• During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, people wanted to have sex without children, but in 2010 we find ourselves trying to have children without sex, with the help of reproductive technology. This inversion of the principles underlying the human family can have some arresting consequences.
One case in point: a wrenching lesbian custody dispute playing out in Vermont. Lisa Miller, a former lesbian who has abandoned the lifestyle, was in a civil union with Janet Jenkins when she conceived her daughter Isabella by artificial insemination. After the breakup of the relationship, the Vermont courts mandated that Isabella make regular unsupervised visits to her mother’s ex-partner. Miller, who had accused Jenkins of abuse, worried that these visits were harming her daughter. After she refused to allow the visits, the courts transferred custody of Isabella to Jenkins. Miller appealed, and in late 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court turned her down.
When marriage becomes indifferent to gender, it apparently also must become indifferent to biology. The only difference between Miller’s ex-partner and a total stranger is the intimate relationship the two women once had—a relationship that did not, in fact, produce Isabella. Apparently the requirements for being a parent are even fewer than the requirements for contracting a marriage, or, for that matter, for having a child. We surmise the reverse used to be true.
Having lost her custody case, Lisa Miller has gone underground with Isabella. Now she has at least one arrest warrant on her head, all for expecting a fair hearing as the biological mother of her daughter. This just doesn’t sound like the dawn of equal freedom the advocates of same-sex marriage have in mind.
• We’ve heard much over the years of fire drills, snow days, duck-and-cover routines, and disaster preparedness in general, but an odd chord was struck when we noticed a recent story in the English press about a new drill implemented in some British primary schools. UFO drills, we’re told, have been staged a number of times in British middle schools during the past two years. The drills include viewing ostensible UFO wreckage and absorbing lessons from the local constabulary on how to gather evidence and interview witnesses.
In addition to enabling students to gather the fruits of U.K. police forces’ apparently extensive training in extraterrestrial first-contact protocols, the drills, as the ever inventive local school officials have explained, are meant to “spark children’s imaginations and help improve their reading and writing skills” through the reports they are asked to write after their encounters with imaginary ETs.
Police constable Gary Densham helped stage a UFO crash for a drill in 2010. Densham reports that “the older pupils were asking questions about the crash site, like whether it was safe, but the younger children were convinced they’d seen the crash happen. Their imaginations were brilliant.” Next up on the syllabus: a staged mermaid sighting on the students’ annual outing to the seaside.
• “The pope? How many divisions has he got?” Stalin famously asked. The answer is still—as far as we know—none. Divisions or no, in November 2010 Forbes magazine ranked Pope Benedict XVI fifth on its annual list of the World’s Most Powerful People (“There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. Here are the 68 who matter”), up from eleventh in 2009. Positioned between Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, and five spots ahead of Bill Gates, Benedict earned his place for being the “highest earthly authority for 1.1 billion souls,” his stand against “secularism, consumerism, and moral relativism,” his interest in “healing old wounds,” and, of course, his sense of style, having brought back “traditional red, custom-made ‘pope shoes’ and old-school ecclesial headgear.”
It’s encouraging to see that Forbes has the pope moving up in the world. If he keeps it up, he could be a real contender.
• The pope’s position on the Forbes list may revive popular whispers about the Church’s vast treasures: Michelangelos, Caravaggios, Botticellis—and, recently and briefly, a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card. This most valuable of all baseball cards—only fifty are known to exist—was bequeathed to the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore by one sister’s brother. The sisters recently auctioned off this piece of baseball history to raise money for their mission work. The card sold for $262,900. Honus, who knew?
• Erica Jong just can’t understand it. More than thirty years after she disabused women of their foolish belief in marital fidelity with her ground-breaking Fear of Flying, women have created a new prison for themselves: motherhood. In the Wall Street Journal she writes: “Unless you’ve been living on another planet, you know that we have endured an orgy of motherphilia for at least the last two decades. Movie stars proudly display their baby bumps, and the shiny magazines at the checkout counter never tire of describing the joys of celebrity parenthood. Bearing and rearing children has come to be seen as life’s greatest good.”
The last two decades? Give or take a few millennia. “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” is not the latest gushing of someone at US Weekly, but the word of the psalmist, at least 2500 years ago. But, then, what does he know? He was a man, and religious to boot.
But never mind. Children are not like arrows in the hand of a warrior, as the psalmist says, but impediments that “keep mothers and fathers out of the political process.” “If you are busy raising children without societal help and trying to earn a living during a recession, you don’t have much time to question and change the world that you and your children inhabit.” Excluding, of course, those who change the world through their children. Mary, Ruth, St. Monica, and Stanley Ann Dunham come to mind.
