yet find Shvarts’s project abhorrent: Please try to articulate clearly why you think and feel the way you do. If you believe that abortion is acceptable, why are you bothered by Shvarts’s project? I would be very interested to read your response.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The pope's prayer at Ground Zero

From EWTN, the text of Pope Benedict's prayer at Ground Zero in New York this morning:

"O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths
and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.

"We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and
Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.

"We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.

"Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives
with courage and hope.

"We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in
Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

"Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

"God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.

"Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

"God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.

"Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all."

Friday, April 18, 2008

The pope's address to the UN

EWTN has the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's address this morning to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Here's an excerpt from roughly the second half of the pope's address. If you're like me, you'll have to read it slowly to grasp all that the pope is getting at -- he is a very dense thinker, in the sense that every sentence and every clause is tightly packed with meaning, and his ideas unfold over the course of paragraphs rather than in catchy slogans or phrases. Here, the pope touches on the basis of human rights, the discernment of good and evil, the role of religion in society, the aim of inter-religious dialogue, and the true meaning of religious liberty:

"Experience shows that legality often prevails over justice when the insistence upon rights makes them appear as the exclusive result of legislative enactments or normative decisions taken by the various agencies of those in power. When presented purely in terms of legality, rights risk becoming weak propositions divorced from the ethical and rational dimension which is their foundation and their goal. The Universal Declaration, rather, has reinforced the conviction that respect for human rights is principally rooted in unchanging justice, on which the binding force of international proclamations is also based. This aspect is often overlooked when the attempt is made to deprive rights of their true function in the name of a narrowly utilitarian perspective. Since rights and the resulting duties follow naturally from human interaction, it is easy to forget that they are the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples. This intuition was expressed as early as the fifth century by Augustine of Hippo, one of the masters of our intellectual heritage. He taught that the saying: Do not do to others what you would not want done to you 'cannot in any way vary according to the different understandings that have arisen in the world' (De Doctrina Christiana, III, 14). Human rights, then, must be respected as an expression of justice, and not merely because they are enforceable through the will of the legislators.

"Ladies and Gentlemen,

"As history proceeds, new situations arise, and the attempt is made to link them to new rights. Discernment, that is, the capacity to distinguish good from evil, becomes even more essential in the context of demands that concern the very lives and conduct of persons, communities and peoples. In tackling the theme of rights, since important situations and profound realities are involved, discernment is both an indispensable and a fruitful virtue.

"Discernment, then, shows that entrusting exclusively to individual States, with their laws and institutions, the final responsibility to meet the aspirations of persons, communities and entire peoples, can sometimes have consequences that exclude the possibility of a social order respectful of the dignity and rights of the person. On the other hand, a vision of life firmly anchored in the religious dimension can help to achieve this, since recognition of the transcendent value of every man and woman favours conversion of heart, which then leads to a commitment to resist violence, terrorism and war, and to promote justice and peace. This also provides the proper context for the inter-religious dialogue that the United Nations is called to support, just as it supports dialogue in other areas of human activity. Dialogue should be recognized as the means by which the various components of society can articulate their point of view and build consensus around the truth concerning particular values or goals. It pertains to the nature of religions, freely practised, that they can autonomously conduct a dialogue of thought and life. If at this level, too, the religious sphere is kept separate from political action, then great benefits ensue for individuals and communities. On the other hand, the United Nations can count on the results of dialogue between religions, and can draw fruit from the willingness of believers to place their experiences at the service of the common good. Their task is to propose a vision of faith not in terms of intolerance, discrimination and conflict, but in terms of complete respect for truth, coexistence, rights, and reconciliation.

"Human rights, of course, must include the right to religious freedom, understood as the expression of a dimension that is at once individual and communitarian - a vision that brings out the unity of the person while clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer. The activity of the United Nations in recent years has ensured that public debate gives space to viewpoints inspired by a religious vision in all its dimensions, including ritual, worship, education, dissemination of information and the freedom to profess and choose religion. It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves - their faith - in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one's rights. The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature. The full guarantee of religious liberty cannot be limited to the free exercise of worship, but has to give due consideration to the public dimension of religion, and hence to the possibility of believers playing their part in building the social order. Indeed, they actually do so, for example through their influential and generous involvement in a vast network of initiatives which extend from Universities, scientific institutions and schools to health care agencies and charitable organizations in the service of the poorest and most marginalized. Refusal to recognize the contribution to society that is rooted in the religious dimension and in the quest for the Absolute - by its nature, expressing communion between persons - would effectively privilege an individualistic approach, and would fragment the unity of the person."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

"We are Catholic: Welcome home"

I saw this video from a group called Catholics Come Home a while ago, and I've been waiting for it to turn up in embeddable form so I could post it. Thanks to Dyspeptic Mutterings and others for highlighting it.

