Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good Discussion on Vox Nova

Michael Iafrate has penned an excellent post entitled Memorial Day and the Religious Syncretism of the State, making the point that there is far too much fusion between Christianity and secular nationalism in the United States. Check it out! I contributed two pieces in response: America is Not Exceptional and Nationalism and the Church. See what other have to say as well...

Some on the right are already jumping up and down. Good!

Bush Remembers Bin Laden

After years of not even mentioning his name, and even declaring that he was not concerned about him, Bush suddenly reminds the world that Bin Laden is not only still alive and kicking, but very much a threat. What to do with this incredible chutzpah? Andrew Sullivan pretty much says it all:
"Al Qaeda surely never had a more helpful man in such a powerful place. After over six years of this presidency, Bin Laden is still at large. Five and a half years after Bin Laden's religious tools murdered 3,000 innocents, this president still cannot find or capture or kill him. Five and a half years after that dreadful day, al Qaeda's reach in the Middle East is more extensive than ever, centered in Iraq, where it was barely existent before the war. Over four years after invading Iraq, the security situation there is as grave as it has ever been. Tens of thousands of innocents have been added to the three thousand murdered on 9/11 - many of them unspeakably tortured and murdered by death squads or Islamist cells empowered by Bush's jaw-dropping negligence. Over three thousand young Americans have died in order to give al Qaeda this victory and this new platform.

Here is Bush's gift to the victims of 9/11: two new al Qaeda safe havens - in Anbar and in Pakistan. He gave Zarqawi a second career, by refusing to kill him when had a clear shot in 2003, and then allowing him to run rampant across Iraq for several years. Islamists, moreover, are far closer now to getting their hands on WMDs than they were when Bush became president - the very casus belli I foolishly bought to go to war with Saddam. Given the financial boost al Qaeda has gotten from the Iraq invasion, the massive propaganda coup they have won by Bush's authorization of torture, and the triumph of Iran as a consequence of Bush's non-existent "strategy", isn't it simply a fact that Bush is the best thing to happen to al Qaeda since its founding? Is not the record now clear that, whatever their intentions, Bush and Cheney have actually advanced the day when Islamist terrorists will kill and murder more Americans?

If a Democrat had been responsible for endangering America in this fashion, the Republicans would have impeached him by now. If a Democrat had bungled a war as obviously as this president - a war, moreover, that he has described as an existential struggle for our survival - the Republicans would long ago have Carterized him..

The gravity of the mistake this country made in 2004 by re-electing al Qaeda's best bet is only now sinking in as deep as it should. I fear, however, that we have yet to experience the full and terrifying consequences of that historic mistake."

Why are the leading Democrats not making these points every single day?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Can Catholics Vote for Pro-Abortion Politicians?

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).

We seem to be skirting around this issue on the blog, so I would like to address it head on. On whether a Catholic can vote for a pro-abortion candidate (I will refrain from the "pro-choice" euphemism), a number of Catholic commentators say they cannot, and quite vociferously.

The most sophisticated reasoning on this front is laid out by the Catholic Answers voter's guide. In a nutshell, this group argues that there are five non-negotiable issues in current US political discourse: abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, embryonic stem cell research, and human cloning. Catholics are told to "find out where each candidate stands on each of these issues. Eliminate from consideration any candidate who is wrong on any of the five issues. Vote for one of the remaining candidates." How were the issues chosen? Because "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and because they are currently being debated in U.S. politics". Priests for Life come to a similar conclusion, though focusing on the issue of abortion, stating unequivocally that "support for abortion is enough for us to decide not to vote for such a person." On the EWTN website, Fr Matthew Habiger of Human Life International also concludes that "to vote for such a candidate is to willfully participate in that candidate's choices and deeds..It is a sin, and must be repented."

First things first. The Catholic Answers guide, and the opinions of the others, do not speak for the Church teaching when it comes to voting. The only organization in the United States that can speak authoritatively on this issue is the USCCB, and it has issued its own (somewhat different) voter's guide. This careful document presents a broad spectrum of Catholic teaching and calls for Catholics to be "political but not partisan... principled but not ideological... clear but also civil... engaged but not used." Wise words.

The Catholic Answers guide is tragically flawed. For a start, why only five "non-negotiables"? They most certainly do not overlap with the broad array of acts recognized as intrinsically evil, which cannot be defended by appeal to intent or circumstance. It is possible to argue that attacks on the sanctity of human life are paramount, and should come first. In this light, the first four qualify. But gay marriage? A valid teaching, sure, but should it be on par with the core gospel of life issues, ahead of all other teachings? And why is there no mention of torture? As I discussed recently, torture is an intrinsically evil act, a non-negotiable; an attack on human dignity directly following genocide, abortion, euthanasia and suicide in Gaudium Et Spes; and currently condoned in prominent US political circles. But it warrants no mention in the voter guide. Why not?

The whole recourse to "non-negotiable positions" when it comes to voting can box a person in. If one believes in such positions at the ballot box, then how many are there? And how can a voter validly choose between one candidate who supports non-negotiable A (say, abortion) versus another who supports non-negotiable B (say, torture). As noted by one of my favorite Catholic bloggers, the iconoclastic Zippy:

"If there are in fact non-negotiables - and I think there probably are, though what makes voting for a candidate and his policy non-negotiably wrong is not yet clearly established - then voting in a way which chooses one non-negotiable over a different one is inherently proportionalist. What that implies is that modern democracy is a kind of lex orandi (or behavioral training ground) for the lex credendi of proportionalism."
In other words, it is not licit to choose the lesser of two evils, by arguing that abortion is far worse than torture. Adopting a rigid set of "non-negotiables" in the polling booth tends to lead to a proportionalist trap. Taking this reasoning to its logical conclusion, then Catholics should stay home on voting day. But this goes against the bishop's advice!

