Elizabeth Johnson and the U.S. Catholic Bishops: Lessons for Moral Theology?

Strictly speaking, the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine statement critiquing professor Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ’s, 2007 book, Quest for the Living God, has nothing to do with moral theology.  The seven main points which they critique bear more on systematic theology, the nature of revelation, and the language that we use to speak about God.  Nor, to be fair, am I qualified to speak about the details of Johnson’s work or to adequately defend it.  (For some interesting, and much more theologically in-depth comments on the specific issues, I recommend the discussions on the Women in Theology blog, or reading her book and/or the bishops’ statement.)  But the issue of the relationship between the professional theologian, whether religious or lay, and the Magisterium of the Church is a hot-button topic that has had a profound impact upon the field of moral theology in the latter half of the twentieth century, and is still felt by those of us entering the field in the twenty-first.  Most of us can probably immediately conjure up a scenario in our departments, at conferences, or in personal conversations where the topic quickly switches from substantive debate on ethical issues to finger pointing – either at dogmatic bishops who are trying to stifle conversation and genuine theological inquiry, or professional theologians who are trying to water down the doctrine of the Church and lead people...

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Rationing Dialysis

Unless you are one of the nation’s 400,000 dialysis patients, you may not know that a law passed by Congress 39 years ago provides almost entirely free dialysis to patients whose kidneys have failed, regardless of age or ability to pay. The law itself is really remarkable in its attentiveness to poor and to the discrepancies in health care between the rich and the poor. According to the NY Times: When Congress established the entitlement to pay for kidney patients in October 1972, dialysis and transplants were new procedures that were not covered by health insurance. There were horrifying stories — rich people got dialysis and lived while poor people died. In Seattle, a committee meted out dialysis by voting on who could get it. A man who was supporting a family, for example, took precedence over a single woman. Unfortunately, the law has some unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. While it was intended to protect the poor, relatively healthy, middle-aged population, it is now being used by the elderly, oftentimes who are suffering from a number of other medical conditions. More than one third of dialysis patients are 65 or older and account for 42% of the costs. In light of sky-rocketing health care costs, kidney specialists are now urging doctors to be honest and forthright with patients who are considering dialysis, and to encourage patients to decline dialysis...

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Why Christians Should Reject Speciesism

Over at the Public Discourse, the very good Loyola Marymount philosopher Chris Kaczor has responded to a review of his recent book on abortion by another well-known philosopher, Don Marquis.  While calling it “the most complete, the most penetrating and the most up-to-date set of critiques of the arguments for abortion choice presently available” and “required reading for anyone seriously considering the abortion issue”, Marquis nevertheless rejects Kaczor’s central conclusion about the inherent dignity of all human organisms.  One reason, and it is the reason on which I shall focus  in this post, is because of Kazor’s ‘speciesism.’  Though I largely agree with much that is in the book, I also think that Marquis, invoking Singer, is right to press Kaczor on this point.  But first let us turn to Kaczor’s defense at the Public Discourse.  He begins by  attempting to define the charge: Peter Singer defines speciesism as “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species.” On this view, to hold that all human beings have moral status is an insidious “-ism” and so should be rejected. This point is in need of some important clarification: for to jump from ‘arbitrarily preferring human interests in, say, not feeling pain, to similar non-human interests in not feeling pain’ to ‘holding that all...

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Economically “Recovering” or Falling Behind? More on Wages

In the midst of all the breathless coverage of the economy “recovery” (is it recovering? Isn’t it? Why does this coverage sound like a pennant race in September?), and our myopic focus on the “jobs number,” the New York Times highlights a recent study which shows the structural problems of low-wage work in America. According to the report, a single worker needs an income of $30,012 a year — or just above $14 an hour — to cover basic expenses and save for retirement and emergencies. That is close to three times the 2010 national poverty level of $10,830 for a single person, and nearly twice the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. A single worker with two young children needs an annual income of $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to attain economic stability, and a family with two working parents and two young children needs to earn $67,920 a year, or about $16 an hour per worker. The study makes clear its assumptions, and notes that there will be significant regional variations, especially given the range of housing costs in different areas. (Furthermore, the report will undoubtedly fuel some comments about the economic difficulties inherent in single-parenting, but it seems pretty important to note that the traditional Catholic teaching on just wage assumes that only one parent has to work full-time outside the home, so the...

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Hate Speech, the Internet, and Edwardian Society

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Westboro Baptist Church members’ right to free speech, even at funerals, is by now old news. But I was interested in this piece at the BBC. Louis Theroux filmed a documentary of the group a few years ago but, strange in documentary-land, returned during the Supreme Court questioning to get an updated version. What he found were people who had left the church and he remarks: The family regard it as their duty to “rejoice in all of God’s judgements” – murders, cancer, natural disasters, and the loss of their loved ones to the lures of carnality and fornication (the word covers a multitude of activities in the Phelps lexicon, including probably hand-holding and playing the harpsichord in mixed company). When I raised the subject of their lost membership, the Phelps parents did their best to stick to the script and express satisfaction. But it was all rather forced and unconvincing and a bit sad. Though most of us would say that we are not “like that” and though I have never, ever met anyone from any political persuasion who liked what the Phelps do, their court case, their sadness should make us reflect on ourselves and our own use of language. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say I have been somewhat of a target of the Phelps’ vitriol. Back when...

