Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Use 70% of Antibiotics on Feedlots--And Pass Their Drug-Resistant Infections to Us

MSNBC has posted the third of a five-part Associated Press series documenting how the overuse of antibiotics is accelerating the growth of drug-resistant infections worldwide. The report is entitled Drug-resistant infections lurk in meat we eat: Animals routinely fed antibiotics harbor virulent germs that jump to people. A key paragraph from the article:

Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it's 50 percent.

The article says that antibiotics are fed to U.S. feedlot animals mainly to speed their growth. While that is one of the reasons meat producers use antibiotics, it is far from the only one.

Michael Pollan focused on two others in his groundbreaking 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The first reason applies mainly to feedlot cattle: because it is cheaper to supply and because it makes them grow much faster, they are fed on corn rather than grass. But their systems are not evolved to digest corn, and antibiotics are required to fend off various diseases that corn-eating inflicts on them. So even before antibiotics speed the cows' growth, they are used to treat corn-induced diseases that cows grazing on grass never experience.

The second reason is that all feedlot animals are raised in inhumanely packed conditions crawling with all kinds of disease-causing organisms. Most prominent among the filth? Their own feces. Tim Flannery, writing in the New York Review of Books, summarizes what Pollan says about feedlot cattle (but also applies to pigs and chickens):

Cows have not evolved to feed on corn. Nor are they suited to living in crowded conditions while standing up to their ankles in feces. In the feedlot, however, they have little choice. The corn diet induces indigestion, which must be treated with repeated courses of antibiotics, and the cows seem to be miserable or vacant a lot of the time. They are subjected to this regime because it makes them grow fast, and in times past they were even fed the offal from other slaughtered cows, which is how mad cow disease came into the food supply.

Pollan describes a Karmic cycle in which the poor health of the feedlotted cows is visited on their consumers. Because they are not allowed to eat grass, their meat is higher in dangerous fats and lower in good ones than that of cows leading a more natural life. And the abattoirs where they are slaughtered need to be absolutely fastidious about hygiene, because bacteria on their skins thrive in the crowded, fecal conditions, and could easily contaminate their meat. Despite all of this, grain-fed beef has a cachet in America, where it is preferred by many for its alleged tenderness. I'm often offered it with pride, even by up-market restaurants that don't seem interested in serving meat from cows that have lived their life on the range. Having read Pollan's book, I'm now ordering buffalo.

Pollan makes it clear that there is no escaping overuse of antibiotics if the feedlot method of producing meat is allowed to continue. He acknowledges that returning to grass grazing for cows and other more natural settings for pigs and chickens is much more expensive financially. But like the AP reporters, he argues that unless feedlot production is replaced, drug-resistant infections eventually will kill millions of human beings. What feedlots save us in the short term will cost us dearly in later years.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Seems We've Been Looking for Other Earths in Not Enough Places

Starting yesterday several websites were excited about the news that astronomers have discovered a so-called Super-Earth orbiting a red dwarf star a mere 40 light years from our own planet. The links include:
  • a press release yesterday on EurekAlert! from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics;
  • an analysis on MSNBC's by Cosmic Log's Alan Boyle; and
  • a separate analysis by John D. Sutter on CNN.
All three refer to an article by the researchers in today's edition of the journal Nature; but there is no on-line link to the full coverage without purchasing it or subscribing to Nature.

Philosophically speaking, the critical point about the new discovery is that we have been too narrow in where we have looked for other planets like ours. When the focus was only on stars in the range of our sun's size and intensity, the results were paltry. But very shortly after researchers went unconventional and allowed themselves to look in the direction of dimmer stars, they started to find Super-Earths much faster. Imagining greater possibilities unveiled a more complex reality.

Apart from the full article, CNN is best at explaining the significance of the new find. Here are excerpts from its analysis:

While the planet probably has too thick of an atmosphere and is too hot to support life similar to that found on Earth, the discovery is being heralded as a major breakthrough in humanity's search for life on other planets.

