Putting a gun in a child’s hand should be a crime

By Albert de Zutter

What evil maniac thought up the idea of a child’s first .22 caliber rifle? And what kind of parents would give a child a firearm for his fifth birthday? That act is, on its face, an act of child endangerment. That child with his firearm instantly becomes a hazard to himself and any other children he encounters; and, of course, his irresponsible parents.

Who manufactures and sells such a weapon? Is there any 5-year-old in existence who could own a lethal firearm responsibly? Of course not! A 5-year-old shouldn’t have a BB gun, much less a rifle that shoots live ammunition.

Nevertheless, on April 30, 2013, in Burkesville, Ky., 2-year-old Caroline Sparks was killed by a .22 caliber bullet fired from a child-sized rifle held by her 5-year-old brother. The rifle, called the “Crickett,” was manufactured by Keystone Sporting Arms and marketed for the child trade as “My First Rifle.”

Said Kentucky State Trooper Billy Gregory, “In this part of the country it’s not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun.”

County Coroner Gary White, perhaps hoping to soften the blow of the tragedy, was quoted, indirectly, as saying that the boy was playing with it (his gun) when it accidentally went off and killed his sister.

“It” accidentally went off. Here, at last, was an admission by a probable supporter of the NRA that a gun actually killed a baby girl. But, of course, that cannot be the whole story. It was a single-shot .22 caliber rifle. It was loaded. And somebody must have pulled the trigger.

Has the insanity of the American gun culture penetrated so deeply that we think it’s “cute” that a 5-year-old can have his “first gun,” a firearm built to the scale of a child? Mr. Wayne LaPierre, the executive director of the National Rifle Association, scoffed at those who called him crazy. Well, he may not be crazy, but what’s left of his conscience has to be grossly calloused over so that it’s no longer functioning — at least not on the subject of guns. Mr. LaPierre’s solution to the problem of gun deaths in the United States is more guns: “The only solution to bad guys with guns is good guys with guns.” Is LaPierre one of the good guys?

An ABC News story by Kevin Dolak quotes Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, as saying that there is a wide range of gun marketing targeted at youth.” The reason, Sugarmann said, is that “The gun industry and gun ownership is declining. It has been for decades, and like tobacco, the industry needs new customers.” He said the gun industry’s marketing to youth has increased over the last 15 years.

The fact that the gun ownership is declining appears to fly in the face of the huge increase in gun sales as a result of right-wing propaganda arousing fear that the Obama administration “is out to get your guns.” But those sales appear to be mainly to existing gun owners rather than to new households. The Violence Policy Center has stated that from 1977 to 2010 the percentage of households that reported having any guns in the home dropped more than 40 percent.

Over the long run that trend could be good news for those who support reasonable gun safety regulations. It could also explain the frenzied reaction to reasonable regulations by the NRA and those who do its bidding in the Congress. They are afraid that the gun industry’s profits will eventually dry up unless youth is enticed to become as gun crazy as many of their elders.

In the meantime, however, we are experiencing a plague of firearm deaths, including little children shooting other little children and a 4-year-old shooting and killing his mother.

The ABC News story quoted Sugarmann as saying that gun marketing to youth is industry-wide. Sugarmann said the remedy is legislation to keep guns out of the hands of youth. The laws for possession should mirror the laws for purchase, he said: “18 for long guns, 21 for handguns.”

“The idea of putting a gun into a child’s hand should be viewed as a crime,” he said.

Amen to that.

The Catholic Moment Revisited

By Albert de Zutter

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (great name for a skeptical journalist) recently opined that there had been a “Catholic moment” in American politics and that it had now passed. The last time the Catholic vision of the good society had any sway, he said, was in the mid-2000s. Today, neither party pays much attention to Catholic principles, he said. The Republicans are more likely to use Ayn Rand as their standard and the Democrats are ruled by “a strident social liberalism.”

The reason he cites is the collapse of the church’s reputation as a result of the sex abuse scandals.

There can be no doubt that the church’s reputation has been severely damaged by the inept and often corrupt handling of sexual abuse within its ranks. There is no doubt that many people, including Catholics, lost respect for the church’s hierarchy.

But questions remain: Was there truly a time when the Catholic view of a good society (the common good) had real influence, and if so, were both parties influenced? And is it really accurate to say that neither party embodies Catholic social justice teaching at the present time?

