• Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is said to have a way with words. Yes, and his ways are many and wondrous and were on display during a recent ELCA church council meeting, at which he spoke about faithfulness and leadership: “You can bet your life that God will be faithful to God’s promise, because God bet the life of Jesus on God’s faithfulness.” Granted, the remark leads us into all sorts of troubles about the atonement and the Trinity, but let’s not all pile on Bishop Hanson. We’re sure Hanson doesn’t mean for Hanson’s language to suggest that Hanson has any problem with Hanson’s affirming the Trinitarian theology Hanson affirmed in Hanson’s ordination vows.
• Egyptian officials speculate that Israel’s foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, instigated a fatal shark attack on German tourists in December at a resort on the Red Sea. “What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark [in the sea] to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question, but it needs time to confirm,” South Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha explained to an Egyptian government news site.
Arab news media frequently blame Israel when bad things happen. In February 2009 a columnist for the Syrian government daily al-Thawra charged that Israel had invented the avian flu virus to attack “genes carried only by Arabs.” In 2003 Nigerian imams organized a successful boycott against polio vaccination, claiming that the Mossad used the procedure to expose Muslims to the AIDS virus. As a result, polio has reappeared in Nigeria.
In the case of the shark attack, though, the Sinai governor’s response is easy to understand. After frogs, gnats, locusts, and wild beasts, the Egyptians have come to expect this sort of thing.
• Aside from the not-inconsequential matter that euthanasia is, by definition, life killing, some worry that when euthanasia is made legal, the ailing, troubled by the hardship their illnesses impose on their families, might feel forced, or even be forced, to choose it.
Using something of the same logic, the former chief minister of Australia’s Northern Territory backed a bill legalizing euthanasia in the territory. Marshall Perron argued that many ailing people commit suicide while still healthy because they fear that as their disease advances, they won’t be able to kill themselves. Legalizing euthanasia will let the sick postpone their suicides with confidence that the state will perform the service.
As in the cases of giving handfuls of condoms to misbehaving teenagers, to help facilitate evil is to show a certain level of moral approval for it. Worse, the most inhumane bit of Perron’s logic is also the most chillingly practical: Let them feel safe sticking around a little longer, and they won’t stick around as long.
• “Waste not, want not,” we’re told. “Want not, waste not” can be equally good advice—and following it may lead to some extraordinary results. Take, for example, the case of a hundred-year-old Catholic church that’s being moved, stone by stone, nine hundred miles, from Buffalo, New York, to a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia.
The Diocese of Buffalo was looking for a good use for the beautiful limestone St. Gerard’s, built in 1911 and modeled after the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. “Why should a church become a restaurant, or a nightclub?” asks St. Gerard’s former pastor. “Let’s reuse it for its intention. It’s a holy place. A sacred place.” At the same time, the pastor of Mary Our Queen, a parish in the small Georgia city of Norcross, was looking to build a new church that would look like an old one. “I don’t mean to offend the people who built those [modern] churches,” says Fr. David Dye, “but some of them look like Pizza Huts.”
A note to those building new churches: No one will ever move a Pizza Hut from Buffalo to Atlanta.
• The Reuters headline reads, “Fake doctor jailed for giving breast exams in bars.” The average reader probably assumes the bogus doctor was a man. But the average reader would be wrong. It was a woman, Kristina Ross by name, who gave the exams. (The reader also might assume that no woman would accept a breast examination in a bar, even if the doctor were a woman, but the average reader would be wrong about that, too.)
Or so the Reuters report claims until, a few paragraphs down, it mentions that “The suspect’s gender is unclear. Idaho court records show that Ross was arrested for petty theft in the spring and that the arrest warrant was issued to a Kristoffer Jon Ross. The Idaho Statesman website reported that Ross has a previous criminal record as a man but identifies herself as a woman and was booked into Ada County Jail as a female.”
So: A man who thinks he’s a woman groped women in bars. No doubt some people really are confused about their sex, but even those who claim to be can still exhibit some startlingly gender-typical tendencies. As Kristina—sorry, Kristoffer—reminds us, male is as male does. Or maybe we mean, male does as male is.
