Monthly Archives: April 2006

New Posting In "Year of Grace"

I have posted a new chapter in my “Year of Grace” conversion retro-blog, for those of you who are following this story.

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Martini and Marino on Oozytes and Monozygots

I’m embarrassed now. After having quoted Cardinal Martini with a degree of approval (see my blog: “Spelling out the principal of the lesser evil”), I now have read the full interview, courtesy of Sandro Magister. It makes rather uncomfortable reading—especially the way in which the Martini (the Cardinal) virtually fauns at the feet of Marino (the bioethicist). This bit especially bothered me:

Marino says:

“But science comes to the rescue to suggest alternatives to the creation and freezing of embryos. There exist more sophisticated technologies than those used today, which provide for the freezing, not of the embryo, but of the oocyte at its stage of two pronuclei, the moment when the two chromosome pairs, the female and the male, are still separate, and a new DNA chain has not yet been formed.

“In this phase, it is not possible to determine which path the cells will take at the moment when they begin to reproduce: they could produce a baby, or two twin monozygotes. The embryo does not exist, there is not a new genetic patrimony, so there is not a new individual. From the biological point of view, there is not a new life. So can we also think that life is not present from the spiritual point of view, and that there are therefore no problems for a person of faith in evaluating the idea of following this path?”

To which Martini replies:

“I understand how these things upset many persons, especially those most sensitive to ethical problems. And I am also convinced that the processes of life, and thus also those of the transmission of life, form a continuum in which it is difficult to identify the moments of a real and proper qualitative change. The result of this is that when dealing with human life, we must have great respect and reservation in regard to everything that in some way manipulates it or could exploit it, from its very beginnings.

“But this does not mean that it is not possible to identify moments in which no sign of an individually distinguishable life yet appears. It seems to me that this is the case you are bringing up with the oocyte at the stage of the two pronuclei. In this case, it seems to me that the general rule of respect can accompany the technical treatment that you suggest.”

In other words (and I add that I have even less biological expertise than Cardinal Martini professes to have), because at this very early stage after conception (the first few days?) there is the possibility that the fertilized egg (the “oozyte” at its stage of two pronuclei) may become either one or two (or more?) individual human beings, we may treat it as if it is not yet human at all. I don’t think this follows, does it? It is either one or more than one individual, it is not no individual at all? Is it? Or am I missing something here?

Magister gives, as his first reference for comparison at the end of the article, the references to the relevant sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is worth keeping the accepted teachings of the Catholic Church in mind while reading this conversation. Especially these:

366 The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal:

466 … Christ’s humanity has no other subject than the divine person of the Son of God, who assumed it and made it his own, from his conception.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God [Lk 1:28], was redeemed from the moment of her conception.

The implication is that at the point of conception—even though science may not yet be able to predict whether one or more human beings will result—God knows exactly how many individuals he is dealing with, for he has created their very soul (or individuality, or personhood, or however else you want to modernise this concept). He knew and intended, for instance, that Jesus was going to be just Jesus (and not Jesus and Joseph Jnr), and that Mary was going to be just Mary (not Mary and Martha).

The fact that we cannot yet see a soul under a microscope does not give us the right to consign its “outward form” to the waste bin.

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Lutherans ask "The Women Question"

Over at “Always Yes”, Tom Pietsch has posed a question that deserves an answer:

“The very idea of a few hundred Australian [Lutheran] delegates voting in a Toowoomba auditorium on whether the Bride of Christ has been sexist for its two thousand year history does seem a tad rich. But one does sense that the Holy Spirit is moving the LCA toward a greater fidelity to that Word whose beauty is ever ancient ever new. Ecclesiology aside, it is worth noting the fidelity of a people who will most likely decline again the offer to ordain women, instead declaring their allegiance to the Church of the departed saints. I wonder whether even the Catholic Church could manage such a popular outcome. But maybe that’s just gossip..”

