• After almost six centuries, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven—the oldest continuing Catholic university in the world and alma mater to such distinguished graduates as Erasmus, St. Alberto Hurtado, and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen—is rethinking the whole “Katholieke” thing. “It’s time for a different orientation,” says Mark Waer, the rector of the university. It seems the university has been contemplating cutting ties with the Church for some time, but the final straw was the Vatican statement condemning the Nobel committee’s decision to award in vitro fertilization pioneer Robert Edwards the 2010 Nobel Prize in medicine. “Every new scientific insight clashes with resistance from the Vatican,” the rector complains. The Church’s “rigid Catholic morals” (Waer’s words) don’t fit well with what the rector calls the university’s “aspirations in biomedical research.” Of course, Waer assures us, “this doesn’t mean we drop the ‘K’ in our name. We stand behind the values of the Catholic faith”—at least the ones that earn Waer’s imprimatur.
• In July two inappropriately dressed women were ordered to leave a swimming pool at a holiday resort in Port Leucate, in southern France. Their offense: not showing enough skin. The two women, both Muslim, wore “burkinis”—burkas designed for swimming and for covering a woman’s body and face. Their husbands objected, of course. “One of them threatened violence,” said a resort spokesman quoted by Britain’s Daily Mail. “Police were called, and he eventually backed down. The two Muslim couples left the pool area and no charges were brought.”
Ten days earlier, the French National Assembly had passed a law banning burkas in public. In his state-of-the-nation speech on June 22, France’s president, Nicholas Sarkozy, condemned the burka as a “debasement of women” and said it was not “welcome on the territory of the French Republic.” President Sarkozy might improve France’s reputation in the United States if he bends a bit on this issue. Why not pass a law mandating burkinis for the many overweight men who insist on wearing tiny, Speedo-style bathing suits at French beaches and pools? With one presidential pen stroke, Sarkozy could eliminate a chronic eyesore and a national embarrassment.
• New Zealand’s tiny Jewish community, numbering about seven thousand people, has always enjoyed acceptance and economic prosperity. But last May a law undermined the right of Jews to practice their faith. The so-called Commercial Slaughter Code ordered that animals for commercial consumption be stunned before killing, to ensure that they are treated “humanely and in accordance with good practice and scientific knowledge.” In effect, this law banned the shechita, the ritual slaughter of animals that produces kosher food for Jews in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. In doing so, New Zealand followed Norway, Sweden, and Iceland—all of which have reputations for tolerance—in outlawing the shechita.
Jewish leaders were quick to denounce the new law. David Zwartz, the chairman of the Wellington Jewish Council, called it “an infringement of the right of Jews to observe their religion.” New Zealand’s Jews won a temporary victory in August, when the High Court in Wellington announced the ban’s suspension until the courts rule on a legal challenge. The plaintiffs argue that the law violates New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, which guarantees religious freedom. A decision is expected sometime next year. There’s only one right way to rule. Promoting the welfare of animals is a noble goal, but not when it overwhelms the right to practice a religious ritual that dates back thousands of years—and that remains legal in most Western countries.
• This past May Marquette University withdrew an offer to Jodi O’Brien, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Seattle University, to serve as dean of Marquette’s Helen Way Klinger College of Arts and Sciences. That turned out to be an unpopular move; critics charge that Marquette withdrew its offer because O’Brien is a lesbian. Both Marquette and Seattle University advertise themselves as Catholic and are run by the Jesuits. Robert A. Wild, S.J., Marquette’s president, said he withdrew the offer after learning about O’Brien’s academic writings, which include “How Big Is Your God? Queer Christian Social Movements” and “Phone Sex, Fantasy, and Disembodiment.” That body of work, Fr. Wild apparently concluded, wouldn’t help Marquette’s Catholic identity and mission.
O’Brien got paid for her troubles. In June Marquette announced that it had “reached a mutually acceptable resolution” with her to avert a discrimination suit. But the school could have avoided this mess if the search committee that recommended O’Brien for the position had taken the time to do a quick Internet search. O’Brien’s faculty page on the Seattle University website includes a link to her c.v. with a complete list of her writings. The search committee clearly flunked its homework assignment.
• Saudi Arabia has never been known for its tolerance of non-Muslim faiths. Non-Muslims in the desert kingdom are prohibited from practicing their faith in public, and customs agents at Saudi airports confiscate crucifixes, Bibles, and the Star of David. Muslims found guilty of converting to another religion can be executed. But in June came a small sign that this overwhelmingly Muslim nation might be reassessing its hostility toward non-Muslims. Leonard Swidler, who teaches Roman Catholic thought and interreligious dialogue at Temple University in Philadelphia, was invited to Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh to exchange views with the faculty. Swidler has discussed potential areas of future collaboration between the Dialogue Institute and the university’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Center for Islamic Contemporary Studies and Dialogue of Civilizations, which was established in 2008. “We need to understand each other,” said Abdulmohsin Al Sumih, the center’s dean, according to the Christian Science Monitor. “That’s why we are very keen to see Professor Swidler with us here in our university.” We hope and pray that this type of friendly contact can lead, eventually, to better relations between Islam and the West and can build religious tolerance in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim nations. It’s well past time.