Douthat credits George W. Bush with taking a “right of center” approach to Catholic ideas about social justice with his verbal support of “compassionate conservatism.”

From today’s perspective, it is hard to see the compassion in an administration that used lies to lead us into an unnecessary war with unbelievable statements about weapons of mass destruction and mushroom clouds, a clear violation of Catholic social justice principles. Nor was there any compassion or respect for Catholic social justice principles in its catering to the rich and the corporations, not with just one tax cut, but two which, in effect, hastened the transfer of wealth from those who had less to those at the top, another clear contradiction of Catholic social justice values.

The so-called “Catholic Moment” of Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister who became a Catholic priest, was an attempt by Neuhaus and other right-wing Catholic “theoconservatives” to construct a generic religious political doctrine that would include fundamentalist Evangelicals as well as right-wing Catholics. I use the term “right-wing” rather than “conservative” because that grouping of Catholics fails to “conserve” the bulk of Catholic social justice teaching. Their claim to Catholic orthodoxy is based on absolute opposition to  legal abortion, “artificial” birth control, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, in-vitro fertilization and stem-cell research, the so-called “social issues.” Their one concession to Catholic social justice teaching concerns the “principle of subsidiarity,” which they wrongly interpret as support for their position of reducing and/or eliminating government programs for the poor.

Damon Linker authored the 2006 book, “The Theocons.” He is a former editor of the late Father John Neuhaus’s newsletter, First Things, and therefore writes with inside knowledge. Linker wrote that Neuhaus and Michael Novak, supporters of Ronald Reagan who gained influence with the election of George W. Bush in 2000, created a movement to remake the government of the United States according to their image of far-right Catholicism – “a future in which the country is thoroughly permeated by orthodox Christian piety, and secular politics are driven out in favor of an explicitly theological approach to ordering the nation’s public life.” Another member of the core group was George Weigel, who used classic just war theory to justify Reagan’s revival of the arms race with the Soviet Union, the 1991 Gulf War, George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” and the Iraq war.

The theocons’ declared goal was to “construct an interdenominational electoral coalition on the basis of shared disaffection with the secularist drift of American life since the 1960s,” Damon wrote.

Many Catholics who shared that disaffection were equally disaffected by the Second Vatican Council, which also took place in the 1960s. The council reminded lay Catholics that they are the church and that they have obligations for and to the secular world. A key Vatican II document, “The Church in the Modern World,” begins with these words: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.” It adds, “This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy.

“For this reason, love for God and neighbor is the first and greatest commandment. Sacred Scripture, however, teaches us that the love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor,” the document states. Furthermore, “there must be made available to all men everything necessary for leading a life truly human, such as food, clothing, and shelter; the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norm of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and rightful freedom even in matters religious.”

These key concepts of Catholic social doctrine, as well as the teachings of more than 110 years applying the principles of the Gospel to the modern world, are virtually ignored by right-wing Catholics (and Evangelicals) who claim orthodoxy on what they call the “social issues.” As Douthat points out, they are also ignored by the Republican Party, as illustrated by candidate Romney’s sneering reference to the 47 percent who are “dependent” on government and whom therefore he discounts.

Americans rejected the theocon vision. Neuhaus’s “Catholic Moment” has indeed faded into oblivion. But the real Catholic concepts of social justice are alive and well in the Democratic party. President Obama repeatedly declares that we are our brother’s keeper, we are all in this together, that the rich should be willing to contribute their fair share, that we have an obligation to provide a ladder to help the poor climb into the middle class, that we have to take care of our elderly, our children, the sick and the poor. These are statements that reflect Catholic social justice teaching better than anything that comes out of the mouths of Catholics like Speaker John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, or Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

If these principles constitute “strident social liberalism,” then Catholic social teaching is also strident social liberalism. Clearly it is viewed as far out by those who oppose making affordable health care more available, who want to cut support for education, food stamps for the hungry, meals for children and the elderly, social security and Medicare. But these are simply implementations of decent human values, of a communal spirit of “we are all one.” These are principles reflecting love of neighbor, which is the measure of our love for God. Whether these values are stated in humanistic terms or in biblical terms, they make for a civil society.

Polls show that these very Catholic values are held more widely by Catholics who adhere to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council than by those who oppose them and, ironically, more widely by those who claim no religious affiliation than by Evangelicals and other “conservative” religionists. I would say that’s a good thing.