The answer is, I think, no. A popular vote among Australian Catholics today would produce a landslide in favour of women’s ordination. I have two observations to make in this regard:

1) Australian Catholics (probably most Catholics) are not as well catechised as Australian Lutherans, and therefore do not understand the issues so well. They would tend to make their judgement on sociological grounds rather than from a knowledge of the Word of God (in both Scripture and Tradition);

2) It somewhat depends on who these “Catholics” are. If you define as a Catholic someone who has been baptised as one (which the Church does), then you would get a quite different result from the one you would get if you selected only confirmed, catechised, weekly mass and regular confession attending Catholics who consent to the doctrines of the Catholic Church and spend a great deal of time in prayer and studying God’s Word (as it is conveyed in tradition and scripture).

3) The Church doesn’t believe that doctrine is something for anything but an ecumenical council (made up of all the validly ordained bishops in the world who are in communion with the See of Peter, ie. the Magisterium) to vote on—and even then, they can’t invent a new doctrine but are restrained by the Word of God (which, as I think I mentioned, is both Scripture and the way in which the Apostolic Witness has been traditioned over time.)

Sorry, did I say “two observations”? Well, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition…

The questions that Tom asks about the authority of localised synods (be they of laity, of sectarian groups, or of validly ordained bishops), and about subsequent syonds voting against earlier ones, are important. Apart from the logical inconsistencies of a Synod voting against its own prior resolutions (which would seem to undermine its authority to make any sort of declarative pronouncement on doctrine at all), the fact is that a local Church can never act in a way that is opposed to the Universal Church without bringing into question the matter of communion between the local and Universal Church. Cf. The Anglican situation.

If you want to stay a sane Lutheran, Tom, don’t ask these questions. You will either become an insane Lutheran or a sane…

As an interesting sideline, in Terry Pratchett’s 31st Discworld Novel “The Monstrous Regiment”, the scriptures of the local god Nuggan are kept in a ring binder so that bits can be added and deleted on the whim of Nuggan, who issues daily bulletins as to what is or is not to be considered “an abomination unto Nuggan”. Not surprisingly, after a while, Nuggan’s adherents begin to suspect that their god is completely mad.

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Full, Vocal Unity Achieved At WCC

Perhaps it is his impending nuptials that lead Tom Pietsch, the young Lutheran seminarian and blogger at “Always Yes”, to muse on global warming and all things apocalyptic. I have been meaning to blog on this one myself for a while, as it is (believe it or not) an ecumenical “issue”.

You will all be aware that the 9th Pow-Wow of the World Council of Churches took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in February. One has not come to expect very much of these events, at least in terms of concrete ecumenism. A quick glance through the agenda and the resolutions of the Assembly will make this immediately clear.

For eg., here is Dr Sam Kobia, the General Secretary (ie. effective head) of the WCC speaking to ABC Radio National’s Encounter:

Sam Kobia: As the World Council we have been dealing with this for the last 30 to 35 years. It’s good to see that now the evangelicals finally have realised that this is an issue that also they should be involved in. Let this assembly identify [it] as the one issue that Christians of different persuasions and representing different traditions can speak with the one, strong, Christian voice, because I think if there is an issue around which we can say we are agreed … we can even speak with a voice without having to go into theological debate. I think [it] can be the rallying point around which we can speak with one strong voice.

What is he talking about? Is “it” the full, visible unity of the Church? Is “it” the desire to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all nations? Is “it” a far more modest goal such as a common date for Easter among all the Churches?

No. Here is the unedited version:

Sam Kobia: I welcome very much the evangelicals to the platform of dealing with the issue of climate change. … Let this assembly identify climate change as the one issue that Christians of different persuasions and representing different traditions can speak with the one, strong, Christian voice.

So there you are. Not the Eucharist, not the Church, not the Gospel, not the Word of God, but: climate change. I guess we should be thankful that the Christian communities of the world have finally found something they can all speak about together “with the one, strong Christian voice.”

