Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, May 30, 2003
HAPPY BIRTHDAY to my lovely wife Gina, who has put up with me for almost 11 years (14 if you count the time since we started dating). May your coffin be built of 100 year oak, and may we plant the seed together tomorrow.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:31 PM
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FAITH'S DARKNESS: Fr. Ron Rolheiser offers some thoughts this week about our struggle with belief:

Nicholas Lash, professor of Divinity at Cambridge, once made this comment about our struggle: "We need do no more than notice that most of our contemporaries still find it 'obvious' that atheism is not only possible, but widespread and that, both intellectually and ethically, it has much to commend it. This view might be plausible if being an atheist were a matter of not believing that there exists 'a person without a body' who is 'eternal, free, able to do anything, knows everything' and is 'the proper object of human worship and obedience, the creator and sustainer of the universe.'

"If, however, by 'God' we mean the mystery, announced in Christ, breathing all things out of nothing into peace, then all things have to do with God in every move and fragment of their being, whether they notice this and suppose it to be so or not. Atheism, if it means deciding not to have anything to do with God, is thus self-contradictory and, if successful, self-destructive."

Lash isn't saying that a personal God doesn't exist, but that God's person and being are of a different order, beyond the wood of this world, and that over-powering light can feel like darkness.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:06 AM
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NEVER AGAIN: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International today jointly called on the U.N. Security Council to authorize the deployment of a rapid reaction force to protect civilians in Ituri, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The organizations said that thousands of civilians continue to be at risk as opposing Hema and Lendu ethnic militia groups remain fully armed and ready to attack again. Tens of thousands of other civilians are believed to have fled Bunia, and their condition is unknown. At least 5,000 people died from direct violence in Ituri between July 2002 and March 2003. These victims are in addition to the 50,000 civilians that, according to United Nations estimates, have died there since 1999. These losses are just one part of an estimated total of 4.7 million civilians dead throughout the Congo, a toll that makes this war more deadly to civilians than any other since World War II.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:01 AM
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DISASTER: John Allen talks with Karel Zelenka, who works for Caritas, the Vatican's international charitable agency. It's Zelenka's job to coordinate humanitarian relief for major disasters. Zalenka has been in Iraq recently and, Allen writes, he "brought back a message for the West, and especially for Americans, from Iraq. It boils down to this: Baghdad is out of control, and something has to be done."

“It’s a humanitarian disaster,” Zelenka said. “It’s chaos. People are afraid to go into the street. They rarely leave home, and when they do, they can’t wait to get back. A society can’t function like this.”

Most Iraqi Christians, Zelenka said, seem glad the Americans toppled the Hussein regime, but they are fearful of what may come next. In recent days the Shi’ite community has exerted a kind of civil authority based on Islamic law, demanding that women wear scarves and ordering liquor stores to close. These are small steps, but they herald a possible fundamentalist Islamic state that would represent the Christian community’s worst fears.
Allen also writes briefly about Cardinal Arinze's Georgetown dustup that is creating so much traffic in my comment boxes below (Keep it coming, people! Run up that hit count!). Allen spoke with Arinze at yet another recent Georgetown event:

I jokingly said to Arinze at the reception that he was brave to show up at another Georgetown event. He smiled graciously and said, in effect, that the affair was no big deal. “Had I known what effect it was going to have, I would have used another word,” he said.

Though I didn’t press him, my guess is that Arinze did not mean to attack homosexual persons. In Vatican parlance, when one mentions homosexuality in connection with the family, the reference is usually to issues such as same-sex unions and the definition of marriage. One can debate whether they amount to “mockery” of the family, but this is not hate speech.
Regrettable rhetoric overstretch or calculated rhetorical fusillade? We report, you decide...

posted by Peter Nixon 10:59 AM
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Thursday, May 29, 2003
HOW MANY DIVISIONS? Peter Steinfels has a thoughtful column about the Pope's stand on the Iraq war and its impact on American Catholics. Steinfels speaks about the tension between broad papal pronouncements and the quiet exercise of Vatican diplomacy, a tension that is also at the heart of the debate over Pius XII's record during World War II. I thought this point was particularly good:

It should be noted that in this matter as well as others, the Vatican cannot rely on papal prestige and authority. Many an opinion poll show that American Catholics in particular have to be persuaded, not told; and that would probably have required offering much more specific ideas about dealing with the lethal formula — hostile states, terrorist groups and immensely destructive portable weapons — that the Bush administration had made the centerpiece of its case for the war.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:03 PM
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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH? Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has come under fire for some remarks he made during a commencement address at Georgetown University on May 17th. You can read the entire speak by clicking here, but I think there is general agreement that the controversial section was the following paragraph:

In many parts of the world, the family is under siege. It is opposed by an anti-life mentality as is seen in contraception, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. It is scorned and banalized by pornography, desecrated by fornication and adultery, mocked by homosexuality, sabotaged by irregular unions and cut in two by divorce.
Although concerns have been noted about various points that the Cardinal raised, it seems clear that the comments about homosexuality are the key flashpoint. The Cardinal’s defenders argue that he was merely defending Catholic teaching and the fact that he has come under attack is proof of our culture’s hostility to Catholicism and Georgetown’s decline as a Catholic institution.

I’m not so sure. In fact, I do not find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the idea that the family is “mocked” by homosexuality. In fact, I find that on this issue the Catechism has a very different tone:

Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.(2357)

The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition. (2358)

Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.(2359)
A couple of thoughts strike me when reading these paragraphs. The first is that they make a distinction—not explicitly noted by the Cardinal—between homosexual acts and persons with a homosexual orientation. While the Church condemns the former for the reasons outlined, she demands that the latter be “accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity” and repudiates “every sign of unjust discrimination.” By contrast, the Cardinal’s comment could easily be taken to imply that homosexual persons are deserving of condemnation because, by their very nature, they “mock” or disparage the heterosexual family.

Secondly, it is clear from these paragraphs that the Church’s condemnation of homosexual acts has little to do with their impact, positive or negative, on the family. One wonders how it could be otherwise, since homosexuals make up only a tiny portion of the population. The Catechism makes clear that the teaching is grounded in the witness of scripture and the Church’s understanding of the natural law.

Cardinal Arinze is entitled to his opinion about homosexuality. He is even entitled to present that opinion during a commencement address. But an opinion is all that it is. To describe his comments as merely a defense of the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is, at best, a stretch.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:53 AM
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Wednesday, May 28, 2003
RAISE MY TAXES: I’ve decided I must be a liberal. Not only am I not particularly enthused about having my taxes cut, I’d even be willing to have them raised a bit.

Crazy, you say? Well after I got done deducting all of our various deductions and credits this year—monster mortgage interest (we live in California), charitable contributions, IRA, student loan interest, deductions for our two children, credits for our two children, etc.—I discovered that my effective tax rate (not counting federal FICA taxes) was less than 15 percent.

“Wow,” I thought. “Where is the crushing burden of federal and state taxation that I keep hearing so much about?” The
Tax Freedom Day people keep telling me we’re in hock to Uncle Sam et. al. until April 18th. As far as I can tell, I’m paid up before the end of February.

And it didn’t seem to me like I was getting a particularly bad value for my money. A significant chunk of my tax dollars go toward defense, and whatever you thought of the war, the armed forces certainly did their jobs well. Another significant chunk supports state programs for low-income folks—including health insurance--and I can tell you that we can certainly use the help here in California. We’re getting a little federal help rebuilding some of the highways and bridges out here, and since California is one of the most commonly visited states in the country, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for the feds to help us out a little with that. All in all, Californians still pay more in federal taxes than the state gets back in benefits, but heck, I don’t begrudge Mississippi a little extra help.

“Well, okay,” you might say, “that’s a good argument for the status quo.” But why do you want to pay more in taxes? Well, I don’t really. But here’s the thing. We’re looking at a $35 billion—that’s billion with a “b”—budget deficit here in California. Now I’d never say they don’t waste any money in Sacramento, but some of the things that are on the chopping block here in the county where I live are things I’d really like to hold on to.

Like keeping class sizes low in the early grades. Or keeping police officers on the beat. Or not deferring the widening of a major traffic artery near my home that backs up for miles every morning. Or not cutting county mental health programs for poor people.

You see, it doesn’t matter how much they cut my taxes, I can’t go out and buy an extra lane on Ignacio Valley Road. Nor can I pop out to Home Depot and pick up a community mental health center. I think I’m with Abraham Lincoln on this one: “We must have only the government we need, but we must have all the government we need.”