Bishops’ attack on contraceptive coverage rings hollow

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

The offensive by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan and like-minded American bishops against President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and its contraceptive coverage has a hollow ring to it.

It appears as though Dolan and his fellow travelers in the right-wing cause (not all American bishops are aboard with him) were determined to make all-out war on the Obama administration, to help the Republicans in the November elections. And they tried to enlist Catholics in that super-partisan exercise with their “Fortnight for Freedom” program, which fizzled. The protest against the funding of contraceptives, and the doubtful claim that the coverage will include abortifacients, was apparently all the excuse they needed to launch their offensive.

Their position is that providing contraceptive coverage is an attack on religious freedom because it will force religious institutions to act against their faith. That claim is highly doubtful, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council and the multi-year study by Pope Paul’s birth control commission during the council. That commission was composed of the church’s best theologians, aided by experts in relevant fields as well as prominent and influential bishops and cardinals. The vast majority of its members came to the conclusion that the church’s stand against “artificial contraception” was wrong and should be changed.

However, despite the fact that Pope Paul himself chose most of the experts (Pope John XXIII had chosen a handful of them before he died) and twice enlarged the commission, adding 13 cardinals and bishops, both progressive and conservative, during its final months (a majority of whom reached the same conclusions as the original group), Pope Paul decided not to make the recommended changes. He reaffirmed the prohibition contained in the 1930 encyclical, Casti Connubi, issued in 1930 by Pope Pius XI. He was persuaded to do so by Cardinal Ottaviani, American Jesuit Father John Ford, and Ford’s assistant, philosopher Germain Grisez.

Ottaviani and Ford were members of the commission. They argued against change on grounds that making a change would be admission that the church had been wrong, and would undermine papal authority. In short, it was a political argument designed to support the power of the papacy. Ford had a vested interest in the status quo. His many manuals defending that position would be obsolete if the official stance of the church were to change.

It was evident to the top theologians of the day (all appointed to the commission by Pope Paul) and the majority of prominent prelates who were added to the group that there was no question of “intrinsic evil” in the use of contraceptives by married couples in order to carry out their duty to be loving spouses and responsible parents. They concluded that the use of contraceptives would be no more intrinsically evil than the periodic abstinence (“rhythm”) method that had been endorsed by Pope Pius XII.

That specter of “intrinsic evil” involved in the use of contraceptives was revived  in the years after the council by self-styled “orthodox” members of the church whose touchstone for orthodoxy rests on negative positions regarding reproductive issues such as same-sex marriage, homosexuality and stem-cell research. Those same claimants to orthodoxy tend to give short shrift to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and welcoming the stranger — criteria that Jesus cited in Matthew 25 for entry into his father’s kingdom.

Ironically, the same disdain for social justice issues was expressed by the Vatican in its recent decision to investigate American Catholic religious women — the sisters’ groups gave too much emphasis to social justice and not enough to abortion and same-sex marriage.

No issue of “religious freedom” remained after the president offered the compromise position in response to objections to his original position. It is doubtful that even his first position was an offense against religious freedom. Nobody who is against contraception is forced to use contraceptives. Those for whom it is not an offense against their moral principles, including the vast majority of Catholics (82 percent, according to a Gallup poll just released), can continue to have access to contraceptives as part of their health care coverage, while those who think it is wrong can abstain from the use of contraceptives. Nevertheless, the president backed off to accommodate the protesters, eliminating religious institutions from direct payment for contraception in their health care coverage.

Religious women who run hospitals were quick to approve the president’s compromise. Not so Cardinal Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Now 62, the cardinal, whose ecclesiastical career was on a fast track as a “safe” candidate even before he was ordained a bishop, is viewed as a stalwart of the “conservative” branch of the Catholic Church, which is still a minority in the church, albeit in possession of the hierarchical levers of power.

In subsequent developments, some 43 Catholic dioceses and/or institutions filed suit against the government, and we had the television spectacle for all the world to see of a corpulent Catholic cardinal threatening to have the Catholic Church stop feeding the hungry if he does not get his way. A further irony is that he represents a church that counts affordable health care as a basic right.

The fact that 82 percent of Catholics have no moral objection to contraception is no recent phenomenon. It has been a reality in the Catholic Church ever since the publication of Casti Connubi in 1930 in reaction to the Anglican Church’s taking a neutral stand on the use of contraceptives.

