Science and Religion

The Pros and Cons of Vatican Condoms

The Vatican does not really make condoms, that is just intended to be a catchy title. However, the Vatican has made an issue over them for years. Now Pope Benedict XVI has modified the Church's teaching on the use of condoms. This is a modest and significantly restricted change that applies only to preventing the spread of AIDS by people who are HIV-positive. So, before anyone starts talking about seismic or cosmic movement in Church teaching, it would be good to keep a few things in mind.

First of all, Rome is the eternal city. Originally, this was not a reference to the Church. The phrase is a secular one reflecting Rome's ancient history, and its rise as a great empire that, for nearly a thousand years, extended its reach and exerted its power throughout the Western world. There is, however, another way of understanding the phrase "eternal city" and this one is church-specific. I suppose it is pure poetry that Rome should be the center of power and authority in the Catholic Church, for there is no organization in the world that moves slower than the Vatican. It could be argued that a stopped clock moves more quickly.

Second, for many years the rest of the world has recognized and embraced the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the transmission of AIDS. The Pope's statement simply indicates that the slow-moving Catholic Church has finally caught up. Of course, it is also possible that Pope Benedict is redressing the embarrassment of his 2009 statement that rather than preventing the spread of HIV, the distribution of condoms "increases the problem". Regardless, this change in Catholic Church teaching acknowledges that the use of condoms plays a role in eliminating the spread of HIV (and, consequently, other sexually transmitted diseases).

Third, while this modified position on condoms applies to anyone who is infected with HIV, it in no way changes the Church's fundamental opposition to artificial means of birth control. For example, under this new teaching, a husband or wife who is infected with HIV can make use of condoms to prevent spreading the disease to his/her partner, but not to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently, the sound of splitting hairs is just as loud whether or not you are in the forest. After all, even the Church believes in regulating birth, and some of the reasons for choosing contraception are as profound as those for combatting AIDS.

Therefore, in examining the pros of the Pope's new condemn teaching, we should dismiss outright the question of contraception since this new position does not affect that Church teaching. It does not need to anyway, for it is a non-starter. The teaching itself is irrelevant, and this is not an attempt to be insolent. Rather, it is a recognition that the vast majority of Catholics do not adhere to the prohibition against contraception. While It might be difficult for traditionalists to comprehend, there is a foundational principle in Canon Law that no law can take effect unless and until it is accepted by the faithful at large. Although this is a legal precept, the principle applies equally to moral teaching. If the majority of the Church does not accept a teaching, then the teaching holds no sway. A continued harping on contraception by the Pope, or anyone else for that matter, is merely an exercise in futility.

Underlying the new teaching on condoms is a reaffirmation of this principle. The vast majority of people, Catholics included, have not accepted the Church's prohibition on the use of condoms. Instead, they have witnessed the effectiveness of condoms in the fight against AIDS and the spread of HIV. Until now the Church's resistance has rested in part, on its opposition to homosexual activity. With this new position, the Church admits the findings of the scientific world and places the future of the human race above a questionable stance on homosexuality. And since condoms are used the world over, the Pope is simply bringing the Church's teaching into harmony with reality.

This teaching also represents an assent to the work of theologians. For the sake of argument, only, let us grant the Church's teaching on both contraception and homosexuality. At long last Pope Benedict has admitted what theologians have been saying for years, namely, that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is a lesser evil than either artificial birth control or homosexual acts. Remarkable, and rather naive, is the way that Benedict uses intentionality. If a person infected with HIV uses a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease, this is an acceptable moral choice. The deeper reality, of course, is that people in the Church have been using condoms both to combat AIDS and to prevent conception. An insightful interpretation of Benedict's new teaching is that it endorses the first use and implicitly acknowledges the second.

Another, and I'm quite certain unintended, pro of this new teaching is that Benedict has loosed the bonds that for decades have twisted moral theology into a game of mental and verbal gymnastics. Church teaching has long held that it is never permissible to do evil in order to achieve good, so theologians developed the highly creative concept known as "double effect". A classic example is abortion. According to Catholic teaching, one cannot kill a fetus in order to save the life of the mother, because one cannot directly choose evil to accomplish good. However, if doctors were to remove a cancerous uterus from a pregnant woman, that would be acceptable, since the resulting abortion would not be intended. It would be a byproduct of a therapeutic surgery to remove the cancer.

