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."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Freedom of Religion = Freedom from Legislating the Catholic Position on Abortion

Tim Townsend, religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 2004, has gained quite a lot of attention for his analysis of various religions' divergent views on when human life begins, first posted on the Post-Dispatch website on August 22nd under the headline, New Mo. abortion law counters some philosophy, theology.

Several other media outlets that ran the piece thought they could improve on the title:

The Huffington Post (and evidently Religion News Service) named it Life Begins at Conception, New Mo. Law Says.

The National Catholic Reporter ran with Mo. lawmakers answer when life begins.

The weekly Houston Belief section of the Houston Chronicle got fancier: When does life begin? Laws attempt to apply Christian theology to answer question.

None of these, alas, captured Townsend's point as cogently as the original headline. For his real point is that several respectable religions have widely divergent views on when human life begins--and that the First Amendment's freedom of religion clauses prevent federal, state and local governments from favoring any one of them in legislation to control abortions. That, of course, has been a persistent view of mine since the 1960s.

But that, of course, has not prevented the Roman Catholic Church from trying to impose its specific abortion teaching on the rest of us throughout those decades. Rome has always tried to argue that its position is grounded, not on religious belief but on the so-called natural law--which, church officials argue, is accessible to all people of good will through reason alone, apart from any revelation by anyones God. Trouble is, Catholic church officials are the only religious leaders who accept their version of natural law. Thus the Catholic description of natural law is at bottom a religious belief--and, as such, one among others. No wonder after so many decades of trying, Rome has gotten only two of our states to agree legislatively that human life begins at conception.

Townsend's best contribution to the discussion is pointing out that until the late 19th century Rome's reading of the natural law was different than it has been since, and in fact much closer to the views of today's Protestants, Jews and Muslims than those of today's Catholic conservatives. This being the case, why make it the litmus test for Catholic orthodoxy and why, above all, insist that it can be imposed on other believers or those who exercise their right not to believe at all?

The following paragraphs are Townsend's succinct summary of the positions of various religions on when life begins. They explain why freedom of religion must mean freedom from legislating the Catholic position on abortion.

Aquinas, and Augustine before him, wrestled with concepts introduced by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. Aristotle believed that a soul could inhabit a fetus only when that fetus began to look human, a timetable he set at 40 days for men and 90 days for women.

The 40-day notion prevailed in the Roman Catholic Church until the 19th century, when Pope Pius IX removed the distinction between souled and unensouled fetuses from church doctrine.

Since then, the Catholic Church has conceded that man can never know empirically when an embryo gains its soul.

Protestant denominations have a variety of positions on life's beginnings, although more conservative evangelical churches largely embrace the Vatican's absolutist views.

But other faith traditions disagree, and have for centuries.

"The Talmud says that from the moment of fertilization until 40 days, the embryo has a status of being nearly liquid," said Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. "The question for Jewish law is not when does life begin, but when is the embryo entitled to the justice and compassion of society?"

Islamic law closely follows Jewish law, though different streams within Islam have various views, said Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Virginia and author of Islamic Biomedical Ethics.

Most Sunni Muslims "believe that life begins at the turn of the first trimester," Sachedina said.

Hindus believe in reincarnation, so life beginning "at conception" creates theological problems. "Life cannot begin at conception when our lives have not ended in the first place," said Cromwell Crawford, a retired professor at the University of Hawaii and author of Hindu Bioethics for the Twenty-First Century.

In its Declaration on Religious Freedom, Vatican II officially moved the Catholic church beyond its earlier claim that it had the right to tell others, believers and non-believers, how to believe. On the issue of abortion legislation, Rome has yet to follow the council's decree. How long, oh Lord, how long?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Blessed John Henry Newman: The Faithful Often Save the Church from Its Bishops

Robert McClory, author of Faithful Dissenters: Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church, says Cardinal John Henry Newman, who converted to Roman Catholicism from the Church of England, would be aghast that Pope Benedict XVI is about to beatify him for being an opponent of dissent.
On the contrary, says McClory, "Newman was as singular a voice for responsible dissent and the rights of the laity as the Roman Catholic church has ever seen."

And as McClory points out, apart from Newman the Catholic Church would have no clue about development of doctrine and the essential role of the consensus of the faithful.

Although my Ph.D. dissertation argues that Newman's specific description of doctrinal development was an instance of misplaced concreteness (in Alfred North Whitehead's sense of the term), the church owes Newman a tremendous debt for staking his faith on notion that the development of Christian doctrine is real and observable--even though Pope Pius IX and other church officials of Newman's day were certain he was wrong and perhaps even heretical.

The following is McClory's take on Newman, posted today on the website of the National Catholic Reporter.