"The big excitement is that we have found a watery world orbiting a very nearby and very small star," said David Charbonneau, a Harvard professor of astronomy and lead author of an article on the discovery, which appeared this week in the journal Nature.

The planet, named GJ 1214b, is 2.7 times as large as Earth and orbits a star much smaller and less luminous than our sun. That's significant, Charbonneau said, because for many years, astronomers assumed that planets only would be found orbiting stars that are similar in size to the sun.

Because of that assumption, researchers didn't spend much time looking for planets circling small stars, he said. The discovery of this "watery world" helps debunk the notion that Earth-like planets could form only in conditions similar to those in our solar system.

"Nature is just far more inventive in making planets than we were imagining," he said.

In a way, the newly discovered planet was sitting right in front of astronomers' faces, just waiting for them to look.

There were no technological reasons the discovery couldn't have happened long ago, Charbonneau said.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Grass Roots Oppose Liturgy Changes: Seattle Cathedral Pastor Asks, What If We Said 'Wait'?

A few hours after my posting yesterday about the Catholic bishops' repeated departures from Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the National Catholic Reporter posted an article on an unprecedented new development: Seattle pastor begins effort to review new missal translations.

The article reports that Father Michael G. Ryan, pastor of Seattle's St. James Cathedral for more than two decades, has launched a grass roots drive to put planned changes to American Catholic liturgical language on hold for a full year, so they can have "a trial run" in a few designated places before being officially implemented.

The drive includes a new website, What If We Just Said Wait? It offers a "Statement of Concern" for signers to "earnestly implore the bishops of the English-speaking world to undertake a pilot program by which the new translations -- after a careful program of catechesis -- can be introduced into some carefully selected parishes and communities throughout the English-speaking world for a period of one (liturgical) year, after which they can be objectively evaluated." As of this posting, there are nearly 2700 signers from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. The count grows by the hour.

NCR and the website also link to another important part of the effort, an article by Father Ryan in the December 14th print edition of America magazine, entitled What If We Said 'Wait'? The case for a grass-roots review of the new Roman Missal. The article provides the theological basis for Father Ryan's proposal, grounding it solidly in specific provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Reminding us that the bishops at Vatican II passed the liturgy constitution by an overwhelming vote of 2,147 to 4, he shares my dismay at how the bishops have departed from it over the last 45 years. He even notes that Section 40 of the document "wisely made provision for times of experimentation and evaluation ... something that has been noticeably missing in the present case."

Especially heartening to me personally is that Father Ryan's proposal is something I have been advocating for several years. I launched this blog on July 17, 2006. My first posting, A Better Way to Change Catholic Liturgical Language, was a reflection on many of the changes that Father Ryan is questioning. I argued for experimentation before new liturgical changes were implemented, as well as for continuing celebrations of older liturgies in ways that did not detract from the normativity of new ones. I have returned to this theme in several other postings. So I am beyond delighted that at long last a veteran liturgical leader has been brave enough take up the cause.

I encourage everyone who treasures what the Spirit achieved at Vatican II to go to Father Ryan's website and sign the "Statement of Concern." Because the America article is of great significance, for the present and the future of the English liturgy, I re-publish it in full below:

It is now 45 years since the Second Vatican Council promulgated the groundbreaking and liberating document on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. As an eager and enthusiastic North American College seminarian at the time, I was in St. Peter’s Square on the December day in 1963 when Pope Paul VI, with the world’s bishops, presented that great Magna Carta to the church. The conciliar document transcended ecclesiastical politics. It was not just the pet project of a party but the overwhelming consensus of the bishops of the world. Its adoption passed overwhelmingly: 2,147 to 4.

Not in my wildest dreams would it have occurred to me then that I would live to witness what seems more and more like the systematic dismantling of the great vision of the council’s decree. But I have. We Catholics have.