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Spelling out the principle of the lesser evil

The news today is that “the Holy See is preparing a document on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus” (Catholic World News). This follows the discussion which appeared in the Italian daily La Repubblica. John Allan reported at length on this issue in this week’s Word From Rome, where he said:

Similarly, asked about the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, Martini responded: “Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil,” mentioning the case of a couple where one partner is infected and the other isn’t.

The problem, Martini said, isn’t really the ethical analysis. The problem is the PR headaches that follow whenever a church official says this out loud. To put it bluntly, anytime a senior church official says that use of a condom might be a “lesser evil” in the context of a deadly disease, the next day’s headlines trumpet “Church okay with condoms,” which is not the same message.

“The question is really if it’s wise for religious authorities to propagandize in favor of this method of defense [from HIV/AIDS], almost implying that other morally sustainable means, including abstinence, are put on a lower level,” Martini said. “The principle of a ‘lesser evil,’ applicable in all the cases covered by ethical doctrine, is one thing; another thing is who ought to express these judgments publicly.”

I highlighted that bit above, because that is indeed spot on. I’ve never really believed that the plague proportion of HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa (etc.) is due to the Catholic prohibition of condoms, nor that it would be halted if the Church removed its “blanket ban” on condoms. Somehow it just doesn’t ring true that men who would have unprotected sex with prostitutes and then with their wives would pay much attention to what the Pope has to say on the matter. It would seem to me that the condom question for such men is more a question of a “macho” image. Or the simple fact that it is more pleasurable to have sex without a condom than with one.

[I speak from experience of my pre-Catholic days. I haven’t used one since my conversion. My very wise catechist, Anthony Fisher—now auxiliary bishop of Sydney in charge of the next WYD—pointed out the perversity of committing a sin when the sin actually reduces the pleasure of the sexual act!]

What is probably more true is that their wives and those who advise their wives will pay attention to the Church’s teaching. Here I expect that the principle of the lesser evil (as outlined by Martini above) has always been pastorally applied to individuals who have sought such pastoral advice, and I believe that such advice has been given without sin.

Maybe these days people need everything spelled out for them. But I don’t trust the media to get the spelling right, and most Catholics seem to use the media as their source of infallible pontifications these days. Here, the cautionary advice of Fr Neuhaus on the standards of religious journalism in the New York Times should be heeded:

“The New York Times is a newspaper where a reporter’s ignorance of a subject is considered a qualification. I’m not making this up. More than one person at the Times has explained to me that having someone report on a subject with which he is not familiar provides a fresh and unbiased perspective, and makes it more likely his reporting will be readily understood by non-specialists. That is not the policy on really important subjects, mind you, such as science, the Supreme Court, and same-sex marriage. But it will do for religion.”

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Has Papa Benny been reading Kashmir Shaivism?

I recently showed Papa Benny’s Easter Vigil Homily to a priest friend. He wrote back:

Dear David, Thank you for the homily of Pope Benedict. It is an extraordinary statement. What do you make of a statements like “He was one single reality with the living God, so closely untied with him as to form one person with him.”? This is right down my alley –Kashmir Shaivism. Has he read these sorts of texts? Surely not! He continues on “we become one single subject, not just one thing.” These ideas are take up in other ways in other parts of the homily. This is extraordinary writing. What has happened to ‘Three Persons, one God’? Likewise his first encyclical entered into themes from Kashmir Shaivism. He can’t have read in this area, surely?

I agree that it is an extraordinary homily, for all the reasons he mentions, but also because of the “evolution” language he uses about the Resurrection being a “mutation”. I agree that he has probably not read the texts of Kashmir Shaivism, but he may have read the writings of people who have. I find in many of his works that he quotes philosophical or religious ideas “second hand”, that is, his footnotes reference the references of other theologians who have reflected upon the source material.

