Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, November 21, 2003
NUMBER AND SPECIES: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has an article about the evolution of the sacrament of reconcilation.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:53 PM
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TOP TEN? Among the many things that John Allen covers in his column today are a list of those who he sees as the top contenders for Pope should a conclave be held soon:

• Francis Arinze (Nigeria, 71), prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
• Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Argentina, 66), archbishop of Buenos Aires
• Godfried Danneels (Belgium, 70), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels
• Ivan Dias (India, 67), archbishop of Mumbai (Bombay)
• Cláudio Hummes (Brazil, 69), archbishop of São Paolo
• Walter Kasper (Germany, 70), president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity
• Norberto Rivera Carrera (México, 61): archbishop of México City
• Oscar Andrés Rodriguez Maradiaga (Honduras, 60): archbishop of Tegucigalpa
• Christoph Schönborn (Austria, 58), archbishop of Vienna
• Dionigi Tettamanzi (Italy, 69), archbishop of Milan

Of course, as Allen notes, there is an old saying about conclaves: "He who goes in as pope comes out a cardinal."

posted by Peter Nixon 9:51 AM
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THE WIGGLES? Jeff Rosen is one of my favorite legal analysts. The other one is Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, who provides unparalled insights into the byzantine mechanics of the Supreme Court. She and Jeff are of different minds on the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision. In her column today, she raises a question that Jimmy Mac raised in a different way in one of the comments below:

Here's what's really undermining the sacredness of modern marriage: soap operas, wedding planning, longer work days, cuter secretaries, fights over money, reality TV, low-rise pants, mothers-in-law, boredom, Victoria's Secret catalogs, going to bed mad, the billable hour, that stubborn 7 pounds, the Wiggles, Internet chat rooms, and selfishness. In fact we should start amending the Constitution to deal with the Wiggles immediately.

Here's why marriage will likely survive this week's crushing decision out of Massachusetts: Because despite all the horrors of Section 4, above, human beings want and deserve a soul mate; someone to grow old with, someone who thinks our dopey entry in the New Yorker cartoon competition is hilarious, and someone to help carry the shopping bags. Gay couples have asked the state to explain why such privileges should be denied them and have yet to receive an answer that is credible.

The decision to make a marriage "sacred" does not belong to the state—if the state were in charge of mandating sacredness in matrimony, we'd have to pave over both Nevada and Jessica Simpson. We make marriage sacred by choosing to treat it that way, one couple at a time. We make marriage a joke by treating it like a two-week jungle safari. There is no evidence that gay couples are any more inclined toward that latter course than supermodels, rock stars, or that poor spineless bald man on Who Wants to Marry My Dad? There's good evidence that most of them will take the commitment very seriously, as do the rest of us. There will be more "sanctity" in marriage when we recognize that people of all orientations can make sacred choices. Good for Massachusetts for recognizing that truth.
So here's a question to ponder: does a culture that embraces Joe Millionaire and Temptation Island really have much standing to suggest that homosexual unions are a threat to the sanctity of marriage?

posted by Peter Nixon 9:41 AM
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MASS ACROSS THE BORDER: The National Catholic Reporter reports on how Catholics close to the U.S.-Mexico are working to call attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants who are taking increasing risks to cross the border.