For evidence, one need look no further than recent instructions from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that have raised rubricism to an art form, or the endorsement, even encouragement, of the so-called Tridentine Mass. It has become painfully clear that the liturgy, the prayer of the people, is being used as a tool—some would even say as a weapon—to advance specific agendas. And now on the horizon are the new translations of the Roman Missal that will soon reach the final stages of approval by the Holy See. Before long the priests of this country will be told to take the new translations to their people by means of a carefully orchestrated education program that will attempt to put a good face on something that clearly does not deserve it.

The veterans who enthusiastically devoted their best creative energies as young priests to selling the reforms of the council to parishioners back in the 1960s will be asked to do the same with regard to the new translations. Yet we will be hard put to do so. Some colleagues in ministry may actually relish the opportunity, but not those of us who were captivated by the great vision of Vatican II, who knew firsthand the Tridentine Mass and loved it for what it was, but welcomed its passing because of what full, conscious and active participation would mean for our people. We can see the present moment only as one more assault on the council and, sadly, one more blow to episcopal collegiality. It was, after all, the council that gave to conferences of bishops the authority to produce their own translations (S.C., Nos. 36, 40), to be approved, it is true, by the Holy See but not, presumably, to be initiated, nitpicked and controlled by it. Further, the council also wisely made provision for times of experimentation and evaluation (S.C., No. 40)—something that has been noticeably missing in the present case.

This leads me to pose a question to my brother priests: What if we were to awaken to the fact that these texts are neither pastoral nor ready for our parishes? What if we just said, “Wait”?

Prayer and Good Sense

I know it might smack of insubordination to talk this way, but it could also be a show of loyalty and plain good sense—loyalty not to any ideological agenda but to our people, whose prayer the new translations purport to improve, and good sense to anyone who stops to think about what is at stake here.

What is at stake, it seems to me, is nothing less than the church’s credibility. It is true that the church could gain some credibility by giving us more beautiful translations, but clumsy is not beautiful, and precious is not prayerful. During a recent dinner conversation with friends, the issue of the new translations came up. Two at the table were keenly—and quite angrily—aware of the impending changes; two were not. When the uninformed heard a few examples (“and with your spirit”; “consubstantial with the Father”; “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”; “oblation of our service”; “send down your Spirit like the dewfall”; “He took the precious chalice”; “serene and kindly countenance,” for starters), the reaction was somewhere between disbelief and indignation.

One person ventured the opinion that with all that the church has on its plate today—global challenges with regard to justice, peace and the environment; nagging scandals; a severe priest shortage; the growing disenchantment of many women; seriously lagging church attendance—it seems almost ludicrous to push ahead with an agenda that will seem at best trivial and at worst hopelessly out-of-touch.

The reaction of my friends should surprise no one who has had a chance to review the new translations. Some of them have merit, but far too many do not. Recently the Archdiocese of Seattle sponsored a seminar on the new translations for lay leaders and clergy. Both the priest who led the seminar (an accomplished liturgical theologian) and the participants gathered there in good faith. When passages from the proposed new translation were soberly read aloud by the presenter (I remember especially the phrase from the first eucharistic prayer that currently reads “Joseph, her husband,” but which in the new translation becomes “Joseph, spouse of the same virgin”), there was audible laughter in the room. I found myself thinking that the idea of this happening during the sacred liturgy is no laughing matter but something that should make us all tremble.

There’s more: the chilling reception the people of the dioceses of South Africa have given the new translations. In a rare oversight, the bishops of that country misread the instructions from Rome and, after a careful program of catechesis in the parishes, introduced the new translations to their people some months ago. The translations were met almost uniformly with opposition bordering on outrage.

It is not my purpose here to discuss in detail the flawed principles of translation behind this effort or the weak, inconsistent translations that have resulted. Others have already ably done that. Nor do I want to belabor the fact that those who prepared the translations seem to be far better versed in Latin than in English. No, my concern is for the step we now face: the prospect of implementing the new translations. This brings me back to my question: What if we just said, “Wait”?