There is stark irony in the words Pope Benedict XVI chose when he announced last February his plan to visit England this year and there pronounce John Henry Newman as among the “blessed,” just one step from canonization as a saint. He cited Newman as an example for all the world of opposition to dissent. “In a social milieu that encourages the expression of a variety of opinions on every question that arises,” said the pope, “it is important to recognize dissent for what it is and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate.”

If Newman’s remains had not decomposed -- as Vatican investigators discovered when they attempted to dig up his coffin in 2008 seeking evidence of his sanctity -- he would have been spinning in his grave. For Newman was as singular a voice for responsible dissent and the rights of the laity as the Roman Catholic church has ever seen. He paid dearly for his convictions and was very nearly silenced or worse when he became embroiled in 1859 in a controversy over the development of doctrine.

The idea of development was not popular at the time, especially among the hierarchy. So Newman, using history to make his point, wrote about the Arian heresy of the 4th century. Twenty-five years before, he had produced a massive, scholarly history of the Arians and how they failed, despite a 50-year, emperor-supported campaign to impose as church doctrine the belief that Christ was not divine; rather, he was a most elevated, godlike being, but creature nevertheless. Now in a lengthy, pointed article, titled “On Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine,” Newman argued that the Arian position, shared by the overwhelming majority of the bishops and endorsed by at least one pope, did not become Catholic doctrine because a great mass of the laity along with a handful of priests and bishops resisted. Despite beatings, seizures of property and in some cases martyrdom, they refused, they dissented. They clung to the doctrine of the Council of Nicea, which, they were assured, had been discredited. Only at the First Council of Constantinople was the Arian position repudiated.

Belief in Christ’s divinity was maintained during the greater part of the 4th century, wrote Newman, “not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See, Councils or Bishops, but … by the consensus fidelium [consent of the faithful]. On the one hand, I say, there was a temporary suspense of the functions of the Ecclesia docens [the teaching church]. The body of the Bishops failed in their confession of the faith. … There were untrustworthy Councils, unfaithful Bishops; there was weakness, fear of consequences, misguidance, delusion, hallucination, endless, hopeless, extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic church.”

To explain how such a thing happened (and could happen again), Newman relied on his own, well developed ideas about the “sense” and the “consent” of the faithful. Church teaching, he argued cannot be a top-down enterprise, a one-way street. It must be the result of a conspiratio, literally a breathing together of the faithful and the bishops. It is the first responsibility of the episcopacy and papacy, he said, to listen carefully before teaching doctrine.

And to what must they listen? Said Newman, “I think I am right in saying that the tradition of the Apostles, committed to the whole Church … manifests itself variously at various times: sometimes by the mouth of the episcopacy, sometimes by the doctors, sometimes by the people, sometimes by liturgies … customs, disputes, movements, and all those other phenomena which are comprised under the name of history. It follows that none of these channels of tradition may be treated with disrespect.” This is not to undercut the teaching authority of the bishops, insisted Newman; they must wade through all these sources. And, he added, of all the sources, “I am accustomed to lay stress on the consensus fidelium.”

Newman strove for most of his life as a Roman Catholic to open the minds of English Catholics, lay and clerical. In this he had scant success, living for most of his remaining years under a cloud of suspicion. At one point, he was labeled “the most dangerous man in England.” Then in Newman’s final days Pope Pius IX died and his successor, Leo XIII, removed the cloud by naming Newman a cardinal. It was at the Second Vatican Council that Newman found a larger measure of vindication.

Theologians by then had embraced and expanded on his ideas of doctrinal development and the importance of consulting the faithful. The fingerprints of Newman can be found on many council documents, most notably the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church. Pope Paul VI went so far as to say Vatican II was “Newman’s council.”

The beatification of John Henry Newman now seems more a scandal than cause for celebration as those who are determined to rewrite Vatican II seek to enlist Newman in their misrepresentation. He will not join the movement.

Protest the Pope: Why Dignify Benedict's Long Train of Abuses with a State Visit?

CNN has posted a speech given in London last month to members of the Protest the Pope movement by Australian activist Peter Tatchell, who campaigns for human rights, democracy, lesbian and gay freedom and global justice. The campaign said Pope Benedict XVI had committed atrocities against several groups of human beings and that the UK government should not be dignifying him with a state visit. Tatchell's speech is a handy summary of Joseph Ratzinger's failings, both as Roman Catholicism's chief doctrinal enforcer under Pope John Paul II and as John Paul's successor. CNN's posting follows.

As a democrat, I defend the right of Pope Benedict XVI to visit Britain and to express his opinions. But people who disagree with him also have a right to protest against his often harsh, intolerant views.

