"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them" (Gen.1:27)

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Benedict's Final Solution?

A digitally manipulated picture of a scary, menacing Pope Benedict XVI covers the entire front page of the Washington Blade's final edition for 2005. The Blade is the newspaper for Washington's gay community, available free at many outlets around the city (including my gym on Capitol Hill). When I first saw the cover and the title of its accompanying story ("Blessed Bigotry: Pope Benedict XVI is anti-gay person of the year,") I was expecting to find inside a diatribe more emotional than substantive, using the sometimes tired language that one can find occasionally in the gay press.

After reading the story, I happily admit my expectations were not met. Although its premise at first may seem offensive to Catholics, the author writes convincingly of why the current occupant of the Chair of Peter deserves the designation given him. Benedict has been the author and architect of Rome's strategy of progressive denigration and even demonization of gay men and women.

"'His rhetoric is obscene. He wants gays clearly taken care of — it’s almost like the Final Solution,' said Kara Speltz, a Catholic lesbian activist for Soulforce, an organization dedicated to ending anti-gay discrimination within all religions."

My prayer for 2006 is that Catholics -- gay, straight, lay, religious, and ordained -- and all people of good will, will find ways of making their voices heard and be faithful to that foundational Christian principle which recognizes the inherent dignity of the human person, each and every one of us a beloved child of God.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Vatican Tendencies

Last month, the Vatican released a long-rumored document addressing whether or not homosexual men should be admitted to the seminary and ordained as priests. The document, issued as an "Instruction" from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education, marks a new low in official pronouncements dealing with homosexuality.

When I was in the seminary, the prevailing moral theology view about homosexuality had two aspects. The first was the notion of hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner in which the full dignity of the homosexual person was recognized. Even though he or she may act in a way that the Church found unacceptable, such action did not diminish his/her status as a beloved child of God, a brother or sister in faith. The second aspect reflected a respect for what we know from other sciences about human development and human sexuality. The body of evidence from psychiatry, psychology, and other social sciences clearly supports the idea that "sexual orientation" is part of who we are as individuals; it's not a choice that one makes, but a realization one comes to. If any straight reader doubts this, then simply think back to that day or period in your life when you decided to be heterosexual. The fact is, no such day exists, because this is not something we choose. Sexual orientation is a God-given part of who we are, just as surely as is the color of one's eyes or the height to which one grows.

Over the past two decades, under the papacy of John Paul II and with Joseph Ratzinger heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the language from Rome became more and more strident. In documents and statements addressing homosexuality, the line between person and act became blurred. The church's thinking seemed to move like this: because the sexual acts that homosexuals might engage in are morally unacceptable and depraved, so too are homosexual persons themselves. Even though lip service was paid to respecting the humanity of gay and lesbian people, the weight of these documents was lopsidedly in favor of language identifying homosexuals as "intrinsically disordered," "deviant," doers of "violence" to children they adopt, and unable to form "mature relationships" with men and women.

This most recent "Instruction" not only continues this trend, but also blazes new terrain in its use of pseudo-psychological statements that have no basis whatsoever in fact. The very use of the word "tendency" is a case in point (comments from Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunnett make the same point). For whatever reason, the Vatican has chosen to speak of "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" to describe the homosexual orientation. This marks a clear retreat from academically rigorous Catholic moral theology which recognizes the empirical evidence of the social sciences that sexual orientation is no mere "tendency," but is a part of who we are as persons. The significance of sexual orientation is the same for all human persons, regardless of what that orientation might be. By using new language and new terminology, the Vatican is attempting to place homosexuality in a category all by itself, removed from the "normal" orientation of heterosexuality. This strategy will help make the next anti-gay pronoucement from Rome even more hateful (if that's possible) than what we've already seen.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

More on the Dover Decision

As I wrote earlier, the decision from Dover, PA of federal Judge John E. Jones stating that Intelligent Design (ID) is not science -- and therefore cannot be taught in the science curriculum of the Dover Area Public Schools -- is a wonderfully written, thoughtful judgment.