• Stop us the next time we complain about Fr. Richard McBrien. Here’s Robert Orsi, holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies at Northwestern University, holding forth on the Catholic Church:
Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women’s equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children’s autonomy, and reproductive choice. The Church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom! The current papacy stands firmly and explicitly in opposition to virtually everything those of us who call ourselves liberal moderns cherish.
“Women’s equality,” “the freedom of sexual identity,” and “reproductive choice”—the usual litany of the Church’s crimes against the spirit of our age. (We’re not entirely sure what to make of “respect for children’s autonomy.”) We don’t expect a cheerleader in the chair, but we would think a professor of Catholic studies might have some respect for his subject. We can’t imagine a chair of, oh, Islamic studies, or German studies, or African studies, or, heck, any other studies, offering such a rant.
• In November TLC aired the first of eight episodes of a new reality show called Sarah Palin’s Alaska. The Defenders of Wildlife, an animal-rights group, organized a campaign against the show. “The ugly reality is that as governor for only two-and-a-half years, Sarah Palin escalated a bloody aerial wolf-slaughter campaign that continues to this very day,” the group explained in a press release. “She even planned to offer a $150 bounty for the severed forelimb of each killed wolf.” Palin has noted that aerial wolf hunts are part of Alaska’s “predator control” program, which keeps wolves from decimating caribou and moose populations. How is it that animal-rights activists are outraged when the so-called rights of animals are violated by human beings and never when their rights are violated by other animals? If animals have rights, shouldn’t their fellow animals respect them? If society gives animals rights, society will have to assume the moral obligation to protect them from each other. Does anyone know how to Mirandize a wolf?
• Speaking last May to the Catholic Community Conference, then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi said her favorite word “is the Word, as in the word made flesh,” and added that she wanted to shape public policy in accordance with “the Word.” A couple of months later, a reporter with the Catholic News Agency asked Pelosi a logical question: “So, when was the Word made flesh? Was it at the Annunciation, when Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, as the Creed says, or was it at the Nativity, when he was born of the Virgin Mary? And when did the Word get the right to life?” “Whenever it was,” Pelosi replied, “we bow our heads when we talk about it in church, and that’s where I’d like to talk about that.” She then called on another reporter. Judging by her response, Pelosi seemed to think the question inappropriate because it covered a purely religious question, but, in fact, Pelosi had long opened herself up to such a question. Since her election to Congress in 1987, she often has publicly discussed her Catholic faith and how it shapes her political views, especially those on health care, social programs, and immigration reform.
But not—we are tempted to say “But not, of course”—on abortion. Let’s get back to the reporter’s question. Do pro-choice Christians like Nancy Pelosi wonder when, in their terms, the Word stopped being a “fetus” and became a separate human being entitled to legal protection? Would pro-choice Christians have insisted on preserving abortion on demand and the “right to choose” if Mary had decided she wasn’t ready to be a mother?
The Word, we would note, became a human being at the same moment Robert or Christina or any child who’s ever lived became a human being, and if you wouldn’t abort Jesus, you can’t abort them. And if you would abort them . . . You see why Pelosi called on another reporter.
• This past October a wave of panic swept America’s porn-film industry when an actor tested positive for HIV. A previous scare occurred in 2009, when health officials in Los Angeles County reported that sixteen porn performers were infected with HIV. In 2004 the porn producers in California were forced to shut down for thirty days after one actor and one actress tested positive. AIDS isn’t the industry’s only problem. “Since 2004, 2378 people who identified themselves as adult film industry performers have tested positive for chlamydia in Los Angeles County,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “An additional 1357 tested positive for gonorrhea and fifteen for syphilis.” So why aren’t the actors in such a high-risk line of work using condoms to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases? According to the Times, porn films that show performers engaging in “safe sex” don’t make as much money because “viewers find condoms to be a turnoff.”
Promoters of the so-called “sex-positive” school of thought keep saying that sex is good when it’s guilt free, well rehearsed, and “safe.” “Safe is sexy,” as Planned Parenthood likes to say. If smut consumers find that condoms render pornography sterile and banal, perhaps it’s the thrill of risk—not the bore of safety—that people want in sex.
