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Today is the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of obligation for Catholics. It is an amazement how many people, including otherwise thoughtful Catholics, think the immaculate conception of Mary means that she was not conceived by the natural means of procreation. Immaculate conception refers, of course, to her being saved from sin from the very first moment of her existence. She is saved by the same means all are saved, namely, by the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

This belief, held by Christians over the centuries, was formally promulgated by Pius IX in 1854. The exact wording is of interest: “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

As theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, have observed, the doctrine of the immaculate conception underscores the truth that salvation is sola gratia ¯by grace alone. By the grace of God, Mary is made the perfect instrument for the reception of the world’s salvation. Her great “Let it be” to the announcement of the angel is itself the gift of God in response the gift of God¯Jesus the Christ, her savior and ours. It is grace all the way.

This week completes the observance of the 150th anniversary of our parish, Immaculate Conception, at First Avenue and 14th Street. Bishop John Hughes was in Rome for the promulgation and promised that, upon his return, a parish would be established in honor of the immaculate conception. The parish claims the distinction of being the first to be named Immaculate Conception following the promulgation in 1854, although I understand the claim is disputed. Certainly there are other parishes bearing the name that were established earlier. Last Sunday, Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, presided at the main Mass and it was, all in all, a splendid occasion.

I think I mentioned that this is a holy day of obligation. There is still time to get yourself to Mass.

Eve Tushnet’s website is subtitled "conservatism reborn in twisted sisterhood." A Yale graduate and serious Catholic, she has this response to the many criticisms of the recent Vatican document on homosexuality and the priesthood:

"A political and (more importantly) cultural movement has sprung up to convince those of us with strong (I guess the word this season is ‘deep-seated’; it’s the new black!) homosexual attractions that God couldn’t possibly want us not to act on those attractions. Because it hurts too much to give it up? Because it seems so necessary or central to our identities? If those are the reasons people resist, I guess I just want to remind them that people every single day embrace varying kinds of sacrifice¯slow or fast, honored or humiliating¯and if you want anything resembling a functioning culture (let alone a Catholic one) you need people who can say that ‘it hurts’ isn’t an argument. Every functioning culture relies on a core of people who can accept that life, or God, or whatever they believe in, will ask them to do things they would never have believed possible; and they do them. Every day. Policemen and policemen’s wives; soldiers and soldiers’ husbands; saints and martyrs; pregnant women in desperate circumstances; everyone who suffers and whose suffering would be eased by just a little wrong action, just a small palliative sin.

“You can be as big as your culture by only making the sacrifices your culture honors. You can be as big as your own self by only making the sacrifices you honor and completely understand; if you’re a cosmopolitan, that will mostly mean making the sacrifices your personality and chosen subculture honor. You can be as big as the Church by making all the sacrifices God requires. I’m pretty sure most of us are in between¯but we can move from one pole to the other."

Joining the discussion over “intelligent design,” Tom Bethell writes at National Review Online :

“George Will has made one accurate criticism of the idea he so dislikes: ‘The problem with intelligent design is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable. Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis.’ This is true; but he should have added that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is not falsifiable either.

“Darwin’s claim to fame was his discovery of a mechanism of evolution; he accepted ‘survival of the fittest’ as a good summary of his natural-selection theory. But which ones are the fittest? The ones that survive. There is no criterion of fitness that is independent of survival. Whatever happens, it is the ‘fittest’ that survive¯by definition. This, just like intelligent design, is not a testable hypothesis.

“As the eminent philosopher of science Karl Popper said, after discussing this problem that natural selection cannot escape: ‘There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.’ Popper was the first to propose falsification as the line of demarcation between theories that are scientific and those that are not; both intelligent design and natural selection fall by this standard.

“The underlying problem, rarely discussed, is that the conclusions of evolutionism are based not on science, but on a philosophy: the philosophy of materialism, or naturalism. Living creatures, including human beings, are here on Earth, and we got here somehow. If atoms and molecules in motion are all that exist, then their random interactions must account for everything that exists, including us. That is the true underpinning of Darwinism. What needs to be examined in detail is not so much the religion behind intelligent design as the philosophy behind evolution.”

I would only add that the philosophical dogmatists of neo-Darwinism are an aberration, although a very vocal aberration. The crucial distinction between science and philosophy is very helpfully examined by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in “The Designs of Science” in the January issue of F IRST T HINGS , which subscribers should be receiving in the next two weeks.

Readers have been forwarding to me commentaries in the blogosphere and in print suggesting that I am moving, or have moved, toward opposing U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the Iraq war in particular. This is a big subject of many parts. I have most recently addressed it in some detail in the October issue of F IRST T HINGS .

For the record: I believed, and continue to believe, that the U.S. policy in Iraq can be justified by traditional just war criteria. A justifiable action is not necessarily a prudent action. There is good reason to hope that the outcome of U.S. policy will be an approximation of what the administration calls victory.

I am frankly appalled by the recklessness of the rhetoric in this country, mainly but not exclusively coming from opponents of U.S. policy. Those who begin, and sometimes end, with the claim that President Bush and the administration “lied” should read Norman Podhoretz’s article in the current Commentary , "Who is Lying About Iraq?"

Everybody who publicly opines on these matters has, in my judgment, a moral obligation to read statements such as the recent National Security Council document, “A Strategy for Victory in Iraq.” Opponents of the war who have not engaged the facts and arguments presented by the administration have a right to their opinion, but it is not worth much.

There are patriotic, knowledgeable, and thoughtful Americans who think the invasion of Iraq was a terrible mistake. Some of them say we should withdraw U.S. troops as soon as we responsibly can. I agree. Everything turns on the definition of “responsibly.” The administration has set forth, not always as persuasively as it should, its view of America’s aims and obligations. Some find that view unconvincing, which is fair enough. I think it is plausible¯which is short of entirely convincing¯and hope it is vindicated.

I am convinced that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would be disastrous for the people of Iraq, for the Middle East, for our national security, and for American leadership in world affairs. I hope these brief comments help put to rest the chatter about my enlisting with the opponents of U.S. policy. Not, I should add, that my judgment carries much weight in influencing that policy one way or the other. But, for what it is worth, that is my best judgment regarding the course of moral and political wisdom on an important subject nearly overwhelmed by cacophonous controversy.

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