Fortunately, there is a way out, and it involves making a careful distinction between voting and actively supporting a non-negotiable policy. The crux of the argument is that voting for a candidate is not the same thing as voting for the act itself, and that a candidate's support for an intrinsically evil act is an expected but unintended consequence of voting for that person. In other words, a person is not voting for more or less abortion; there is no "on-off switch" that gives you abortion if you vote A and no abortion (or even less abortion) if you vote B.

Before going any further, let's look at what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his famous letter to Cardinal McCarrick back in 2004:
"A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate's permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate's stand in favor of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons."
This is key. Formal cooperation in evil mean that a person "freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention". Clearly a voter's proximity to an intrinsically evil act is a lot less than a legislator's, and voting for such a candidate can be licit for proportionately serious reasons. More precisely, an act that may lead to foreseeable evil consequences can be permitted if the act in itself is not evil; the evil effect is not intended as a means or an end, and the good attained is proportionate to the evil arising from the act.*

Voting itself is not an evil act. And clearly, if you support the evil act when you vote, then all bets are off. But what if you are conscientiously opposed to abortion, when can you vote for a pro-abortion politician? Well, you would need to ask a number of questions. First, how much power will the politician have to affect the evil act? Second, would he or she be effective in bringing about the policy? Third, if the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? And after this, the relative gravity of the good and evil effects must be considered. Nothing here is certain, and the person must act in the realm of probability, which of course allows for prudential judgment.

And on the abortion issue, here are questions that must be addressed in the US political context:
  • Will the legislator be able to influence abortion? What if the office has no authority to address this issue (a local office, for example)? And even with national office, how much influence does an elected representative at the legislative or executive level have in affecting the legality of abortion, given that the "right" ultimately derives from the Supreme Court?
  • How much focus should there be on changing the composition of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade? How can we be certain that judges will choose this path, and how do we weigh the potentially harmful decisions they may make in other areas? And even if Roe v. Wade is overturned, will the incidence of abortion truly diminish, or will it just shift to the state level?
  • Is criminalization of abortion sufficient? Evidence from elsewhere (Latin America in particular) points to a booming abortion industry even when it is not legal.
  • How much attention should be paid to the economic factors that affect the abortion decision, given that most women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged, and (as I noted yesterday), there is a strong link between poverty and abortion. Will policies that focus on poverty, economic opportunity, and access to adequate health care and child care be more effective than coercion?
  • And what if the pro-life politician scores poorly on other policy issues, such as war and torture, especially if he or she makes barely a dent in the incidence of abortion?

Note that each of these questions entails an element of prudential judgment. Honest and serious Catholics who abhor abortion can come to different conclusions, and vote for candidates with vastly differing opinions on matter. The problem is when one side turns an issue that is non-negotiable in terms of moral licitness into a non-negotiable in terms of voting. It then risks aligning the Church with a single political party. Just look at the Catholic Answers list. As EJ Dionne noted, "The leaflet might as well have said that voting for President Bush was a non-negotiable position for Catholics". Its selectivity surely violates the USCCB's call to be "political but not partisan."

These principles are all basic to Catholic moral reasoning, and yet many today seem to have forgotten them. Back in the 1980s, moralists Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis argued that the nuclear deterrent was intrinsically evil given its intent to kill innocent civilians. But they never argued that Catholics should not be allowed to vote for candidates supporting the nuclear deterrent, for the reasons explained above. It's funny how those who take pride in their orthodoxy sometimes forget the basics.

[* For more detail, see Moral Theology for the Voting Booth and Voting and "Non-Negotiable" Issues by Christopher Decker, 2006.]

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Abortion and Economics

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).

What does abortion in the United States look like? The Guttmacher Institute explores this issue in some detail. For a start, it notes that 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged. In fact, the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. At the same time, black women are almost four times as likely as white women to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are two and a half life times as likely. Almost half of women terminating their pregnancies have had previous abortions, and 60 percent of abortions are concentrated among women who already have children.

Clearly, the importance of economic factors is stunningly obvious. Let's explore some of the larger trends. The Guttmacher Institute also presents detailed statistics on the abortion rate (abortions per 1000 women, age 15-44) and the abortion ratio (abortions per 100 pregnancies ending in abortion or live birth). Since 1980, the pattern of abortion has been trending downwards. The rate fell by almost 10 percentage points since 1980. Although the trend was more or less continuous, the steepest decline occurred during the 1990s. Matching rates of decline to presidential terms is enlightening. During Reagan's eight years, and the first Bush's term, the average abortion rate fell by 0.3 percentage points a year. But under Clinton, this rose to an annual average 0.5 percentage points. Under the second Bush (with the caveat that data only go to 2003), the rate of decline fell by 0.1 percentage points a year, practical standstill. The data for the abortion ratio are even more stark: here, the decline under Clinton is double that of the overall Republican average. So, there we have a seeming paradox: the largest decline in abortion took place under the sole Democratic presidential regime over this period. And yet the pro-life movement is strangely silent, and still hitches its wagon to the fortunes of the Republican party.

Let's go a little further with this empirical exercise and look at poverty rates. The poverty rate, whether measured by individuals or families rose under the first Bush administration (average half percentage point a year), fell dramatically under Clinton (average half percentage point a year), and rose again under the younger Bush (quarter percentage point a year). Are these trends related? Casual observation would say yes. But let's get a little more rigorous, and look at some empirical evidence. In particular, let's do a simple ordinary least squares regression of the abortion rate and the abortion ratio on a constant plus the poverty rate, 1980-2003. Here are the results:

Abortion rate = 2.06 + 1.71 * Poverty rate (R-squared= 0.37)

Abortion ratio = 9.43 + 1.32 * Poverty rate (R-squared= 0.44).