• This one’s either a sad commentary on the need for status, a happy testament to the cleverness of New Yorkers, or an indication of the desperation locals feel when it comes to parking their cars. Or, perhaps, all three. Recently, a Brooklyn man posted a Craigslist ad offering any willing party the opportunity to surrender his or her parking spot to his shiny new BMW—for free. And what does the parking-spot owner gain from this? The ad explains: “Not only will it increase your status in the neighborhood, but it will also make your house look good! I’m a pretty generous person, so I want nothing in return for this privilege!” These pages have spoken, in the past, of New York City as the “prolepsis of the New Jerusalem.” Perhaps that refers only to Manhattan.
• Many of us have grown frustrated with the environmentalist movement, at times because of its demand for what feels like religious observance, and at other times because of a blurry distinction between sensible and lunatic approaches. To follow the logic of some environmentalists, human beings are inextricably part of the problem behind climate disruption: We can labor to diminish our net harm to Mother Earth, but it remains clear that our presence and consumption cause harm. So, then, would the passing away of the human race make things better? Or would the earth be better off if we kept ourselves alive? Well, both—and neither. While dying off would, we’re told, be quite pleasing to Gaia, dying itself is an environmentally expensive proposition. As a recent Time article noted:
Death, despite being the most natural of processes, is bad for the environment. Coffins, most of which are made from nonbiodegradable chipboard, take up valuable land space. Even when coffins are biodegradable, embalming liquid, which often contains carcinogenic formaldehyde, can leak into the soil. Cremation, during which remains are burned at 1,562°F (850°C), comes with its own problems. According to the research of University of Melbourne professor Roger Short, the process can create up to 350 lb. (160 kg) of greenhouse gases per corpse, including the remains of the coffin.
So if both living and dying are bad for the earth, we can only hope the green movement can establish some magisterial authority to explain to us exactly what it is we should do. Otherwise we’ll have to keep listening to Al Gore.
• Scientists call it Victor Meldrew Syndrome, after the curmudgeonly codger in the popular BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave. Researchers at the University of Glamorgan in Wales have conducted a study in which they found that Brits’ sense of humor tends to begin a steady decline at age 52. An infant may laugh as many as three hundred times a day, the study found, while teenagers laugh only about six times in the same period, and people in their twenties laugh about four times a day. Thirtysomethings somehow manage to boost their laughter to five times a day—probably, the researchers think, because they tend to be around their giggly newborn children. Around the fifty-year mark, the laughter starts to fade, with an average of only three daily episodes. By sixty, the laughter diminishes to two-and-a-half times a day.
In other news, it has been reported by researchers that studies on the decline of humor with age tend to accelerate the decline of humor with age.
• It’s always hard to bring up points such as this in argumentation, as they tend to inflame the passions. But it’s heartening to find that irony—along with argumentation—is on your side of the debate. In Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal for the elderly and infirm, state officials have been concerned of late with a rising suicide rate among Oregonians who aren’t officially considered damaged goods. With the Oregon suicide rate 35 percent higher than the national average, bureaucrats at the state health authority have expressed dismay (but are, perhaps, also relieved) that suicides of the elderly have been legally redefined so as not drive this horrifying statistic up even further. The bureaucrats don’t seem to think it’s odd that they are advocating the public funding of suicide prevention in a state whose government promotes suicide. In other words, suicide is really, really bad, except when it’s not.
• When Moses asked God to reveal his name, he sought to know more about God—and more than he was ready to know. But not every inquiry into nomenclature, even of one who claims a divine appellation, can begin to let us in on the workings of a mind like that of In God We Trust. That’s not a slogan, mind you, but a man. Once known as Steve Kreuscher, In God We Trust recently received approval to change his name yet again, this time to One Nation Under God. His motive is the restoration of religious freedom in the United States, along with his hope that his activity will be recognized as an art form. Whether he realizes these goals or not, One Nation Under God surely will contribute to the freedom to be eccentric.
• Most people probably know that the Church of Scientology, the science-fiction religion founded by author L. Ron Hubbard in 1953, has attracted high-profile celebrities and also has been accused of using hardball tactics against its critics. But most people probably have no idea that Scientologists celebrate their own holidays. Here’s a handy clip-and-save guide:
March 13: celebration of L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday
May 9: celebration of the initial publication of Hubbard’s Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950), the self-help book that introduces people to Scientology
June 6: celebration of the maiden voyage of Freewinds, a cruise ship in the Caribbean that provides religious retreats and advanced spiritual counseling
Second Sunday in September: Auditors’ Day, a celebration of Scientology’s “auditors,” the spiritual counselors who work with individual members
October 7: anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Scientologists, which “unites, supports, and protects the Scientology religion and Scientologists throughout the world”
December 31: New Year’s Eve.
How New Year’s Eve got in there we have no idea. And in case you’re wondering, Tom Cruise’s birthday is July 3. Mark your calendars.
while we're at it sources: Catholic University of Leuven, De Standaard, Brussels, October 7, 2010; presseurop.eu, October 7, 2010; insidecatholic.com, October 8, 2010. Burkinis, Daily Mail (UK), July 22, 2010; Times (UK), June 23, 2010. New Zealand law, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, May 28 and July 25, 2010; Jerusalem Post, August 10, 2010. Marquette University, wisn.com, May 11, 2010; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, June 9, 2010; seattleu.edu. Interreligious dialogue, Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2010; institute.jesdialogue.org; state.gov. Parking space, gothamist.com, October 8, 2010. Death and the environment, Time, September 28, 2010. Declining humor, Telegraph (UK), October 8, 2010. Name changer, Chicago Tribune. August 7, 2010.
wwai tips: Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, Kevin Staley-Joyce.