Of all his 139 pages of text, the following gets to the heart of the matter, and is representative of the balance and good judgment that runs throughout the judge's ruling:

"Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the esixtence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator." [emphasis added]

I doubt that religious extremists and those unable to think critically about religion and faith will ever quote this paragraph. Nonetheless, this summation is succinct and correct. It reflects the notion that there are different fields of human inquiry; and that the truths of one field need not conflict with the truths of another. The challenge, however, is to know the truth about Knowledge and Truth.

As I've reflected on this so-called "evolution/creation" conflict, I can't escape what is both a great irony and a great sadness. I share with those who believe in a Creator God the notion that humanity and all of nature are the result of Divine action. Where we part ways, however, is in the logical conclusion that one would come to if one accepted a literal interpretation of Genesis. The biblical literalist's conclusion does not exhalt the "wholly other," awe-filled Mystery that is God. Rather, it places limits on the Divine that are equivalent to the limited abilities of the human mind to understand how the great achievement of Creation occurred. In Genesis, humanity is blessed by God and given dominion over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28). Created in God's image and likeness, men and women are gifted with intelligence, reason, and the ability to carry out the work that "subduing the earth" would require. Yet, when men and women use such gifts to their full potential, biblical literalists become troubled. For them, they cannot seem to to understand that one can simultanously hold to a Creator God AND use one's God-given abilities to understand the complexities of the natural world in all its wonder. Perhaps these literalists would do well to remember the maxim of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a 2nd century Father of the Church: The human person fully alive is the glory of God.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Divine Artist and Human Diversity

In his Wednesday General Audience this week, Pope Benedict XVI spoke to 20,000 Christmas pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square. Beginning with reflections on Psalm 138, the Pope expounded on the frequent scriptural image of God as the potter and sculptor Who brings life to each unique human person fromed from clay by the Divine hand. Although the purpose of the Pope's remarks was to focus on the sacredness of human life, especially on the weakest among us (including the unborn), the clear image of the uniquess of each human "work of art" cannot be missed.

The image of God as Artist is very beautiful, and tells us something, I think, about the importance of diversity in our world. Although some human artists might seek the financial reward that comes from having their works reproduced in mass quantities, most shrink from such commercialism and strive to create each work of art as different and unique, a true "original." The true artist does not create art by assembly line, using photocopying or other technical tools to replicate an original. Rather, the artist is constantly creating new, different, unique works of art over the course of a lifetime of creativity and art-making.

Over time, when the artist's body of work is seen as a whole, one would see the diversity that is inherent in that corpus. Each work, though similar to others, is nonetheless unique and contributes its part to the diversity of the whole. If such diversity, as evidenced by the uniqueness of every human person, is so much at the heart of the human family, why is it so difficult for some to recognize the diversity of human sexuality as intended by the Divine Artist's plan? It seems to me that those who think that God could not or would not create human persons with diverse sexual orientations are either placing limits on God, or are saying that they (i.e. the created) know better than the Creator.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Intelligent Decision about Intelligent Design

US District Judge John E. Jones III has issued a thoughtful and intelligent legal decision that hits the nail on the head about the problem in the Intelligent Design (ID) debate. The judge's decision recognizes that science (and science only) should be taught in science class. After a painstaking review of the testimony offered at trial, the judge states that ID is clearly NOT science, and thus has no place in public school curriculum. Other fields of discipline are certainly free (and even encouraged) to address the same or similar questions, but intellectual honesty requires that these fields, along with their presumptions and assumptions, be named for what they are. Science is science; theology is theology.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Bush Supports Torture Ban - Finally!

My mother always said, "If you can't say something nice about someone ..." -- well, you know the rest. So, I thought I would seize the opportunity to say something nice about George W. Bush. Yesterday the Bush White House announced its support for a ban on torture that has been so vigorously defended by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). No matter that the President called the language in this ban a "compromise" (it's not; it has McCain's language word for word); no matter that the reason for this new found support was motivated purely by politics (McCain was continuing to uphold defense appropriations); and no matter that this position is one decent people the world over would consider a "no brainer."