Aware that the issue of responsible family planning was a serious problem, Pope John XXIII appointed an eight-man commission to advise him on it soon after he was elected pope. After Pope John died, Pope Paul added members to the commission at least twice. Eventually, just before its final two-month meeting in 1966, the membership reached 72.

While the commission’s work was technically separate from that of the council, there was nevertheless substantial overlap, in that many of the world-wide bishops (some 2,200 or more) believed that something must be done to relieve the tensions in the marriages of Catholics who actually tried to implement their church’s position on birth control.  Moreover, the fathers of the council redefined marriage with more emphasis on the community of love between spouses rather than the old position that the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation and education of children. And they said it was up to the spouses to decide how many children they could responsibly rear.

Traditionalist Catholics blame the Second Vatican Council for views that differ from theirs about contraception and other reproductive matters, but it was clear before and during the council, that vast numbers of Catholics did not practice what the hierarchy preached on that question. In the Catholic countries of Europe most marriages produced one or two children at most, if any. In the United States, by contrast, many Catholic couples during the 1950s and 1960s were generating families of four to six or more children. More American Catholics than European Catholics — but certainly not all — were actually trying to follow their church’s policy, regardless of the hardships.

The fact of widespread disregard of the hierarchy’s position was alluded to by many in the council itself. As an example, the Melkite patriarch of Antioch, Maximos IV Saigh, 87 years old at the time, said one of the greatest scandals in the church was the disparity between official church doctrine and “the contrary practice of the immense majority” of Christian couples. Speaking to a full session of the council discussing the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Maximos added: “The faithful find themselves forced to live in conflict with the law of the church, far from the sacraments, in constant anguish, unable to find a viable solution between two contradictory imperatives: conscience and normal married life.” (Cited in “The Politics of Sex and Religion,” by Robert Blair Kaiser, 1985)

In 1966, after three years of work, the birth control commission submitted its report to the pope recommending that the church allow its members to use their own judgment on the means of family planning. Most of the bishops, theologians, priests and lay people engaged in the council, as well as church members throughout the world, fully expected that the teaching would be changed. But Pope Paul VI allowed himself to be persuaded otherwise. In 1968, after a silence of two years, he issued Humanae Vitae.

During the commission’s sessions, theologians had no doubt that the original 1930 church declaration on the subject, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubi, was not a definitive and infallible article of faith, and could be changed. The same is true today of Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming that position in Humanae Vitae. While John Ford was correct in worrying about papal authority, his prediction was turned on its head when it was actually the failure to change the teaching that caused a worldwide collapse of papal authority. The Catholic people decided the issue for themselves.

In his seminal work on “The Development of Doctrine,” Cardinal John Henry Newman said that an essential element in defining an article of faith is that it be accepted by the church as a whole. (The theologically correct term is “received.”) Humanae Vitae was never “received” by the people of the church. It is not, and never was, an article of faith. As the theologians of the commission held during the deliberations of that body, contraception was prohibited because Casti Connubi said so, and not because it was against nature.

A fair conclusion, therefore, is that it is not an offense against Catholic conscience — and therefore against freedom of religion — to provide for contraception as a part of health care coverage. The hierarchy’s position cannot achieve the status of a definitive doctrine unless the church, defined in the Second Vatican Council as the people of God, accepts it as such. The likelihood of that is minimal, to put it mildly. The position of the hierarchy is no more than a matter of policy.

As for the morality of the responsible use of contraceptives, the people have decided. Despite all the attempts to repeal the council through the years, the Catholic majority will not give that decision back to those who now espouse what was then, and is now, a minority view — not on birth control nor on the many other questions on which the council made forward progress.

For a detailed account of the work of the birth control commission see “The Politics of Sex and Religion” by Robert Blair Kaiser, Leaven Press, Kansas City, 1985. For a free online version see “The Politics of Sex and Religion: How the people of God, not the pope, changed Church teaching on responsible parenthood” as told by Time magazine’s correspondent at Vatican II.

Hubris of the Holier than thou

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

The gall of the “Evangelical” Jerry Newcombe of the American Family Association to consign people who are not “in Christ” to hell! When did God die and pass his powers of judgment to this presumptuous nincompoop?