UPDATE: Ah well, they took it down from YouTube. The video is here, at the bottom of the page, on the left.

"Pope prays with victims of clergy sex abuse scandal"

A good story from the Associated Press. Excerpts:

"Pope Benedict XVI prayed with tearful victims of clergy sex abuse in a chapel Thursday, an extraordinary gesture from a pontiff who has made atoning for the great shame of the U.S. church the cornerstone of his first papal trip to America.

. . .

"The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a papal spokesman, said that Benedict and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley met with a group of five or six clergy sex abuse victims for about 25 minutes, offering them encouragement and hope. The group from O'Malley's archdiocese were all adults, men and women, who had been molested when they were minors. Each spoke privately with the pope.

"'They prayed together. Also, each of them had their own individual time with the Holy Father,' Lombardi said. 'Some were in tears.'"

The pope on Catholic education

EWTN has the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's address this afternoon to Catholic educators from around the country at the Catholic University of America. Here's an excerpt from his remarks on the touchy subject of "academic freedom":

"In regard to faculty members at Catholic colleges universities, I wish to reaffirm the great value of academic freedom. In virtue of this freedom you are called to search for the truth wherever careful analysis of evidence leads you. Yet it is also the case that any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university's identity and mission; a mission at the heart of the Church's munus docendi and not somehow autonomous or independent of it.

"Teachers and administrators, whether in universities or schools, have the duty and privilege to ensure that students receive instruction in Catholic doctrine and practice. This requires that public witness to the way of Christ, as found in the Gospel and upheld by the Church's Magisterium, shapes all aspects of an institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom. Divergence from this vision weakens Catholic identity and, far from advancing freedom, inevitably leads to confusion, whether moral, intellectual or spiritual."

Papal Mass pictures

A few photos from Pope Benedict XVI's Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., from Reuters:

The pope's homily

EWTN has the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's homily from the Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., where 46,000 people are gathered this morning. An excerpt:

"I pray, then, that this significant anniversary in the life of the Church in the United States, and the presence of the Successor of Peter in your midst, will be an occasion for all Catholics to reaffirm their unity in the apostolic faith, to offer their contemporaries a convincing account of the hope which inspires them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15), and to be renewed in missionary zeal for the extension of God's Kingdom.

"The world needs this witness! Who can deny that the present moment is a crossroads, not only for the Church in America but also for society as a whole? It is a time of great promise, as we see the human family in many ways drawing closer together and becoming ever more interdependent. Yet at the same time we see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger and polarization on the part of many of our contemporaries; increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of God. The Church, too, sees signs of immense promise in her many strong parishes and vital movements, in the enthusiasm for the faith shown by so many young people, in the number of those who each year embrace the Catholic faith, and in a greater interest in prayer and catechesis. At the same time she senses, often painfully, the presence of division and polarization in her midst, as well as the troubling realization that many of the baptized, rather than acting as a spiritual leaven in the world, are inclined to embrace attitudes contrary to the truth of the Gospel.

"'Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth!' (cf. Ps 104:30). The words of today's Responsorial Psalm are a prayer which rises up from the heart of the Church in every time and place. They remind us that the Holy Spirit has been poured out as the first fruits of a new creation, 'new heavens and a new earth' (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), in which God's peace will reign and the human family will be reconciled in justice and love. We have heard Saint Paul tell us that all creation is even now 'groaning' in expectation of that true freedom which is God's gift to his children (Rom 8:21-22), a freedom which enables us to live in conformity to his will. Today let us pray fervently that the Church in America will be renewed in that same Spirit, and sustained in her mission of proclaiming the Gospel to a world that longs for genuine freedom (cf. Jn 8:32), authentic happiness, and the fulfillment of its deepest aspirations!"

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI's "opposition to abortion rights"

Right in the middle of what was shaping up to be an admirably fair and accurate New York Times article (seriously) summarizing the pope's day ("Pope Praises U.S., but Warns of Secular Challenges"), we get this account of President Bush's welcoming remarks this morning:

"The crowd burst into applause when Mr. Bush told the pope that Americans 'need your message that all life is sacred,' a reference to the two men’s shared opposition to abortion rights."