• Many pro-choice activists and politicians insist that they personally oppose abortion—are horrified by it, in fact—but still favor keeping it legal. This is why they describe themselves as “pro-choice” and adamantly reject the criticism that they are “pro-abortion.” There are, by contrast, supporters of legalized abortion for whom abortion is a perfectly moral and beneficial action.
British writer Virginia Ironside is one of these. “Abortion can often be seen as something wicked and irresponsible, but in fact it can be a moral and unselfish act,” she told the viewers of Sunday Morning Live, a weekly religious program on British television’s BBC 1. “If a baby’s going to be born severely disabled or totally unwanted, surely an abortion is the act of a loving mother.” Ironside (who has had two abortions) added that giving birth to a child not knowing whether he or she will be given “some kind of stable upbringing” struck her as cruel.
Such comments might not have aroused significant controversy or even much interest in Great Britain, which has developed a militantly secular streak in recent years. But Ironside’s “compassion” went even further: “If I were the mother of a suffering child—I mean a deeply suffering child—I would be the first to want to put a pillow over its face.” Another guest, the Rev. Joanna Jepson, an Anglican priest and pro-life activist, was visibly shocked. She had every reason to be horrified. She has a disabled brother and was herself born with a severe jaw deformity that was surgically corrected only when she was in her teens. Had Ironside been their mother, she might have killed them both to spare them suffering.
Ironside’s admission even caused Susanna Reid, the show’s host, to abandon her role as objective moderator. “That’s a pretty horrifying thing to say, that you would put a pillow over a suffering child,” she told Ironside. Given this opportunity to backtrack, Ironside maintained her support for compassionate infanticide. “Of course I would,” she said. “If it was a child I really loved, who was in agony, I think any good mother would.”
We normally are dubious about claims that postmodern society is in an unprecedented moral free fall. But Ms. Ironsides’ redefinition of what makes a “good mother”—abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia—makes us reconsider.
• Late last year Spain’s Socialist government, acting in the cause of gender equality, presented a bill to parliament that will change the way Spaniards name their children. Traditionally, in the two-part Spanish surname—made up of the last names of both of the child’s parents—the father’s family name comes first. Under the new bill, unless the parents request the old form, the names will be assigned in alphabetical order. We’d like to suggest an even better solution to this nonexistent problem: a new, portmanteau surname along the lines of TomKat or Brangelina.
• GP2 is the name of one of Rome’s newest nightclubs. But you won’t find seizure-inducing strobe lights, sick-slick floors, or drugs such as ecstasy and crystal meth. According to the Wall Street Journal, “There is no cover charge to get past the club’s dimly lit entrance. And there’s no two-drink minimum. In fact, clients are expected to observe a two-drink maximum, and GP2 doesn’t serve hard spirits, like vodka and gin.”
The club’s patrons are more likely to be overheard talking about Pope Benedict XVI’s latest encyclical than seen getting into fistfights over who did or did not glance at someone’s date. A priest is often around, and he even hears confessions in a room down the hall. And that name? GP2 stands for Giovanni Paolo II—John Paul II in Italian.
GP2 is located in a crypt in the Basilica di San Carlo al Corso, near St. Peter’s Square. The club is the brainchild of Fr. Maurizio Mirilli, the head of the Catholic Church’s youth ministry in Rome. He opened a Catholic nightclub as a way to bring young people back into the Church. “Christian young people need to find a way to own the night again,” explains Gianluigi De Palo, a GP2 regular, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “Being Christian doesn’t necessarily mean sad, serious, or old.”
Some may look at the Church’s opening a trendy nightspot to attract young people as a cynical and desperate move by an institution out of touch. But many dioceses around the world already operate successful “Theology on Tap” programs—series of religious talks geared to young adults and held in bars and pubs.
Who’s to say that a Catholic nightclub can’t be a powerful instrument in the Church’s work of evangelization, especially among the young? Chesterton called the Catholic Church “a house with a hundred gates.” The door to GP2 may be a new one.
• A reader passed along this story from ScienceNews:
The remains of seven children apparently killed in a ritual and buried beneath a 500- to 600-year-old building in Peru’s Cuzco Valley have given scientists new glimpses of the sketchily understood Inca practice of sacrificing select children in elaborate ceremonies.
The children were buried at the same time, apparently after having been killed in a sacrificial rite that honored Inca deities and promoted political unity across the far-flung empire, say anthropologist Valerie Andrushko of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and her colleagues.
Chemical analyses of the bones indicate that at least two of the children came from distant parts of the Inca realm.