Newcombe uses the tragedy of the mass killing and wounding in Aurora, Colorado, to foist his questionable theology on the public, saying this tragedy occurred because America has lost its fear of hell. He went on to say that death for those young people who died who are Christian (have “accepted” Christ), “is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” But “if a person doesn’t know Jesus Christ…if they knowingly rejected Jesus Christ, then basically, they are going to a terrible place.”

Ask the families, the loved ones, the friends, if the deaths of those young people is not tragic! Those deaths are tragic because they represent the loss of lives that held promise and were precious to those who loved them, and love them still.

Let’s take a look at Newcombe’s theology: Once you “accept” Jesus (whatever that means) you are “saved.” Nothing to it. Just as easy as that! If you don’t “accept” Jesus, you go to hell, even if you never heard of Jesus.

By that logic, everyone who ever lived before Jesus walked the earth is in hell, and everyone who died never having had the opportunity to “accept” Jesus is in hell. In the meantime, people who presume themselves to be “saved,” like Jerry Newcombe, can be smug in their assurance that for them nothing can keep them from heaven, because they have done something (what?) they call “accepting” Jesus.

Let me put it this way: if you are fortunate enough to have faith in God and in Jesus, you have undertaken a responsibility to carry on the work Jesus started; you have not received a privileged status that gives you assurance of personal salvation. As St. James said, “He who says he loves God, whom he cannot see, but hates his neighbor, whom he can see, is a liar.” The test of how much Newcombe or anyone else loves God is how much he loves his less fortunate neighbor. The Catholic Church whittles that concept down to a very understandable level: what do we do, personally and as a society, to help the poor. That is the standard by which we will be judged.

To truly accept Jesus is to heed his command to love one another. “For I was hungry and you gave me to eat … thirsty and you gave me drink …naked and you clothed me … a stranger and you welcomed me …”

Any sane Christian believes in a loving God, a God who seeks to include people in his salvation, not exclude them by the billions. If you believe in the Christian doctrine that Jesus became man to save us, you believe he came to save the entire world, not just the few who pride themselves on being “saved.”

If your God is an exclusivist, as Newcombe’s God appears to be, he is not worth following. If you believe in a God that plays dishonest games, like making it impossible for the vast majority to be saved, you don’t believe in the Christian God.

As a Catholic I don’t believe that anyone goes to hell accidentally — by being born in the wrong time or the wrong place, for example, or for lack of opportunity to “accept” Jesus, as Newcombe says. I believe hell is for those who actively reject God in some manner, and it is not up to me or to Newcombe to say who has done that or when that occurs. That’s God’s prerogative.

And, as the psalm says, the Lord is kind and merciful. Thank God!

U.S. nuns, not bishops, reflect Vatican II

And so the question is, who better embraces the joys and hopes of the poor and afflicted, the sisters of the LCWR and those who lobby for the poor in organizations such as Network, or the American bishops who summoned the power of the Inquisition upon them?

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

Which group has a better claim on being genuinely Catholic, the St. Pius X Society (SPXS), which is being wooed by the Vatican,or the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is being criticized by the Vatican?

Many years ago I sat down at a table next to a woman who had identified herself as a member of the local SPXS parish. As background, the St. Pius X Society is a group that broke away from the Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, which made a number of declarations SPXS considered heretical. Pope John Paul II eventually declared the society to be in schism, that is, no longer a part of the Catholic Church. I asked this woman, who appeared to be in her sixties, if she actually thought that she and her breakaway sect represented true Catholicism and that the rest of us (the vast majority) were heretics. She said yes.

Years later, when a so-called “conservative” bishop took over a diocese, he was heard to say that the Second Vatican Council changed nothing. At the same time, he would not countenance any criticism, or even reporting in his diocesan newspaper that might be taken as criticism, of the St. Pius X Society, which Pope John Paul II had declared to be in schism. Okay, a bit of a contradiction here: on the one hand, the Second Vatican Council was “heretical,” according to this now cherished society, so it must have changed something. On the other hand it changed “nothing,” but this same cherished society says it took the entire church (except the schismatic society) into heresy.

But of course, the Second Vatican Council did make real changes. Nicholas P. Cafardi, writing in America magazine, listed some of them. As he put it ironically, they include “some of those crazy decrees on the priesthood of the laity (Lumen Gentium), on the rights of Christ’s faithful (Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes), and certainly those nutty things the Council said about the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), about religious liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) and the unacceptability of anti-semitism (Nostra Aetate).”