This is more than just academic. As absurd as it sounds, and is, last May, Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, AZ, confirmed the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride who had approved an abortion for a woman 11 weeks pregnant. The abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother. Unlike the therapeutic abortion mentioned above, this one did not involve a life-saving surgery other than the abortion itself. Rather, the doctors believed that neither the mother nor the child would survive the pregnancy. Sr. McBride made a morally correct choice in spite of what ultra-conservative Catholics might think. Her situation gave organizations like "The American Catholic" a raison d'etre. They are, however, wrong.

The absurdity of allowing two lives to end by doing nothing almost speaks for itself. Bishop Olmstead's position was "the end does not justify the means". Perhaps, perhaps not. Choosing not to act in this case seems more like moral cowardice. Claiming to stand on principle is sometimes just a cover for cowering beneath a blanket.

As I said, Benedict almost certainly did not intend to open these floodgates, but if the Church takes its own teaching about sex (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) seriously, then the Pope has admitted that a person can choose evil to accomplish a greater good. Clearly, there is a difference in degree between sexual activity and abortion, but on the simplest of plains, evil is evil. Mind you, I do not grant the Church's position on either contraception or homosexuality and do not see evil in either one. I am merely trying to demonstrate that the position taken by Benedict is not consistent with the idea that one cannot choose evil to achieve good. Perhaps we are witnessing seismic and cosmic changes after all.

As for the cons, well come to think of it, there aren't any--unless you subscribe to "The American Catholic" or belong to some other ultra-conservative band. Even then, the consistent conservative position has generally been to bow to authority and accept whatever the Pope says. Needless to say, it is more than a little ironic to watch these same conservative Catholics reject any teaching they consider too liberal--and they will almost certainly object to this new condom teaching. It is not truth that they cling to so tenaciously. It is their narrow perspective of what truth is.

The real world test, however, will come not in the local dioceses and parishes, but in the supermarket. How quickly will marketing executives capitalize and re-brand their products? The next time you're out shopping, don't be surprised to see newly packaged condoms sporting the slogan: "Vatican seal of approval"!
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Agnosticism and Religious Relevance

According to a number of recent studies, agnosticism is on the rise--at least in the United States and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI has centered his pontificate around leading Europe away from secularism and back to its Christian roots. The inevitable question must be asked: Is religion still relevant?

I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.

In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...

There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.

Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?

In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.

Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.

Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.

R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "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." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.

Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.

For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.
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Abortion - Part 5 (conclusion!)--The Morning After Pill

In the previous blogs on abortion, I have presented the supporting evidence from science and the argumentation from theology that enable us to use day 14 of embryological development as the time of individuation or ensoulment. These arguments are both rooted in the process of twinning. I have also noted that on extreme occasions, twinning can take place after day 14, but is no longer possible after day 21.

There is a practical concern here that also must be addressed. Most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days. So while I have already made the argument in support of stem cell research, how does this information impact the abortion debate? After all, if most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days, and by this time we clearly have an individuated human person, are we not in the same place regarding abortion as we are today?

We would be, were it not for the development of the morning after pill. This pill offers us some hope in eliminating the need for abortion in the first place. At this point in the discussion, we need to address the objections both to the morning after pill and to inter-uterine devices. Up until now they have often been referred to as abortifacients. The argument of the Catholic Church, among others, has been that since these options do not prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg, they do not prevent conception, but actually induce an abortion by preventing the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall. It is actually a little more complex than that, and by linking the scientific concept of individuation to the theological belief in ensoulment (God directly creating the human soul), the abortifacient argument collapses.

I would like to begin by taking a more careful look at the morning after pill. The use of inter-uterine devices applies to the third part of this examination, when the fertilized egg implants in the uterine wall. However, they also demand more of the woman. Most women would find using a pill preferable to inserting a device. So what exactly does the morning after pill do?

The hormone in the pill has a threefold effect: 1) It prevents ovulation. If the ovaries do not release eggs, then no fertilization or conception can take place; 2) If ovulation has already taken place, the hormone thickens the cervical mucus, thus blocking the sperm and keeping it from joining with the egg; 3) In case an egg has been fertilized, the hormone thins the lining of the uterus, thus making it unlikely that a fertilized egg would be able to implant in the womb. It is at this point that the inter-uterine device and the morning after pill have the same effect. The point is that all of the above processes take place within the first six days, since that is when implantation occurs. Six days are significantly shy of the 14 days required for individuation or ensoulment.