The findings lend credence to the accounts of Spanish conquistadors that described how children were selected for sacrifice from all across the empire, based on their physical perfection. We shudder at such brutal backwardness. Today, using prenatal screening, we scour the empire for children with physical imperfections and sacrifice them to ourselves.
The economy has driven many magazines to untimely deaths in the past year, and it’s not difficult to tally up the pitfalls of publishing. But no matter how difficult the world of print media may become, there’s one (presumably very well funded) magazine out there we don’t envy or want to emulate. A Yemeni journal sponsored by al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula publishes handy tips and tactics for aspiring car bombers and saboteurs.
Take, for example, the instructions for “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” a pickup truck used “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah.” “This method has not been used before,” the writers add, possibly as encouragement.
Another tip suggests: “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” Something tells us these folks don’t have much of a taste for self-deprecating humor—or for the niceties of the English language.
The magazine’s title? Inspire.
• “Why,” asked Norman Podhoretz in a 2009 book, “are Jews liberals?” (He, famously, most definitely isn’t.) Most still are, but the Obama administration is trying their collective patience. Abraham Foxman, the chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, is a lifelong liberal, but he chose one of the most conservative members of George W. Bush’s cabinet to keynote the League’s Middle East conference in New York City in October. Former United Nations ambassador John Bolton offered a crowd composed of steady Democratic contributors a perspective radically different from the current administration’s. He warned that Fatah, the lead party in the Palestinian National Authority, was campaigning to delegitimize Israel, just as the Palestine Liberation Organization did with its Intifada violence in the 1980s. He called on the United States to return to its historic posture in defense of Israel and to take concrete steps to increase the security of the Jewish state.
The administration’s efforts in mid-November to cajole Israel into extending a freeze on home construction in West Bank settlements, punctuated by President Obama’s denunciation of Jews building homes in mainly Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, is trying the patience of the historically Democratic Jewish constituency. The White House alienated Jewish voters earlier this year by denouncing permits for home construction in Jerusalem neighborhoods that would remain Israeli under any conceivable peace deal, by asserting that Israeli intransigence in negotiations with the Palestinians hurt American efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and by voting at the U.N. for a resolution (since reversed) that would require Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.
By 2012 the question might be, “Why aren’t Jews liberal anymore?”
• Exorcism is on the rise. Well, to be precise, interest in exorcism is on the rise, and the Catholic bishops of the United States held a conference on exorcism in Baltimore in November, just before their annual fall meeting. “Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one . . . but we have to be prepared,” explains one bishop, and the bishops’ conference focused on the question of who needs an exorcist as opposed to a psychologist. Sixty-six priests and fifty-six bishops showed up.
But what does it mean? That was the New York Times’ question. Answered R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame: “What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the Church, which is the sense that the Church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism. It’s a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’”
That’s a bit of a sociological reduction— maybe the bishops are concerned for people’s souls?—but it makes us wonder: Were the World Council of Churches to deal with angels and demons, just how would the Council do it? Some demons can be cast out only by fasting and prayer. Curiously, Jesus failed to mention affirmation, engagement, and dialogue.
• The day before President Obama was scheduled to meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on Newsweek’s website published an article entitled “Without a Doubt: Why Barack Obama Represents American Catholics Better than the Pope Does.” According to Townsend, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, “In truth, . . . Obama’s pragmatic approach to divisive policy (his notion that we should acknowledge the good faith underlying opposing viewpoints) and his social-justice agenda reflect the views of American Catholic laity much more closely than those vocal bishops and pro-life activists.” She predicted that the president and the pope would “politely disagree about reproductive freedoms [abortion] and homosexuality, but Catholics back home won’t care, because they know Obama’s on their side.” “In fact, Obama’s agenda is closer to their views than even the pope’s.”
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has noted that Catholics voted Republican by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin in the 2010 midterm election, after having supported the Democrats by similar margins in 2006 and 2008. A vote for the Republicans does not equal a vote for Catholic teaching, of course, but still, we’re wondering: Who does Townsend now believe represents the views of American Catholics “better than the pope does”? She isn’t saying, but we don’t think she’s ready to anoint the new speaker of the house, John Boehner—a Catholic who agrees with Benedict “about reproductive freedoms and homosexuality.”
• “What many Catholics don’t appreciate is being told how to vote,” wrote Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice, on the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog the day before the 2010 election. Kissling was reacting to a statement made by then cardinal-designate Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis and prefect of the Vatican’s Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. In an interview posted on YouTube by Catholic Action for Faith and Family, Burke said that Catholics “can never vote for someone who favors absolutely the right to choice of a woman to destroy a human life in her womb or the right to a procured abortion.”