Both poverty coefficients are (highly) significant at the 1 percent level. This suggests that if we can reduce the poverty rate, there will be a more-than-proportionate reduction in abortion. Of course, these results can be challenged on the grounds that the data could be non-stationary. Running the regression in first differences should remove trends:

Change in abortion ratio = -0.25 + 0.37 * Change in poverty rate

Again, this is significant at the 1 percent level (but using the abortion rate is not). Remember, this is a very simple methodology to explore a rather basic hypothesis. But it seems clear that economic factors, insofar as they affect poverty, affect abortion patterns. Mapping these results into policy would suggest that the pro-life movement should broaden its scope to encompass economic as well as coercive strategies, since the ultimate goal is the reduction in abortions. It is also for this reason that I am highly skeptical about the need to vote Republican on pro-life grounds. But can the pro-life movement wrest itself from the grasp of the Republican party?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Al Gore and the Media

The appalling state of the US media is a pet peeve of mine. Now, Al Gore rushes on the scene like a breath of fresh air. In his new book, he decries the absence of serious debate about the Iraq war, noting that "all of the evidence and arguments necessary to have made the right decision were available at the time and in hindsight are glaringly obvious." So what went wrong? Who or what is to blame for this travesty? More Gore:
"[T]he Executive Branch of our government has not only condoned but actively promoted the treatment of captives in wartime that clearly involves torture, thus overturning a prohibition established by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. It is too easy—and too partisan—to simply place the blame on the policies of President George W. Bush. We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have an independent judiciary. We have checks and balances. We are a nation of laws. We have free speech. We have a free press. Have they all failed us?"
Gore thinks he has an answer:
"American democracy is now in danger—not from any one set of ideas, but from unprecedented changes in the environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die. I do not mean the physical environment; I mean what is called the public sphere, or the marketplace of ideas.

It is simply no longer possible to ignore the strangeness of our public discourse. I know I am not alone in feeling that something has gone fundamentally wrong. In 2001, I had hoped it was an aberration when polls showed that three-quarters of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for attacking us on Sept. 11. More than five years later, however, nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack.

At first I thought the exhaustive, nonstop coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial was just an unfortunate excess—an unwelcome departure from the normal good sense and judgment of our television news media. Now we know that it was merely an early example of a new pattern of serial obsessions that periodically take over the airwaves for weeks at a time: the Michael Jackson trial and the Robert Blake trial, the Laci Peterson tragedy and the Chandra Levy tragedy, Britney and KFed, Lindsay and Paris and Nicole."
Of course, Gore is correct. It's not just a crass and shallow media, it's the complete abrogation of responsibility that contributed to a completely uninformed public, prey for the empty sound bites of the Bush administration. Lest we forget, "more than five years later...nearly half of the American public still believes Saddam was connected to the attack." Had the media done its job properly, would there be a difference? Undoubtedly. And it certainly bears some of the blame for what happened.

As an aside, we can be fairly certain that a Gore presidency would not have wallowed in the intrinsic evil of torture. And I'm pretty sure abortion rates would not have risen either. So where does that leave us....?

The Economic Costs of Global Warming

In debating this issue with bloggers Domenico Bettinelli and American Papist, the issue of the economic costs of taking action against global warming arose. Specifically, these guys accused me of proposing policy actions that would "wreak havoc on the global economy for one thing, leaving millions in poverty" (Bettinelli) and "destroy the very things it is trying to protect... such as the care of the impoverished, and concern for developing and 3rd-world countries"(Papist). I think the time has come to address this point, and in doing do, to refer to the most important study to date on the costs of global warming, the UK-treasury mandated Stern Review.

Bottom line of this comprehensive report: by not acting, the costs of climate change will eat up 5 percent of global GDP each year, which could rise to 20 percent, taking into account a wider range of risks. In contrast, the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions would amount to 1 percent of global GDP a year. The major economic costs go far beyond the inconvenience to the American lifestyle of high gas prices, as "hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages, and coastal flooding". The most vulnerable, the poorest countries, will suffer "earliest and most", even though they are least responsible for global warming. Moreover, the next 10-20 years will prove absolutely crucial, rendering little time for complacency. Clearly, the benefits of decisive early action outweigh the costs.

Now, these results are not uncontroversial. In particular, the discounting assumptions have been heavily criticized in some quarters. It is customary in these exercises to discount the future simply because it is the future-- attaching less weight to the welfare of tomorrow than today. Stern rejects this methodology on ethical grounds. Hence his estimates of the damage caused by global warming are larger, simply because his discount rate is so much smaller.

There is much to like in this analysis from a Catholic perspective. If the true definition of "prudential judgment" is the application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances, then the Church has an urgent duty to speak on this topic. And the Holy See observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, echoed the Stern Review when he noted that global warming will impose a disproportionate burden on "the poorest and weakest who, even if they are among the least responsible for global warming, are the most vulnerable because they have limited resources or live in areas at greater risk." He called for a shift from the "heedless pursuit of economic growth" toward an approach more respectful of Creation.

The discounting assumptions underlying the Stern report are also worthy of support from a Catholic perspective, as they do not fall into the utilitarian trap of assuming our lives are worth more than the lives of those not yet born. And, yet, how much of the current global warming denial is motivated by selfishness, by a tendency to heavily discount the future? See here for a tongue-in-cheek answer!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Are Catholics Liberal or Conservative?

(Cross-posted from Vox Nova).

I have to admit, I hate these two words in current American discourse. I keep thinking of Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride when he says: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." And it's true, these terms have become catchall slogans to identify party allegiances rather than any underlying philosophy.