In his America article, Cafardi was commenting on the fact that the Vatican was actively pursuing reconciliation with the St. Pius X Society, which had declared the Second Vatican Council heretical, while going on a witch-hunt against the American nuns for being too concerned about the poor and social injustice, and not putting enough energy into fighting abortion and contraception. Cafardi posits that fighting poverty is the best way to fight abortion “since the vast majority of abortions are economic ones.” As for contraception, Cafardi refers to the fact that the Church’s teaching has not been accepted by the faithful (although those sympathetic to the Pius X society would dispute that,on the grounds that only they are the faithful. A tidbit they may not know is that the society’s founder, Archbishop Marcel LeFebvre, voted with the majority on the pope’s birth control commission to change the church’s teaching on birth control, a further irony about the group now being actively wooed by the Vatican.)

Here’s one of the teachings of Vatican II that self-styled “orthodox” (read reactionary) Catholics, especially those focused solely on reproductive issues, don’t like: It is the opening line of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). It is definitely one of the best expressions of “the spirit of the Second Vatican Council,” another phrase that the “orthodox” also hate:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.

This is also an apt expression of the aggiornamento that good Pope John XXIII said the Catholic Church badly needed. He called the Council because the Church needed to make itself relevant to the real problems of the world. The Church simply was not having the impact it should have been having. Catholics who were considered to be “devout” before the Council were the few exceptions who could live a quasi-monastic life, steeped in personal prayer and focused narrowly on “saving their own souls.”

But the Council taught that the followers of Christ need to make a difference in the lives of real people, real societies in terms of real concerns; to make God present and visible in the world. “This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them … This faith needs to prove its fruitfulness by penetrating the believer’s entire life, including its worldly dimensions, and by activating him toward justice and love, especially regarding the needy.” (Gaudium et Spes)

And so the question is, who better embraces the joys and hopes of the poor and afflicted, the sisters of the LCWR and those who lobby for the poor in organizations such as Network, or the American bishops who summoned the power of the Inquisition upon them? Who better represents the griefs and anxieties of this age, those same sisters who dedicate their lives to teaching and healing and advocacy for the poor, or the recalcitrants of the St. Pius X Society who want the Church to rescind its teachings on freedom of religion, on respect for the Jews, on the full-fledged membership of lay people in the Church, on involving the congregation actively in the liturgy of the church in its own language instead of listening to the priest mumbling Latin mumbo-jumbo to the wall while the congregation contemplates its collective spiritual navel?

I say the real Catholicism is expressed by the sisters. I say the leadership of the American bishops, with the collusion of the Vatican, engaged in a mendacious political act of partisanship with its phoney “Fortnight for Freedom” and its witch-hunt against the sisters. I say the bishops are siding with the 1 percent — billionaires, banks, insurance companies and corporations — versus the 99 percent of the people of this country. I say this is shameful and scandalous!

Paranoia in the Kansas State Legislature

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

Can you believe that 153 of 156 state legislators in Kansas actually went on record to adopt a law that said Sharia law does not apply in America? That’s 120 of 120 members of the Kansas House, and 33 of 36 members of the Kansas Senate who thought that Kansas residents needed protection from something that’s a threat only to someone in the grip of psychotic paranoia. Why not protect Kansas residents from the laws of invaders from Mars?

What’s the matter with Kansas? The evidence suggests that part of the answer is that mostly stupid people get elected to its state legislature. Peggy Nast, who has worked for two years to pass this lunatic legislation, said that its purpose is to avoid confusion that American law prevails on American soil. Who was confused? What law other than American law can prevail on American soil? Apparently Ms. Nast was confused about that, but how many ordinary Kansas were?

According to a Christian Post story posted on the internet, another legislator, Kansas State Sen. Susan Wagle, stated that this bill, if enacted, would be a victory for women’s rights.

“They stone women to death in countries that have Sharia law,” Wagle is quoted as saying. “If you vote to not adopt [SB 79], it’s a vote against women.” Duh.

Sen. Tim Owens, one of only three dissenters, called the law an embarrassment to Kansas. “People will ask,’How narrow has the state become? How unwelcoming is this state?'” Bless Sen. Owens for his mild understatement. People will ask, “Are they nuts? How stupid do they think their people are? How stupid are those idiots in the legislature?”