The Protest the Pope campaign is calling on the British government to disassociate itself from the pope's opposition to women's rights, gay equality and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV. On these and many other issues, Benedict is out of step with the majority of British people, including most Catholics.

We do not believe that the pope should be honored with a state visit, given his role in the cover up of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy. Even today, he is refusing to hand the Vatican's secret sex abuse files to the police in countries worldwide. He is protecting the abusers. This makes him complicit with sex crimes against children. Such a person does not deserve the honor of a state visit.

We also object to part of his visit being funded by the taxpayer. The British public never funds visits by the Grand Mufti of Mecca or the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. Why should the pope's visit get privileged financial support?

On many important social issues, the pope rejects equality and human rights.

Pope Benedict opposes women's ordination. Women are deemed unfit to be priests. This is an insult to the whole female sex. The implication of the pope's teaching is that women have no moral capacity for spiritual leadership as clergy. This is pure patriarchy and misogyny.

The pope says artificial contraception is a sin. He condemns poor parents in developing countries to have large families that they can't care for adequately. In some countries, priests promote scare stories that contraception makes women sick and will kill them.

Benedict XVI opposes IVF fertility treatment. He wants to deny childless couples the chance of parenthood. This is odd. The Catholic Church says having children is God's will yet it rejects giving the option of parenthood to infertile couples.

The pope rejects potentially life-saving embryonic stem cell research, which could help find cures for fatal illnesses like motor neurone disease -- saving lives and improving people's quality of life. Surely this research is fulfilling Christian values and ideals?

Benedict XVI has denounced the use of condoms, even to stop the spread of HIV. A husband with HIV must not use a condom to protect his wife from infection, according to Papal doctrine. He has also claimed that condoms "increase" the rate of HIV infection. His dishonest teachings discourage a proven way to reduce HIV transmission; thereby putting millions of lives at risk.

The pope has colluded with the Vatican's promotion of the lie that condoms spread HIV because latex is porous to the virus. This is an outrageous falsehood and has been condemned as untrue and irresponsible by scientists and medical professionals. Yet Benedict has never withdrawn or repudiated the Vatican nonsense that condoms have tiny holes through which HIV can pass.

In 1986 and 1992, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he authored a Vatican document that condemned the homosexuality as an "objective disorder" and the mere fact of being gay as a "strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil" -- even if a gay person never has sex. Rejecting the concept of gay human rights, the document asserted that there is no "right" to laws protecting homosexual people against discrimination, suggesting that the civil liberties of lesbians and gay men can be "legitimately limited for objectively disordered external conduct."

The pope has attacked same-sex marriages as "evil" and vilified supporters of gay equality as "gravely immoral." He has also denounced homosexual equality as a "deviant trend" and condemned same-sex love as being "without any social value." He even threatened to excommunicate Catholic legislators who voted for gay rights laws.

While condemning loving, consenting adult same-sex relations, the pontiff played a role in shielding Catholic clergy guilty of child sex abuse from prosecution.

In 2001, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to all Catholic Bishops, which ordered "Papal secrecy" concerning allegations of child sex abuse. He instructed the Bishops to report all such cases to him in Rome, so the idea that he did not know about sex abuse by priests is nonsense. His letter did not tell Bishops to report the abusers to the police.

The esteemed Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, said the pope bears co-responsibility for the cover-up and that Benedict has failed to apologize for his own personal shortcomings during the child sex abuse scandal.

For more than two decades, as a Cardinal and as a Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has attempted to reverse the liberalizing trends of the Second Vatican Council -- pushing the whole church back to a more orthodox, conservative agenda. He's strengthening the hierarchy and autocracy of the Vatican and the Papacy.

This has prompted a grassroots Catholic revolt -- the "We are Church" movement -- which seeks a more democratic, transparent, accountable Church. It asserts that the people are the Church, not the pope.

The Pope has condemned liberation theology, as espoused by Catholic theologians such as Gustavo Gutierriz and Leonardo Boff, and he has opposed the worker priest movement. He preaches social justice but attacks those clergy who advocate political action to reform society and make it more just.

Last year, Pope Benedict rescinded the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson who, in 2008, denied key elements of the Holocaust; claiming that a maximum of 300,000 Jews died in concentration camps and that none were gassed by the Nazis. Williamson remains a part of the Catholic church, with the Pope's blessing, despite the furore over his holocaust denial.

Benedict has also paved the way for eventual sainthood of Pope, Pius XII, despite the war-time pontiff's failure to speak out publicly, either during or after the Holocaust, against the Nazi mass murder of six million Jews and millions of others, including Russian, Polish, disabled, gay and Roma people -- and many more.

Pius XII was no saint. The fact that Pope Benedict wants to makes him a saint shows how far he has strayed from the moral and ethical values of most Catholics and most of humanity.