For Catholicism is essentially conservative, in the true sense of the word. We start from the obedience of faith, meaning the "full submission of intellect and will to the God who reveals" (Dei Verbum). We believe in the single sacred deposit of the word of God, the memory of Christ, entrusted to the Church. Our wisdom is inherited. Some things the Church knows for sure (and applies the technical term, infallible), while other things, though less certain, still require religious assent. And even when there is development of doctrine, the Church moves like a glacier, always ensuring there is appropriate continuity with the past. So, yes, this is conservative in the sense that we value the importance of tradition and stress the truth of the core teachings on faith and morals, irrespective of culture, society, circumstance.

But this is not conservatism as many (most?) on the right in America today define it. Let me list three aspects of modern "conservatism" that goes against the approach I have outlined above.

First, the radical individualism and utilitarian ethic that underpins laissez-faire capitalism is not conservative, but "liberal" in the true sense of the word. Real conservatism stresses the paramount importance of the common good, the commonweal.

Second, the nationalism that pervades much of the American right-wing movement also springs from the modern liberal tradition. It creates a pseudo-religion based on the nation, and violates the Catholic principle that all human beings are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Moreover, it takes a militaristic turn in the US that is frequently not in harmony with the memory of Christ.

Third, the function of law should be to protect the common good, not the prevention of vice and the promotion of virtue. Private morality is not an appropriate subject for the force of law, and yet many on the American right would disagree.

The Catholic approach is not ideological, in the sense that the modern "liberal" and "conservative" movements are ideological. I am rather fond of Cardinal Dulles's simple definition of prudential judgment as "the application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances." That suggests a fundamentally empirical rather than an ideological approach. It means taking the principles we believe in and applying them to practical problems. What a breath of fresh air that would be?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vox Nova!

I'm a contributor on a fascinating new blog called Nox Nova, with some quite illustrious folks from the Catholic blogosphere. Check it out! I'll be posting a lot of the same things over there as here.

More On Catholic Bloggers And Global Warming

Yesterday, I talked about the American Papist. Today, let's focus on another A-list Catholic blogger, Domenico Bettinelli, who denounces the Vatican for embracing global warming "lies". In particular, he condemns Archbishop Migliore for supporting the scientific consensus that made-made global warming is real, necessitating policy actions. Bettinelli claims this is a lie, "based on the lies in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s false reports."

Wow, pretty strong language. I assume Bettinelli has some serious evidence to back up these conspiratorial claims. In fact, his "evidence" consists of an essay by Orson Scott Card. And who is this Card? An eminent scientist, no doubt? Forget it, Card is a Mormon science fiction novelist! Now, this is hardly surprising, given that the Republicans often appeal to the overflowing wisdom of pulp-fiction author Michael Crichton on the issue of global warming. As it happens, Card simply reprises the tired old cliches-- hockey sticks, medieval warming periods-- that have been debunked over and over and over again. At the same time, it is clear that he does not understand the concept of statistical inference (of course the climate models cannot be "certain"!). But it is this anti-intellectual streak that pervades the whole debate.

Are the predictions underpinning the IPCC report wrong? Perhaps. But not in the way Bettinelli and his friends seem to think. In the latest issue of Science (and you need more than an ability to write a good page-turner to get published here!), climatologists provide evidence that climate models may be understating the rate of global warming, and that the IPCC is far too conservative. In other words, it may be even worse...

But it's not really about scientific methods. The use of pseudo-science and quackery is just a handy tool. The American right hates global warming for a bevy of reasons. Some relate to evangelical theology-- the right to dominate the earth, the idea that God wants Americans to be wealthy, the immanence of the end times, an anti-intellectual streak. Others relate to crasser materialism, and a utilitarian calculus that sharply discounts the welfare of future generations.

If these scenarios come to fruition, this could be one of the most pressing moral issues of the day. Here's what I don't understand. Even if you are skeptical of the predictions, surely even a small probability of an event with disastrous consequences should be an argument for taking action today? After all, this is what sound risk management is all about. And as the consequentialist president once said, isn't it better to err on the side of life?

Nor are the arguments made by the deniers consistent. When I brought up the issue of the very existence of a number of Pacific islands under threat, the American Papist jumped into Marie Antoinette mode and retorted: " People can move off an island, it wouldn't be the first time." How utterly callous. He also complains about my tendency to "denigrate the standard of living NOW in vague hopes that something better will result in the future." At the same time, he criticises me for placing physical ahead of spiritual welfare. Which is it?

When it comes to Catholicism, the essence of Papist's argument (and, I assume, the others) is that Catholics are "free to disagree on prudential/judgmental matters... the Pope himself is NOT claiming infallibility on these issues.." This a a bit of a red herring that I've dealt with in the past (see here and here). For a start, Papist throws around the word "infallibility" in a sloppy manner. We need to make a few very careful distinctions here. If you refute an infallibly-defined doctrine, you are placing yourself outside the Church. But very few doctrines are infallibly defined. There is also a class of non-infallible teachings in the domain of faith and morals that are nonetheless part of the ordinary magisterium and require "religious assent". And third, the Church makes statements where prudential judgments come into play, and Catholics are indeed not bound by these judgments.

But we need to delve a little deeper. Prudential judgment simply refers to the "application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances" (Cardinal Dulles's language). It is not a license to ignore, or to deride. But many nonetheless use this catchall phrase to justify dismissing any Church statements that contradict whatever secular ideology is in play. It seems especially dubious, in the area of global warming, to dispute the very nature of the "changing concrete circumstances" themselves. Undergirded by reason, the Church will of course accept scientific wisdom, as it is not her role to challenge. The area for legitimate debate surrounds the appropriate Catholic response to these circumstances. One can consider many options, but one simply cannot close ones eyes and pretend the problem does not exist. But that is not the debate they wish to have.

In conclusion, I fail to understand why certain Catholic bloggers would be driven to embrace these positions. Why is it that they feel compelled to disagree with the Vatican on every issue where there is a divergence with the American right-wing agenda? That is telling.

Daniel Pipes and Catholic Exchange?