In this instance, Mr. Bush has done the right thing, and no one should shrink from saying so.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Faith and Reason in Cobb County, Georgia

"There is no scientific controversy over the validity of the evolutionary explanation of plant and animal diversity, which is the grand unifying concept of modern biology. Although some religious organizations insist that there is.... It is not controversial, and no serious or reliable scientific criticism of the validity of evolution has yet been presented." Thus begins the amicus curiae brief submitted by several organizations in support of the plaintiff in Selman v. Cobb County School District, scheduled to be heard tomorrow by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

The case is just one of the ongoing battles in the larger culture war between proponents of “Intelligent Design” and those who see the teaching of biblical creationism in public schools as an intrusion of religious belief into scientific curricula. The Cobb County School Board had acquiesced to the demands of some parents to have a “warning label” sticker placed inside school biology text books stating that “Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.” What the label actually demonstrates is the school board’s inability to use a dictionary. While it is true that evolution is a “theory,” the label's understanding of the term is incorrect. It is incorrect to say a scientific theory is “not a fact.” What the school board defines is a hypothesis, not a theory. A hypothesis is a guess, something that is not yet demonstrated to be factually true. Scientific theories, conversely, are well-tested, demonstrated and systematic ways of explaining a whole bunch of observed facts and data. They are precisely the “unifying concepts” the amicus brief refers to.

This, however, is a side issue. What is most troubling about this larger war and not merely this skirmish in Georgia, is that in the worldview of Intelligent Design proponents, there is no room for both faith and reason. Reason, intellectual pursuit, and the fruits of human inquiry are totally subsumed under the banner of faith and belief in a Creator God.

Let me be clear: I believe in such a Creator God. I believe that behind all creation is an all-loving, all-knowing, all-caring, all-powerful Being whom we call God and who is the ultimate Author of existence itself. I also believe that this God gave men and women the gifts of thought and reason, gifts we use every day to understand our world and live our lives as best we can. In this worldview, faith and reason are both ways of accessing Truth, and the truths of the various disciplines of human knowledge cannot contradict each other. If there is an apparent contradiction, this simply is a reflection of the limits to our understanding and an indication that we must learn more.

The perspective where faith and reason complement one another is not possible for those who take a fundamentalist, literal approach to the Bible. To fundamentalists, faith and reason are at odds with each other. Because Christian fundamentalism posits that the various texts of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures literally come from the mouth of God, knowledge obtained from reason must give way to what is “known” by faith. Understanding the texts of scripture literally, fundamentalists appear to have an unquestioned faith that is clear, sturdy and strong. In reality, often such an unquestioned, unexamined faith is just the opposite. A faith that has never allowed itself to be questioned or challenged is more easily abandoned when personal experience brings into doubt something that has been accepted and “known by faith.”

Fortunately, inherent in true Christianity is the seed of fundamentalism’s undoing. One of the basic tenets of Christianity is that the human person rises above the rest of creation, over which God gave men and women authority, and that the human person is a thinking, rational being with the gifts of intelligence and free will. It is precisely through the exercise of these gifts that Darwin and his heirs have discovered the truths of evolution. Hopefully, it is also these same gifts that will help the judges of the 11th Circuit uphold the lower court’s ruling to have the Cobb County warning labels removed.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Suicide by Air Marshall?

As soon as I heard that a passenger had been shot and killed by an air marshall on a jetway after arriving on a flight to Miami, the first thought that ran through my mind was "suicide by cop." As mental health professionals know, suicide by cop is a phenomenon in which a mentally ill person "deliberately seeks to create a dangerous situation so that police are forced to shoot" (see NAMI for more information).

What made this thought come so quickly to mind was not the fact that a man making bomb threats was shot by a law enforcement officer. After all, we live in days when heightened security is heightened for a reason, and for the officers involved not to have treated the situation with the utmost seriousness could have resulted in ever more loss of life. No, what made me think that this passenger, subsequently identified as Rigoberto Alpizar, might be mentally unstable was where he was when he made his threat. Having passed through all the screening that airline travel requires these days, one would think that the likelihood of actually having a bomb would be quite low.