• He came. He saw. He conquered. Many Catholics had feared that Pope Benedict XVI’s well-publicized trip to the United Kingdom in September would turn into a public-relations disaster for the Church. It was a triumph. The pope—caricatured for decades by secular media and Catholic dissidents as cold, ruthless, and repressive—won over many doubters with his intellect and charm even as he made no effort to water down his message.
Cheeringly, a “Protest the Pope” campaign organized by British secularists and their left-wing allies was a complete bust. A much-hyped antipapal march in London on the third day of the trip drew only 10,000 people—when about 500,000 people came out to see the pope during his four-day visit. And that wasn’t all. The protesters, wrote Daily Telegraph blogger Damian Thompson, were “mostly white, middle-class, [and] metropolitan.” The Catholics who came out to see the pope were “old Polish ladies, tweedy gents from the shires, African hospital cleaners, self-consciously cool teenagers, Filipino checkout assistants, and, as one of my friends put it, ‘some rather tarty-looking traveller women who’d obviously had a glass or two.’” Thompson, a Catholic once described by an Anglican newspaper as “a blood-crazed ferret,” added: “They don’t call it the Catholic Church for nothing: if not a universal cross-section of humanity, it was a damn sight closer to it than the humanist smugfest.” Which lost, we might note, by a score of 500,000 to 10,000.
• The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod isn’t known for issuing grand statements on social issues, but even they have felt it necessary to say something about the environment, and they have done so in a long statement titled Together With All Creatures. Our friends at Forum Letter have noticed. The statement’s more than a little abstract, writes Peter Speckhard, and even when it “tries to be helpful in a concrete way, it can’t bring itself to say anything useful.” For example, when the psalms say that the earth declares the glory of God, says the report, “This suggests that we deal with the earth in such a way that we do not muffle the voice of creation as it makes its Creator known or diminish the glory of God by diminishing His handiwork.” “Okay,” responds Speckhard, “but nobody gets up in the morning looking for ways to diminish the glory of God. What constitutes muffling the voice of creation? What, exactly, diminishes His handiwork? It doesn’t say.” The report doesn’t, he notes, deal very well with “the elephant in the room of eco-consciousness . . . the issue of human over-population,” other than urging Lutherans to support an organization that spends a lot of its money on providing “reproductive services” to the developing world. In the end, Speckhard concludes, his church “could have saved a lot of paper”—the statement was 160 pages long—“with one sentence: ‘Responsible Christian stewardship of the environment is good, and we’re truly glad you asked.’ With TWAC the primary point seems to be that it can never again be said that the LCMS doesn’t give a hoot.”
• Every so often, someone trots out an old saying widely attributed to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck (and Will Rogers): “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” This has been interpreted to mean: 1) if you knew how sausages and laws actually were made, you’d lose your appetite for both, or 2) while both sausage-making and lawmaking are repulsive processes, both produce things you want.
• The Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Abbey in Covington, Louisiana, have gone to federal court to protect their right to make a living the old-fashioned way: through honest labor. Since 2005 the monks have been selling handmade funeral caskets, priced between $1500 and $2000. “We are not a wealthy monastery,” Abbot Justin Brown explains, “and we want to sell our plain wooden caskets to pay for food, health care, and the education of our monks.” Since 2007 a state agency and some funeral directors in the state have tried to drive the monks out of business. Louisiana law allows only licensed funeral directors to sell “funeral merchandise” such as caskets. To obtain a license to sell their caskets legally, the monks would have to spend one year serving as apprentices at a licensed funeral home and convert the abbey into a funeral home. Under state law, penalties for selling caskets without a license include fines that range from $500 to $2,500 for each violation and imprisonment for up to 180 days. Determined to protect their profits, a number of funeral directors are eager to see the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors enforce the law. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that eight of the nine members of the board “are funeral industry professionals.” If this isn’t a conflict of interest, we don’t know what is. The monks tried twice to get the law changed, but those efforts died in the state legislature. So the monks are now suing in federal court. The Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm, is representing the abbey. “The monks’ story is just one example of a national problem in which industry cartels use government power to protect themselves from competition,” says Chip Mellor, the Institute’s president. “Protecting economic liberty and ending government-enforced cartels require . . . a willingness by the courts to confront what is often really going on when the government enacts licensing laws supposedly to protect the public.”