What if we, the parish priests of this country who will be charged with the implementation, were to find our voice and tell our bishops that we want to help them avert an almost certain fiasco? What if we told them that we think it unwise to implement these changes until our people have been consulted in an adult manner that truly honors their intelligence and their baptismal birthright? What if we just said, “Wait, not until our people are ready for the new translations, but until the translations are ready for our people”?

Heeding Our Pastoral Instincts

The bishops have done their best, but up to now they have not succeeded. Some of them, led by the courageous and outspoken former chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., tried mightily to stop the new translation train but to no avail. The bishops’ conference, marginalized and battle-weary, allowed itself slowly but steadily to be worn down. After awhile the will to fight was simply not there. Acquiescence took over to the point that tiny gains (a word here, a comma there) were regarded as major victories. Without ever wanting to, the bishops abandoned their best pastoral instincts and in so doing gave up on the best interests of their people.

So the question arises: Are we priests going to give up, too? Are we, too, going to acquiesce? We do, of course, owe our bishops the obedience and respect that we pledged to them on the day of our ordination, but does obedience mean complicity with something we perceive to be wrong—or, at best, wrongheaded? Does obedience mean going against our best pastoral instincts in order to promote something that we believe will, in the end, actually bring discredit to the church and further disillusionment to the people? I do not think so. And does respect involve paying lip service to something to which our more instinctive reaction is to call it foolhardy? Again, I don’t think so.

I offer the following modest proposals.

What if pastors, pastoral councils, liturgical commissions and presbyteral councils were to appeal to their bishops for a time of reflection and consultation on the translations and on the process whereby they will be given to the people? It is ironic, to say the least, that we spend hours of consultation when planning to renovate a church building or parish hall, but little or none when “renovating” the very language of the liturgy.

What if, before implementing the new translations, we do some “market testing?” What if each region of bishops were to designate certain places where the new translations would receive a trial run: urban parishes and rural parishes, affluent parishes and poor parishes, large, multicultural parishes and small parishes, religious communities and college campuses? What if for the space of one full liturgical year the new translations were used in these designated communities, with carefully planned catechesis and thorough, honest evaluation? Wouldn’t such an experiment yield valuable information for both the translators and the bishops? And wouldn’t such an experiment make it much easier to implement the translations when they are ready?

In short, what if we were to trust our best instincts and defend our people from this ill-conceived disruption of their prayer life? What if collegiality, dialogue and a realistic awareness of the pastoral needs of our people were to be introduced at this late stage of the game? Is it not possible that we might help the church we love avert a debacle or even disaster? And is it not possible that the voices in the church that have decided that Latinity is more important than lucidity might end up listening to the people and re-evaluating their position, and that lengthy, ungainly, awkward sentences could be trimmed, giving way to noble, even poetic translations of beautiful old texts that would be truly worthy of our greatest prayer, worthy of our language and worthy of the holy people of God whose prayer this is? (If you think the above sentence is unwieldy, wait till you see some of the new Missal translations. They might be readable, but border on the unspeakable!)

“What If We Just Said No?” was my working title for this article. “What If We Just Said, ‘Wait’?” seems preferable. Dialogue is better than diatribe, as the Second Vatican Council amply demonstrated. So let the dialogue begin. Why not let the priests who are on the front lines and the laypeople who pay the bills (including the salaries of priests and bishops) have some say in how they are to pray? If you think the idea has merit, I invite you to log on to the Web site www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org and make your voice heard. If our bishops know the depth of our concern, perhaps they will not feel so alone.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Before He Was Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger Thought Vatican II Brought Real Change

Analyzing recent thoughts of Chicago's Cardinal Francis George on "the relationship between bishops and ordinary Catholics," Tom Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, documents how Joseph Ratzinger in 1963 believed that the Second Vatican Council had made revolutionary changes in Catholic liturgy and Catholic ecclesiology, the study of the church, church structures and who gets to decide what in the Christian community.

This, of course, is diametrically opposed to Ratzinger's later position--first as John Paul II's chief doctrinal enforcer (head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as The Inquisition) and then as Pope Benedict XVI--that Vatican II was in complete continuity with traditional Catholic theology and made no significant breaks with the past.

