Thursday, December 16, 2010

Curran on Abortion Laws: Full Text of Lecture Makes His Argument Sharper and Stronger

On November 2nd I posted an analysis of Charles Curran's October 28th lecture at Southern Methodist University on the U.S. Bishops' "flawed" approach to outlawing abortion. At the time the complete text of the lecture had not been published; so I relied on coverage by National Catholic Reporter Editor-at-Large Tom Roberts, who attended Curran's scholarly tour de force.

Finally on November 29th NCR was able to post the full text of the lecture, describing it as "an abridged version of a chapter in Fr. Charles Curran's newest book The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: A Theological Perspective, which will be published in early January by Georgetown University Press."

While the full text shows that Roberts' reporting generally was accurate, I think it also adds nuances and context which sharpen Curran's position and actually make his argument stronger. The complete lecture also recontextualizes some of the concerns that I raised in my posting.

Let me highlight three significant distinctions between the lecture and Roberts' reporting.

The first important distinction comes in the "preliminary remarks" of lecture's opening paragraph, which Roberts did not quote or reference. The first remark out of Curran's mouth is: "The paper will not address church involvement in the public and political areas from the perspective of the First Amendment."

In my November 2nd posting I spelled out why I did not believe it was possible or constructive to avoid that topic in connection with abortion legislation. And implicitly I faulted Curran for not addressing it more explicitly.

I still maintain that such a nexus is impossible to ignore; but, now I understand that Curran bracketed it out as a methodological strategy and not as a topic he would necessarily exclude under other circumstances. He did not want to muddy his critique of the bishops' public policy teaching "from within the Catholic tradition itself" with a topic which, while related enough to abortion law for Curran to mention it, has its own history and its own controversies. So while I can disagree about the wisdom of excluding it from the November 2nd lecture, reading Curran on his own terms makes it clear that he forewarned at the outset he would do so. For all I know he may well address the First Amendment in another chapter in his new book.

A second major contrast between the lecture and Roberts' reporting is the cumulative impact of the entire first half of Curran's lecture, which Roberts summarized in a few short paragraphs. Roberts says that part of the lecture "traced the narrowing of the bishops' approach to abortion since the mid-1970s" and the bishops most recent position is that their teaching on other public policy issues involves "prudential judgments" but their teaching on abortion laws does not.

This is, in fact, part of Curran's analysis. However, Roberts' summary does not articulate a more significant point Curran makes: the bishops' claim that their teaching on abortion laws does not involve "prudential judgments" is not only a narrowing of their previous approach but also a significant departure from guidance the bishops accepted from the Vatican in the 1980s.

At that time a meeting was convened by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to discuss divergent public policy teachings by various bishops' conferences. The meeting resulted in a memorandum which, in Curran's words, "called for the bishops in their letters to distinguish clearly between moral principles and their application to concrete realities that involve the assessment of factual circumstances. The authority of the bishops on prudential judgments or the application of principles does not bind all Catholics. There is room for legitimate diversity in the church in the area of prudential judgments."

Clearly this is Curran's largest point, but Roberts' summary obscures it: the bishops, unable to marshall any reliable theological grounding whatsoever, have arbitrarily exempted their teaching on abortion law from the Vatican's official guidance on public policy teachings. The rest of the lecture highlights several different ways in which prudential judgments remain endemic to the bishops' teaching on abortion laws, with Curran documenting point by point that the bishops have no leg to stand on.

A third important distinction between the lecture and Roberts' reporting is Curran's analysis of a natural-law approach to civil law versus a religious freedom approach. Here the problem was as much my overly hasty reading of Roberts' as his less-than-precise summary of Curran.

My confusion began, I think, when Roberts wrote: "Curran said that in the abortion issue, he prefers the religious freedom approach..." Curran's wording in the lecture was a lot more than expressing a preference: "The pope and the bishops have used the Thomistic approach in dealing with the legality of abortion. In my judgment the religious freedom approach is the correct approach and since the Second Vatican Council should be used by all today in the Catholic tradition."

A la Roberts, I thought Curran was mainly interested in contrasting the two approaches, but also in arguing that a religious freedom approach could accommodate either. So I launched into a counter-analysis that Vatican II's religious freedom approach had actually altered the context in which the natural law approach was now available, thereby placing the natural law approach within much more strictly defined limits. That counter-analysis remains accurate, but now it's clear that I missed another point Curran was making.

Besides contrasting the natural law and religious freedom approaches, Curran was also demonstrating how the religious freedom approach, without necessarily referencing the natural law, could be used legitimately to justify a whole range of specific approaches to abortion law. He noted, for example, that a religious freedom approach could focus primarily on an individual woman's conscience and rely on her to make conscientious decisions about abortion. But, he added, another aspect of the religious freedom approach could focus on just treatment of the fetus as a developing individual with rights appropriate to its status.

This puts Curran much closer to my counter-analysis. But it also brings us back to the discussion of the First Amendment that I started with above. As I see it, because Vatican II's religious freedom approach can lead to multiple outcomes and even incompatible outcomes, it is ultimately the First Amendment that decides for Americans which approaches are allowable and which are not. It seems to me that one approach that is clearly disallowed is for the leaders of one religious group to impose its moral teaching about abortion on those who believe otherwise. Those of us who pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States cannot support that approach.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pope Says Condoms Are a Lesser Evil Than Spreading HIV to New Victims

On 11/21/10 various news organizations carried the stunning news that Pope Benedict XVI, as part of a book-length interview with a German reporter, had done a major about-face in his position on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Only last year Benedict had raised a storm of controversy, and drawn nearly unanimous criticism from global health organizations and Western European governments, for saying that condoms did nothing to contain the spread of AIDs and that they in fact worsened it.

The 11/21 reports brought the news that the pope now has said, as MSNBC put it, "that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were taking a step toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partner from a deadly infection."

That was followed two days later by a Vatican clarification that the pope also meant his remarks to apply to women who have HIV--even if their use of condoms also prevented a pregnancy.