So by all means, look for waste, fraud and abuse, defer some of that highway landscaping, consider leaving a few positions unfilled, etc. But don’t insult my intelligence and tell me that we can close a $35 billion hole just by cutting “wasteful spending.” I don’t buy it. If it means we can hold on to smaller class sizes, cops on the street, better roads, and a safety net for the poor, I’m willing to pony up a little more.

posted by Peter Nixon 2:11 PM
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Tuesday, May 27, 2003
ROSE IN BLOOM: Amy Welborn links to this fascinating story about Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who founded an order of nuns dedicated to serving poor people suffering from cancer. Hawthorne was the daughter of American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. She married the writer George Parsons Lathrop, who was for a time an editor at the Atlantic Monthly. After their only child died at the age of 5, the couple divorced. She converted to Catholicism a short time later. I particularly liked this passage from the story:

Rose thought her father's greatest piece of writing was a passage in his ''English Notebooks'' describing an encounter in a Liverpool workhouse with a child so deformed that Hawthorne could not even distinguish its sex. ''It took the strangest fancy for me, holding two of my fingers and playing with them, just as if the child were my very own,'' he wrote. Hawthorne lifted and embraced the child, explaining, ''I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances.''

For the Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor, this passage showed that there was ''ice'' in Hawthorne's blood ''which he feared.'' She added: ''Rose Hawthorne discovered much of what her father sought and fulfilled in a practical way the hidden desires of his life.'' Paul Elie, the author of the recently published ''The Life You Save May Be Your Own'' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), argues that Rose's example strongly influenced both O'Connor and Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
Tom over at Disputations has provided a link to the homepage of the The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, who are supporting Rose Hawthorne's cause for sainthood. The sisters continue their work with the poor who suffer from cancer, and operate six homes in five states

posted by Peter Nixon 5:18 PM
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THE GATHERING PRESBYTERIAN STORM: Christianity Today's Weblog does the pregame rap on the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (the headline is Weblog's, not mine, by the way). Attending commissioners will be debating the ordination of nonchaste homosexuals, late-term abortion, and compliance with the church's constitution.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:55 PM
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END OF LIFE: Interesting piece in Our Sunday Visitor about end-of-life issues that focuses on parenteral and enteral nutrition, a.k.a "tube feeding," although the former is delivered intravenously while the latter is delivered through a tube. The case cited in the article involves a woman in a coma-like state whose husband would like to terminate nutrition and hydration while her parents would like it maintained. Good summary at the end of where the U.S. Bishops stand on these issues (which are taken from a larger document known as Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.

The question of when nutrition and hydration can be withdrawn is a difficult one. The USCCB document cited above states that "a person may forgo extraordinary or disproportionate means of preserving life," but also states that "there should be a presumption in favor of providing nutrition and hydration to all patients, including patients who require medically assisted nutrition and hydration, as long as this is of sufficient benefit to outweigh the burdens involved to the patient." The Bishops note that the magisterium has not spoken definitively on the issue of whether it is licit to withraw nutrition and hydration from a person in a persistent vegetative state (PVS).

For myself, I find it hard to draw a hard line between artificial respiration and artificial nutrition. It seems to me that both are artificial means of sustaining life, and the use of such means is subject to the benefit/burden calculus that applies to all health treatments. It does not seem to me more morally troublesome--in principle--for a person with PVS to forgo further nutritional therapy than it would be for a person on a respirator to decide to turn off the respirator. The problem, of course, is that many (but by no means all) respirator patients are conscious and able to make their wishes known. PVS patients, by definition, are unable to do this and there is always the risk that the person who has the power to make health care decisions for them will not act in the patient's true interest.

But there is also the question of whether a patient in a PVS has really reached the point of therapeutic futility. Every year, we are learning more about how the brain can heal itself. Just the other day, I was reading about a treatment for stroke patients that involved immobilizing their "good" arm or leg and forcing them to use the "bad" one. Over time, it seems that the brain can at least partially rewire the pathways controlling motor function for the "bad" limb, leading to a restoration of at least some function. One wonders if we are giving up on PVS patients prematurely. This is a difficult issue, to be sure.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:16 PM
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WHAT DID YOU DO? Nick Kristoff has a bracing column about Africa today, noting that in the Congo, 3.3 million people have died during the warfare of the last five years. "That's half a Holocaust in a single country, writes Kristoff. I'm always a little wary of Holocaust comparisons, but Kristoff doesn't merely tick off a litany of misery. He also offers some solutions, although many of them--such as phasing out subsidies for agriculture in the United States and Europe--are probably political non-starters even if they make economic sense.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:26 AM
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