morality

Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage

This past Wednesday, The Supreme Court of the United States weighed in on same sex marriage issuing two decisions, one dealing with a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the other with California’s Proposition 8. As is frequently the case, especially given the divisions within the Court, advocates on both sides of the debate are expressing some disappointment.

In the case of DOMA, the Court decided that the federal government must grant to married homosexual couples the same benefits its accords to married heterosexual couples. This is a victory for same sex couples and a defeat to those who oppose same sex marriage. However, while effectively gutting DOMA, the court did not strike down the entire law. Its decision does not force states to recognize same sex marriages performed in other states.

In the case of Prop 8, the court determined that the plaintiffs had no standing to bring the suit to the Supreme Court, leaving intact the lower court decision that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional. This is at least a temporary victory for gay rights in California, and a defeat for opponents of same sex marriage. At the same time, it does not guarantee a right to same sex marriage in all 50 states. Instead, it leaves in place the right of individual states to ban same sex marriage.

No one should be surprised at the response of the religious extremists—today’s prophets of doom—who anticipate a continuing wrath of God. Reiterating comments I made for
Effie Magazine, “These two decisions are neither harbingers of a godless nation, nor reflections of a religious demise already in progress.”

The fact that people on both sides are displeased, should not suggest that the court was wise or balanced in rendering its judgments. Something more serious is in play. The Supreme Court displayed a disquieting lack of courage in its decisions. Not unlike Congress, the Court is incapable of leading. Worse, still, the Court seemed unwilling to live up to its most basic duty of guaranteeing equality and justice for all.

Whatever one’s positions on states’ rights, the U.S. Constitution stands as the foundation of equality, with the Supreme Court its guarantor. Individual states frequently enact laws that are determined to be unconstitutional; laws driven by principles based on differing faith or denominational values. However genuine these values, the United States is not a theocracy. The Constitution guarantees both freedom
of and freedom from religion.

In previous generations a commonly held belief was that blacks were either not human, as in the case of slaves, or at least not 100% human. Pains were taken to root these ideas in religious values and, ultimately, distorted interpretations of the Bible.

Today there are those who make the same claims about homosexuals. Every time some religious fanatic claims that homosexuality is unnatural or contrary to God’s plan, they are disguising the same kind of prejudices that denied all races equality under the law. Again today, individual states codify those prejudices in discriminatory laws. The fact that they root their claims in religious morality, merely discredits both faith and the law.

I am reminded that it was not until 1967 that a truer and more honorable Supreme Court invalidated all laws outlawing inter-racial marriage. Such laws are unconstitutional. I hope we do not have to wait until 2067 for a more courageous and faithful Supreme Court to invalidate laws opposing same sex marriage.

Our independence was declared on this simple, yet profound, principle: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
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Time's Up! Law, Morality and Religion

It seems as though every aspect of life has been partitioned into an “us” v. “them” mentality. The most obvious example is black v. white--most obvious because it is so visually demonstrative. It has become the absolute metaphor for good versus evil, and right versus wrong. This is fine as far as it goes, but most of us do not live in an absolute world. Our lives are tinted by shades of gray.

The problem intensifies when we start applying that analogy to the real world, assigning goodness and evil to other people simply because they are different from us. This is particularly odious in the areas of morality and religion. And, no. They are not the same.

Moral values transcend religion in the same way that God transcends religion. To some that may seem incongruous, but the simple truth is that both God and morality existed prior to any concept of religion. Wrapping morality into one’s religious ideas, at least trying to make them synonymous, is an exercise in futility. It is certainly futile when one is in search of truth. At the same time, it is quite successful in creating a simplistic view for the simple-minded. But that has its own drastic consequences.

Several generations of white people believed that blacks were inferior. Some ignorant people still do. Who knows the actual root of such prejudice? Perhaps it was rooted in the economic and structural development of the Western world. But did such advances make the West more civilized? I suppose it depends on how one defines civilization. One thing is clear: The resulting prejudice defiled religion as believers sought to justify their bigotry in their faith.