In this instance, it must be said that the secular media have done a much better job of grasping and communicating how much of a "game-changer" Benedict's new position is. The Catholic press for the most part has been all too eager to assure lay Catholics that the pope is not back-tracking on Pope Paul VI's ban on "artificial contraception." What I have not seen from Catholic analysts yet is the recognition that by allowing for situations where use of condoms is less of an evil than not using them, Benedict opens the door to more exceptions than controlling HIV transmission.

For once the primary consideration shifts from use of condoms to prevent pregnancy to use of condoms to responsibly protect the health of ones sex partner, aren't there other situations where using a condom might be more responsible than not doing so? I'm thinking, for example, of situations where a woman has been advised by her physician that having more children would endanger her physical health. If the church cannot see its way clear to allow that woman to use the pill to prevent another pregnancy, couldn't it at least use Benedict's logic to say that it would be more responsible for her partner to use a condom, even to prevent pregnancy, than to endanger her life because he did not use one?

I think over time it will be discovered that Benedict has opened up several questions along these lines, especially for situations where HIV is not the threat a partner is trying to avoid, but where some other life-threatening condition is.

That is the kind of nuanced thinking on these matters that Catholic moral theologians have been urging for decades. I think it may be the most helpful development in forty years that a pope has finally grasped what they've been saying and has had the courage to agree with it. I hope Catholic analysts will get around to saying so, and soon.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Party of Treason: Republicans Sacrifice National Security on Dump-Obama Altar


I said in March that the Republican party was "very much in danger of transitioning from the party of no to the party of treason."

At the time the context was that the Republicans, then being called a failed political party for doing absolutely nothing to repair the economy they trashed, were undermining U.S. democracy by trying to overturn the recently passed health care law and encouraging those who threatened to exterminate anyone who had voted for it.

But now the Republicans have tricked voters--except for the millions on the east and west coasts who actually pay attention to facts--into believing that "No" to anything President Obama proposes can masquerade as a policy initiative. And now they think they can continue their "No" as a strategy to deny the president re-election in 2012.

So let the conservative over-reaching begin! And let it begin, in all places, with blocking ratification of the New START (the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty)--favored by every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, several prominent Republicans who were once Secretary of State, and even the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In an excellent editorial The San Jose Mercury News calls the Republican tactic "a new low" and says Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for letting political posturing morph into an imminent threat to American lives. The Houston Chronicle thought so much of the editorial that it re-published it in today's print edition. The Chronicle's posting of the editorial follows:

If you doubted that Republicans could be so craven as to put their own political interests above national security, the proof was delivered Tuesday: Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl announced he will block New START, which calls for the resumption of nuclear controls that until now have had bipartisan support.

Holding our nuclear security hostage solely to embarrass President Barack Obama is a new low. Public-spirited Republicans should demand that the treaty move forward as planned.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) is a consensus document. Obama went to great lengths to win the support of the military, the State Department and a broad range of Republicans and Democrats.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice supports the treaty. So do other prominent Republicans including George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly backs it. The chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, has said, "I believe — and the rest of the military leadership in this country believes - that this treaty is essential to our future security."

The treaty would require that Russia and the United States cut back on nuclear arsenals and would allow the United States to resume inspecting Russia's nuclear facilities, a right that lapsed last December for the first time since the Cold War. Does anyone really want Russia shuffling its nuclear weapons around without inspections? Even a year's gap has put us in greater danger of materials falling into the wrong hands.

The intrusion of partisan politics into national security is a break with tradition. The opposition party in Congress, whether Democrat or Republican, has long set politics aside so that the country could present a united front to other nations. Lacking trust, we will have fewer allies and partners. Does anyone really think we can go it alone in today's world?

Obama went to extraordinary lengths to iron out areas of disagreement with Kyl, knowing two-thirds of senators must approve the treaty. The president had no fewer than 29 meetings, phone calls or exchanges with the Arizona senator and his staff, White House documents show. The sticking point seemed to be Kyl's sense that the United States needs to go to greater lengths to modernize its nuclear arsenal (at the expense of the deficit). So the president offered to add $80 billion to the budget for that purpose, including $4.1 billion just last Friday in an effort to close the deal.

So how did Kyl respond? He disrespectfully blindsided the president, timing his announcement to embarrass Obama just before he departs to Portugal for a NATO summit.

Kyl is taking his marching orders from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who openly proclaims that Republicans' top priority for the next two years is to defeat Obama.

Unchecked nuclear weaponry in unstable Russia ultimately threatens American lives.

If that's the cost of this political game, it won't be Obama's fault. It will be McConnell's.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Good Journalism Unmasks Another Phony Story from the Purveyors of Faux News

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman applauds how CNN's Anderson Cooper unmasked the baseless rumor that President Obama's trip to India and Asia was costing U.S. taxpayers $200 million a day--a story "reported" with hysterical grandiosity by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage. When will the public learn that nothing that comes out of their mouths can be trusted?

Most of Friedman's column follows:

On Nov. 4, Anderson Cooper did the country a favor. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip to Asia would cost $200 million a day. This was an important “story.” It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism.

Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before he had had Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, on his show and had asked her where exactly Republicans will cut the budget.

Instead of giving specifics, Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream. She answered: “I think we know that just within a day or so the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He’ll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.”

The next night, Cooper explained that he felt compelled to trace that story back to its source, since someone had used his show to circulate it. His research, he said, found that it had originated from a quote by “an alleged Indian provincial official,” from the Indian state of Maharashtra, “reported by India’s Press Trust, their equivalent of our A.P. or Reuters. I say ‘alleged,’ provincial official,” Cooper added, “because we have no idea who this person is, no name was given.”

It is hard to get any more flimsy than a senior unnamed Indian official from Maharashtra talking about the cost of an Asian trip by the American president.

“It was an anonymous quote,” said Cooper. “Some reporter in India wrote this article with this figure in it. No proof was given; no follow-up reporting was done. Now you’d think if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? But there hasn’t been any follow-up reporting on this Indian story. The Indian article was picked up by The Drudge Report and other sites online, and it quickly made its way into conservative talk radio.”

Cooper then showed the following snippets: Rush Limbaugh talking about Obama’s trip: “In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.” Then Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became “a vacation” accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy. Ditto the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage. He said, “$200 million? $200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents.”