In the case of the morning after pill, it must be taken within five days to still be effective. Obviously, the earlier it is taken, the better. Clearly, the use of the morning after pill does not cause an abortion, and so can no longer be referred to as an abortifacient. More to the point, if the morning after pill is made more readily available to women the world over, we may be able to limit, if not fully eliminate, the need for abortion in the first place.

I stated in part 2 of this series: "Nobody can possibly think that abortion is a good thing, even if some believe it is occasionally necessary." If our ultimate goal is, in fact, the elimination of abortion, should we not establish a policy that makes the morning after pill available to all women? Those who oppose this policy while simultaneously claiming to oppose abortion are, at least in part, responsible for abortion's continued demand.

The purpose of this series was to create a new foundation and context for the abortion debate, and to change the language in order that both sides would actually communicate with each other in pursuit of a common resolution to this issue. I hope I have succeeded.
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Abortion - Part 4--Stem Cell Research

As I continue my series of blogs on abortion, I realize that some people may be startled by the title. I chose this not so much to be provocative, though all my friends know I don't shy away from that designation. I actually chose the title because it is my hope that if enough people read the blogs and discuss the material, then maybe we can have an impact on the debate over abortion. With the use of both modern scientific studies and theological reflection, I have already offered support for altering the foundational terminology used in the abortion debate, specifically changing the language from human life to human person.

I noted in the second part of this series that rights append to an individual human person, not to human life in general. However, prior to day 14 we have human life that has not yet been individuated. We do not have a human person. Simply put, that means interrupting the embryological development prior to day 14 is not equivalent to taking the life of a human being and should not be construed as tantamount to abortion. Of particular note is the observation (also in part 2) that viability is not required for individuation or personhood. Far from silencing the anti-abortion lobby, I believe their voice and argument are augmented by this distinction, but their case cannot be made until day 14.

Today, I would like to examine the implication of this argument for embryonic stem cell research. No one questions the overall goals of scientists who pursue such studies. While the outcome of all investigative science is uncertain, the use of embryonic stem cells holds out significant hope for medical breakthrough on a whole host of diseases. This is due in part to the fact that embryonic stem cells are unspecialized and, through a process known as cell division, can renew themselves even after long periods of inactivity. Also, precisely because they are unspecialized, they can be coaxed to develop into a number of different cells--a process known as differentiation. For example, a stem cell could be made to develop into a brain cell or a red blood cell.

It is true that scientists can also avail themselves of adult stem cell research that does not result in the destruction of an embryo. Clearly, scientists should not ignore of this area of study. However, adult stem cells do not possess all the same capacities of embryonic stem cells. Although adult stem cells are thought to be undifferentiated, when removed from the body, their ability to divide is limited. This makes it difficult for scientists to generate large quantities of cells, thereby limiting their research. Both embryonic and adult stem cells offer hope for medical treatment and possible cures, and both should be part of the research process.

The primary opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that it necessitates the destruction of the embryo. I acknowledge that reality. However, what emerges from the discussion in this series of blogs, is that the real issue should be when the stem cells are removed and the embryo destroyed. In order to have stem cells with the highest potential research value, scientists seek to acquire them between 5 and 7 days following fertilization. This is long before individuation and the creation of the human soul. That being the case, stem cell research cannot be equated with abortion. This mutes any moral objection, since a human being is not sacrificed in the pursuit of scientific research.

If one grants the argumentation so far regarding individuation and ensoulment, it is still possible that one more objection might be made raised against embryonic stem cell research. That objection would arise from a modified contraceptive perspective. Since the contraceptive issue is even more intimately connected with the primary subject of the next blog, I will reserve my argument until then.
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Abortion - Part 3

My last blog examined the science behind twinning and the principle of individuation. In sum, a fertilized egg can split into identical twins until day 14 (in very rare circumstances, day 21). Even though the absolute cut off date for twinning is the 21st day, I restricted the discussion to day 14, because it is the more normal cut off time. As a matter of practical reality, either date will serve the same purpose since most women do not know they are pregnant until after 21 days. Still, after the cut off date twinning is no longer possible and we now have individuation--an individually constituted human person. Because of the scientific information regarding individuation, I have suggested, as a matter of precision, using the term human person instead of human life in the abortion discussion. We now turn our attention to the theological issue involved in abortion.

