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Man has been trying to improve himself by his own power since the beginning. The results speak for themselves.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Benedict XVI, Marriage, Bioethics, and My Dissertation

I was tempted to title this post, Great Minds Think Alike, but a small mind could think alike with a great one once in a while.

At any rate, I am happy to hear Pope Benedict XVI’s words on the connection between life issues and marriage and the family. That is precisely my dissertation topic. Of course, in researching and writing a dissertation, I go into a little more detail that the pope did in his address to members of the diplomatic corps.

The pope connected people’s disposition with respect to God to their ability to make sound decisions and act rightly. Reflecting on the divine light that comes at Christmas, he said, “Truly the world is gloomy wherever it is not brightened by God’s light! Truly the world is dark wherever men and women no longer acknowledge their bond with the Creator and thereby endanger their relation to other creatures and to creation itself. The present moment is sadly marked by a profound disquiet and the various crises – economic, political and social – are a dramatic expression of this.”

He goes on to say, “The crisis can and must be an incentive to reflect on human existence and on the importance of its ethical dimension.” Later, he talks about how family life is essential for the education of children in respect for human life and the human person, and that family life has its foundation in marriage (that is, between a man and a woman).

I couldn’t agree more. My dissertation begins with an exposition of how people reveal and form themselves through their choices. Man is fundamentally the image of God, which of course cannot be proven to an atheist. Still, even an atheist should admit that man has powers that are godlike compared to other kinds of critters, and our higher powers are what is most similar to God. If we reveal and form ourselves by our actions, then we should choose actions that reveal and form us ever more perfectly as images of God.  We must also have regard for other people because they also are images of God.

Marriage kicks this whole process up a notch in a Trinitarian way. The bond of love between two persons becomes life-generating. While some couples may not be able to generate physical life, they can be life-generating in other ways. When a couple actively chooses against being life-generating, or for seizing life as if it were a material possession, they reveal and form their dispositions with respect to God.

Meanwhile, secular society is militating against life and marriage in numerous ways. The field of bioethics is becoming a free-for-all, a mere exercise in creating a plausible rationale to justify what you want to do to placate naysayers who stand in your way. In redefining “marriage” and “life” arbitrarily—no, not arbitrarily, rather intentionally and to achieve a certain desired outcome—society has taken it upon itself to determine also what “good” means. It’s getting ugly out there. Ridicule and intolerance are rampant.

On the other hand, there is a new generation coming along, well educated Catholics often from large families who are fearless in engaging the world at large. I know. My oldest is one of them. (Although with 5 kids, we’re a small large family.) She’s getting straight A’s at Thomas Aquinas College. We are very proud of her! We’re also very proud of our next one, who will be going to TAC this fall. She has a lot to live up to, with her older sister doing as well as she is. But she can do it, too! I like to think they’re no smarter than their old man (but I’m probably wrong about that) but I know this: They are WAY better educated than I was. Or than I am now, even with a handful of graduate degrees in theology under my belt. The difference is the foundation. And that my daughters owe to their mom.

My kids are not alone. In my former work for a new Catholic liberal arts college, I was very impressed with how well catechized, how virtuous, how just plain grown up these kids are. Compared to me at their age at least. I tell people that such a college was what just what I really needed, but the last thing that I wanted. Don’t be afraid to make sure your kids get the kind of college education that they NEED, and not just what they want.

Anyway, the future is bright, even if society is working hard to keep it in darkness.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Murders for Jesus"? Mark Shea, Ethicist?

I am trying not to come off as a hypocrite with this post. Mark Shea is known to point out other people's faults in their walk with the Lord and in trying to live a Catholic life, and here I am, pointing out his for doing that. It could come off as hypocrisy I suppose, but on the other hand, it is something worth discussing from an ethical standpoint, so I'll take that risk.

Before we get started regarding the simplistic, sensationalistic, and uncharitable attack on Rick Santorum by Mark Shea on his blog (which he runs, he says, "…so that nothing I say, no matter how stupid, will have to go unpublished," but I leave others to determine the fittingness of his slogan), I would like to point out some of my principles in dealing with other people's ethics.

I use this blog identity to engage health professionals, atheists, and all manner of people, not just Catholics, so I'm no guru with a following. Yet, I try to go by the biblical principle of considering others as better than myself. By this, Scripture means that even if we see people sinning, we should regard them as more likely to enter heaven than ourselves, and attend to our own sins. I try to be a judge of my own rather than other people's ethical choices and actions especially regarding my interior deliberations and motives, which only I and God know, and He better than me. However, it is impossible not to at least assess the external aspects of other people's choices--but I stand aside when it comes to peering into someone's heart and making a judgment. I know my sins. I know others people's actions. And maybe God's mercy is at work in them and they will go to heaven before me. And so I regard both Santorum and Mr. Shea as more likely to get into heaven before me.

As far as Mr. Shea goes, God has blessed him with popularity and prosperity and he does have a good sense of what the Catholic life entails. I truly believe that he believes he is doing the right thing. Which stands against me, and all the little stupid sins I commit with full knowledge of doing them. Yet, prosperity and popularity are fleeting. They are also a very strong temptation to pride and other kinds of sin, and so often come to us from a source other than God, and thus they are not always trustworthy evidence of God's blessing. But I will give Mr. Shea the benefit of the doubt in this case. After all, my own blog is thoroughly free of tempting me to pride. I've made all of 8 cents gross on it since last summer.

All that said, I stand by my assessment: His attack on Rick Santorum's words regarding the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist is simplistic, sensationalistic (by which you could read scandal-mongering), and uncharitable. I believe it is also hypocritical.