Cooper then added: “Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts. For security reasons, the White House doesn’t comment on logistics of presidential trips, but they have made an exception this time." He then quoted Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, as saying, “I am not going to go into how much it costs to protect the president, [but this trip] is comparable to when President Clinton and when President Bush traveled abroad. This trip doesn’t cost $200 million a day.” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: “I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd, this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy and some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier in support of the president’s trip to Asia. That’s just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.”

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Eight Deadly Meals: Does Anyone Need a Day's Worth of Calories in One Sitting?

Talk about food for thought! There's enough food here to fuel thinking for several days. Put another way, there's enough food here to make you sick--or at least to make everyone of us fatter and fatter. And maybe that should provoke a particular thought: boycott these fat factories until they remove these items from their menus.

In yesterday's online postings and today's print edition the Houston Chronicle calls attention to eight restaurant meals that -- in one sitting -- provide close to "the 2,000 calories recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for an entire day's sustenance."

The Chronicle article, Chain-restaurant fare weighing down Americans, actually re-publishes a September 21st article by Washington Post Staff Writer Rachel Saslow entitled With high-calorie dishes, restaurant chains put obesity on the menu.

The article was a follow-up to the 2010 Xtreme Eating Awards, given in May by the Center for Science in the Public Interest to nine "caloric heavyweight meals"--many of them offered by the same restaurant chains Saslow spotlights, but some actually less weighty than the eight below. What follows is the last two-thirds of Saslow's article.

"Restaurants are not in the business of making people healthy," Washington dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield says . "They're trying to make money, and salt and fat are cheap ways to make food taste better."

We asked Scritchfield to give us her take on these caloric heavyweights.

All of the nutritional information below comes from the restaurants' websites, except for the Cheesecake Factory's, which is courtesy of CSPI's Xtreme Eating awards. (The chain does not publish its nutritional information online.)

Quiznos large tuna melt sub sandwich

The numbers:
1,520 calories, 101 grams of fat, 21 grams of saturated fat, 2,020 milligrams sodium. Equivalent of eating: More than a stick of butter's worth of fat. Expert evaluation: Grabbing a tuna sandwich for lunch sure sounds like a healthful decision, but not with this jumbo-size sub. "If someone hears 'tuna' and they think they should be eating more fish, they might think that's a good choice, but the portion is way too big," Scritchfield says. On top of that, "it's made with foods that have high calories, such as mayonnaise and cheese."


Chipotle's chicken burrito

Filled with rice, pinto beans, corn salsa, cheese, sour cream and guacamole, accompanied by a side of chips. The numbers: 1,750 calories, 79.5 grams of fat, 23 grams of saturated fat, 2,750 milligrams of sodium. Equivalent of eating: The calories in more than nine chicken soft tacos at Taco Bell. Expert evaluation: "There are lots of ways you can make that healthier," Scritchfield says. "My top recommendation is not to get cheese and sour cream but instead get guacamole because that has the heart-healthy fat and gives you the creaminess you're going for." You could also forgo the chips and save 570 calories.

Applebee's New England fish and chips

The numbers:
1,910 calories, 137 grams fat, 24 grams saturated fat, 3,150 milligrams of sodium. Equivalent of eating: The fat in almost a pound of cheddar cheese. Expert evaluation: "If you really wanted this, I'd say split it and add some veggies," Scritchfield says. "And do not touch the salt shaker; it already has more than a day's worth of sodium in it."


Chili's Big Mouth Bites

Four mini burgers topped with jalapeƱo ranch dressing. The numbers: 1,930 calories, 31 grams of saturated fat, 4,400 milligrams sodium. Equivalent of eating: The calories of about 25 eggs. Expert evaluation: "These are interesting because they're sold as 'mini' burgers, but it's still a high-calorie, high-fat and high-salt meal because of what's on them," Scritchfield says.

Outback Steakhouse's full rack baby back ribs

Served with Aussie fries. The numbers: 1,936 calories, 133 grams of fat, 56 grams of saturated fat, 2,741 milligrams of sodium. Equivalent of eating: The fat grams in 20 tablespoons of salad dressing. Expert evaluation: "There is no color on that plate: no broccoli, no garden salad. Vegetables should be half of your dinner plate, and they're absent," Scritchfield says. Outback diners can substitute steamed green beans or seasonal veggies for the fries and slash about 200 calories and 15 grams of fat.

The following mega-meals could be shared, but Scritchfield says it wouldn't be surprising if they sometimes are consumed by just one person: "People envision what they're served as their portion."

Domino's bread bowl pasta

The numbers: One bread bowl, which Domino's nutritional information counts as two servings, contains 1,340 to 1,470 calories, 48 to 56 grams of fat, 21 to 27 grams of saturated fat, 65 to 115 grams of fiber, 1,830 to 2,860 milligrams of sodium. Equivalent of eating: The fiber in about 16 to 29 servings of oatmeal. Expert evaluation: "If you get enough fiber, and 25 to 35 grams a day is the right amount, it helps keep digestion at a normal pace. But if you eat too much fiber, it actually gives you constipation," Scritchfield says.

P.F. Chang's double pan-fried noodles

With a combination of meats. Although this is one entree, the company counts it as four servings since it totals 36 ounces. The numbers: 1,820 calories, 84 grams of fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 7,692 milligrams of sodium. Equivalent of eating: The sodium in 70 tablespoons of blue cheese dressing. Expert evaluation: "If four people shared this (as their entire meal), not only would the waiter be like, 'What are you doing?' but we'd leave dissatisfied," Scritchfield says. "They're breaking it down so their numbers look good."

Cheesecake Factory's pasta carbonara

The numbers: 2,500 calories, 85 grams of saturated fat. Equivalent of eating: The saturated fat in about 5 cups of half-and-half cream. Expert evaluation: "Four adult men would have to share this entree in order to each stay within a day's worth of saturated fat," Scritchfield says.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Free of "the Democratic Politics of Capitol Hill," Maybe Obama Can Govern His Way

Like House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner, Washington Post columnist George F. Will wants us to see Tuesday's Republican sweep of the House of Representatives, several Senate seats and a passel of governorships as A recoil against liberalism. In today's column Will argues:

This was the serious concern that percolated beneath the normal froth and nonsense of the elections: Is political power - are government commands and controls - superseding and suffocating the creativity of a market society's spontaneous order? On Tuesday, a rational and alarmed American majority said "yes."