As noted above, Catholics voted Republican by a 55 percent to 44 percent margin in November 2010. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, pro-lifers gained at least forty-four seats in the House of Representatives and six seats in the Senate. Americans United for Life (AUL) reports that thirteen new pro-life governors were elected, seven pro-life governors were reelected, and pro-lifers made substantial gains in state legislatures. So maybe a majority of Catholics do like to be told how to vote. Or maybe the cardinal was just telling them to do what they were going to do anyway.
• Bob Brown, a member of the Australian Senate and leader of the Australian Greens party, doesn’t take criticism very well. A couple of weeks before Australia’s federal election last August, George Cardinal Pell published a short article in Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph in which he described the Greens as “thoroughly anti-Christian” and “sweet camouflaged poison.”
Why would the Archbishop of Sydney, who also has written for First Things, write such harsh things? He pointed to the Greens’ hostility toward religion and religious schools, to their support for gay marriage, and to their campaign against a Catholic hospital in Canberra that refuses to perform abortions. He also noted that in 1996 Brown co-wrote a book, The Greens, with philosopher and animal-rights advocate Peter Singer, “who rejects the unique status of humans and supports infanticide, as well as abortion and euthanasia.” Pell affirmed that it wasn’t his place to tell people how to vote, but he urged people to visit the Greens’ website and see what they actually believe.
Outraged by this public criticism, Senator Brown was quick to respond. “The good archbishop has forgotten the ninth commandment, which is ‘thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,’” Brown told the press. “He’s lost the ethic of the golden rule and the Greens have kept it. The Greens are much closer to mainstream Christian thinking than Cardinal Pell. That’s why he’s not standing for election and I am.”
Brown didn’t refute any of the examples the cardinal cited, which may be considered a variety of bearing false witness in itself. Although baptized a Presbyterian, he is an atheist today. In March 2010 his office informed the newspaper The Age that his only religion is “believing that the fate of the Earth is in our hands.” You have to wonder what, exactly, he believes qualifies as “mainstream Christian thinking.”
We would gently suggest it involves something more than getting a handle on global warming.
• Paul Z. Myers is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and an atheist. Myers is known for his blog, Pharyngula, which is popular among atheists who relish his foul-mouthed and incendiary attacks on all things religious. In August the fifty-three-year-old Myers announced on his blog that he was going to have heart surgery. “Meanwhile, relax, chill, don’t panic,” he advised readers, “and most importantly, don’t waste your time with prayers. Ever.” Many of Myers’ readers and fans were quick to wish him well and offer hope for his eventual full recovery.
A question: If atheists believe prayer will not help someone get better, how will “wishing” and “hoping” help him? If there is no God to answer prayers with a Yes, who or what is supposed to hear people’s wishes and hopes and say Yes to them?
Shouldn’t atheists who take a stand against meaningless prayers take an equally strong stand against meaningless hoping and wishing? Atheists may argue that such hopes and wishes are just expressions of goodwill designed to comfort the sick, but can’t the same be said of prayer? Even Christopher Hitchens, who is battling esophageal cancer, said he was touched to learn that many religious people, whose beliefs he has spent a lifetime attacking and mocking, were praying for his recovery.
As for Myers, he reported on his blog that, instead of carrying out the bypass surgery, his doctors were able to treat him by inserting a few stents into his arteries. He didn’t mention, however, how long it took the doctors to find his heart.
• Vulgarity, writes Theodore Dalrymple in a dyspeptic article in The Spectator, “has its place as a counterweight to pretension.” But beyond that, he thinks, there’s not much to be said for it. He explains his countrymen’s taste for it as a gesture toward social unity.
I suspect that it is connected with the equality that we feel it necessary to pretend is our ruling political passion. Since economic equality is no longer deemed desirable, the only other equality possible is that of cultural mores; and since it is much easier to level down than up (which, after all, was once the British Labour party’s aim), the middle classes can best express their political virtue by embracing and promoting the vulgarity that they assume—wrongly, as it happens—was the only cultural characteristic of the proletariat.
It is much easier to level down than up, as Dalrymple says, but Christians, at least, have not given up hope that even in worldly things such as culture people can be raised. For that, we depend on exhortation, on example, and, finally, on grace. Grace can deliver you not only from hell but from reading tabloids and swearing in public.