On Nov. 2, All Souls Day -- the Day of the Dead in Hispanic communities -- 500 U.S. and Mexican Catholics gathered on either side of the fence for a Mass to remember the undocumented who have died. With their two tables pushed up against the barrier to form a single altar, the worshipers sang together, prayed a bilingual liturgy and stretched fingers through metal mesh to wish each other peace. But the fifth annual Border Mass for the Dead, concelebrated by one Mexican and four U.S. bishops, was more than a binational profession of unity in faith. The Catholics who gathered in Sunland are part of a growing movement of church-based, migrants-rights activists calling for reform of U.S. immigration policy. Its current strategy of exclusion, they say, ignores the economic interdependence between the United States and the South and has made the search for work a high-cost, lethal venture for the southern poor.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:26 AM
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Thursday, November 20, 2003
CHANGE AFOOT? Archbishop Sean O'Malley, saying it is time for healing and reconciliation, said yesterday that he will reconsider the Archdiocese of Boston's refusals to accept money raised by Voice of the Faithful or to allow new affiliates of the lay organization to meet on church property.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:33 AM
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HEART OF THE CHURCH: Sure, you promised yourself you would read the entire text of Pope John Paul II's encyclical, Ecclesia in Eucharistia. But it's pretty long and you just haven't gotten around to it, right? Well, Saint Anthony Messenger has put out a condensed version as a Catholic Update leaflet.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:02 AM
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ICONS: Among Latin-Rite Catholics in the United States, there seems to be increasing interest in, which are traditionally associated with the Orthodox Church and the Eastern Rite Churches in communion with Rome. Saint Anthony Messenger has a good piece on icons and iconographer Marek Czarnecki.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:58 AM
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MORE DEBATE: is a blog dedicated to debating the same-sex marriage issue and has been, not surprisingly, particuarly active this week. The sponsors of the blog have tried hard to have a 50/50 split between supporters and opponents of SSM and they have kept the tone very civil, which is a real trick on this issue.

Just as an aside, let me say that I understand the concerns of my gay and lesbian readers (and some friends who are not readers) who are frustrated at the way their very real, concrete relationships are being debated in highly abstract terms by people with little understanding of their lives. But what I would say in response is that extending legal recognition to those relationships--and, in particular, extending the term "marriage" to those relationships--is really a dramatic change in social policy and should be debated. That debate should be civil and respectful, but it still needs to happen.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:43 AM
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Wednesday, November 19, 2003
CLUMSY AND NAIVE? For my money, Jeff Rosen is one of the sharpest legal analysts around right now. Although his opposition to judicial activism drives a lot of liberals nuts, by no stretch of the imagination is he a conservative. His analysis of the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision is worth reading in its entirety, particularly his discussion of how the Court has magically transformed the rational basis test into something approaching strict scrutiny. But it was this paragraph that caught my eye:

Simply as a rhetorical matter, Chief Justice Marshall's opinion for the Court seems to go out of its way to drive social conservatives crazy. Although it claims to be based on the Massachusetts Constitution, it never specifies the textual provisions on which it purportedly relies. It expansively cites Lawrence v. Texas, the federal sodomy decision from June, as establishing a broad right of personal autonomy, failing to acknowledge any of the complicated differences between laws regulating sexual behavior in private and laws establishing family relationships in public. (In this sense, it confirms the social conservatives' dire predictions--denied by Justice Kennedy himself--that Lawrence would lead directly to gay marriage.) It gratuitously cites the recent gay marriage decision by the Canadian Supreme Court--stoking conservative fears about the internationalization of American domestic law. And a concurring justice has the gall to offer the pious hope that the decision will be celebrated rather than grudgingly accepted by "thoughtful citizens" who oppose same-sex unions! As an exercise in judicial statecraft, the majority's performance is clumsy and naïve.
In the interests of fairness, I also offer this link to Andrew Sullivan's analysis of the decision. Have at it, discussants!

posted by Peter Nixon 11:34 PM
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CHEAP GRACE? Libertarian author and blogger Virginia Postrel offers some trenchant thoughts on how Christians have approached the issue of homosexuality:

As I've said before, saying that homosexuality is wrong has increasingly become the defining public characteristic of evangelical Protestants. Publicly disapproving of gays separates them from popular culture--and, hence, reinforces religious commitment--while exacting little personal toll. When I was a kid, evangelical churches disapproved of dancing, of rock music, of working women, of divorce. Now they incorporate all of those elements in their church programs. (They still don't like divorce--who does?--but today's evangelical churches not only have programs for divorced members, they even arrange their buildings' security so non-custodial parents can't swipe the kids.) What's left? Gays. That's why pastors tend to talk so much about them.
Fair? Unfair? What say you all?