(They tried to find a more negative way to spin it, but there wasn't any.)

Actually, I'm pretty sure it was reference to Pope Benedict XVI's message that all life is sacred, which does not consist primarily in his "opposition" to abortion "rights," but rather in his -- and the Catholic Church's -- unwavering defense of the most fundamental of all rights, the foundation of all other rights, namely, "the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death," as the pope put it in his address to the bishops this evening.

The Catholic Church's position on this point is not a negative one, nor is it restricted to the issue of abortion. Pope Benedict XVI and the Church uphold the dignity and value of the lives of every single human being: the unborn, the elderly, and everyone in between. The Church's teaching cannot fairly be reduced to a partisan position on what, for many, is a political issue. Rather, the Church's teaching is indeed based on the conviction that all life is sacred, and the fact that without an inviolable right to life, all other rights -- no matter how important -- are ultimately meaningless.

But I guess that's too profound an idea to actually engage for those who trade in secular boilerplate.

Pope's address to bishops

The New York Times has the full text of Pope Benedict XVI's address tonight to the bishops of the United States in the crypt of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, as well as his answers to the three questions the bishops posed to him.

Most of the coverage of this address in the mainstream media will undoubtedly and understandably focus on the pope's words about the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Pope Benedict XVI reiterated that the situation was a source of "deep shame" for him and for the entire Church, and he acknowledged that the Church's response was "sometimes very badly handled." I'm glad that the pope addressed this scandal which has rocked the Church, but I think I'll leave it to others to discuss and debate the significance of what he said about it. I will simply pray that "this evil" (the pope's words) of clergy sexual abuse will be definitively eradicated, and that the victims may find healing.

While the abuse scandal is obviously an extremely important topic, and while it was one of the major issues addressed in Pope Benedict XVI's speech, it would be a shame if the rest of the pope's message were overlooked, as I suspect it will be my most people. The pope issued a challenge to all Americans, and especially to Catholics, to embrace a vibrant, living faith that embraces all areas of life. This is a message I think we all need to hear, again and again, for as long as we live. Here are a few highlights:

"It is in this fertile soil, nourished from so many different sources, that all of you, Brother Bishops, are called to sow the seeds of the Gospel today. This leads me to ask how, in the twenty-first century, a bishop can best fulfill the call to 'make all things new in Christ, our hope'? How can he lead his people to 'an encounter with the living God', the source of that life-transforming hope of which the Gospel speaks (cf. Spe Salvi, 4)? Perhaps he needs to begin by clearing away some of the barriers to such an encounter. While it is true that this country is marked by a genuinely religious spirit, the subtle influence of secularism can nevertheless color the way people allow their faith to influence their behavior. Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death? Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.

. . .

"In a society which values personal freedom and autonomy, it is easy to lose sight of our dependence on others as well as the responsibilities that we bear towards them. This emphasis on individualism has even affected the Church (cf. Spe Salvi, 13-15), giving rise to a form of piety which sometimes emphasizes our private relationship with God at the expense of our calling to be members of a redeemed community. Yet from the beginning, God saw that 'it is not good for man to be alone' (Gen 2:18). We were created as social beings who find fulfillment only in love - for God and for our neighbor. If we are truly to gaze upon him who is the source of our joy, we need to do so as members of the people of God (cf. Spe Salvi, 14). If this seems counter-cultural, that is simply further evidence of the urgent need for a renewed evangelization of culture.

. . .

"Of course, what is essential is a correct understanding of the just autonomy of the secular order, an autonomy which cannot be divorced from God the Creator and his saving plan (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 36). Perhaps America’s brand of secularism poses a particular problem: it allows for professing belief in God, and respects the public role of religion and the Churches, but at the same time it can subtly reduce religious belief to a lowest common denominator. Faith becomes a passive acceptance that certain things 'out there' are true, but without practical relevance for everyday life. The result is a growing separation of faith from life: living 'as if God did not exist'. This is aggravated by an individualistic and eclectic approach to faith and religion: far from a Catholic approach to 'thinking with the Church', each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. Consequently, rather than being transformed and renewed in mind, Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age (cf. Rom 12:3). We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion.