A similar kind of discrimination occurred with women. In fact, choose your group and there is a prejudice to match. Many people of faith have continually twisted their thinking into knots to justify bigotry that has no rational foundation. And they have managed to complicate the matter even further.

Recently, people of religion have been making louder and louder claims to be the guardians of morality. Almost without exception, these claims to moral superiority are rooted in their religious values--values that are neither absolute nor universal.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage. There is nothing inherently immoral about same-sex marriage, nor about homosexuality itself. The morality exists only by way of social construct. And those constructs, like all moral values, differ from one society to the next and are always in a state of flux or evolution between generations.

To claim that religion determines morality is like saying religion determines God. Wait a minute. That is exactly what many believers do! They can only accept and believe in a God who conforms to beliefs they already hold. They are not about to be challenged by God. By extension, they can only accept people who believe and act the same way they do.

How else to explain the absurd refusal of some fundamentalist Jews to recognize a non-Orthodox marriage? How else to explain the absurd claim by Christian fundamentalists that non-Baptized people are going to hell? How else to explain the absurdity of Muslim fundamentalists who say that a person who converts from Islam should be put to death? How else to explain the religious belief that same sex couples cannot marry—a religious belief with a very uncertain ground in truth and no claim on the mind or heart?

Enter the law. One of the beauties of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are that they are not based in any religious tradition. The Declaration transcends faith, at least beyond the general acknowledgment that certain unalienable rights are bestowed by God. The Constitution transcends the contextual limitation of social morality, at least insofar as those same unalienable rights are inherent in being human.

The result of the American experiment in democracy is that law is the all important and ultimate measure of our society. Neither morality nor religion can make that same claim. A certain credit must be given to those who vociferously claim that God is being pushed out of public life, schools, etc. They have managed to distract many people from the truth. Many people, but not the courts. So a certain gratitude also must be expressed to those judges that have consistently held that God does not belong in public life and schools. The United States is not run on Christian or any other religious principles.

In this country the law is the foundation of our society. It should not be capricious, nor should it be dictated to by religious whim. Our Declaration of Independence states that all are created equal and endowed with rights. The rights mentioned are not meant to be all-inclusive. What is all-inclusive is the all people have these rights.

I disagree with the religious position of the anti-gay movement. It is a skewed and false reading of the Bible. But it does not matter. The United States is not a country based on the Bible, and that is a good thing. It is a country based on the law.

All people have a right to marry, black and white, gay and straight. I would like to believe that anti-gay is the last great prejudice to be overcome by our society. History suggests that as soon as we succeed, something else will spring up in its place. There will always be those people who seek to cast a black
v. white, a good v. wrong pall over the world of gray that is human life.

For now, times up! In the United States of America, law, justice and equality trump religion. Thank God! And thank the Founding Fathers!
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The Democratic Party Platform

It is to be expected that certain religious leaders, specifically certain Catholic bishops, would find fault with the Democratic Party Platform. However, once again, the response is over the top. Bishop Tomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is the latest culprit in attempts to distort Catholic teaching and manipulate the electorate. His letter in the Bishop’s Column of Catholic Times is a case in point.

It is not easy to know where to begin a response. One of the problems I have with these kinds of statements/articles, is that they are deceptive and manipulative. In that, they are also dishonest. Although the bishop claims that he is not attempting to tell people who to vote for, that is exactly his purpose. He exposes his true intent when he refers to President Obama as "The Leader". That is not even a remotely subtle reference to the head of North Korea. It is more even shameful than the attacks claiming that President Obama is a Muslim, or not a U.S. citizen. More shameful because of its subterfuge.