Even more disturbing is the fact that roughly 20 states have considered similar legislation. Where does such lunacy originate? Oh, yes, let’s see: Karl Rove, ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, the Koch brothers, Fox News and other such right-wing originators of big-lie propaganda. And, of course, Newt Gingrich brought up the specter of Sharia law in his publicity tour masquerading as a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Another report showed that nearly a third of Americans believe that American Muslims want to establish Sharia law in the United States. Thank you very much, Fox News, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others of your ilk: Your contributions to political discourse in the United States have brought it down to its nastiest and stupidest levels in the last century.

And what about Gov. Sam Brownback, a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination? Surely he vetoed the measure?

Nope. He signed it.

The Papacy: A Defender of Academic Freedom?

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

While Pope Benedict XVI recently called on American Catholic colleges and universities to submit themselves to the “mandate” of local bishops, it is interesting to note that in the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the pre-eminent teacher of classical Catholic theology and philosophy, the pope issued a proclamation protecting universities from interference by their local bishops.

Surprising? Perhaps not so surprising as the realization that the concept of academic freedom did not arise out of the period of the Enlightenment, as many might surmise; it arose during medieval times, specifically in the 13th century in the context of universities, all of which were Catholic, and some even established by popes.

In his history of France (Histoire de la France), Pierre Miquel says that the University of Paris, at which Aquinas and his mentor Albert the Great taught, had undergone considerable development during the reign of Louis IX (later to be canonized Saint Louis). Its schools, called faculties, attracted students from all over Europe. “Liberated from the tutelage of bishops, the university was protected by the chancellor from the king’s police,” Miquel writes (all translations are mine).

The university received juridical recognition in 1231, having acquired its independence following a long struggle against the police, and a two-year strike, the author says. “Her charter of independence was established by the pope himself. She (the university) had the responsibility and the right to determine the content, the form of instruction and the method of conferring degrees.”

Miquel goes on to say that both “masters” and students tired of instruction focused narrowly on theology. They wanted to read and comment on the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosopher Averroes. “The church reacted violently, condemned these ungodly books and attempted to retake control of the students,” says Miquel. “Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas, both Dominicans, undertook a commentary on Aristotle. In their reflections they reconciled Greek reason with the Christian faith. Their efforts were well compensated. Students acknowledged them as masters and their prestige in Europe grew immense; never were they more listened to than when they were the victims of attack by the high clergy. The distrust of the traditional hierarchy toward them rendered them credible.”

Writing in Theological Studies (No. 58, 1997), William Hoye, professor of systematic theology in the Catholic Theology Faculty of the University of Munster, Germany, says that “the first known mention of academic freedom in Western history occurs in an official document of a pope.” That pope was Honorius III (1216-1277).

“In 1220 the young University of Bologna turned to the pope for support in a conflict it was waging with the local civic government. Pope Honorius III responded by repeatedly encouraging the university to defend its ‘scholastic freedom’ (libertas scolastica) and to take extreme measures to resist the attempts of the city government to undermine the independence of academic life by requiring students to pledge an oath of allegiance to the city,” Hoye wrote.

Hoye comments that “neither church nor state, nor a constitution, can grant academic freedom . . . the pope justly presupposed its existence and value as being grounded in the very nature of academic life, arising from within and not from without,” and urged students not to allow their “scholastic purity to be marred.” Says Hoye: “Both the idea of the university and the idea of academic freedom can be called gifts of medieval Christianity to the modern world.”

He goes on to say that the right to strike was granted to the University of Paris by Pope Gregory IX in 1231. “In this case, incidentally, the threat came not from the secular arm but from the bishop of Paris, who wanted to have the right to determine who should be allowed to teach at the university (as well as who should be suspended).” By contrast, today’s “mandate” grants those very rights to local bishops.

If, then, academic freedom needs to be guarded against both church and state, as it appears medieval popes and Thomas Aquinas (the “angelic doctor”) himself maintained in the 13th century, how can that be reconciled with today’s concern about doctrinal purity in Catholic colleges and universities? And a layman might also legitimately ask how theology can expand our understanding of the faith if it is limited to what a bishop – even a brilliant bishop, much less one of limited ability – thinks is within the bounds of what he considers to be “orthodoxy.” It would seem that any gains in understanding can only come through exploration and controversy that exceeds the comfort zones of diocesan bishops and Vatican doctrinal watchdogs.