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Till (Double) Lethal Injection Do Us Part?–Sliding Down the Euthanasia Slippery Slope

Here is a story about a Belgian couple who ‘couldn’t imagine living without each other’ and so asked for euthanasia together (hat tip to Wes Smith): You heard right, you don’t have to be terminally ill to get it…but why would you?  When a culture presumes that one’s choices about one’s own life and body are entirely up the individual, who is the state to get involved and regulate on what basis that individual can make a decision about such a deeply personal matter?  Quite logically, many Dutch are now calling for legal euthanasia when they are simply ‘tired of life.’ But when ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ are concepts simply floating about, untethered to any sense of ‘the good’ or other goal toward which such autonomy is directed, it does not produce liberation.  Rather, it simply papers over and even ensconces those deep injustices that already exist in a culture.  In the case of euthanasia in the secular West, among other things, this means an uncritical examination of a consumerist and youth-obsessed culture which sees older people as a burden and leading a kind of life that is not worth living. Nigel Biggar’s book ‘Aiming to Kill’ powerfully argues that any culture which attempts to legalize euthanasia, which also locates their primarily value in untethered autonomy, will be unable to stop a slide down a slippery slope to euthanasia on...

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Should shame make a comeback?

A colleague friend of mine who works in Second Temple Judaism once quipped that a sure mark of an established Old Testament professor is an inclination toward public shaming in the classroom.  He then related some legendary anecdotes from his own education that backed up his claim, all of which I have to say were quite humorous.  They were humorous, of course, because of their incongruity with contemporary academic decorum, and because of the parallel incongruity we often perceive between modern and pre-modern societies where shaming was prominent, societies such as those depicted in the Hebrew Bible. Contemporary culture generally assumes the experience of shame to be a sign that something has gone wrong in the realm of human interaction.  Shame is pathological, and its source can almost always be traced back to an oppressive (and likely hypocritical) imposition of moral norms by an overreaching communal authority.  Hester Prynne bearing her scarlet “A” is often the first image that appears to the modern mind when considering whether shame is something we should endorse or condemn.  Old Testament teachers notwithstanding, we remain highly suspect of any state of affairs that would cause shame in any regular way.  Some have even criticized sex offender notification laws precisely on this basis.  Indeed, if shame has any appropriate place in our liberal society, it is reserved specifically for those who cause shame in others. That being said, a recent Master’s dissertation here at the University of...

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The 411 on R2P

In her post on March 28th, Meghan Clark rightly brings up the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in connection with UN Resolution 1973 concerning Libya. Since there appears to be a lack of familiarity with R2P in the U.S., I thought it appropriate to outline its contours. In 2007 I was invited to participate in a consultation on R2P at the Academy of Arnoldshain near Frankfurt, Germany, sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC) as part of its “Decade to Overcome Violence” program, which will culminate this May in an International Ecumenical Peace Convocation in Kingston, Jamaica. The March 2001 issue of the WCC’s journal, The Ecumenical Review, contains articles related to this topic (“Peace on Earth-Peace with Earth”), including one that I wrote on R2P. My brief comments here are culled from there. The phrase first appeared in a 2001 report by that title issued by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, an initiative of the Canadian government to reflect on how to move beyond the moral and jurisprudential obstacles surrounding what was referred to as “humanitarian intervention” during the 1990s in countries such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The United Nations subsequently studied this proposal, and at the 2005 World Summit, member states endorsed R2P. A report in January 2009 from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on “Implementing the Responsibility to Protect” led to further debate...

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Praying and “Framing”

Why is prayer, liturgy, and studying the Bible important?  One reason is that these activities shape the way in which we make decisions.  Some recent work on “framing” from behavioral economics, neuroscience, and psychology shed some light on how they do so.  Psychologist Amos Tversky and economist Daniel Kahneman were the first to establish the concept of “framing”:  people respond to situations differently depending upon how they interpret it.  Connecting this concept with research in neuroscience, Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, states that [framing] helps explain why people are much more likely to buy meat when it’s labeled 85 percent lean instead of 15 percent fat.  And why twice as many patients opt for surgery when told there’s an 80 percent chance of their surviving instead of a 20 percent chance of their dying.  Dan Arliely, the behavior economist and author of Predictably Irrational, gives the example that high-priced entrées on the menu boost revenue for the restaurant—even if no one buys them.  Why?  Because even though people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish.  Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers into ordering the second most expensive choice (which can be cleverly engineered to deliver a higher profit margin). When my daughter flipped through the pages of her children’s picture Bible,...

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