Overcoming Extremes – Four Practices

It is no real surprise that United States’ politics is polarized. (See the recent Pew Study). It is a bit surprising that people have started to reshape their religious beliefs to fit into these political extremes. As Robert Putnam concludes in American Grace, “The ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between.” Catholic moral theologians must refuse to rely on these categories, especially the versions of them that have dominated our own discipline for the past forty years. Among the many problems these binary extremes create (think lack of charity for one), they threaten the very heart of our enterprise by compromising our attentiveness, insights, and judgments.  Below are four practices that I hope can overcome these extremes. 1.  Avoid Relying on Liberal and Conservative Categories: Part of the weakness of these categories is that they oversimplify analysis of and solutions to problems. As a practice, avoiding these categories would entail actions like:  Checking our resources to make sure they are diverse, not just drawing on one school of thought Reexamining our conclusions to ensure that they are warranted on their own merits and not just the default conservative or liberal response. Checking our methodology to make sure it is not just an application of a conservative or liberal approach. Refusing to use the terms to define ourselves or...

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Sixteen Years of Catholic Education without Hearing about Distributive Justice?

Appearing with Stephen Schneck on the O\’Reilly Factor, Vincent Miller pointed out to Bill O’Reilly that the “Catholic church speaks about distributive justice.” O’Reilly then said, “The Catholic church teaches about distributive justice. I’ve never heard that. I went to sixteen years of Catholic school. I never heard that.” Oh, really, O’Reilly? If that’s the case, then someone fumbled the ball when he attended Chaminade High and Marist College. It would be interesting to find the textbooks that were used during the 1950s and 1960s when he was in school. Textbooks that were used in Catholic high schools and colleges earlier in the twentieth century–on morality, politics, economics, social reconstruction–by the likes of John A. Ryan and Virgil Michel, OSB typically devoted a chapter to justice, with subheadings referring to commutative justice, distributive justice, retributive justice, legal justice, and social justice. Quotes on the topic are also frequently found in these texts from papal encyclicals, including Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: “Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for their people, the first and chief is to act with justice–with that justice which is called in the Schools distributive–towards each and every class” (no. 27, emphasis in original, quoted in John A. Ryan and Francis J. Bolland, CSC, Catholic Principles of Politics, rev. ed. [Macmillan Co., 1958], p....

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Does Catholic social doctrine allow us to say that bin Laden deserved death?

Barack Obama gave an interview to 60 Minutes this past Sunday to talk about the attack on Osama bin Laden. It made absolutely compelling television, and the president was particularly sterling. The most intriguing question, I thought, came at the end, when Steve Kroft asked the President, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?”  Obama’s response pointed to the power and gravity of the presidential office: “Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job.” Kroft did not let the question go: “This was one man. This is somebody who’s cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost a decade.” Obama then said something that I found rather shocking: “As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.” Perhaps I need to have my head examined, but does it not seem a little disturbing that our President feels it...

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Catholic Academics Challenge Boehner

Over at NCR, Michael Sean Winters has posted an open letter to Speaker Boehner from a number of prominent Catholic scholars (from a wide range of academic disciplines). A brief excerpt from the letter reads: Mr. Speaker, we urge you to use the occasion of this year’s commencement at The Catholic University of America to give fullest consideration to the teachings of your Church. We call upon you to join with your bishops and sign on to the “Circle of Protection.” It is your moral duty as a legislator to put the needs of the poor and most vulnerable foremost in your considerations. To assist you in this regard, we enclose a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Published by the Vatican, this is the “catechism” for the Church’s ancient and growing teaching on a just society and Catholic obligations in public life. Catholic social doctrine is not merely a set of goals to be achieved by whatever means one chooses. It is also a way of proceeding, a set of principles that are derived from the truth of the human person. In Pope Benedict’s words: “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way… the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.” We commend to...

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Listening and Endurance: Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2: 14, 36-41 Psalm 23 1 Peter 2:20-25 John 10:1-10 “Listen” is the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict, which he wrote for the monks of the 6th century and which is still the foundation of many monastic orders today – “Listen…with the ear of your heart.” Likewise, the theme of listening is repeated throughout the readings for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  In the reading from the Gospel of John the sheep recognize Jesus as their shepherd primarily through listening to his voice – “the sheep follow him because because they know his voice” (Jn 10:4).  We have seen that their are other ways of recognizing Jesus – such as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24) – but in this reading John emphasizes listening and hearing. The Gospel of John is rich in metaphorical language which the author of the Gospel repeatedly uses to tip his readers off to what is happening.  For example, the characters in the fourth Gospel are carefully distinguished between those who “know” and those who “do not know” the true identity of Jesus – when the Jews (presumably members of the Sanhedrin)  interrogate the man born blind whom Jesus healed they claim: “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this...