What is Catholic Exchange? In its own words, "Catholic Exchange is a non-profit media organization that seeks to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the Catholic Church to the world through the modern tools of mass communication". Sounds good to me. And yet one of its listed columnists is a man called Daniel Pipes.

Who is Daniel Pipes? Broadly speaking, he can be defined as "an American historian and counter-terrorism analyst who specializes in the Middle East." In reality, Pipes is a rapid supporter of Israel, with a penchant for demonizing Arabs and Muslims. He has an apocalyptic vision in which radical Islam is engaged in a winner-takes-all war against the western world. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? He defended internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war. And of course, he sees the parallels today, arguing that "There is no escaping the unfortunate fact that Muslim employees in law enforcement, the military, and the diplomatic corps need to be watched for connections to terrorism, as do Muslim chaplains in prisons and the armed forces...Muslim visitors and immigrants must undergo additional background checks."

He is at his most extreme when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and declared unequivocally that "There can be either an Israel or a Palestine, but not both.. to those who ask why the Palestinians must be deprived of a state, the answer is simple: grant them one and you set in motion a chain of events that will lead either to its extinction or the extinction of Israel." He even founded Campus Watch, designed to root out "anti-American and anti-Israel" biases. Of course, he will loosely throw around the "anti-semite" slur against anybody who disagrees with the policies of Israel.

Now, Pipes is entitled to his views, but what in the name of God is he doing writing for Catholic Exchange? How does his venom contribute to bringing the "Good News of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the Catholic Church to the world"? As I noted yesterday, the support for Israel from the likes of Falwell and Dobson arises from their bizarre dispensationalist theology, not from anything in Catholic teaching. In recent times, the Vatican has never recognized the existence of the state de jure, only de facto. In other words, Israel is a secular state with the rights and responsibilities of every other secular state, with no God-given "land grant", and certainly not one that can be taken by force. In fact, the Catholic church is admirably even-handed in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. I ask again: what is Pipes doing on Catholic Exchange?

Salvation and Lost

I'm a huge fan of the show, Lost. Its intricate plots, puzzling mysteries, and thoughtful character development make it the most intriguing show on TV. Of course, like everybody else, I have no idea where the writers will eventually take us...

Recently, I noted that the writers have been exploring the theme of sacrifice in the last few episodes:

First, we learn that Desmond used to be a monk, and was uneasy of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac on God's orders. In that episode, Desmond struggles with the issue of "sacrificing" Charlie-- his visions of the future caused him to see Charlie dying, and a rescue attempt. Desmond feared that he needed to let Charlie die to allow this scenario to evolve. In the end, he doesn't do it. He is unwilling to sacrifice an innocent for some unknown "destiny".

Second, Ben asks Locke to kill his father in some kind of ritual sacrifice as an initiation rite. In this, the Others seem almost demonic. Despite the fact that his father tried to kill him, and left him in a wheelchair, Locke cannot do it. Instead, he cons Sawyer into killing him. As we would say, this is formal cooperation in evil, and doesn't let Locke off the hook...

Third, Sun is pregnant and in a no-win scenario. If the child was conceived on the island, she will probably die, but she will know the father is Jin, her husband. If the child was conceived before they arrived on the island, the father was the guy she was having an affair with. Sun wants the first scenario to be true, for her husband's benefit, even though she would lose her own life. She is happy when this is confirmed.

Fourth, Desmond again presents Charlie with a dilemma. He sees him dying again, in the context of disarming some system that jammed signals from the island. If Charlie does it, he dies, but everybody can be rescued. But this time, Desmond tells Charlie. In a very moving episode, Charlie accepts this responsibility.

Very interesting discourse on the different forms of sacrifice!

Hitchens, Falwell, Hannity, and Reed

I'm not a fan of Christopher Hitchens, from his attack on Mother Teresa to his support for Bush's war to his snarky close-minded approach to religion. But they guy is certainly eloquent, and facing him in an argument must be a daunting task. Michael Crowley from TNR's The Plank discusses a clip of Hitchens debating Falwell's legacy last night with Sean Hannity. Watch it. For a start, Hannity is no match for him. After laying into Falwell's dubious theology, Hannity turns to Ralph Reed for the other side of the argument. Hitchens, in classic form, starts interrupting and referring to Reed as part of the "Abramoff faction", repeating that name over and over. A brilliant tactic, given Reed's close association with Abramoff and the fact that Abramoff had, among other things, lobbied for the sweatshops owners on the Northern Mariana islands, who were implicated in forced abortions and forcing women into prostitution. Hypocrisy is not the word!

But, watching the clip of Reed, something else struck me. Despite Hitchens's constant hectoring, Reed tried to list the core values that Falwell stood for. If you were asked to list the five key principles that guided Falwell in 10 second, what would they be? This is illuminating. First, the protection of innocent human life. Second, the sanctity of marriage. Third, support for Israel. Fourth, anti-communism. Fifth, opposition to "radical Jihadism". Now, are these values from the gospel or from American foreign policy? No, this is a Christianity pollluted by a very bad theology, and welded to American nationalism.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

James Dobson and the Middle East

Andrew Sullivan links to a discussion between James Dobson and fellow traveler Joel Rosenberg about a book the latter has written about Armageddon and the current middle eastern situation. Here is a favor of the discussion:
"Dobson: Joel, we've just read quotations telling us that a nuclear attack on the United States in the long run is inevitable. ... We know that appeasement never works. How can you negotiate with people whose stated intention is to kill you?

Rosenberg: you can't. ... our command is to "be strong and courageous." That's what God said to Joshua four times in the first chapter of Joshua. We who have the Holy Spirit in us should not cower in the face of this, because the Muslims are lost, and because they are lost they are being driven I believe by THE ENEMY in a way that will confront us but we know that Jesus Christ is powerful and we know he is moving in the Middle East.