"On a deeper level, secularism challenges the Church to reaffirm and to pursue more actively her mission in and to the world. As the Council made clear, the lay faithful have a particular responsibility in this regard. What is needed, I am convinced, is a greater sense of the intrinsic relationship between the Gospel and the natural law on the one hand, and, on the other, the pursuit of authentic human good, as embodied in civil law and in personal moral decisions. In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the Church needs to promote at every level of her teaching — in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction — an apologetics aimed at affirming the truth of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason, and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin and for an authentic and fulfilling life. In a word, the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer, intellectually and practically, to real human problems. The 'dictatorship of relativism', in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth."

Slip of the tongue

I'm pretty sure Father David O'Connell, the president of the Catholic University of America, just inadvertently called Benedict XVI "the poop" on CNN.

Joint statement on Benedict-Bush conversation

From the Associated Press, a joint statement from the Holy See and the White House about this morning's private, 45-minute Oval Office conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush. It is, not surprisingly, pretty vague, but it gives an idea at least of what they talked about.

"His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and President George W. Bush met today in the Oval Office of the White House.

"President Bush, on behalf of all Americans, welcomed the Holy Father, wished him a happy birthday, and thanked him for the spiritual and moral guidance, which he offers to the whole human family. The President wished the Pope every success in his Apostolic Journey and in his address at the United Nations, and expressed appreciation for the Pope's upcoming visit to 'Ground Zero' in New York.

"During their meeting, the Holy Father and the President discussed a number of topics of common interest to the Holy See and the United States of America, including moral and religious considerations to which both parties are committed: the respect of the dignity of the human person; the defense and promotion of life, matrimony and the family; the education of future generations; human rights and religious freedom; sustainable development and the struggle against poverty and pandemics, especially in Africa. In regard to the latter, the Holy Father welcomed the United States' substantial financial contributions in this area. The two reaffirmed their total rejection of terrorism as well as the manipulation of religion to justify immoral and violent acts against innocents. They further touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights.

"The Holy Father and the President devoted considerable time in their discussions to the Middle East, in particular resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict in line with the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security, their mutual support for the sovereignty and independence of Lebanon, and their common concern for the situation in Iraq and particularly the precarious state of Christian communities there and elsewhere in the region. The Holy Father and the President expressed hope for an end to violence and for a prompt and comprehensive solution to the crises which afflict the region.

"The Holy Father and the President also considered the situation in Latin America with reference, among other matters, to immigrants, and the need for a coordinated policy regarding immigration, especially their humane treatment and the well being of their families."

Pope pictures

Some photos of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the White House this morning, courtesy of the BBC:

White House video

The New York Times has a brief video excerpt from Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the White House this morning. I thought President Bush's welcoming remarks were uncharacteristically eloquent, and the pope's address was definitely a message that we all need to hear.

Pope Benedict XVI's "awesome speech"

From the pope's address this morning at the White House:

"Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience -- almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one's deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that 'in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation,' and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent 'indispensable supports' of political prosperity."

Full transcript available from Reuters.

President Bush's private reply . . .

. . . to Pope Benedict XVI's brief address at the White House, captured by the nearby microphones:

"Thank you, Holiness, awesome speech!"

Oh my.

Happy Birthday, Holy Father!

Today is Pope Benedict XVI's 81st birthday, and he just got an impromptu singing of "Happy Birthday" from the crowd gathered on the lawn of the White House, where he is spending the morning. It's great to see him on TV and see how strong, lucid, and full of joy and hope he still is at such an old age.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Star-Spangled Banner

What can I say? I'm a sucker for good a cappella duets. John Legend and Stephen Colbert on Monday's Colbert Report.

Pope Benedict XVI's US visit itinerary


Tuesday, April 15 -- Washington, D.C.

4 p.m. -- Arrival at Andrews Air Force Base, greeted by President George Bush and Laura Bush

Wednesday, April 16 -- Washington, D.C.

Pope Benedict XVI's 81st birthday

10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. -- Meeting with the president at the White House

President George Bush and Laura Bush welcome Pope Benedict XVI to the White House. This is only the second time in history that a pontiff has visited the White House.

Noon -- Departure via popemobile -- parade route open to the general public

5-7 p.m. -- Vespers and address to U.S. bishops at the National Shrine

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States and North America and one of the 10 largest churches in the world.

Thursday, April 17 -- Washington, D.C.