In a recent book and an interview with NCR's John Allen, said Roberts, "the cardinal expressed his weariness with the Catholic liberal-conservative divide, suggesting that each was similar to the other in the exaggerated attention they give to intrachurch politics and in focusing far too much on bishops, the power they have and the way in which they exercise it, and not enough on Christ.

"The inference to be drawn from it all is that...if laypeople would concentrate more on being 'simply Catholic' and less on what goes on in hierarchical venues, there would be less contentiousness all around."

Roberts argues, however, that George is distorting history, probably on purpose: to suggest that the contentiousness George bemoans is caused by lay people obsessing on the bishops is a massive exercise in misplaced concreteness. It is based, rather, on the bishops' failure to adhere to the teachings of Vatican II--and the refusal of others in the church to acquiesce. Roberts traces this failure and the controversy it generated directly to the conservative claim that Vatican II changed nothing at all.

Here's Robert's chronicle of Joseph Ratzinger's departure from Vatican II and how it has reinforced conservative claims in liturgy and ecclesiology; I add bold-face to the more significant points:

The council is fading into history as a marker of a certain generation of contemporary Catholics. However, how that council is interpreted — indeed, whether some of our bishops today are willing even to concede that anything significant occurred at the council to change the church — will continue to have an effect on Catholic life for the foreseeable future. The effects of the council are somewhat akin to the effects of the feminist or civil rights movements. Young people today do not have to worry about the same battles that their parents fought, but the benefits that both women and minorities today can take for granted are both a direct result of those earlier efforts and something to be diligently guarded.

And while the council was hardly a movement — indeed, it was far more formally structured and produced a body of documents approved by the world’s bishops — what some would perceive as its benefits or gains are now far more disputed than those achieved in matters of race or the rights of women.

A reading of even a portion of the record on liturgical reform shows that the council inspired deep shifts in ecclesiology, as well as the role of bishops in relation to the way we pray. The essential nature of the changes underway was noted in 1963 by then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, today’s Pope Benedict XVI.

As a peritus, or expert, at the council, he wrote: “The first chapter of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy contains a statement that represents for the Latin church a fundamental innovation. The formulation of liturgical laws for their own regions is now, within limits, the responsibility of the various conferences of bishops. And this is not by delegation from the Holy See, but by virtue of their own independent authority.”

He termed the development “especially important” in “the decentralization of liturgical decision-making.”

It is clear that the Ratzinger view contained in those comments has undergone substantial change since. But what invalidates his understanding back then that “this small paragraph, which for the first time assigns to the conferences of bishops their own canonical authority, has more significance for the episcopacy and for the long desired strengthening of episcopal power than anything in the Constitution on the Church itself”?

By extension, what invalidates others’ similar understanding that, in Ratzinger’s earlier view, the council had, “without fanfare, and largely unnoticed by the public … produced a work fundamental in the renewal of ecclesiology”? It is a conclusion far different from that expressed by some today that the council merely confirmed a continuation of what had gone before.

While George asserts that Catholics should pay less attention to bishops, it was bishops — he among them — who have argued that those who hold the early Ratzinger view of the council as marking a fundamental change in ecclesiology are wrong and that liturgical renewal has gone off in the wrong direction.

It was bishops who, in 1997, convened a committee of 11 men who met in the Vatican to secretly overhaul the translations of the American lectionary, or the scripture readings used at Mass.

Overturned by the committee was a translation process that had been in use since the council and that was broadly consultative and had included a number of women. Only one of the men on the new committee held a graduate degree in scripture studies; two were not native English speakers; and several had a history of objecting to inclusive-language translations, including two of the American archbishops and the lone scripture scholar. Three American bishops who had worked most closely on the lectionary and were themselves Bible scholars — including Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., currently the lone voice of opposition to certain translations in the missal under consideration by the bishops — were excluded from the group. They were replaced by conservative prelates Bishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa; William Levada, then of San Francisco and now a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; Justin Rigali, then of St. Louis and now cardinal in Philadelphia; and Cardinal Francis Stafford, then head of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

In 2002, leadership of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, known as ICEL, was replaced under pressure from the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship with bishops more congenial to that congregation’s view of how translation should be effected.