• Australia finally has its first saint. She is Sr. Mary MacKillop (1842–1909), a nun who cofounded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Josephites. MacKillop—now known as St. Mary of the Cross—and the sisters of her order set up many schools, orphanages, and other institutions across rural Australia and in New Zealand. On October 17, 2010, more than 8,000 Australians attended Mary MacKillop’s canonization Mass at the Vatican. “She attended to the needs of each young person entrusted to her, without regard for station or wealth, providing both intellectual and spiritual formation,” said Pope Benedict XVI in his homily. “Despite many challenges, her prayers to St. Joseph and her unflagging devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to whom she dedicated her new congregation, gave this holy woman the graces needed to remain faithful to God and to the Church.”
Sr. Mary’s admirers include Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, who took office in June. Gillard’s government contributed AU$1.5 million to support the nation’s celebration of its first saint, and she hailed Sr. Mary in a speech at a fundraising dinner held in Sydney in August in anticipation of the canonization. “When we read the story of Mary MacKillop, we can only wonder at how she imagined that she could ever make a difference,” Gillard said. “She was, after all, a woman of the most humble background, who brought no resources to the task: no money, no special contacts, and no formal qualifications, nothing but a willing spirit and a deep faith. Yet with that faith and that spirit, Mary changed the course of many young Australians’ lives, allowing children to develop their talents and realize their potential.”
One might assume that Julia Gillard is a Catholic or at least a practicing Christian. In fact, she is an atheist. But, unlike Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and unbelievers of that ilk, she apparently can recognize the good work that religious people do because they’re religious.
• Our friends at the Human Life Review have bravely, despite the continuously tight circumstances of such virtuous and serious enterprises, defended the right to life and human dignity for thirty-five years now. For the last twenty, they have done so in alliance with First Things. The editor, Maria McFadden Maffucci, worked here in the very earliest days of the magazine before moving on to work with her father at the Review.
They have just published a very helpful compendium titled The Debate Since Roe: Making the Case Against Abortion (1975–2010), which includes writers well known to readers of First Things: Richard John Neuhaus, of course, as well as Hadley Arkes, Henry J. Hyde, Malcolm Muggeridge, Nat Hentoff, William McGurn, and J. Budziszewski. A collection well worth having.
• “Polluted air makes us suffocate, polluted water and food make us sick, but polluted words deliver us over to the worst of all fates—to be imprisoned inexorably in fantasy,” writes Malcolm Muggeridge in a new collection of his hitherto unpublished writings titled Time and Eternity. “An iron curtain falls between us and reality. There is hope that the polluted air and water and food may sometimes be purified, but once words are polluted they are lost forever, old lexicons are their cemeteries, and turning over the pages is like visiting their graves.”
One of the missions of First Things is to keep our words from being further polluted, and to cleanse the ones we can—once serious words such as dialogue and freedom, for example. It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it. Consider supporting the magazine. Maybe give a subscription to a friend who needs to breathe clean air.
While We’re At It Sources: Custody dispute, LifeSiteNews.com, November 2 and 9, 2010. UFO drills, Daily Mail (UK), October 28, 2010; aolnews.com, October 28, 2010. Most powerful people, forbes.com, November 3, 2010. Baseball card, Catholic News Agency, November 7, 2010; Baltimore Sun, November 5, 2010. Erica Jong, Wall Street Journal, November 6, 2010. Infanticide, National Catholic Register, October 4, 2010; Daily Mail (UK), October 5, 2010; bbc.co.uk; youtube.com. Spanish names, Associated Press, November 4, 2010. GP2, Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2010, online.wsj.com/video-center. Inca sacrifice, ScienceNews, October 23, 2010. Terrorist tips, Telegraph (UK), October 12, 2010. John Bolton, online.wsj.com, October 20, 2010. Exorcism, New York Times, November 12, 2010. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, newsweek.com, July 9, 2009; pewforum.org, November 3, 2010. Frances Kissling, onfaith.washingtonpost.com, November 1, 2010; youtube.com; blogforchoice.com, November 3, 2010; cbn.com, November 8, 2010; catholicaction.org; aul.org. Bob Brown and Cardinal Pell, sydney.catholic.org.au, August 8, 2010; cathnews.com, August 9, 2010; theage.com.au, March 14, 2010; atheistfoundation.org.au. Paul Z. Myers, New York Times, March 21, 2008; catholicleague.org, July 24, 2008; scienceblogs.com/pharyngula, July 24, 2008, August 23, 2010, and August 25, 2010; douthat.blogs.nytimes.com, July 15, 2010. Theodore Dalrymple, The Spectator, November 6, 2010. Mary MacKillop, zenit.org, October 17, 2010; abc.net.au, October 21, 2010; alp.org.au, August 5, 2010; Daily Mail (UK), June 30, 2010.
WWAI Tips: Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, David Lasher, David Mills, Nathaniel Peters, Kevin Staley-Joyce, Thaddeus Whiting.