10 a.m. -- Mass at new Nationals Park

5 p.m. -- Address to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America

6:30 p.m. -- Interreligious gathering at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center adjacent to Catholic University

The pope will meet with representatives of other religions on the theme "Peace Our Hope." The audience will include some 220 individuals from five religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, and Judaism. Pope Benedict XVI will give an address and will then be presented with symbols of peace by five young people of different faiths.

Friday, April 18 -- New York

8:30-10 a.m. -- Flight to New York City

10 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. -- Address to the United Nations

During his scheduled three-hour visit to U.N. headquarters, the pope will meet with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other leaders. It is the fourth papal visit to the United Nations, following those of Paul VI in 1965 and John Paul II in 1979 and 1995.

6 p.m. -- Ecumenical prayer service -- St. Joseph Parish, Upper East Side of Manhattan

Saturday, April 19 -- New York

Third anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate

9-11:15 a.m. -- Mass for clergy and religious at St. Patrick's Cathedral

Participating in the mass will be 3,000 deacons, priests, and religious men and women from throughout the United States. At least two representatives from each diocese in the country will be present.

4:30 p.m. -- Blessing of youth with disabilities at St. Joseph Seminary in the Dunwoodie section of Yonkers, a few miles north of New York City. Pope John Paul II visited on Oct. 5, 1995.

5-6:30 p.m. -- Rally with seminarians and young people at St. Joseph Seminary

Approximately 25,000 young Catholics from throughout the United States, including 5,000 seminarians, will be in attendance at St. Joseph Seminary, 201 Seminary Avenue, Yonkers.

Sunday, April 20 -- New York

9:30 a.m. -- Visit to ground zero, site of the former World Trade Center

The pope will visit the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, offer a blessing, and greet representatives of the Port Authority, New York fire and police workers, those who survived the attacks, and family members who lost loved ones in the attack.

2:30 p.m. -- Mass at Yankee Stadium

8-8:30 p.m. -- Departure from John F. Kennedy International Airport

Approximately 3,250 guests will bid farewell to the pope in Hangar 19 of JFK Airport.

8:30 p.m. -- Departure via Shepherd One

(Check out and for extensive coverage of the pope's visit.)

Shepherd One has landed

The pope is here!

Friday, April 11, 2008

"Candles, Clergy, and Communion for 57,000"

The New York Times is running an interesting story about the itinerary of Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming trip to the United States and all the logistical details that go into planning and executing a papal visit. Remarkably, the piece seems to be free of any glaring errors or cheap shots at the pope or the Church, so the reporter has probably been fired.

Pope Benedict XVI talks to you!

In preparation for his visit to Washington, D.C. and New York next week, Pope Benedict XVI has released a video in which he addresses the people of the United States in English (and a little Spanish). It's really interesting to see hear him speaking English, and he has a wonderful message to share, as usual. Anyway, check it out.

(Thanks to Jimmy Akin for highlighting this.)

Literary criticism is a farce

In Seattle, there is a fun little program called "Poetry on Buses," where they put poetry on buses. The poems are sometimes fun to read, if you've got nothing better to do. Anyway, I spotted this gem on Wednesday night:

By Giovanni Paredes, age 6

I dreamt that a zebra was talking to me
I gave him some food
And walked away

The zebra followed me
I yelled, "GO BACK!"

He didn't want to go back
But he went back
Ate some grass
And then drove off
In a red monster truck

I like it, but here's the slightly maddening thing: I was an English major in college, and this little ditty by a six-year-old is, with a few possible exceptions, way better than any poem I encountered in four years. You could probably trick someone into including this in the next Norton Anthology. I've heard tenured professors ramble on for an hour about poems far less profound or pleasing than this one. And it was written by Giovanni Paredes, age 6.

Literary criticism is a farce.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The media misrepresent Catholic teaching on sin? Impossible!

An editorial in today's New York Times called "The Vatican and Globalization: Tinkering With Sin" by Eduardo Porter is just the latest in a long line of ridiculous misinterpretations by the media of an interview with Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, Regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary, which was published nearly a month ago in the newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. In the interview, Bishop Girotti emphasized the fact that globalization and technology have opened up the possibility of new sins with widespread social consequences. Here's an excerpt:

"There are various areas today in which we adopt sinful behavior, as with individual and social rights. This is especially so in the field of bioethics where we cannot deny the existence of violations of fundamental rights of human nature -- this occurs by way of experiments and genetic modifications, whose results we cannot easily predict or control. Another area, which indeed pertains to the social spectrum, is that of drug use, which weakens our minds and reduces our intelligence. As a result, many young people are left out of Church circles. Here's another one: social and economic inequality, in the sense that the rich always seem to get richer, and the poor, poorer. This [phenomenon] feeds off an unsustainable form of social injustice and is related to environmental issues -- which currently have much relevant interest."