Roberts documents unassailably that the contentiousness that has developed in the church since 1965 must be traced directly to conservative theologians and bishops playing disingenuous mind games with the teachings of Vatican II--all rehashing the bogus claim that the council really taught nothing new. Repeating the claim does not make it true, but it does tend to make church-going Catholics forget the truth.

That reiterates how we got here. However as those of us faithful to the council age and die off, it does not tell us how we are going to salvage Vatican II and its ecclesia semper reformanda eccelesiolgy for the church of today and tomorrow.

And so we pray the Spirit who inspired Vatican II to surprise us so much will find new ways to out-wit those who idolize the moribund theology that the council laid to rest.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Zero Decade: Lesson to Be Learned? Elect Zeros, And They Will Deliver Zero

Leonard Pitts Jr., editorial columnist for the Miami Herald, posted a delightful commentary today, suggesting that the most fitting description of the aughts or the naughts--the first decade of the 21st century--is "the Uh Ohs. As in that interjection you mutter when the excreta hits the ventilation device, that word you whisper when the wheels come off the bicycle, that thing you say when things fall apart."

Pitts offers an extensive catalogue of the things that fell apart from 2000 to 2009. Uh Oh has indeed been on our lips a lot more than it used to be. Scanning his list, however, I thought a more apt description might be The Zero Decade--as in what happens when ill-informed and sometimes willfully ignorant voters, egged on by cheerleaders on talk radio and cable and the Internet, elect total incompetents to office year after year: absolute zeros produce absolutely zero and perch the world on the edge of chaos. Things didn't just "fall apart." Things were shattered, by several bulls in several china shops.

It's not that the best and the brightest can't do the same. After all, John Kennedy's brain trust gave us Vietnam. Bill Clinton's cleverness brought us prosperity, but with the pitfalls of failed health care reform, Don't Ask Don't Tell, too little regulation and way too much Monica Lewinsky. But 'electing' George W. Bush and his ilk to office virtually guaranteed how awful eight years of the decade would be. Everything on the list except 9/11 can be chalked up to the zeros who tried to run the zeros. And invading Iraq as a response to 9/11 was perhaps their most misplaced goose egg.

Alas, the supply of ill-informed and willfully ignorant voters still seems all too real--blithely denying that conservative ignorance brought on a world a grief and clamoring loudly for even more. Whether the United States has a future is largely a race between ignorance and fact. As we move into 2010, I fear the outcome is by no means clear.

Below is the very prescient cover The Nation ran on 11/11/2000. After it are excerpts from Pitts' litany of things that fell apart in The Zero Decade.

The Ohs were a whole decade in which things fell apart -- things you'd thought were built to last, things you depended on without having to think too much about them, things that were the very bones and core and soul and sinew of who we are. Or at least, of who we thought we were.

Then democracy fell apart in a blizzard of hanging chads, a presidential election whose winner no one really knows to this day, a decision by the Supreme Court that chose our 43rd chief executive.

Our sense of security fell apart, foreign terrorists bringing their grievances to our shores in a spectacular fashion never seen before, proud towers disintegrating, an iconic building pierced, smoke rising above a Pennsylvania field, 3,000 people gone.

American exceptionalism fell apart, our understanding of ourselves as history's white hats and good guys crumbling under revelations of torture and malfeasance starkly at odds with that benign and reassuring self-image.

Can-do fell apart, civilization fell apart, New Orleans drowning and its trapped people turning feral and mean while those whose job it was to rescue them bungled, bickered, pointed fingers, and otherwise acquitted themselves with all the smooth efficiency of the Keystone Kops.

