Wednesday, November 24, 2010
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
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.
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
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
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 jalapeño 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
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
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."