Well, that may be what some of the majority said. However, David S. Broder, who has been a political reporter for the Washington Post since 1966 and is perhaps the most centrist political columnist at the newspaper, had a rather different take:

Some people may have voted against President Obama's party because they think he has not devoted enough energy toward fixing our economy, but the larger disappointment that fueled anti-Obama animus was that he allowed himself to be sucked into the Democratic Party's endless machinations to get better deals for their base and their contributors, which bloated the economic stimulus, the health care law and the failed energy bill into "a swollen, expensive and ineffective legislative monstrosity." The result for Obama?

Thus, a double setback to the hopes that had been aroused by his election. Instead of cooperation, the worst kind of partisanship returned. And instead of changing the way Washington operated, he seemed to ratify business as usual.

Broder, in other words, sees not so much a rejection of Obama's agenda (wherever on the spectrum it may be located) as an angry disappointment at his failure to achieve the kind of post-partisan leadership to which he aspired and which his campaign inspired us to believe was possible. Broder suggests that Obama's way forward is to try again to do things his way, not the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid way:

There will be a temptation to interpret the Democrats' loss of their House majority and of at least six Senate seats as a rejection of Obama's first-term agenda, the one on which he was elected in 2008.

What lessons should Obama draw? The worst mistake would be for him to abandon or reject his own agenda for government. If health care is to be repealed, let it be after the 2012 election when he will have a chance to defend his handiwork - not now.

Instead, he should return to his original design for governing, which emphasized outreach to Republicans and subordination of party-oriented strategies. The voters have in effect liberated him from his confining alliances with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and put him in a position where he can and must negotiate with a much wider range of legislators, including Republicans.

The president's worst mistake may have been avoiding even a single one-on-one meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell until he had been in office for a year and a half. To make up, the outreach to McConnell and likely House Speaker John Boehner should begin at once and continue as a high priority.

Obama tried governing on the model preferred by congressional Democrats and the result was the loss of Democratic seats and his own reputation. Now he should try governing his own way. It cannot work worse, and it might yield much better results.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Charles Curran: Abortion Law Push Lacks Certitude, Consistency and Constitutionality

Catholic Priest Charles E. Curran has been Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University since 1991.

At age 76, he is certainly no newcomer to Catholic moral theology, with Doctor of Sacred Theology degrees in 1961 from two Catholic institutions in Rome: the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Academia Alfonsiana.

In fact, prior to joining SMU he was a peritus (theological expert) at the Second Vatican Council, and shortly after the council he was appointed associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he was granted tenure and served almost continuously until 1986. (I was privileged to be a student in a couple of his classes in the 1971-1972 academic year.)

"Almost continuously" is said very much tongue in cheek. Curran was briefly fired in 1967 for his views on birth control--but quickly reinstated after a five-day faculty-led strike. He also became persona non grata with the Vatican after he joined some 600 theologians in questioning the methodology and conclusions of Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical forbidding 'artificial' birth control.

But despite his dissent and his relentless assertion that theologians and lay Catholics had every right to dissent from particular papal teachings, Curran held on to his job until after the election of Pope John Paul II--who had Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF, formerly known as the Inquisition), declare that Curran was no longer eligible to teach in Catholic schools. Curran argued in a civil suit that the Catholic University had violated its own due process procedures in terminating his employment, but the court disagreed.

SMU had the academic foresight and ecumenical largess to hire him five years later, which has allowed him to continue functioning as a moral theologian regarded by his peers as the best American in his field.

I think both as a courtesy to SMU and as a means to avoid exacerbating his Roman Catholic situation Curran has laid relatively low on specifically Catholic issues in recent years. He has not been silent and he has not stopped asserting his deeply held convictions. But he has generally avoided broadsides that would raise the ire of Catholic authorities.

So I was curious when Curran told a gathering of moral theologians meeting in Trent, Italy, last July that "we cannot put our heads in the sand" in the face of current crises in the church. He was referring to people leaving Catholicism in unprecedented numbers as a result of the clergy sex abuse crisis and the bishops' attempts to cover it up, conflicting approaches to moral theology taken by theologians and the hierarchy, and the return to authoritarianism and overcentralization that has characterized the Vatican in the decades since Vatican II. I was curious above all if Curran had some more specific personal response in mind. Last week, it became clear that he did.

In a public lecture at SMU on October 28th, Curran made a newer theological issue his own: the U.S. bishops efforts to impose Catholic-based abortion laws on the citizens of the United States. As summarized by National Catholic Reporter Editor at Large Tom Roberts, Curran called the bishops' approach to such laws "flawed," for at least four reasons:

  • “The speculative doubt about when human life begins;
  • “the fact that possibility and feasibility are necessary aspects involved in discussions about abortion law;
  • “the understanding and role of civil law;
  • “and the weakness of the intrinsic evil argument.”

So far no one who has found a complete transcript of Curran's lecture online. As reported by Roberts, however, Curran is arguing under these multiple headings that the bishops' position lacks the certitude, consistency and constitutional standing to justify enacting it into law.

On the question of certitude, Curran points out that Catholic tradition, from Thomas Aquinas to the present day "recognizes speculative doubt about when the soul is infused or when the human person comes into existence." Curran acknowledges that the CDF's 1974 Declaration on Procured Abortion and John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae both call Catholics to err on the side of caution: since "the presence of the soul is probable" at any given point in a pregnancy, "one cannot take the risk of killing a human person."

However, sufficient uncertainty remains that the church cannot legitimately force this belief on non-Catholics. Thus, says Curran, "The most accurate way to state the Catholic moral teaching is that direct abortion even of a fertilized ovum is always wrong, but you cannot say it is murder. There is doubt about the reality of the early embryo."

In a pluralistic and politically divided society like the United States, there is also uncertainty about the possibility and feasibility of enacting an across-the-board prohibition of abortion. Absent certitude on those issues, it is a matter of prudential judgment whether Catholics should work for such a law or support other measures that they believe would be more effective. (Curran doesn't seem to say so, but how such a law could be enforced equitably and effectively is also fraught with uncertainty.) Obviously this has a direct impact on the right of bishops to excommunicate or even discipline Catholic lay people and politicians who decline to tow the bishops' official line.