Dobson: We know the Lord is in control. We know that he has never lost a battle. And we know he loves us, and he loves the nation of Israel and has made that clear for thousands of years. So what should we do?

Rosenberg: I think the bottom line is found in Matt 28, verses 18-20, where Jesus says "All authority under heaven and earth has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples of all nations." Jesus is calling us to go reach the nations of the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere....God says he is going to supernaturally intervene, we're talking about fire from heaven, a massive earthquake, diseases spreading through the enemy forces. It is going to be such a clear judgement against the enemies of Israel that Ezekiel 39 says that will take seven months to bury all the bodies of the slain enemies of Israel. And the birds of the air and the beasts of the field are going to eat many of these slain soldiers. "
This is lunacy, but should we be surprised? I've always argued that the zealous support for Israel in the US owes more to fundamentalist protestant theology and less to the "Jewish lobby". There are various hues to this theory. In its most extreme form, dispensationalists believe Israeli strength against its neighbors will help bring about the second coming of Christ. Of course, ironically, the Jews are damned in the end. A less extreme reading holds that the Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel.

Catholics believe differently. While the Jewish people are our forefathers in faith, they have no divine land lease. Neither does anybody else. In fact, Jesus made it quite clear he was not interested in a political campaign to get rid of the Romans. He emphatically rejected reclaiming the Promised Land by conquest. The false messiahs who were his competition embraced the idea. Their efforts led to the destruction of the Temple and Masada, as well as the abolition by the Roman Empire of the province of Judea. In recent times, the Vatican has never recognized the existence of the state de jure, only de facto.

The views of Dobson and his friends are not just examples of bad theology to laugh about (like Scientology!). No, they have chilling implications. They are behind the obstinate refusal of the US to play fair in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. And ominously, Dobson is now talking to Bush about Iran, and making comments about how we cannot appease Hitler/Ahmedinejad. Again, their messianic Calvinism allows them to divide the world into two groups, the good and the bad, assured that the bad will eventually perish. Going to war is nothing to be feared, as God will look after his own. As Catholics, we need to stand up to this insanity. It's the theology, stupid.

But where are the Catholics? Our old friend Bill Donohue is busy attacking Catholic Democrats and praising Jerry Falwell's "moral courage so often lacking in religious leaders of all faiths." What else is new?

Now Catholic Bloggers Join the Anti-Global Warming Brigade

Earlier, I compared the views of the Vatican and Jerry Falwell on global warming. The former was sober, accepting the validity of the scientific consensus, and discussing the moral and ethical implications. The latter was more concerned with the rapture and American capitalism. I also recently discussed a plethora of reasons as to why the American right disdains global warming with so much vehemence. Although the post was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, it did raise some core issues, in that many evangelicals have totally bought into laissez-faire individualism, which--combined with a voluntarist de-emphasizing of the relationship between faith and reason and an overwhelming belief that they are the elect and may even be living in the end times-- leads them to downplay and ridicule the burgeoning scientific consensus that man-made global warming is very real.

And yet, I see an prominent Catholic blog, American Papist, has cast his lot in with the worst of the deniers. And by worst of the deniers, I mean Senator James Inhofe, the man who uses novelist Michael Crichton as his "expert witness" and who calls environmentalists Nazis. He claimed global warming was one of the greatest hoaxes of all time, and that even the weather channel is involved in the conspiracy. Huh? Suffice it to say, most of what Inhofe says about global warming is utter rubbish. To see a thorough refutation of all his phony arguments, see here. And yet American Papist links with seeming approval to this clown's latest release, which claims that more and more scientists are switching from believers to skeptics (actually, it's the opposite, as latest evidence suggests that risk analysis underpinning in the climate models is now skewed sharply upwards, meaning that it may actually be worse than the baseline).

Let me not conclude without raising some other facts about Inhofe. He one of only nine senators to vote against the McCain amendment banning torture. He uses a fundamentalist reading of the Old Testament to justify a hyper-support for Israel. And he thinks the 9/11 attacks were part of divine retribution for not doing enough to help Israel. When you piece it together, his global warming denial fits with his peculiar (and misguided) theology. But why would a serious Catholic blogger want to jump on this bandwagon? Does Neuhaus's alliance with the evangelicals really stretch so far? As Topol said in Fiddler on the Roof: "If I bend that far, I will break".

The Race to Replace an Adolescent President

Many see Bush as an adolescent president. The put-down nicknames. Addressing a prime minister as "Yo, Blair". Yelling "air assault" on his bicycle. The Beavis and Butthead laugh. The cockiness. The dumb jokes. The disdain for learning. The insecurity. The petulance and stubbornness. The intellectual laziness. The tendency to surround himself with fawning sycophants. Yes, all the hallmarks of a spoiled adolescent. But there is one adolescent trait that stands out above all others: the swaggering machismo, the willingness to punch first and think later, the fear of being seen as weak. The wanna-be tough guy.

That's Bush. And even though the contenders for the Republican nomination are running as fast as they can from a hugely unpopular president, there is one aspect of Bush's personality that they all want to make their own. Yes, the adolescent aggression. Just look at the pathetic display of psuedo-cajones at last night's Republican debate in South Carolina. As Digby notes, they "sound like a bunch of psychotic 12 year olds" for whom it's "all about the codpiece".

Dispiritingly, many of the candidates were only too willing to embrace the intrinsic evil of torture, except for John McCain, who has actually been tortured, and the contrarian Ron Paul. Specifically, both Giuliani and Tancredo backed waterboarding, a technique perfected by the Khmer Rouge. Pumped-up Rudy wants them to use "every method they can think of". Keeping up with the both the adolescent theme and the Republican penchant for blurring reality and fantasy, Tancredo says he wants Jack Bauer (to huge applause, of course). Romney just looked sinister when he all-too-enthusiastically invoked the Orwellian phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques" with a manic glint in his eye. He also wants to double the size of Guantanamo (again, to applause). Even Brownback, a nominal Catholic, expressed his support for torture. Clearly, somebody needs to tell Brownback that supporting torture is not really that different from supporting abortion, in that both positions are underpinned by consequentialism. And if Romney loves torturing people so much, how genuine do you think his conversion to the pro-life cause actually was?