Individuals with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder often experience irrational thought and erratic behavior. Such symptoms are especially pronounced when the person is not taking the medicaiton that helps keep these symptoms at bay.

Sadly, it seems that my initial thought may have been correct -- at least as far as Mr. Alpizar's mental condition was concerned. His widow, who was on the plane with him, reports that he had bipolar disorder, but unfortunately was not taking his medication at the time of his death.

Many police departments throughout the country now include special training on how to deal with people with mental illness. Some even have special Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) that can be called in to deal with dangerous situations, working to ensure that a psychiatric crisis does not become a criminal event. The Memphis (TN) police department has been a leader in this area for more than two decades. Hopefully, future training for air marshalls will include this special training so that no one else suffers the fate of Rigoberto Alpizar.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A Jesus Book for Christmas

I think I know what I want for Christmas. Even though he describes himself as a "happy agnostic," Bart Ehrman's recently published book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, promises to be a good read. Interviewed today on the Diane Rehm Show, Ehrman discussed some of the basic concepts familiar to anyone who has taken an academically sound course on the New Testament. (Dr. Ehrman is the chair of the religious studies department at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

In particular, Ehrman pointed out that from Christianity's earliest days there have been many significant differences between the various texts that ultimately were compiled and accepted as the "canon" of scripture Christians recognize today. This compilation and acceptance did not happen over night, nor did it happen without controversy. Through those very human activities of discussion and argument, conflict and resolution, give and take, reflection and refinement, the current New Testament canon slowly emerged until its present form in the late fourth century .

The "human factor" that went into deciding what gospel narratives or Pauline letters were to be considered "sacred" and "inspired" is usually not acknowledged by biblical fundamentalists. These folks tend to think the texts of the New Testament one day miraculously appeared, as if suddenly composed by a human scribe taking divine dictation. These are the God/the-bible-said-it-I-believe-it-that-settles-it folks who seem to think the original biblical authors spoke Shakespearean English a la the KJV (King James Version). In my own Catholic Tradition, however, we recognize that the only texts that can be called "inspired" are the original texts, such as we know them; thus acknowledging the truth of the Italian saying, "traddutore, traditore" (every translator is a traitor).

Ehrman also noted that context is everything. In order to understand what the scriptures mean today, whether in whole or in part, one must first understand what they meant meant to those to whom it was originally delivered. This is the activity of understanding and interpretation, or hermeneutics, as the scripture scholars call it. It recognizes that different authors had different purposes, different reasons for writing. The Christians at Corinth were different from the ones at Ephesus, and their communities faced different challenges. Understanding what they meant then is the first step to understanding what they mean now.

Ehrman also has a book scheduled for relase in the spring of 2006. That one is called, Peter, Paul, and Mary. I think it comes with a CD of "If I Had a Hammer" and "Blowin' in the Wind"!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Bah Humbug to "Holidays" ?

Maybe mine is still in the mail, so this isn't from personal knowledge, but apparently this year's White House Christmas card isn't being well-received by some of the President's more conservative (and Christian) friends. The card wishes recipients a happy "holiday season" without specific reference to Christmas per se. No matter that twelve presidents before W, begnning with Calvin Coolige in 1927, also wished the American people various versions of seasonal greetings. No, no ... references to the "holidays" or "the season" simply won't do. After all, America is a Christian country and we shouldn't let "them" continue to secularize Christmas by eliminating even the very word itself, let alone let them take away our public displays featuring the Babe of Bethlehem, Christmas trees and other explicit references to Christmas!

"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture." So says William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (as reported by MSNBC). And just what might those terrible elements be? Could Mr. Donohue perhaps be speaking of such insidious things as mutual toleration, respect for religious diversity, or even that pesky little constitutional notion precluding the establishement of state-sponsored religion?