The economy fell apart, wealth disappearing, jobs vanishing, surplus shrinking to deficit, the nation in hock to China to bail out banks too big to fail and brother, can you spare a dime?

Journalism fell apart, the very idea and ideal of authoritativeness and indisputability lost in a static of Tweets and blogs, of newspaper deaths, fair-and-balanced bias and competing truths.

The world fell apart, glaciers turning to icebergs, icebergs turning to ice water, dire predictions of irrevocable change due to planetary warming caused by human behavior, the snows receding on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

And yet, we're still here, still standing. There is something to be said for that; it is no small feat to still be standing in times so tumultuous, times when the very bedrock of your identity wobbles like Jell-O. That was the Uh Ohs and the best thing you can say about them is that they are almost over.

We are people of an astounding capacity for resilience, redemption, renewal, reinvention. Change is our birthright -- for proof, look no further than the new guy in the White House. So this era of hardship is finite by definition. This too shall pass away.

Something to remember in the last minute of Dec. 31st as the clock ticks relentlessly toward the new, the next. A toast to give when you raise your glass high.

Here's to better days.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Stupak Amendment Will Strip Abortion Coverage from All Health Insurance Policies

The National Catholic Reporter, for decades a voice of reason and restraint in the debate about how far the Catholic Church may go in turning its teaching on abortion into U.S. law, suddenly has departed from that stance. In an editorial posted November 23rd, NCR praised the U.S. bishops for lobbying the U.S. House of Representatives into adopting the Stupak Amendment to its health care reform bill.

According to the editorial, "The Stupak Amendment articulated a position that the Catholic bishops had rightly and forcefully advanced in the run-up to the final vote... The hope is that the bishops, having won a restriction on abortion, will argue as forcefully and expend the same energy in rallying the Catholic community to push for approval of a similar bill in the Senate."

But whether the position adopted in Stupak is one that the bishops had the right to advance is hardly a foregone conclusion. It is even called into question by a separate analysis by NCR contributor Michael Sean Winters, which NCR posted the same day. Winters wrote:

"The amendment did more than bar federal funding for abortion in both the public option and in any plans purchased through the “exchanges,” the markets the legislation sets up if those plans were subsidized by the federal government. The bill requires that any insurance company plan that covers abortion offered in the exchanges, even one being purchased by someone with their own money and no federal subsidy, has to be matched with an identical plan that does not include such coverage.

"The Stupak Amendment does not forbid the purchase of plans that cover abortion, but the actuary for the insurance companies said that functionally no companies would offer such plans because the pool of applicants would be too small to make them economically feasible." (The bold-face is mine.)

So it is inaccurate and disingenuous for anyone to assert that the Stupak Amendment aims merely to ensure that there is no expansion of federal support for abortion. In fact, the bishops have already been quite successful in ensuring that currently there is no such federal support.

Stupak, however, construes the existing federal exemption of employer payments for health insurance as de facto federal support for abortion (for those private policies that cover it). And Stupak tries to stop that too. Indeed, by making it financially impossible for insurance companies to offer plans with abortion coverage, it denies women the right to purchase any abortion coverage whatsoever, even if they have the means and the desire to use their own taxable income. And, of course, it prevents women who lack such means from having a medically safe abortion anywhere. Obviously this is a massive new contraction of women's ability to exercise a right which the Supreme Court has ruled they have.

So Stupak is much more than "a restriction on abortion," as the NCR editorial so meekly describes it. In fact it is a radical new tactic for the bishops to gain through health care reform legislation what they have been unable to gain through decades of electoral politics, relentless lobbying and court cases: imposing the Catholic moral teaching on abortion on Americans whose religions and individual consciences do not accept it.

How does that not violate the First Amendment's clause that Congress may not establish a particular religion? How does that not violate the First Amendment's clause that Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion?

Once more, in the name of stopping abortions, the bishops are pushing an assault on the U.S. Constitution. In the past, the National Catholic Reporter has consistently understood that such action is completely out of bounds. What makes it laudable now?