The section my friend highlights seems to me to be more along the traditional “Christology from below” stream in Christian thought as contrasted with our more usual “Christology from above”. Most orthodox theologians have a preference for the latter, while acknowledging that the former has strong support in the scriptures. I think their unease with the former is that many of the early Church heresies, and not a few of the modernist, early 20th Century (eg. Albert Schweizer) theories of Christology, were “from below” in this fashion. I think we have to assume that “Three persons in one God” is still very much behind what Papa Benny is saying (how could it not be?), but that he is challenging us to think in new categories about the same basic reality. This is also what I think he is doing with the “evolution” language in reference to the Resurrection.

In this context, I find what John Allen says in this week’s Word From Rome very much to the point. Allan is commenting on the themes in Benedict’s speeches and sermons during Holy Week:

“Ticking off the topics Benedict covered during Holy Week, at first blush they seem entirely predictable — the need for priests to be men of prayer, Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples as an act of love, the reality of evil, the link between Easter and Baptism, and so on. It’s the nature of the liturgical season.

The striking thing, however, is that Benedict did not treat these subjects as a point of departure for other reflections, but rather as the very core of his concern. There was never a sense that he wanted to use the platform afforded by Holy Week to launch a message; Holy Week was the message.

In that sense, Benedict is a “back to basics” pope.

The church doesn’t need new paradigms or initiatives, he believes, so much as the capacity to explain its core teachings well, and to inspire a desire to live them. Benedict’s theology is never speculative, but pastoral and “kneeling.” …Benedict has pared the papacy back to what he considers its core functions, and when he does take the stage, he is determined to get to the heart of the matter.

None of this, however, means Benedict is incapable of surprise.

In his homily during the Easter vigil, for example, he described the resurrection as a kind of evolutionary “leap,” awakening echoes of the late French Jesuit theologian and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, whose thought indirectly influenced the document Gaudium et Spes at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and who saw physical evolution as part of a broader cosmic and spiritual process. At the time, then-Fr. Joseph Ratzinger was critical of what he saw as an overly optimistic thrust in Teilhard, and in French theology generally, but he never dismissed the core insight.

“If we may borrow the language of the theory of evolution,” Benedict said, “it [the Resurrection] is the greatest ‘mutation,’ absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development. … It is a qualitative leap … towards a new future life, towards a new world which, starting from Christ, already continuously permeates this world of ours, transforms it and draws it to itself.”

One well-known theologian in Rome told me this week that he always holds his breath when Benedict XVI speaks, because he may hear something that will take him off guard — generally in the sense of opening up a new perspective on a topic he thought he already understood.

This will not be a papacy of great innovation, but neither will it be about stagnation or “glorious repetition.” Instead, it is shaping up as a case study in the “return to the sources,” or ressourcement, which has always been Benedict XVI’s theological and pastoral style.”

I think there are some clues there.

Also, I have been reading Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity” over several months (it must be taken in bite sized chunks and chewed well before swallowing), and I often find “pre-echoes” of the teaching that is now emerging from the Throne of Peter.

I also sense that when it comes to dialoguing with theological ideas from the other religions, Islam is his main focus. He often seems to be wanting to present us with a God of love, a personal God, an involved God in a way that contrasts with the Islamic view of Allah. In this sense he recently referred to God “overcoming God’s own limitation in the Incarnation”. (I am trying to relocate this remark–I read it somewhere recently and now have lost it). A staggering concept: that God, as Creator, is limited by the strict delineation of the Creator from his Creation (very much how Islam views Allah), and yet that he overcomes this limitation by the self-emptying and entry into Creation in the incarnation. Nb. This is very much a “Christology from above”.  

The amazing thing is that in earlier years one could have been hauled before the Holy Office for any one of these ideas!!!

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Happy Birthday, Your Majesty!

A short note to say “Happy Birthday” to our Sovereign, the Queen of Australia, Elizabeth II. Long has she reigned over us, and long may she continue to do so. I pray that God continues to give her good health and blesses her in the years to come.

Interesting editorial in The Age, today.