Mr. Donohue isn't the only one troubled by this phenomenon. The Heritage Foundation sees an all out War on Christmas that Americans are encouraged to fight against so that our "favorite" holiday is not secularized beyond all recognition.

When I was was actively in ministry and one of the burning issues was how to manage getting the Church decorated between the 11:00 a.m. 4th Sunday of Advent Liturgy and the 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve Liturgy for those years when Christmas fell on a Monday, local clergy at our monthly gatherings would regularly talk among ourselves about "putting Christ back into Christmas." For Christian leaders and homilists, this is an ongoing and ever important question. Christians celebrate Christmas as the feast of the Incarnation, remembering the first coming of Jesus at a fixed time in history, even as we look forward to his coming again at the end of time. It is a question asked by Christians, with Christians, for Christians.

Despite what some say, however, America is not a Christian country; nor should it be. The right to worship as one sees fit, including the right not to worship at all, is one of the most important reasons why America came to be in the first place. I, for one, would be happy to receive a card from the President wishing me well during the "holiday season" -- unfortunately, I don't think my name is on the list.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

BXVI and the Legitimacy of War & Capital Punishment

The Nov. 25, 2005 edition of The Pilot, weekly newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston, quotes then-Cardinal Ratzinger about the controversy surrounding the public positions of Catholic politicians and their sharing in the Eucharist: "...there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia." The line has been repeated hundreds of times, often in pro-life websites and blogs, including official statements from US Catholic officials.

I consider myself well-informed about things Catholic, but somehow this one slipped by me; and I find it startling. At many Catholic liturgies, it is not uncommon to hear a prayer during the general intercessions when we pray for increased respect for the dignity of all human life, "from conception until natural death." This phrase emphasizing the natural beginning and natural ending of each of our lives, drives home the point that God -- not us -- is the Author of human life. Authority over human life belongs not to us, but to God. It's a phrase that continues the "seamless garment" approach to respect-for-life issues used by by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago in his 1984 address on A Consistent Ethic of Life.

BXVI, however, seems to have a different perpsective. Apparently he belongs to the all-life-is-sacred-but-some-life-is-more-sacred-than-others school of moral theology. Whereas Bernardin had argued for reasonableness and consistency in forming public policy about the myriad of pro-life issues (including abortion, war, poverty, healthcare and capital punishment), Benedict is willing to cede consistency and allow for greater "diversity" of thought on certain issues.

On its face, such diversity is a good thing. Human actions DO differ from each other, and different contexts present different moral waters to navigate, often leading to different destinations. The problem, however, is two-fold: first, Benedict is inconsistent when applying principles to moral issues, and second, in Benedict's world, he's the one who gets to decide what those issues are.

Monday, December 05, 2005

In the beginning...

Pierre Seel. Unless you listen faithfully to NPR, you've probably never heard the name. I had no idea who he is until I heard that he died the last week of November (2005). He was, so NPR reported, the last survivor of Nazi concentration camps who was imprisoned as a suspected homosexual. Nazi enforcement of an exisiting German law known as Paragraph 175 allowed many thousands of homosexual men and women to be rounded up, imprisoned, and subjected to the litany of Nazi atrocities we are all too familiar with.

The NPR piece interviewed filmmaker Rob Epstein who recorded the story of Seel and others like him in a documentary named for the infamous law, Paragraph 175. In the interview, we hear an excerpt from the film in which Seel becomes upset at having to recall not only what was done to him (e.g. being brutally raped with a wooden board), but also to his friends (one of whom was attacked by Nazi guard dogs and essentially eaten alive).

I have always been moved and motivated in my life and work by the fundamental notion of Genesis that every human person is created "in the image and likeness of God." The human dignity that comes from this belief is behind many, if not most, of the life choices I've made.

Hearing the story of Pierre Seel reminded me once again how often that dignity is assaulted. Perhaps the thoughts and ideas recorded here can speak an occasional word that enhances that dignity, echoing in our own day the ideas of that ancient text and the reality they espoused. Hence the blog... and the name of the blog.