posted by Peter Nixon 2:06 PM
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LIFE AFTER 'MAC': Promise Keepers has a new president, Thomas S. Fortson. CT has an interview.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:51 PM
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PUBLIC HEALTH NOTICE: If you haven't got a flu shot this year, go get one. After three years of mild flu seasons, it looks as if this year we're going to have a bad one. There is no shortage of vaccine this year. The CDC strongly recommends that people over the age of 50, younger people who have chronic health conditions, anyone whose immune system is depressed, pregnant women and very young children be immunized. Health care workers, teachers and others who regularly come into contact with large groups of sick people (i.e. your average kindergarten class) should also consider being immunized. Even if you are not in these categories, you still might want to consider getting immunized, a) because the flu sucks; and b) because you reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to others. Complications of influenza can include pneumonia. Not good. Over 30,000 people in the United States die each year from influenza and its complications.

While it is true that the vaccine does not appear to provide complete protection (the developers have to guess a year in advance which strains of flu will be active in the community), it's still better than nothing. More info from the CDC on flu can be found here.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:58 AM
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DEBATING THE DECISION: It looks like TNR will have an interesting debate this week between Jonathan Rauch and Jeff Rosen on the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Jonathan Rauch, an advocate of gay marriage who has posted a lot over at the Marriage Debate blog, takes the first shot. He thinks the decision is sound law, but that judicially-mandated gay marriage is bad policy. Rosen is a well known liberal opponent of judicial activism. This should be an interesting discussion.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:32 AM
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Tuesday, November 18, 2003
AN EVOLVING DOCUMENT? Here is the NYT's coverage of yesterday's Massachusetts Supreme Court decision that found that gay couples have the right to marry under the state's Constitution. The decision gave the legislature 180 days to make same-sex marriages possible.

While I'm not an expert on the Masschusetts Constitution, here is a question to ponder: There is no question, I think, that those that drafted the state's Constitution did not believe that the document should be interpreted to require that the state extend the right of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. I also don't think there currently exists a strong public consensus currently in Masschusetts that the term "equal protection" should be interpreted in this way.

So on what basis does the Court conclude that the Massachusetts Constitution now, in 2003, suddenly should be interpreted in this fashion? Regardless of where one stands on the policy issues involved, it's hard to see this decision as anything else but a stunning act of judicial activism that usurps the proper role of the legislature. Those who oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment should seriously consider how their own legal strategies strengthen the hand of the Amendment's advocates.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:07 PM
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Monday, November 17, 2003
FEED HER: John Kavanaugh, S.J., a columnist for America (subscription required for access to articles) and generally a champion of the pro-life cause, also weighs in on the Schiavo case. He takes an interesting approach. He disagrees with those who see the withdrawl of artificial nutrition and hydration as presumptively morally illicit. On the other hand, he argues that Schiavo should be given a chance to regain the ability to swallow:

What is human nourishment about? Surely it is not the same as filling up a car’s gas tank. When humans eat, it is as much about companionship as it is about refueling. It is about taste and savor, memory and refreshment. As for pegs and tubes, they are best used as emergency solutions to short-range problems. Unfortunately they have become standards for nourishment, sometimes only prolonging the process of dying and often serving as a cost-saving way to provide nourishment without companionship.

Let Terri Schiavo be weaned from that tube. Volunteers are willing to give her swallowing therapy and spend the time to help her taste the sweet and cool. Let her feel the touch of a hand to her neck and chin. Let her imbibe companionship, not a labor-saving technological fix. If she refuses or it seems clear that her body cannot take the food, it is because that is the way a body dies. To force more on her is only to prolong her dying.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:37 PM
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ALLOWING TO DIE: Commonweal editorializes on the Schiavo case. Here is an excerpt:

The church has long emphasized the difference between allowing to die and killing: the need to provide ordinary, rather than extraordinary, means for keeping terminally ill patients alive. Those opposed to removing Schiavo’s feeding tube argue that to do so is to starve her to death, in fact to cause her death. That is not how the Catholic tradition has parsed this difficult moral dilemma. Rather, Catholic tradition recognizes that Schiavo’s underlying condition, her inability to ingest food and water, should be understood to be the cause of her death. To insist that Schiavo be kept alive indefinitely because technology enables us to do so is to embrace vitalism; it is to elevate mere physical existence over all other values. The questions Schiavo’s guardians must answer are, What benefit will she gain, and what burdens is she being subjected to, in being kept alive in her condition? Is the preservation of the life of someone in a permanent vegetative state actually a benefit to that person? Is it a just allocation of limited resources? Traditionally, Catholicism has answered no. Nothing in Schiavo’s case presents a persuasive reason for thinking that teaching is erroneous.
In some ways, I think the editorial commits the same error as those who assume that all Catholics must oppose the removal of the feeding tube. Both seem to assume that the tradition is clear and univocal on how we should morally evaluate the provision of artificial nutrition and hydration. But while some of the principles are clear, their application to particular cases remain very much in dispute and are something on which theologians and other Catholics can and do disagree.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:29 PM
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THE SOUL OF BRITAIN--AND PERHAPS OURS TOO John Wilkins reflects on the state of Christianity in Britain, beginning with these observations:

In September 2001, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, dropped a bombshell. Giving the keynote address at a meeting of the National Conference of Priests in Leeds, he unfolded a programme for the Catholic Church in England and Wales which was basically an invitation to all congregations to get up off their seats and get going before they found themselves without any seats left to sit on. Then he made an unscripted remark. Christianity, he said, had been “almost vanquished” in Britain. It hardly featured any more, he said, as a backdrop to political decisions or to people’s moral lives.

That might so und pessimistic but Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor is an optimist and this was a wake-up call to the Catholic Church in Britain to take on more of the duty of ministering to the nation. Next day the Daily Telegraph splashed the news across its front page, detecting that a churchman had now said openly what everyone knew. A country that has been Christian since Augustine of Canterbury came to its shores at the end of the sixth century AD at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great is now no longer secure in the faith.
This essay made me think of a comment that the late scripture scholar Raymond Brown made on one of the tapes that I've been listening to. He noted that the New Testament itself, taken as a whole, is a fairly optimistic work. It envisions Christianity continuing to expand to the ends of the earth. While it envisions persecution, it doesn't really prepare you for rollback. In the end, Paul gets to Rome, so to speak.

One of the things about the Old Testament is that it does prepare you for a catastrophic numerical collapse of the People of God. Israel started out with 12 tribes, then lost a bunch of them when the Northern Kingdom (Israel) was conquered. Then the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was conquered and a large portion of its population exiled to Babylon. There, they ran the continued risk of assimilation and loss of their religious identity. Then they returned and rebuilt the Temple, only to be conquered again by Antiochus, who conducted a program of forced assimilation to Hellenic culture which included putting a statue of Zeus inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple (the "horrible abomination" from today's reading from Maccabees).

In both Europe and the United States, Christians have grown comfortable with the idea that we are a powerful force that shapes culture. We're not as well prepared as our Jewish brothers and sisters for living as a cognitive minority in a culture that we have largely lost the power to shape. Stanley Hauerwas once quipped that in the future Christians may be regarded--as we were in those early centuries--as the strange people who do not kill their children, their disabled or their elderly.

That would be a more positive outcome than some of the alternatives. One alternative, the one that seems more likely in Europe, is that Christianity will simply vanish, not merely losing the power to shape culture, but losing the power to sustain itself as a living communal tradition. Future Europeans may view the great cathedrals the way that many of us now view the pagan temples of Rome and Athens.

But there is another alternative, one that may be more likely in the United States. It is that Christianity becomes so conformed to the culture that it, to use a trite phrase, loses its soul. Americans may still use Christian language to describe their spiritual lives, but that language will have lost the power to challenge us and transform us in any significant way. The sociologist Alan Wolfe, author of The Transformation of American Religion, seems to believe this process is already well underway.

Sobering thoughts for a Monday morning, I think. Perhaps I just didn't get enough sleep last night. Any other thoughts out there?

posted by Peter Nixon 10:06 AM
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