“This newspaper has long advocated that Australia must become a republic. This is not disrespectful to the Queen, but an expression of how the importance and meaning of monarchy have, over her long reign, become less important to most Australians who live in a self-sufficient soicety and expect the logical realisation of those values.”

Then comes the clanger:

“But we could not have reached this point without monarchist rule, which has given us the history and heritage to venture towards independance.”

In other words, were it not for the monarchy, Australia would have been a very different and much less happy society. Which kind of makes one wonder whether a future without the monarchy will be a better place…

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On Truth in Faith and Dialogue

Okay, I agree with Edmund Chia that the argument “Christianity is the only religion with a savior who rose from the dead [;therefore] it obviously is the only true religion” is problematic. He says:

“First, how does one arrive at the conclusion that just because of a raised messiah Christianity must be the true religion? Second, is that conclusion suggesting that other religions must be false or at least less true?”

The problem, however, is a simple lack of logic. The fact of the resurrection certainly proves that Christianity is true; it does not necessarily prove that only Christianity is true or that Christianity is the only religion that has any truth.

Nevertheless, if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then any religion that denies the resurrection of Jesus must—at least on that point—not be true.

Furthermore, if Christ really rose from the dead, then that simple fact must surely have some consequence for all human beings, and not just for Christians.

I’m not quite sure if Chia is ready to acknowledge this point.

Nor do I think Reverend W. Neil Wilkinson (Uniting Church minister, Mont Albert) is ready to concede this point. He likes Waleed Aly’s piece in yesterday’s edition of The Age, but he isn’t so sure about the idea that it is

“emphatically unremarkable that a cardinal would make an exclusive claim to truth on behalf of Christianity, which by definition implies deficiencies in other theologies. Indeed, as much is claimed by proponents of most great religious traditions.” (It certainly is of Islam!)

In today’s Letters to the Editor, Rev. Neil says:

“While friendly bridge-building is important, religious leaders need to get beyond the footy supporters’ position of “my team right, your team wrong”. Though all major religious traditions are important, no tradition has a monopoly on truth. The sooner we humbly admit this and learn to value the spiritual insights and understandings of each other, the sooner serious dialogue will begin and people learn the sacredness of peace. God, by whatever name, will surely then smile upon us.”

The resurrection of Jesus, however, is not a “spiritual insight” among other spiritual insights. It has a quality which Papa Benny called (in his Easter Vigil Homily):

“the greatest ‘mutation’, absolutely the most crucial leap into a totally new dimension that there has ever been in the long history of life and its development: a leap into a completely new order which does concern us, and concerns the whole of history.”

Surely such a “new order” does call into question the spiritual insights of the old order, even in the context of “friendly bridge-building”?

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"God’s Medium is God’s Message"

Since my university days, I have been very impressed by the work of Marshall McLuhan, who gave us the dictum “The medium is the message”.

But not until today was I aware that McLuhan was also a committed Catholic, and that he himself once remarked:

“Christ came to demonstrate God’s love for man and to call all men to him through himself as Mediator, as Medium. And in so doing he became the proclamation of his Church, the message of God to man. God’s medium became God’s message.”

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Golden moments in recent interviews

Occasionally, I come across an exchange in an interview that is just priceless, and needs to be repeated. The first is from John Allen’s Word from Rome, interviewing the US Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Rooney:

JA:      Let’s talk about the United Nations. Over the years, the Holy See has expressed more confidence than the United States about the U.N. as an organ of international governance.
FR:     You don’t have to have a lot of confidence to have more confidence than we do.

The second one is from this morning’s Stephen Crittenden Show with guest Mustapha Kara-Ali (who, apart from this exchange, came across quite well):

SC:      And what about Muslims who convert to Christianity in Afghanistan and face the death penalty? Do we just not talk about that bit?

MK-A:      Again, what we have today – look, I can tell you clearly, what we have today –

SC:      Apparently we don’t talk about that bit.

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