Hoye finds a partial answer in the words of the angelic doctor. Aquinas laid down three rules for the interpretation of Scripture and revelation:

  1. The claim that a revelation text has only one specific meaning must always be avoided.
  2. The meaning one attributes to the text must be a truth in its own right.
  3. The meaning must respect the wording of the text.

In other words, new understandings of authoritative texts, whether in Scripture or revelation (sometimes referred to clumsily as “the deposit of faith”) are always possible (a notion developed in Cardinal Newman’s “The Development of Doctrine”); the new understanding must stand the test of reason and compatibility with the known truth, and it must ring true. In the end, says Hoye, what the human author had in mind in writing the authoritative text “is not decisive; truth is decisive.” I read that to mean that what the original human author — be it Moses, Matthew or Mark — had in mind may only be the first of many insights.

Hoye concludes: “No wonder then that truth becomes an absolute within the university. What better way could there be to ground and motivate the search for truth which is the vital principle of academic life?”

Paul Ryan’s budget and Catholic social doctrine

By Albert de Zutter

Copyright 2012

Paul Ryan, touted by Republicans as their financial guru, claims that his Catholic faith informed his budget plan, citing the Catholic Church’s “principle of subsidiarity” and “preferential option for the poor.” In defending his plan Ryan said the preferential option for the poor “means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out onto a life of independence.”

Analyzing that statement, it appears Ryan’s premise is that government support in the form of unemployment compensation, food aid or welfare forcibly prevents the poor from becoming independent, and that all it would take for them to be free and prosperous would be for the government to stop helping them.

Wow. This is what passes for economic, political, religious, social and moral intelligence?

Let’s examine Ryan’s claim that his Catholic faith helped him shape his budget, which would substantially reduce taxes for the ultra-rich and disastrously cut programs for the poor and those in the economic middle, a middle which has been barely hanging onto or losing buying power over the last 10 years.

Authentic Catholic teaching on social justice is founded on three principles: the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. The common good refers to “the good of all people and of the whole person.” It is the duty of government to promote the common good. This it does through “commitment to peace, the organization of the state’s powers, a sound juridical system, the protection of the environment, and the provision of essential services to all, (emphasis added) some of which are at the same time human rights: food, housing, work, education and access to culture, transportation, basic health care, the freedom of communication and expression, and the protection of religious freedom.” (“Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” No. 166)

The Ryan budget reduces or eliminates current provisions for most of these human rights. On subsidiarity, cited by Ryan as inspiring his budget, the Catholic Church does not at all teach that “government closest to the people governs best,” as Ryan said in defending his budget. It teaches that higher orders of society (the federal government, for example) “must adopt attitudes of help (subsidium)  —  therefore of support, promotion, development — with respect to lower-order societies” (states, counties, municipalities, churches, unions, professional associations, etc.) so these can “properly perform the functions that fall to them,” and not be swallowed up in a higher entity. Subsidiarity involves “economic, institutional or juridical assistance offered to lesser social entities.” (Compendium, No. 186) So while Ryan posits an either/or and better/worse interpretation of subsidiarity, the Church teaches a collaborative model, which is followed by many federal programs.

Regarding “the preferential option for the poor,” the Church teaches that “the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern.” This concern “cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future.” (Compendium, No 182) In its discussion of the preferential option the Church cites the words of St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

These teachings are a far cry from Ryan’s plan of “helping people get out of poverty and into a life of independence” by cutting off all support and using the money thus “saved” to lavish another tax cut on the wealthy.

Ryan omits the principles of the common good and of solidarity in his claim to base his budget on Catholic teaching. Solidarity, the Church teaches, is a commitment to the good of all, “because we are all really responsible for all,” according to Pope John Paul II, a concept, by the way, that President Obama has been citing recently.

“The principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become part,” the Church teaches. In other words, nobody who achieves success does so without the necessary help of society, “the indispensable legacy constituted by culture, scientific and technical knowledge, material and immaterial goods, and by all that the human condition has produced.” (Compendium, no. 195) This idea, too, has become a part of the President’s current message.

Matthew 25 tells us that we are expected to respond to the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the homeless stranger, the imprisoned and the naked, or face judgment. “The least of these” require our help as a society. We cannot expect them to pull themselves up by their sandal straps.