Curran also sees uncertainty on whether the role of civil law should be viewed through a natural law perspective, which would seek to protect basic human rights including the right to life, versus a religious-freedom approach, under which "one could give the benefit of the doubt to the freedom of the woman." However, because I see this more as a church-state separation issue, I think it is probably the weakest of Curran's arguments. I will say why under the discussion of constitutionality, below.

Curran sees lack of consistency in the bishops' assertion that all abortions must be outlawed because abortion is an intrinsic moral evil. Curran argues that using the term as a rationale for giving abortion preeminence over all other political issues is a faulty argument. Citing prostitution and adultery, Curran notes the Catholic tradition has not insisted that either be outlawed, even though Catholic theology calls both intrinsically evil. If abortion is to be treated inconsistently, the bishops need to explain why. So far they have failed to do so.

This also echos Curran's insistence earlier in the lecture that official church teaching on the morality of abortion is "not as certain" as the teachings on murder, torture or adultery" and that what the bishops want legislated about abortion "entails prudential judgment so that they cannot logically distinguish it from most of the other issues such as the death penalty, health care, nuclear deterrence, [and] housing."

By raising the question of religious freedom, Curran's reflections on "the understanding and role of civil law" touch on the constitutionality of outlawing abortion. However, his direct concern is the conflict in Catholic theology between a natural law approach to civil law and an approach which makes freedom of religion the dominant principle.

One possibility is to say, as Curran does, that the conflict means there is lack of certitude in Catholic theology on this issue, so that either approach can be pursued with equal validity, albeit also with requisite humility and respect for opponents' experience, motivation and rationale.

Another approach, which I favor, is to say that Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom has become the new context in which the natural law tradition is available. From a process philosophy perspective, the teaching on religious freedom has relativized the conclusions of the natural law analysis and redefined the limits under which natural law conclusions are valid and applicable. To assert natural law beyond those limits is to proclaim a falsehood.

What Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom did was to move the church's official position much closer to the separation of church and state enshrined (per Thomas Jefferson and an unbroken string of court rulings) in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Which is why I have argued since 1968, and several times here, that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" means that the bishops may not insist that the Catholic moral teaching on abortion be imposed on everyone else as a public law--because "everyone else" includes non-Catholics, non-Christians, nonbelievers, and even Catholics who conscientiously disagree with it. On the issue of abortion in the United States, at least, the Constitution requires that freedom of religion predominate over a natural law approach to civil law.

With that one amendment, I find Curran's arguments accurate and compelling. It may indicate that I am not alone that so many Catholic conservatives have already responded to Curran's critique not with reasoned argument but with ad hominem attacks, most focusing on the claim that he was "fired" by Catholic University in 1967--which, as Curran says about the bishops' position on the personhood of the fetus, "is accurate but not totally forthcoming." Officially he was fired for a few days, but he was quickly reinstated and held his post continuously for another 20 years. And even when the Vatican revoked his authority to teach in Catholic schools, it did not instruct him to stop functioning as a Catholic theologian.

But the conservative response may also portend that some church official somewhere is probably ready to pounce on what they will perceive as Curran's departure from orthodoxy. And that could cause the Vatican to escalate from "Thou shall not teach in Catholic schools" to "Thou shall not publicly proclaim Catholic theology anywhere," or even "Thou art no longer in communion with the Catholic Church."

I imagine that Curran preferred to avoid those risks for several years, but became convinced that given his age and the dire condition of the church, they are risks he could avoid no longer. As he said in July, "We cannot put our heads in the sand." And if moral theologians have to put their heads on the chopping block of censure or excommunication to bring the official church to its senses, who more credible to lead them than Charlie Curran?

Let me end this with the prayer from Ephesians that concludes the final chapter of my doctoral dissertation: "Glory be to him whose power, working within us, can do infintely more that we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen."

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Who Has Put Pubic Hair on Our "Citizens United" Decision? Could It Be Ginni Thomas?

There was one predominant reaction to Ginni Thomas' insistence that Anita Hill needs to apologize for her sexual-harassment testimony against Clarence Thomas 19 years ago: what was Mrs. Thomas thinking? What could the Thomases possibly gain by resurrecting a controversy so old that many of Ms. Hill's law students didn't realize who she was?

On the eve of Halloween week, why treat a new generation of Americans to the macabre details of Ms. Hill's allegations against Mr. Thomas--including sharing his interest in pornography and his horniness with unwilling female co-workers and, above all, his elocution to some of them:
"Who has put public hair on my Coke?"

And did Mrs. Thomas give no thought that her new harassment of Ms. Hill might bring comment from others who had been romantically involved with Mr. Thomas in the past--like former girlfriend Lillian McEwan, previously an SEC lawyer, who last week confirmed that Mr. Thomas was really into porn and really aggressive in pushing himself sexually on female co-workers? Don't McEwan's revelations set up Mr. Thomas for impeachment by Congress, on the grounds that he lied under oath in his confirmation hearings?

Whether Mrs. Thomas' role as a prominent tea bagger and high-profile fund raiser for the movement was a motivating factor is unknown. But Providence Journal columnist Fromma Harrop finds it ironic that by putting her husband's controversy back in the news, Mrs. Thomas has helped us focus on the serious threat posed by the Supreme Court's ruling in the "Citizens United" case.

Harrop doesn't say so, but I will: the pubic hair on the Coke has become the pubic hair on Citizens United: Mrs. Thomas' gambit personifies why allowing 501(c)(4) groups with phantom donors to contribute anonymously and without limit to partisan political advertising is such a danger to American democracy.

Portions of Harrop's column follow:

Ginni Thomas has bigger fish to fry than to rehash her grievances with Anita Hill. She's raised hundreds of thousands for her lucrative political brainchild, Liberty Central. The group's mission is to co-opt tea party types and deliver them to the Republican establishment. What better way for Ginni to profit from right-wing anger than to portray herself as the victim of a left-wing smear campaign?