For people of faith, at least the Christian faith, God directly creates each individual human soul. The question is when, and the somewhat easy answer so far has been at the moment of conception. This claim, however, does not square with the biological information. It has long been a contention of mine that where theology and the empirical sciences intersect, they must engage in full and open dialogue in order to arrive at the truth. In the area of abortion, that truth turns on the science of individuation.

The first theological step is to acknowledge that, like all elements of faith, the existence of the human soul cannot be proved. It is accepted as an article of faith in part because we believe that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and the existence of the soul is that image within each one of us. Precisely because the soul is our identification with God, it is the source of our immortality or promise of resurrection. However, it is not incumbent upon theology to prove the existence of the soul. In fact, were it possible to do so it would no longer be a matter of faith. Since it is also true that no one can disprove the existence of the soul, there remains a need to try to determine when the soul is created. This is known by the theological term "ensoulment". I believe that the convergence of science and religion ultimately leads to consensus on this point.

This is the second theological step: to ascertain, acknowledge and then integrate what the empirical sciences are able to determine about the process of individuation with the theological belief in the human soul. Although many people remain comfortable with suggesting that the soul is created when human life begins, namely, at the moment of conception, that simply does not square with the biological information available to us today. To be specific, individuation cannot be determined with any certainty until after the twinning process is no longer possible. Until that point, we may end up with one embryo becoming two or three. At issue is the fact that two souls cannot simultaneously reside in one body. Once the possibility of twinning has concluded, however, the theological principle of ensoulment takes a compelling turn. It clearly links the human soul (a matter of faith) with individuation (a matter of science).

This dialogue between science and religion is neither artificial nor capricious. It enables us to connect the best scientific information with the deepest of faith. Science allows us to peer into the embryological process to understand what actually happens after fertilization. As such, science issues a caution to theology on the question of ensoulment. At the same time, science does not contradict faith. Rather it strengthens and supports the argumentation for the existence of the soul, while leaving that argument itself firmly within the realm of theology. This dialogue also retains God as an active agent in the creation process, since theology tells us that at some point God must directly create the individual soul. It seems clear to me that science and theology are not competing disciplines, and that people of faith need no longer fear the knowledge garnered from scientific investigation.

More importantly the dialogue between science and religion provides a mutually acceptable foundation for grounding legal arguments and public policy decisions.

The next blog in this series will further examine the importance of shifting our concept from human life to human person in the legal arena and support for further scientific studies.
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Abortion - Part 2

In our society at large, most of the "discussion" about abortion takes place without any genuine dialogue or respect. One reason is that both sides of the debate have taken such extreme positions, that people talk past each other, rather than to each other. The end result, is that the only practical point of compromise has been to allow for abortion, (at least as far as federal funding), in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the life of the mother.

I believe that there are truly good people in both camps, and that they are motivated by the best of intentions, desires and beliefs. Nobody can possibly think that abortion is a good thing, even if some believe it is occasionally necessary. Hopefully, we all share a common desire to eliminate the need (perceived or real) for abortion. Toward that end we need to engage a dialogue that is accepting of differing opinions, and tolerant of the people who hold them. We also need minds that are open to change and agreement.

In my last blog, I suggested that "human life" and "human person" are different terms, and I ended with the following question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person? Let us first take a look at the contribution of the biological sciences.

At this stage in the abortion debate, all reasonable people should agree that immediately upon an egg being fertilized by sperm, a life process begins that, if uninterrupted (either artificially or naturally), will result in the birth of a human being. Embryological studies demonstrate that from the moment of fertilization, there is in the zygote a new biological identity that is neither that of the father nor of the mother. We have human life. But is this human life also a human person?

Many of us have met identical (monozygotic) twins at one time or another, perhaps even triplets. Ever wonder where they come from, other than the obvious? They are the result of a process known as twinning, whereby a fertilized egg can split into identical twins or triplets. Although this twinning frequently happens early in the development of the embryo, it can take place up to 14 days after fertilization. It is not commonly known, but the physical similarities between identical twins depends on when the zygote splits. When the split occurs early on, the twins appear less identical, although they still are. The later the split, the more alike the twins appear.