There are three things to look at in this regard. First, the ethics of Santorum's position. Second, the ethics of Mr. Shea's attack. And third, the ethics in general of Mr. Shea, as revealed in his historical approach to his column in the National Catholic Register as well as his blog.

Santorum has apparently come down in favor of assassinating people working on the military projects (which could include civilians as well as actual military and government personnel) of aggressive, belligerent nations who are openly hostile to the United States of America. In particular, he seems to have said that the assassination of the Iranian scientist was "a wonderful thing." Mr. Shea links to a brief quote in the New York Times, and I have since seen a video of the more complete context of Santorum's words. I have two things to say. One is, Santorum is on shaky ground ethically with this position. I am not an expert on just war theory, but such assassinations probably are not covered by it. I will not go further: It suffices to say that just war theory does not extend to justifying assassinations of this kind, especially in the absence of open military conflict. To this extent, but only to this extent, Mr. Shea seems correct.

The second thing is this. Where Mr. Shea goes wrong is equating Santorum's position with abortion and simple murder of innocent people to get one's way. This is, simply speaking, an attack on the man's heart and character. It violates numerous Scriptural principles and tenets of Catholic doctrine. It foments scandal. And since it is an active attack on someone else and not merely the advocacy of such an attack (which appears to be Santorum's crime), it is possibly worse than the latter.

Prior to seeing the full context of Santorum's words, I pointed out in Mr. Shea's combox that I was not entirely sure what Santorum thought was "a wonderful thing"--the murder of an innocent person, the setback to the Iranian program, or what. I gave the example there (which I refine a bit here) of me holding up a check for a million dollars saying, "My rich uncle died! Isn't this great?" What is great, that my uncle died, or that I just became rich? Mr. Shea responded by insulting me, saying I'm not his "go-to guy" for authentic bioethics because I can't parse a sentence.

Well, well, well.

The FACT is, the FACT of Santorum's words, the parsing of his sentence especially in the larger context of his words is this: The assessment that he advocates the wanton murder of wholly innocent people is RIDICULOUS. Santorum is very clear the kind of people he is talking about: Those who are working on military projects of militaristic, belligerent regimes who have declared the US to be an enemy, who have logistically and financially supported other regimes and terrorist groups hostile to the US. These are not mere bureaucrats impeding a trade pact. They are not women who want to look good in a bikini 6 months from now. They are not some guy on the subway whose Rolex we want to steal. As I said, I do not agree with Santorum, but in his heart and in his reasoning, it is clear that he is talking about individuals who are self-declared enemies of the US actively engaging in advancing the military capabilities of our enemies against us. I don't think his reasoning justifies assassination, but even so, that reasoning remains a far cry from advocating wanton murder of innocent people, and especially from justifying abortion.

For Mark Shea to accuse him vehemently of such reveals simplistic understanding of ethics and of Catholic doctrine. It is sensationalistic, because it is so ridiculous: He is fomenting scandal. It is uncharitable. And he is guilty of the very kind of assassination, albeit verbally, that he accuses Santorum of merely advocating.

Now, this is par for the course from Mr. Shea. I am by no means a Mark Shea scholar (thank God) and I am not going to weed through hundreds if not thousands of his murky posts and columns to show citations. But ever since the late 1990s, some 15 years ago or so, I remember him taking the same rhetorical approach. There was one column about 8 or 9 years ago, about an associate of his who was a radical traditionalist, whom Mr. Shea accused of antisemitism and he took the part of victim on behalf of his Jewish friend. On the one hand, that's sweet. On the other, he victimized traditionalists with the same kind of vitriol that he accused the traditionalist of doing with regard to Jews. Now look, I do not advocate antisemitism at all. But, I have to admit something: A Catholic, no matter how wayward, is a higher priority for Christian charity precisely because of his Catholicism and waywardness, than is a Jew who is pious. After all, we have more in common with a wayward Catholic with whom we share a common faith and the sacraments especially Holy Communion, than we do with someone whose own faith is one of rejection of Christ. Now, that is not an antisemitic remark. I do not thereby advocate mistreatment of Jews or anyone else. I mean to say that Mr. Shea was right insofar as he corrects a brother, but he was wrong with respect to how he went about it, rejecting his brother and siding with a (religiously speaking) non-brother the way he did.

In another column, he complained about people who go around at Mass policing the posture and actions of others at Mass, making sure they sing, speak, stand, kneel, whatever, when they're supposed to. Well, one has to ask, isn't complaining about what these people do at Mass the exact same thing that they are doing? Don't you have to have eyes that drill into the back of their heads, just as you say they have?

So it's the same old thing: "Hey, look! Someone who calls himself Catholic but does not act like a real Catholic! Don't we just hate him?" And yes, "hate" is the right word here. Mr. Shea used the word "despicable" of Santorum. "Despicable" means hate-worthy. It's Mr. Shea's word, not mine. There is nothing in Catholic doctrine to justify this approach. If you want to engage someone's ethics and behavior vis-a-vis the Catholic faith, fine go ahead, but do it in a reasoned and charitable manner, assuming the other person to be on his way to heaven ahead of you. So to title the post on Santorum "Murderers for Jesus" and then launch into a vitriolic, sensationalistic attack is beyond the pale and unjustifiable by Catholic doctrine.

All in all, Mr. Shea is not my go-to guy for anything Catholic, and especially not ethics. Still, I stand by what I said above, that I believe he believes he's doing the right thing, and all that.

Anyway, that is how I see it.