By all means, let's keep the spotlight on her and follow it to Liberty Central. You think that big money has already taken over Washington? You have no idea how much worse it could get. The Thomases' activities provide a number of scary potential scenarios.

Clarence Thomas' more serious brush with indecency involved his role last January in the obscene Citizens United ruling. Joining the conservative majority, he helped open the stable doors for 501(c)(4) groups, like Ginni's Liberty Central, to collect millions from unidentified donors, then use the money to run political ads.

Now, Ginni is a private citizen who has every right to be politically active. Liberals can play the same game. But here's the problem — and it goes way beyond possibly compromising the electoral process.
Clarence rules on cases that affect powerful economic interests. We have no idea whether those interests are simultaneously enriching Ginni's political group and, by extension, the Thomas household. But Ginni knows.

What's to stop her from saying over breakfast: "Honey, Megamogul Hedge Fund Partners has just given Liberty Central $500,000. They need your help at court today." Or to better protect her husband from possible conflict-of-interest charges, she could take an indirect approach: "Honey, I don't care for the plaintiff's argument in today's case," followed by a wink.

Perhaps the Thomases are sterling servants of the public good. Still, how can we assess whether a justice has a conflict of interest without knowing where the family's money comes from?

The classic conservative cure for keeping elections honest while allowing unlimited campaign spending was to disclose the names of the spenders. Now we can't even tell who may be paying people off.

Thank you, Ginni Thomas, for keeping us focused on these dangers to the democracy. You may have done our civic culture a great service even if you had no intention of doing it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Church Teaching Comes from Three Groups; Church Officials Are But One of Them

Hats off to the National Catholic Reporter today for posting two excellent commentaries reaffirming that there are multiple teaching authorities in the Catholic Church, and that church officials are only one of them. This was, of course, one of the pivotal themes of my doctoral dissertation, and a reality that Vatican conservatives have been eager to deny in the 40+ years since Vatican II.

In the wake of a September 15th broadside by the Committee on Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops--which charged that the 2008 book The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology by Creighton University theologians Todd A. Salzman and Michael G. Lawler was “in serious error, and cannot be considered authentic Catholic teaching”--the commentaries remind the bishops that Catholic theologians and baptized Catholics as a whole are parallel channels of teaching authority: sources which the bishops may neither disrespect nor ignore.

One commentary by theologian Regina Schulte, is entitled On sexuality, the hierarchy has usurped the entire teaching office. She compares the bishops' reactionary stance to the one they voiced against the 1977 landmark book Human Sexuality: New Directions in American Catholic Thought, by a committee of theologians commissioned by the Catholic Theological Society of America--and concludes that not much has changed. Schulte knows whereof she speaks: her late husband James Schulte was one of the study's authors. Ms. Schulte asks:

"Should final decisions regarding sexual morality for all persons be filtered only through such a single mindset and then imposed dictatorially on all members -- men and women, married and single, homosexuals at all androgynal points on the spectrum?

"It borders on the ridiculous to disallow contributions that the very people possessing the requisite wisdom born of experience can bring to the discussions.

"It is apparent that the hierarchy has usurped the entire teaching office -- the “magisterium” -- for themselves; yet they are only one of three components endowed with this charism. Theologians and the wisdom born of experience in the “sense of the faithful” comprise the other two. It would seem, then, that appropriate exercise of their distinctive roles requires that bishops collaborate rather than compete.

"Finally, theologians must constantly emphasize that their role is not catechesis. Theology’s mission is not that of mere communicator between hierarchy and laity. When denunciations such as that pronounced on this latest scholarly work by Salzman and Lawson cease to be standard operating procedure, then, and probably only then, will Catholic moral theology move forward, offering light and guidance to contemporary Catholics -- and to society at large with whom it will undoubtedly resonate."

The second commentary is an NCR editorial entitled The wisdom of the church’s three magisteria. The editorial echoes Shulte's insistence that teaching authority in the Catholic church is shared by three different bodies of believers--officials, theologians and all the baptized. But the editorial expands on the theme by tracing it back to the "newly Blessed" Cardinal John Henry Newman, and by noting that Newman valued even more channels by which the Spirit of the Risen Lord could inspire church teaching:

"It was the newly Blessed John Henry Newman himself who pointed out that there are really three magisteria in the church: the mouth of the episcopacy, the doctors (meaning the theologians) and the people in the pews. Newman valued all three equally and the wise balance and guidance they provided.

"'I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the apostles, committed to the whole church in its various constituents and functions ... manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies, rites, ceremonies, and customs, by events, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of those channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect.'

"Newman was fascinated with the interactions among these three magisteria in history when doctrine and theology were being formulated, notably in the early centuries when the laity saved the church from the Arian heresy and then in the 19th century when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was forged by Pope Pius IX, who preferred expressions taken from the church’s lived experience, from the faith and worship of the Christian people, to scholastic definitions."

The editorial ends by quoting the forward to The Sexual Person written by Fr. Charles Curran, moral theologian at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, whom I still cherish as one of my mentors at the Catholic University of America in the 1970s:

“Anyone familiar with the Catholic tradition and its history knows that arguments and even sharp differences between and among Catholic theologians are nothing new. In fact, in earlier times the differences were more severe than they are today. ... In that historical context, The Sexual Person makes a significant contribution. Not all theologians will agree with what Salzman and Lawler propose but all must recognize they have achieved their purpose of entering into a genuine and respectful dialogue in the search of the truth and meaning of human sexuality in the Catholic tradition today.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Supremes Should Tell Fred Phelps He Can't Impose His Religion on Other Faiths' Funerals

The gist of most of the coverage of the Supreme Court's questioning of the Fred Phelps clan October 6th was that most of the justices, conservative and liberal, seemed sympathetic to the family of the deceased soldier harassed by the anti-gay hate group at their son's funeral and wanted to find a way to rule against Phelps--but the justices seemed to be grasping for a way to do so that would not stifle legitimate free speech.