• In France the dead are not always allowed to rest in peace. Last November, the Minister of the Interior revealed that 485 cemeteries and places of worship (410 Christian, forty Muslim, and thirty-five Jewish sites) were desecrated between January 1 and September 30. The vandals smashed headstones and religious statues and spray-painted Nazi swastikas and satanic graffiti on them. They even exhumed two bodies. Between 2005 and 2009, a cemetery was desecrated every two days. In 2010 the number increased to over one a day.
According to the minister’s report, most of the incidents take place on October 31 (Halloween), April 30 (the anniversary of the suicide of Adolf Hitler), the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and fall equinoxes. Could a national gang of neo-Nazi satanists or pagans be on the loose? When caught, the perpetrators turned out mostly to be male minors who acted out of mischief and without any religious bias: equal-opportunity juvenile delinquents out for a thrill. It is a little odd that this is reassuring.
• Last September, an Ontario judge, Susan Himel, overturned Canadian laws banning brothels, the solicitation of clients, and the managing of sex workers (a.k.a. pimping). It seems such restrictions violate prostitutes’ constitutional rights “to life, liberty and security,” and especially endanger their security. A BBC report laconically informs us that “many sex workers had celebrated that ruling.” Not all? Never mind. One of the prostitutes who brought the original suit called on Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to “be a man” and come up with some laws helping prostitutes. Harper responded: “We believe that the prostitution trade is bad for society. That’s a strong view held by our government.” We cannot decide which is more astonishing, prostitution as a serious subject for a parliamentary debate or a Canadian government with a strong view. Anyway, the Ontario provincial government appealed, arguing that the ruling left the province in a regulatory vacuum. The Ontario Appeals Court agreed and stayed the decision till early April. Notice, please, that the provincial government didn’t argue against the ruling based on morality, society’s right to protect the home, enhancing the dignity of women, or anything of that sort. Some concern with morality might have helped the courts settle what remains a problem with the law. While prostitution itself is legal in Canada, it is not legal to discuss, um, available services with a prostitute on the street corner. Someone not a Canadian judge might ask why it is illegal to ask for a service it is legal to sell. Surely such a law, as an infringement of the prostitute’s ability to trade her, um, goods, violates her rights, as those have now been established by a court in Ontario.
• Too much is being made of GFA-J. GFA-J is the technical, scientific name for the poor little bacterium a NASA researcher bullied into eating arsenic instead of its preferred food, phosphorus. There are six essential elements, we are told, for life: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. An arsenic-eating bacterium is a supposed game changer in the question of what makes life possible, vastly expanding the possibilities for life elsewhere based on its un-Earthlike arrangements. An arsenic-eating bacterium on Earth suggests life off-planet may incorporate other chemical makeups, aiding in the search for life not of this Earth.
Oh, pish. This isn’t life elsewhere; it is life here. And what we learn is that Earth life is very adaptable when dealing with NASA researchers. Let someone take away your favorite food, feed you what amounts to gruel, and we’ll bet you learn to eat it, too. We’re not opposed to life elsewhere—just to astrobiologists from Earth who claim too much.
A profile of Archbishop Thomas Wenski in the Miami New Times paints the new archbishop of Miami as a bully for refusing to allow condoms to be distributed in Catholic churches and interprets his missionary work in Haiti and Cuba as calculated moves to advance his career. So far, so typical. But the article’s description of his early attraction to the priesthood tells a different story. “By third grade, Tom had decided to become a priest. After school, he would make his sister dress up like an altar boy and then transform water into wine in their bedroom. He was a quiet, bookish child, but no saint.” Not a saint? The man changed water into wine! But, then again, a prophet is not without honor except in his own city newspaper.