Think about this. Only 20 percent of the Republican candidates think there is something very wrong with torturing people. In fact, as John Dickerson noted, " some candidates appeared ready to do the torturing themselves". And this is supposed to be the "moral values" party? God help us.

But there was one ray of hope on the podium last night: Ron Paul. Although I certainly don't support his libertarianism, he was the only candidate who spoke common sense. The only candidate who looked like an adult rather than a strutting teenage boy. And while the other candidates thumped their chests and parroted brainless slogans such as how they "hate us for our freedom" (the award for supreme stupidity goes to Tancredo for claiming that it's a dictate of the Muslim religion to kill Americans) , Ron Paul actually told the truth. He talked about the blowback that comes from Americans intervening in the middle east. What's more, he even raised the role of America in deposing the legitimate Iranian government in 1953 in support of shah Pahlavi, who brutal dictatorship brought about the 1979 revolution. We know what happened thereafter. He related to history, culture, context. Wow. How rare and and yet how refreshing.

Just look at the Iraq debacle. Anybody with even superficial knowledge of the colonialist carve-up of the Ottoman empire and the underlying ethnic divisions would have realized that the sailing would not be smooth. Add to this toxic mix the perception that the US government is overly-biased toward Israel and in the thrall of the energy industry, and... well, the results won't be pleasant. And of course, the infantile machismo that not only refuses to face reality but actively supports even harsher methods, including torture, only makes things worse. As Andrew Sullivan noted, "The more Arabs and Muslims feel alienated and attacked by the U.S.. the more support terror will get, and the more power al Qaeda gains". Somewhere, in some cave, Osama Bin Laden is laughing. Don't these juvenile clowns realize how much damage they are doing?

And yet, only a single candidate in ten is intellectually capable and brave enough to think through the issues. This ability of course, is not prized in adolescent culture. Already, there are ominous signs that Paul is on the verge of being shunned and boycotted by the conservative movement. How utterly depressing.

Was Falwell Motivated by Abortion?

It is becoming part of conventional wisdom that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision led to Jerry Falwell becoming politically active. As the New York Times wrote in its obituary this morning:
"... Mr. Falwell said the 1973 Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, produced an enormous change in him. Soon he began preaching against the ruling and calling for Christians to become involved in political action".
Except that it is not true. At that time, as noted by Michelle Goldberg, opposition to abortion was seen as was "seen as the province of Catholics, a group then widely despised by fundamentalist Protestants." Falwell's denomination officially supported abortion throughout the 1970s. This is not a matter of left-wing revisionism. Take it from Richard John Neuhaus, who knows something about the subject:
"Among the religious institutions of national influence, the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade. Although it is largely forgotten today, evangelical Protestantism was in support of Roe v. Wade. Years after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant association in the country, was passing resolutions in favor of a woman’s “right to choose.” ...Evangelicals viewed the protection of the unborn as a “Catholic issue,” and anti-Catholicism in evangelicalism was much stronger than it is today."
So what provoked Falwell's conversion? Race. Goldberg nails it:
"No, what really galvanized the religious right were Supreme Court rulings stripping whites-only Christian academies, like the one Falwell founded in 1966, of their tax-exempt status. Fervent opposition to abortion, which eventually cemented the alliance between conservative Protestant and Catholics, came later."
We need to recall how Falwell and his acolytes viewed the issue of race back then. Falwell was a big-time segregationist, and spoke in favor of racist positions (such as opposing Brown v. Board of Education) and was highly critical of Martin Luther King. Although he recanted on segregation later in life, he opposed sanctions on South Africa throughout he 1980s and called Bishop Tutu a phony. And of course, the whole "southern strategy" of Richard Nixon was underpinned by a subtle, if unspoken, racism.

So, as I've noted before, the logical conclusion is that Falwell and his fellow evangelicals embraced the pro-life cause because it became politically expedient for them to do. It was the Trojan horse for them to push forward with a social agenda that did not have the moral clarity of abortion. Racism became uncool, but by wrapping themselves in the pro-life mantle, a new cohort of southern politicians could actually claim the moral high ground, while barely changing their core beliefs. But there was far more...

Remember also what the original Moral Majority movement was all about: "pro-life, pro-traditional family, pro-moral and pro-American." Falwell successfully welded together a the pro-life position with a larger secular ideology, one based on free-market individualism and a vigorous pro-American nationalism. There is a direct line from this philosophy to religious conservatives embracing war and torture today, because it is the "pro-American" thing to do. It also explains why this movement is largely silent on issues of poverty, inequality, healthcare, and the environment.

In a nutshell, embracing the abortion movement had the benefit of deflecting attention from the obvious conflicts between a Christian organization and the many injustices ignored by the prevailing individualist and nationalist ideology. The evangelical right (who would become the backbone of the Republican party) used the abortion issue as a veil to garner Catholic support, and to hide their real agenda. In other words, they would play the seductive pro-life tune to seduce Catholics into becoming Calvinists. In that, Falwell was spectacularly successful. The big losers? Catholics.

American Health Care System is Atrocious

Kevin Drum links to a cross-country study of health outcomes undertaken by the Commonwealth Fund. Basically, in a detailed study of six countries-- Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, the UK, and the US-- America ranks last along an array of indicators, including: quality care, access, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives. And while the US spends far more on healthcare than elsewhere, it is the only country in the sample not to guarantee universal health insurance, which explains the poor outcomes along the access and equity dimensions. But the US falls down in other areas too.