In a letter to the Houston Chronicle October 12th, a reader gave the justices an excellent rationale. Stephen W. O'Driscoll of The Woodlands, TX, said the issue should be freedom of religion, not freedom of speech: funerals, which are almost always conducted by a religious official of one kind or another, should be considered protected events under the First Amendment's freedom of religion clauses--so that no one has the right to disrupt them, and especially when they're trying to assert contrary religious claims against the mourners. The text of the letter follows:

No right to disrupt

Regarding "Justices not blind as they hear appeal," (Page A3, Thursday), the Supreme Court case involving the disruption of the burial of a fallen Marine is actually simple to decide.

Any burial can be considered a private and religious rite since a religious figure, such as a priest, rabbi, minister or other, is normally involved.

To say that anyone has the right to disrupt the service would lead to wholesale disruptions in churches, mosques, synagogues and any other places of worship.

I will leave it to the Supreme Court to decide if such disruptions should be considered as hate crimes.

— STEPHEN W. O'DRISCOLL,

The Woodlands

Thursday, October 07, 2010

States Rights? Texas Oil Majors Try to Gut California Law That Cuts Greenhouse Gases

"States rights." It's perhaps the perennial slogan of the U.S. political right. But when it suits their purposes, proponents have no compunction whatsoever about asserting, nakedly and arbitrarily, that other states have fewer rights than their own.

Take, for instance, the State of Hawaii. It has laws governing birth records--laws which mandate that original birth certificates be kept in a state filing cabinet, and nowhere else. Confronted with this mandate, those who insist on questioning the true birthplace of the President of the United States declare that Hawaii has no right to enact this legislation. How would they like it if Hawaii told them what they do not have the right to enact?

And now, thanks to a recent Thomas Friedman column in the New York Times, we get another flagrant example. We learn that two large Texas oil companies--Valero and Tesoro--are working to have California voters gut a law to rollback greenhouse gases, passed by the California Legislature with strong bipartisan support in 2006. And we also learn that California Republican Governor Arnold Schawrzenegger is mad as hell about the effort--as is Californian George Shultz, Republican secretary of state in the Reagan administration.

What we do not hear is any outcry from Texas Governor Rick Perry, long-put-upon champion of states rights for Texas. Perry, of course, has publicized his championship by dubious stances like challenging the EPA's right to enforce federal environmental laws in Texas, rejecting stimulus money publicly but taking it through the back door, squandering federal dollars intended to keep school districts from laying off teachers in a benighted attempt to plug a gigantic deficit looming in the state budget, and the like. So it would surprise no one if Perry were to claim that Texas has rights which California doesn't. Bless his heart!

As Daniel Webster asked during an historic debate in 1830, "wence is this supposed right of the states derived?" Of course Webster was debunking another presumptuous state right: the right to withdraw from the "perpetual union" into which the Constitution forged the states--another right Perry arrogates to himself. Perhaps Texas voters will be bright enough to disabuse him of that claim. Not likely, but one can hope.

Meanwhile, let's revel in most of Friedman's account of Texas' arrogance and California's rightful outrage:

The Terminator, a k a the Governator, is not happy. And you shouldn’t be either.

What has Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California incensed is the fact that two Texas oil companies with two refineries each in California are financing a campaign to roll back California’s landmark laws to slow global warming and promote clean energy innovation, because it would require the refiners to install new emission-control tools. At a time when President Obama and Congress have failed to pass a clean energy bill, California’s laws are the best thing we have going to stimulate clean-tech in America. We don’t want them gutted. C’mon in. This is a fight worth having.

Here are the basics: Next month Californians will vote on “Prop 23,” a proposal to effectively kill implementation of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, known as A.B. 32. It was supported by Republicans, Democrats, businesses and environmentalists. Prop 23 proposes to suspend implementation of A.B. 32 until California achieves four consecutive quarters of unemployment below 5.5 percent. It is currently above 12 percent.

A.B. 32 was designed to put California on a path to reducing greenhouse gases in its air to 1990 levels by 2020. This would make the state a healthier place, and a more innovative one. Since A.B. 32 was passed, investors have poured billions of dollars into making new technologies to meet these standards.

“It is very clear that the oil companies from outside the state that are trying to take out A.B. 32, and trying to take out our environmental laws, have no interest in suspending it, but just to get rid of it,” Governor Schwarzenegger said at an energy forum we both participated in last week in Sacramento, sponsored by its energetic mayor, Kevin Johnson. “They want to kill A.B. 32. Otherwise they wouldn’t put this provision in there about the 5.5 percent unemployment rate. It’s very rare that California in the last 40 years had an unemployment rate of below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters. They’re not interested in our environment; they are only interested in greed and filling their pockets with more money.

“And they are very deceptive when they say they want to go and create more jobs in California,” the governor added. “Since when has [an] oil company ever been interested in jobs? Let’s be honest. If they really are interested in jobs, they would want to protect A.B. 32, because actually it’s green technology that is creating the most jobs right now in California, 10 times more than any other sector.”

No, this is not about jobs. As ThinkProgress.org, a progressive research center, reported: Two Texas oil companies, Valero and Tesoro, “have led the charge against the landmark climate law, along with Koch Industries, the giant oil conglomerate owned by right-wing megafunders Charles and David Koch. Koch recently donated $1 million to the effort and has been supporting front groups involved in the campaign.”

Fortunately, Californians from across the political spectrum are trying to raise money to defeat Prop 23, but the vote could be close. George Shultz, a former secretary of state during the Reagan administration, has taken a leading role in the campaign against Prop 23. (See: www.stopdirtyenergyprop.com.)

“Prop 23 is designed to kill by indefinite postponement California’s effort to clean up the environment,” said Mr. Shultz. “This effort is financed heavily by money from out of state. You have to conclude that the financiers are less concerned about California than they are about the fact that if we get something that is working here to clean up the air and launch a clean-tech industry, it will go national and maybe international. So the stakes are high. I hope we can win here and send a message to the whole country that it’s time to put aside partisan politics and get an energy bill out of Washington.”

Dan Becker, a veteran environmental lobbyist, echoes that view: “Now that industry and their friends in Congress have blocked progress there, the hope for action moves to the states” and the Environmental Protection Agency. “Unfortunately,” he added, “polluter lobbyists are tight on our heels. They’ve offered Senate amendments to block the E.P.A. from using the Clean Air Act to cut power plant pollution. Since that failed, they are trying to block California from moving forward. ... If the people of California see through the misrepresentations of the oil industry, it throws climate denialism off the tracks and opens the door for a return to a science-based approach to the climate. It would be a triumph for the National Academy of Sciences over the National Academy of Fraud.”