Now, there was nothing in Bishop Girotti's remarks that indicated a fundamental shift in the Catholic understanding of sin, but nearly every major news outlet took his remarks and ran with them. Unfortunately, they almost universally ran into a nightmare of misinterpretations, misattributions, misrepresentations of Catholic teaching, and outright fabrication. A flood of "news" stories informed the public that "the Vatican" had "updated" the traditional list of the seven deadly sins, which were frequently conflated with mortal sin (they're not the same thing). The first sentence in an article in the Telegraph epitomizes the lot: "Failing to recycle plastic bags could find you spending eternity in Hell, the Vatican said after drawing up a list of seven deadly sins for our times."

Of course, Bishop Girotti does not speak for the Vatican, and no list was ever drawn up. Bishop Girotti gave no indication that his remarks were intended to supplant or augment the traditional list of seven deadly sins, nor did he suggest that the sins he mentioned constituted an exhaustive list of the moral pitfalls of our times.

The Telegraph piece, and media coverage of Bishop Girotti's remarks in general, reflects a profound ignorance, willful or otherwise, about the Catholic Church's teaching on mortal sin and hell. Pope Gregory the Great's traditional list of seven deadly sins -- lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride -- is not a complete account of all possible sins. Nor are the seven sins listed always mortal sins in and of themselves. Rather, the seven deadly sins represent certain perverse dispositions of the heart out of which many other sins flow.

To sin, generally speaking, means to deliberately do something that is contrary to the will of God. For an official definition, let's turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

"Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as 'an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.'" (CCC 1849)

The Church distinguishes between venial sins and mortal sins:

"Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience.

"Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God's law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him. Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it." (CCC 1854-1855)

So mortal sin is worse than venial sin. Now, it takes three things to make a sin mortal:

"For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must be together met: 'Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.'" (CCC 1857)

By committing a mortal sin, we deliberately cut ourselves off from the love of God, and Catholics guilty of mortal sin must turn to the sacrament of reconciliation (also called "confession" or "penance") in order to be restored to the state of grace:

"Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God." (CCC 1861)

Okay, enough of the primer on sin. Let's return to the New York Times piece. To be fair, it isn't nearly as outlandish as much of the other coverage of Bishop Girotti's interview, and it does make some interesting points. But it's wrong all over in what it implies about Church teaching. Here's the opening paragraph:

"It's hard to erect rules to last forever. The recent suggestion by a bishop from the Vatican's office of sin and penance that globalization and modernity gave rise to sins different from those dating from medieval times seemed to many like an acknowledgment that the world is, indeed, changing."

As if that were some kind of scandal, that the Vatican was finally admitting that the world is changing. The whole point of the bishop's remarks was that the world is changing. The Church has never denied that. But the fact that the world is changing doesn't mean that the Church's understanding of sin is now outdated. It's no discredit to the Church or to Pope Gregory the Great that he didn't foresee drug trafficking or bioethics violations in the sixth century -- the Church's understanding of sin is broader than some list. And Gregory's seven deadly sins, by the way, are still going strong. Look around: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride are as prevalent and problematic as ever. Indeed, they are still at the root of the "new" sins that Bishop Girotti discussed.

Later on, the piece says this:

"The Vatican has long been riven by this tension between dogma and the outside world. Yet it could apply to any religion: it's hard to rejigger the rules when truth is meant to be fixed forever."

I have a hard time believing that Eduardo Porter, whoever he is, really misunderstands this situation so profoundly, so I have to assume he's just being disingenuous for the sake of rhetoric. Even if Bishop Girotti had been speaking for the Catholic Church, his remarks would not have indicated any "rejiggering" of the rules -- he was merely describing new realities. He wouldn't even have been able to call these modern phenomena "sins" without appealing to the lasting principles which undergird the Church's understanding of sin, in this age and every other.

And by the way, Mr. Porter, the truth isn't meant to be fixed forever. It is fixed forever.