At the same time, gastrulation (the point at which the embryo attaches to the uterine wall and establishes the basic body plan) does not occur until day 21. As a result there are rare circumstances when twinning takes place even after day 14. This usually results in conjoined, or Siamese twins. For the purposes of understanding how twinning contributes to the abortion debate, it is sufficient to use the 14 day period. At that point we have what scientists refer to as individuation. That means that each embryo is a single person.

Of course, identical twins are not an everyday occurrence, with the worldwide estimate being 10 million. Some people might wonder, therefore, why such concern over something as rare as twinning. I would like to suggest that it is more accurate to say that identical twins are an "uncommon" occurrence, and to consider conjoined twins as "rare". After all, it would be disingenuous to dismiss 10 million people from this discussion. Although most zygotes will not separate, we cannot state with any degree of scientific accuracy that we have a unique, individual human person until day 14, since any one of those zygotes may, in fact, become two or three human beings.

Note that, from this scientific approach, viability is not needed to determine individuation and personhood. This, then, sets a firm foundation for a legal position. Since all rights append to individuated persons, not to human life in general, I suggest that the term "human life" in the abortion discussion be replaced with the more accurate and substantial term "human person".

Most of the momentum for opposing abortion arises from religious tradition. These beliefs are profound, often emotional, and grounded in a deep faith in God and what is believed to be God's most precious gift, life. The arguments as I have so far presented them hold up well in the domain of science, but how do they fare with religion? Neither religion nor science can dismiss the other if we are to arrive at understanding and achieve a national consensus on abortion. How can we bring these two differing, but not opposing or competing, disciplines into harmony?

As the old phrase goes, "Stay tuned".
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Abortion - Part 1

Recently, I was informed by some friends that my blogs are long. And I thought they knew me! Although I understand a blog to be shorter, in principle, than an article, I still like to make it comprehensive and complete. BUT, I have heard, so I will divide the topic of this blog into parts.

For some time now I have been trying to develop an approach to the abortion debate that might achieve some civility between the camps and perhaps even lead to an acceptable compromise or national consensus.

In a conversation I had recently with a friend, I raised this issue. His response was something to the effect that the debate over abortion is over. Since we did not pursue it, I'm not sure what he meant. Abortion is certainly established law in terms of Roe v. Wade. Yet the current Supreme Court, while upholding elements of the 1973 ruling, has also continued to chip away at the legal protections to a woman's right to choose. The fact that abortion is not as prominent an issue in this election cycle also does not mean that it is settled as far as the general population is concerned. And it clearly is not settled as far as politicians are concerned. There is a bill proposed in the House of Representatives to make the Hyde amendment permanent U.S. law. Sadly, but predictably, it is supported by the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The Hyde amendment, in force now for over 30 years, requires renewal every year. It bans the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or threat to the mother's life. What about the President?

One of the responsibilities of the President of the United States is to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court. For the foreseeable future, abortion will continue to be raised each time a vacancy occurs on the high court, which means the President will seek a nominee who is confirmable, read one who can pass the abortion litmus test--a test administered from both sides of the debate. During the confirmation process, senators will attempt to get the nominee to commit himself or herself to a legal position regarding Roe v. Wade. Correct that. The senators will try to get the nominee to commit to a political position on Roe v. Wade, with the more clever appointees dodging the issue--just like politicians! At the same time various pundits will weigh in on the issue. We will hear the voices of those who support Roe v. Wade and those who oppose it. We will be subjected to the ideologies of those who support a woman's right to choose and those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. In the simplistic dialogue and labeling that characterize so much of our national discourse, we will hear from those who are "pro-choice" and those who are "pro-life".