The real joke is thinking that if California suspends its climate laws that Mother Nature will also take a timeout. “We can wait to solve this problem as long as we want,” says Nate Lewis, an energy chemist at the California Institute of Technology: “But Nature is balancing its books every day. It was a record 113 degrees in Los Angeles the other day. There are laws of politics and laws of physics. Only the latter can’t be repealed.”

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Interior Dept. Approves 11 Square Miles of Solar Projects on Public Lands in So-Cal

A posting from "msnbc staff and news service reports" (covered by others in the hours since) touts a significant step forward in the effort to harness solar energy to power homes. If things go well, several similar projects also plan to start up in the coming months. Excerpts follow:

After five years of negotiations and battles, some of them environmental, two large solar power projects on Tuesday got the first-ever green lights to set up shop on federal lands.

"These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement announcing the approvals in desert areas of Southern California.

One includes a square mile of solar panels near Victorville in inland Southern California, and the other covers about 10 square miles in the remote Imperial Valley, east of San Diego.

The announcement comes about five years after solar developers began asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for rights to develop hundreds of solar plants on federally owned desert land across the Southwest.

Expected to cost around $2 billion, the largest of the two projects will use 28,360 solar collectors known as SunCatchers to produce enough electricity to power more than 200,000 homes.

The approvals give the project sponsors access to almost 6,800 acres of public lands for 30 years.

Construction is expected to start on both by the end of the year, and Interior said the projects should generate almost 1,000 jobs.

The two approvals are:

  • The Imperial Valley Solar Project, by Tessera Solar of Arizona and based in Imperial County, Calif., is expected to produce up to 709 megawatts from 28,360 solar dishes, enough to power at least 200,000 homes.

  • The Chevron Lucerne Valley Solar Project will use photovoltaic solar technology in San Bernardino County, Calif., and will produce up to 45 megawatts from 40,500 solar panels, enough to power at least 13,000 homes.
Interior said both are part of a "fast track" process that provides significant funding via the federal stimulus program if construction begins by the end of 2010.

"The Recovery Act’s payment for specified energy property in lieu of tax credit program makes Tessera and Chevron eligible for approximately $273 million and $31 million, respectively," Interior stated.

Tuesday's approvals came shortly after California regulators passed rules requiring utilities to derive a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, the most aggressive standards in the U.S.

The newly approved permit for sites in California were the first in a series Salazar expected to issue before the end of the year. Final approval by 2011 qualifies projects for federal stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Currently, solar developers have proposed facilities that would produce more than 6,000 megawatts, enough to power 4 million homes for a day at peak usage. The projects are proposed for about 23 million acres of federally owned desert in the Southwest.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state is on track to approve nine large solar plants by year's end.

"Our great partnership is helping to improve public health, grow our green economy, promote energy independence and strengthen our national security," the governor said in a statement.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Tea Kettle Movement" Vents Steam, But Offers Nothing to Cure What Ails Us

New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman says "The tea party that has gotten all the attention, the self-generated protest against growth in government and the deficit" should really be called "the 'Tea Kettle movement'--because all it's doing is letting off steam."

It fails to comprehend what is really wrong with the United States, and its primary goal of reducing the federal deficit is diametrically incompatible with its goal of reducing taxes. By contrast, says Friedman, a "really important" tea party movement would face what ails us head on and not mince words about the obvious solutions.

The tea baggers have done such a disservice to rational political dialogue, I think it is a mistake to characterize any movement that wants to be taken seriously as a tea party. But I think Friedman is accurate about the movement the country needs--and accurate in his assessment that Barack Obama has not proven to be the leader the movement awaits. Excerpts from Friedman's column follow:

The Tea Kettle movement can't have a positive impact on the country because it has both misdiagnosed America's main problem and hasn't even offered a credible solution for the problem it has identified. How can you take a movement seriously that says it wants to cut government spending by billions of dollars but won't identify specific defense programs, Social Security, Medicare or other services it's ready to cut?

And how can you take seriously a movement that sat largely silent while the Bush administration launched two wars and a new entitlement, Medicare prescription drugs--while cutting taxes--but is now, suddenly, mad as hell about the deficit and won't take it anymore from President Barack Obama? Say what? Where were you folks for eight years?

The issues that upset the Tea Kettle movement--debt and bloated government--are actually the symptoms of our real problem, not causes. They are symptoms of a country in a state of incremental decline because our politics has become just another form of sports entertainment, our Congress is a forum for legalized bribery and our main lawmaking institutions divided by toxic partisanship.

The important tea party movement, which stretches from centrist Republicans to independents right through to centrist Democrats, understands this at a gut level and is looking for a leader...

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told me that when he does focus groups today this is what he hears: "People think the country is in trouble and that countries like China have a strategy for success and we don't. They will follow someone who convinces them that they have a plan to make America great again. That is what they want to hear. It cuts across Republicans and Democrats."

...What is America's core competency and strategic advantage, and how do we nurture it? Answer: It is our ability to attract, develop and unleash creative talent. That means men and women who invent, build and sell more goods and services that make people's lives more productive, healthy, comfortable, secure and entertained than any other country.

Leadership today is about how the U.S. government attracts and educates more of that talent and then enacts the laws, regulations and budgets that empower that talent to take its products and services to scale, sell them around the world--and create good jobs here in the process. Without that, we can't afford the health care or the defense we need.

This is the plan the real tea party wants from its president. To implement it would require us to actually raise some taxes--on, say, gasoline--and cut others--like payroll and corporate taxes. It would require us to overhaul our immigration laws so we can better control our borders, let in more knowledge workers and retain those skilled foreigners going to college here. And it would require us to reduce some services--like Social Security--while expanding other, like education and research for a 21st-century economy...

Any tea party that says the simple answer is just shrinking government and slashing taxes might be able to tip the midterm elections in its direction. But it can't tip America in the right direction. There is a tea party for that, but it's still waiting for a leader."