In addressing the original exclusion of the word "God" from the Democratic Party Platform, the bishop implies, as did many pundits, that the exclusion was itself apostasy by the Democratic Party. From my personal perspective, God should never have been removed in the first place. Still, the bishop's implication is simply not true. There is a growing number of agnostic/atheist citizens in this country. Belief in God is a personal choice that people should be free to make. So is non-belief. It is one thing for people to reference God in speech (it seems that every candidate running for office must conclude with "God bless the United States of America"). It is quite another for a party to write into its platform a belief system that excludes a significant part of the populace. The conservative media response, as well as that of Bishop Paprocki, was debunked by Shakespeare years ago in the words of Macbeth, "...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The bishop then moves to his two real concerns: abortion and same-sex marriage. The reasoning here does more than defy logic. It consigns logic to a world of oblivion. He is also wrong on the facts.

In the case of abortion, he writes that the 1992 platform said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". It did not. The first mention of abortion in the 1992 platform occurs in the section titled "Affordable Health Care". There, the platform reads: "...provide for the full range of reproductive choice—education, counseling, access to contraceptives, and the right to a safe, legal abortion." Later, in the section titled "Choice", the document reads "The goal of our nation must be to make abortion less necessary, not more difficult or more dangerous." The 2012 platform reads: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe V. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay". That language of ability to pay was also used in  the 1992 platform: "Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right." Very disingenuously, the bishop suggests that the Democratic Party Platform for 2012 changes its position on abortion from 1992. It does not and he is wrong.

The bishop attempts to link abortion and same sex marriage in the same category, namely, "intrinsic evil". It is almost tedious to have to pick apart the arguments of the bishop. They are presented in a manner that skews truth and defies argument. But argue we must. Again we are confronted with implication. The bishop suggests that abortion is an "intrinsic evil". If so, that would lead to the conclusion that it can never be justified. However, even official Catholic teaching allows for what is called a "therapeutic" abortion. It is rare, and it deals with intentionality, but the very term is an acknowledgement that the Church allows for abortions in extremely rare cases. I do not intend to equivocate. The issue of a woman's right to choose is far more extensive than a therapeutic abortion. Certainly one can approve of the latter while objecting to the former. But honesty would suggest that the argument cannot rest on "intrinsic evil".

As for same sex marriage, there is no legitimate argument for linking it to abortion as an intrinsic evil. The theological arguments favoring same sex marriage clearly prevent it from being considered intrinsically evil. Scriptural scholarship demonstrates that there is no true prohibition against same sex activity. It also lends support to the idea of same sex marriage.

Almost as disconcerting as his deliberately dishonest arguments about abortion and same sex marriage, is the bishop's offhanded dismissal of other issues that are at least as morally significant. In a truly cavalier choice of words, Paprocki writes of the Republican Party Platform: "One might argue for different methods in the platform to address the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry and to solve the challenges of immigration, but these are prudential judgments about the most effective means of achieving morally desirable ends, not intrinsic evils." What a striking lack of vision and failure of leadership!

If addressing the needs of the poor does not constitute a measure of intrinsic good and evil, the bishop might want to revisit his Bible, specifically the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In the last judgment scene, Jesus identifies a single criterion for admission to the kingdom. It is not how many times one went to church, nor how often one prayed. It is not even who we loved. The only criterion for judging one worthy of the kingdom is how we treat each other. For it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned that we find Jesus, himself.

I wish I could look for better leadership among the country's Catholic bishops. Sadly, however, in the last 30 years we have seen a disastrous decline in the intellectual competence and moral integrity of the U.S. Bishops. Their myopic approach to abortion and homosexuality have left them rudderless as an institution and their leadership morally bankrupt. It has also made it possible to unmask their true intent, regardless of what they say.

Bishop Paprocki claims that he is meeting his responsibilities by writing the article. That to do otherwise would be to abdicate his duty. The truth is a touch more sinister. The factual errors and deliberate intent of the article is itself an abdication of his duty. His true goal is to convince people to vote Republican. In truth, whichever candidates a person votes for is truly and irrevocably a personal decision, and it should not be influenced or directed by fanatical religious leaders who threaten one with the loss of eternal salvation. How pathetic!
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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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