In an ideal society, abortion should not be part of a litmus test for being confirmed as a Justice of the Supreme Court. The Justices do far more than hear abortion cases, and their decisions have profound impact on nearly every aspect of American life. We, of course, do not live in an ideal society. Nonetheless, to begin a process of moving away from the abortion litmus test, let me suggest the following:

First of all, sound bites and labels. While they might score points and be successful in the short term are ultimately degrading in the long run and contribute to what has now become one of the greatest tragedies of modern U.S. life: the dumbing down of America. Take for example the terms "pro-choice" and "pro-life". Of these two, "pro-choice" is the more accurate, since it primarily indicates support for a woman's right to choose. However, there exist many nuances to being pro-choice and a certain amount of complexity exists in trying to define someone who identifies with this label. As for the "pro-life" label, it is even more complex. The only so-called pro-life issue for most of this movement is being anti-abortion. That much is clear. How else to explain their total disregard for all other aspects of life that allow people to actually live, such as feeding food for the hungry, caring for the homeless, providing universal health care? The list goes on. Clearly, complexity defines this group since major church organizations that are anti-abortion also identify as pro-life in many other areas. I must, however, give the political arm of the "pro-life" movement credit. For while they often oppose all legislation that truly advances human life and dignity for the born, they remain steadfast in their opposition to aborting the unborn. Two results? They have hoodwinked good religious people, and the dumbed down American public actually buys the pro-life label!

So, if not sound bites, then what? I deplore the kind of labels that drive people into opposing camps and create walls of separation over which none can speak nor hear. At the same time language, or more precisely terminology, is essential to understanding another's speech and analyzing another's concepts. It is to this task that I suggest we turn our attention in an attempt to move the abortion debate toward a national consensus. It will require a willingness to think, to talk and to listen. The extremes from both sides will probably refuse to engage. We cannot control them. But we should not let their refusal control us. So for the rest of us....

It seems to me that the first hurdle we must get over is the term "human life". Religious groups as diverse as Christians and Mormons have held that human life begins from the moment of conception. In the past some scientists have opposed that notion. But today, even most scientists would agree that the life process that begins at conception is a human one. It is a long process and the majority of fetuses will actually spontaneously abort. But all things being equal, when human beings conceive, what emerges nine months later is another human being. Still, "human life" and "human being" are not co-terminus. We must ask the question: At what point does the human life that began at conception become a human person with the dignity and rights afforded every other human person?

Up next, an attempt to answer that question.
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Multi-Universes and God

Stephen Hawking is one of the pre-eminent physicists in modern science. Perhaps due to his prominence he is also no stranger to controversy. In fact, not only does he not shy away from it, he seems to enjoy fomenting a little. This is not a negative assessment. The greatest thinkers in history have always created intellectual turmoil in the advance of new ideas. Over time, that has led to the development and acceptance of new and sometimes vastly different views of what we thought we knew of the world, of ourselves and even our understandings of God.

In the case of science and religion, such controversy has generated a concept that science and religion are at odds with each other and cannot coexist. It is an idea shared equally by some scientists and some religionists. Precisely because theology is not an empirical science, it is easy for some to accept a dichotomy that exists more in the imagination than it does in reality.

Putting aside the visions and apparitions claimed by people who are already pre-disposed to believe in God, the fact remains that we cannot see God, nor can we prove that God exists. The frequently used example of the artist remains apropos today. While one can recognize Rembrandt in one of his paintings, it is not the same as seeing Rembrandt himself. For people of faith, it is easy to see God's hand at work in creation, but that is not the same as seeing God. Another analogy that has been popular among preachers, and is perhaps more accessible, is wind. We can see and feel the effects of wind, but cannot see the wind itself. Yet we know that it is there. Of course, all analogies limp. Knowing the wind is there from observation is clearly not the same as believing that God exists by observation. There simply is no proof that God exists. This need not bother a believer, for it is in the definition of faith, itself. If God's existence could be proved, there could be no faith.

There is a similar principle at work in the world of science. For example, scientists have theorized for years about the existence of dark matter. Alternatives to dark matter notwithstanding, (specifically Milgrom's Modification of Newton's Dynamics {MOND}), the vast majority of scientists have continued to believe in the existence of dark matter, even though it cannot be seen. The presumed existence of dark matter helps to explain some of the observations in the rotation of galaxies and galaxy clusters.

The same principle is at work in the existence of our universe and the existence of parallel or multi-universes. Stephen Hawking's new book, "The Grand Design" argues "Spontaneous creation is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." Using the existence of gravity, he argues "the universe can and will create itself from nothing." Hawking suggests there is no need for God and he seeks to support this from a couple of observable facts. First, there are innumerable planets in our universe, thereby raising the probability that intelligent life exists elsewhere. Where that life exists, it will always find itself living in a suitable place with no need for a God to explain its existence.