• Some notable percentage of Americans still believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (the number was 18 percent last August). His supporters are enraged, his opponents (excluding the 18 percent) suitably embarrassed. But consider the following:
• A CNN/ Time Magazine poll in 1997 reported that 80 percent of Americans believed the U.S. government was hiding evidence of extraterrestrial life.
• A Gallup Poll in 1999 showed that 6 percent of Americans believed the moon landings were a hoax.
• A study of African-Americans conducted in 2005 by the Rand Corporation and Oregon State University showed that about 25 percent believed AIDS was produced in a government laboratory, and 12 percent believed the CIA created the virus.
• In a 2006 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll, 36 percent said it was “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that “federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them because ‘they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.’”
As many people have noted, this is the price we pay for a free society. It’s also the price we pay for neglecting the commandment against bearing false witness (it’s the ninth one, if you’re keeping count), which implies the responsibility to get the facts right. Culture-warring Christians might remember that.
• You’ve seen the Sunday Best page at the end of each issue of First Things. It’s an attempt to capture people at different stages along the trajectory of life as they go to worship their maker. Our December 2010 Sunday Best page featured a six-month-old girl named Giovanna Grace on the day of her baptism. Although she’s not (yet!) a reader, little Giovanna Grace is nourished by loved ones who are—and who sent us that snapshot. We welcome you to submit your photos, new and old, of family and friends—photos that capture the meaning of Sunday Best. You can email your scanned images at 300 dpi or more to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• If you are one of the more than 800,000 subscribers to the New York Times, the paper’s assistant managing editor for new media and strategic initiatives, Gerald Marzorati, is pleased that “you don’t seem to know” you are paying over $700 a year for home delivery. He extolled the “beauty of the credit card” at a recent media conference and bragged that during the recession the Times raised its home delivery price by 5 percent and lost only 0.01 percent of subscribers.
The Times’ 5 percent increase is just about the cost of a year of First Things. And just think: For all the money you’d pay for home delivery of the Times, you can give the gift of First Things to eighteen friends and family members. And—because it is our mission to engage in a real conversation with our community of friends to advance a religiously informed public policy—if you know people interested in the issues First Things engages, we gladly will mail them a sample copy and mention that you’re the one who thinks so highly of their intelligence. Just send their names and addresses to email@example.com.
while we're at it sources : Bishop Mark Hanson, ELCA News Service, November 16, 2010; Shark attack, uk.reuters.com, December 6, 2010; bbc.co.uk, December 7, 2010. Euthanasia, abc.net.au, December 7, 2010. Moving a church, abcnews.go.com, November 7, 2010. Fake doctor, Reuters.com, November 18, 2010. Robert Orsi, blogs.ssrc.org. Animal rights, tlc.discovery.com; defenders.org; blog.seattlepi.com, February 3, 2009. Nancy Pelosi, Catholic News Agency, August 5, 2010; youtube.com. Porn panic, Associated Press, October 13, 2010; Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2009. The pope and the UK, blogs.telegraph.co.uk, September 19, 2010; zenit.org, September 20, 2010; bbc.co.uk, September 20, 2010; dailymail.co.uk, September 20, 2010. LCMS and the environment, Forum Letter, December 2010. Sausages and laws, New York Times, December 4, 2010. Monks’ caskets, Institute for Justice press release, August 12, 2010; ij.org/freedomflix/18-lacasketsvideo; Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2010. French cemetery desecrations, Le Figaro, September 22 and November 2, 2010; intoleranceagainstchristians.eu. Prostitutes’ rights, bbc.co.uk, December 2, 2010. GFA-J, en.wikipedia.org. Archbishop Thomas Wenski, Miami New Times, November 18, 2010. Beliefs in a free society, pewresearch.org, August 19, 2010; seattlepi.com, August 3, 2006; washingtonpost.com, January 25, 2005; gallup.com, February 15, 2001; cnn.com, June 15, 1997. Home delivery, blogs.forbes.com/jeffbercovici, November 10, 2010. First Things: Stephen M. Barr, Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, David P. Goldman, David Lasher, David Mills, R.R. Reno, Russell E. Saltzman, Mary Rose Somarriba, Kevin Staley-Joyce.