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The Epidemiological Insight and Infant Mortality

Paul Farmer, medical anthropologist and founder of Partners in Health, identifies what he calls the epidemiological insight – diseases make a preferential option for the poor; thus, healthcare workers must as well. Throughout Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor, Farmer argues “To act as a physician in the service of poor or otherwise oppressed people is to prevent whenever possible, the diseases that  afflict them – but also to treat and if possible to cure” (145) Highlighting the need for innovation in healthcare, Farmer focuses not on high tech, expensive medicine but on attacking the connection between poverty and illness. What is needed, he argues is attention to public health and basic services  – public health must be made a priority. For Example, Infant Deaths Drop After Midwives Undergo Inexpensive Training offers concrete evidence of medical training programs in Zambia. Midwives from 18 Zambian clinics were taught a basic course in newborn care and encouraged to teach their colleagues as well. The course covers simple interventions like cleaning and warming a newborn, resuscitation, breast-feeding and diagnosing common illnesses. (Above, a birth attendant listened for a baby’s heartbeat with a clay stethoscope.) The midwives normally handled births that were expected to be uncomplicated, with women typically going home with heir babies after one night in the clinic. The researchers compared survival rates among...

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Articulating a Comprehensive Moral Response to HIV/AIDS in the Spirit of St. Damian of Molokai

Although it is a little late in the day to post this, today is the feast day of St. Damian Molokai, a Belgian priest of the Sacred Hearts Fathers who volunteered to be sent to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1873 to care for the lepers there. In his mission to the lepers in Hawaii, Fr. Damian contracted leprosy himself, which he died from in 1885. Today, Saint Damien is the patron saint of lepers and outcasts and the unofficial patron of those with HIV and AIDS. The world’s only Catholic chapel dedicated to who suffer from HIV/AIDS, the Église Saint-Pierre-Apôtre in Montreal, Quebec is consecrated to Saint Damien. The subject of HIV/AIDS is frequently invoked as an opportunity to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding the magisterial teaching against condom use. Particularly controversial are statements like those from the late Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo (the former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family) arguing that the distribution of condoms could make the AIDS epidemic worse by promoting sexual promiscuity despite the fact that condoms are not 100% effective at preventing the spread of the disease: “The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom. “These margins of uncertainty… should represent an obligation on the part of the health ministries and all these...

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It is Moral to Watch American Football?

With all the talk about violence going on elsewhere in the world, perhaps in the spirit of intellectual honesty (and avoidance of rank hypocrisy) it is prudent to turn inward and look at how violence is part our own lives.  More subtle than flying airplanes into buildings…we can be violent even in the ways we consume and throw away things (and people we treat as things) on a daily basis. But sometimes the violence in which we participate isn’t so subtle after all. It is a late Saturday morning.  And, for me anyway, its not nearly as good of a late Saturday morning as it could be…simply because there is no football to watch this afternoon.  I’m serious.  But isn’t this just a bit pathological given what we learned this week about the brain of suicide victim, and former Notre Dame and Chicago Bears defensive back, Dave Duerson? We know late Bears safety Dave Duerson’s brain was damaged and deteriorating from head blows he received while playing football. What we don’t know is whether he was hurt more than other NFL players of his era, whether he had a predisposition to lasting brain damage, whether he unknowingly reached a certain cumulative ‘‘tipping point’’ that put his brain over the edge or when the effects of the blows to his head kicked in and made him unstable and demented. Oh,...

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We Had to Kill Bin Laden?

Many of the articles, reflections, or posts that I have read on the killing of Osama bin Laden lament the situation, expressing a desire for some other solution and, simultaneously, recognizing that no other way seemed possible.  Let me sketch five narratives that I think have led to the seeming necessity of killing bin Laden. We cannot be isolationists.  In the build up to and early stages of World War I and World War II, the United States privileged an isolationist foreign policy.  As a country, we preferred not to get involved.  The consequences of this approach seemed to lead to all out war.  When we became a superpower in the wake of WWII, we felt not only forced to take a leadership role in international politics but that war would emerge if we did not.  Thus started the assumption that the United States must respond.  First it was communism, and then it was terrorism in the light of 9/11. September 11th was an act of war.   The violence, destruction, and suffering that emerged in 9/11, left a wound in people, society, and the country.  It was and is a wound that cannot be healed by human efforts. After we emerged from our initial shock, we understood these events as acts of war.  Someone had declared war on us and attacked us, successfully, on our own soil.  We...

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Renewed Debate about Torture and Useful Intelligence

As more details about the killing of Osama Bin Laden are released, one of the questions that has surfaced is whether the CIA relied on intelligence resulting from the torture of terrorist suspects held in detention facilities abroad. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite wrote a compelling Op-Ed in the Washington Post On Faith board, in which she argues that torture is both inherently wrong and counterproductive. As Catholics react to the unfolding news, we should remain attentive to the rich wisdom of the just war tradition. The Torture is a Moral Issue campaign, linked here on the USCCB website, explains: Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved-policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now-without exceptions. Food for thought as we continue to reflect on the unfolding...

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