The second observable fact has long been the staple of science fiction, but today clearly resides in the mainstream of modern science. This is the concept of parallel or multi-universes. Without going into the details, cosmological observations give rise to four levels of multi-universes, successively more complex. We see the first two of these at work in popular science fiction: Level I multiverse is what is presented in a number of episodes of the various "Star Trek" series. The film "Men In Black II" ends with a nod to the Level II multiverse. Beyond these are two additional levels of multiverse. According to Hawking, among the parallel universes, a universe like ours will also have the same laws of physics. For him, that universe begins exactly as our did and must arise from nothing.

Scientifically, there is nothing problematic in Hawking's argument. However, it does not negate the existence of God, and his contention that it negates the need for God is grossly over-stated. Substantially different religious traditions have different concepts of God. Perhaps Hawking's argument negates the need for some of the them. Yet he seems not to understand the God of the Bible, for nothing in his presentation negates the existence of this God.

Hawking appears to make the same mistake that many fundamentalists do, namely, failing to distinguish the difference between fact/fiction and truth/falsehood. The result is the mistaken notion that the Bible is either science or history--it is neither--and this leads to the false conflict between science and religion. Truth and fiction are not opposites of each other. The opposite of truth is falsehood, the opposite of fact is fiction. Great works of fiction can speak profound truths about life, but they are not factual. The same can be said of the Bible.

In both of the creation narratives in the Book of Genesis, God is presented as the creator of the world (universe). But these creation stories seek to tell truth through the poetry of myth (fiction). The works of Stephen Hawking and other scientists seek to explain the facts of the universe. Both of these endeavors can and do speak to truth.

As one of my professors, a Scripture scholar, was fond of saying: "The Bible tells us that God created the world. Science tells us how God created the world." The spontaneous creation that Hawking refers to is for the believer, an act of God. This may not convince scientists that God actually exists or that he created the universe. That remains an article of faith. But it should free them from the obligation to attempt to prove that either God does not exist or did not create the universe. In today's world we need to find ways for science and religion to work together. To arrive at the deepest truths we need them both.
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U.S. Judge rules against Obama stem cell policy

Yesterday federal district Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruled that President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research violated a federal ban on the destruction of such embryos. Whether or not the ruling by Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth is good law, is for legal scholars and appellate judges to determine. It is rooted in the Dickey-Wicker amendment (an appropriations bill rider) that Congress passed in 1995 and continues to renew annually. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos that will be destroyed.

The underlying problem is the amendment itself, and how it came to be law and continues to be renewed. Stem cell research has become another missile in the abortion war. Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research due to the destruction of the embryos which they consider to be tantamount to abortion. At issue is a serious lack of scientific, philosophical and even theological knowledge. On this front, even some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, widely miss the mark. To be fair, there has been little attempt to address the real issue of human life and the embryo.

Theology is a proper discipline in its own right. However, when a theological subject intersects with other disciplines, it must consider what the empirical sciences contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States today, many people seem to think that their "faith," whatever it is, trumps everything else. This explains the relatively uninformed (at least unenlightened) approach to evolution among those who want the Biblical myth of creation taught as a competing understanding of creation.

In the case of stem cell research, a strong argument can be made for the fact the human life begins at conception. Nonetheless, the real issue should be personhood, and that simply cannot be claimed to exist at conception. This is not simply a semantic distinction. Scientifically, we know that a fertilized egg can split into identical twins up to 14 days after conception, on rare occasions even later. That would suggest that from day 14 both medical science and theology can agree that the embryo is a human person, at least insofar as the process of individuation is complete. Prior to that time there may be human life, but there is no sustaining argument for calling it a person. This should raise some question about the wisdom and even legitimacy of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, since laws should be enacted to protect persons, not some ethereal concept of human life.

Since scientists want the stem cells much earlier than 14 days, with 5-7 days being optimal, the process of individuation should silence the anti-abortion lobby. But this is the United States, and at this time in our history, people prefer to remain in the dark regarding real science. Perhaps part of the blame rests with elements within the government that have advanced what has been called "junk science" to the fore. Science and religion are not, or should not be, competing disciplines. It is possible for them to work together in the areas of human life where they intersect. For now, however, we are likely to continue to be led by people who refuse to let die a now tired cliché: "My mind's made up--don't confuse me with the facts."
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