Let's start with quality. The US scores poorly when it comes to chronic care management and safe, coordinated, and patient-centered care. As Kevin Drum notes, "when it comes to various sorts of preventable medical errors, we're absolutely terrible." It lags in the adaption of information technology.

In terms of access, the US is at the bottom of the heap, even though those with insurance can easily access specialists. The problem is not that access is denied by long waiting lists, but (more insidiously), by costs.

How about efficiency? Still at the bottom. Given the huge outlays and poor outcomes, the US receives an appalling return on its healthcare investment. Of course, much is eaten up in insurance company administrative costs, costs that single payer systems (think Medicare) can avoid. And in the US, patients tend to end up in the emergency room for cases that should be dealt with by a primary care physician.

Equity. Here I will quote directly from the executive summary: "Americans with below-average incomes were much more likely than their counterparts in other countries to report not visiting a physician when sick, not getting a recommended test, treatment or follow-up care, not filling a prescription, or not seeing a dentist when needed because of costs." A staggering 40 percent of lower-income Americans reported avoiding seeing a doctor when sick during the past year for cost reasons.

And finally, healthy lives. Death rates in the US from "conditions amenable to medical care" are 25-50 percent higher than elsewhere in the study. Appalling.

You know, John Edwards is one of the few national politicians talking about the need for universal health insurance. And yet the Republicans can only babble on about his haircuts. Talk about Nero...

Cardinal Rodriguez on Communion and Excommunication

Rocco Palmo links to an excellent interview with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, archbishop of Tegucigalapa in Honduras, and possible future pope. He was asked about the recent furore over Benedict's reiteration of basic canon law concerning the eucharist, that was so misunderstood by the press. But Cardinal Rodriguez makes a brilliant distinction between the application of canon law, and the more crass political attempts by some on the American right to deny communion to certain politicians (see here for my take). Here's his distinction:

"Q. Do you agree with the Pope's statement that pro-choice Catholic politicians merit excommunication?
A. It is canon law that everyone who works for abortion is excommunicated. It's not something the Pope invented. If you favor abortion, you are outside the communion of the Church. And it was necessary to say that. There are people in Mexico saying I am Catholic and I support abortion rights. This is a contradiction in its very essence. As a teacher of the Church, the Pope has a responsibility of teaching when something happening is wrong.

Q. Do you agree with bishops who deny giving Holy Communion to the these politicians?
A. This is a different point. For who am I to deny Holy Communion to a person? I cannot. It's in the tradition of moral theology that even if I know a person is living in grave sin, I cannot take a public action against him. It would be giving scandal to the person. Yes, he should not seek [communion], but I cannot deny it from him...."

Excellent answer!

Global Warming: Vatican Vs. Falwell

Via Rocco Palmo, the Holy See observer to the United Nations, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, said the following:
"The scientific evidence for global warming and for humanity’s role in the increase of greenhouse gasses becomes ever more unimpeachable...The consequences of climate change are being felt not only in the environment, but in the entire socio-economic system and, as seen in the findings of numerous reports already available, they will impact first and foremost the poorest and weakest who, even if they are among the least responsible for global warming, are the most vulnerable because they have limited resources or live in areas at greater risk.... In order to address the double challenge of climate change and the need for ever greater energy resources, we will have to change our present model from one of the heedless pursuit of economic growth in the name of development, towards a model which heeds the consequences of its actions and is more respectful towards the Creation we hold in common, coupled with an integral human development for present and future generations."
And then there was Falwell:
"I can tell you, our grandchildren will laugh at those who predicted global warming. We'll be in global cooling by then, if the Lord hasn't returned. I don't believe a moment of it. The whole thing is created to destroy America's free enterprise system and our economic stability."
What a charlatan (see here for why the right hates global warming). Anyway, I'm so glad the "one true religion... subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church"!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Follow-Up on Fertility Rates

A commenter on France Vs. United States post argued that the high fertility rates in France reflect the propensity of Muslims to have more children, and that the fertility rate of non-Muslim women is shockingly low. This is one of those great urban myths of the right, peddled by scare-mongers like Mark Steyn (who simply does not understand statistics, by the way). The truth is a lot more complex. In the words of Jean-Michel Charpin, Director of the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) "the fertility rate among France's immigrant population was slightly higher than among the population at large, but said the difference was minimal".

The logic of Steyn goes like this:

"Which country has the healthiest fertility rate? France. Which country has the most Muslims? France. Which country has the second healthiest fertility rate on the western end of the Continent? Denmark.Which country has the second largest proportion of Muslims? Denmark. Get the picture?"

Actually, Steyn does not "get the picture" at all. Reviewing Steyn's book predicting the demographic inevitability of an Islamic takeover of Europe, Johann Hari notes that "he offers no statistics on the European Muslim birthrate". Hmm, no statistics to back up the central contention of his book? Sounds a little like truthiness to me! How delightfully Bushite in approach!

Let's again appeal to OECD statistics (the most recent statistics in OECD's Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators - 2006 Edition). Here are some fertility statistics:
  • United States 2.01
  • Ireland 1.97
  • Iceland1.93
  • New Zealand 1.90
  • France 1.89
  • Australia 1.75
  • Norway 1.75
  • Netherlands 1.73
  • Denmark 1.72
  • Finland 1.72
  • Sweden 1.65
  • United Kingdom 1.64
  • Luxembourg 1.63
  • Belgium 1.62
  • Canada 1.52
  • Portugal 1.47
  • Austria 1.40
  • Switzerland 1.40
  • Japan 1.32
  • Germany 1.31
  • Italy 1.26
  • Greece 1.25
  • Spain 1.25
  • Korea 1.17

Now, wedged in between the United States and France lie Ireland, Iceland, and New Zealand. I don't see Muslim immigration as driving fertility in these countries! Look at the next best countries on the list-- the Nordics like Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Why is fertility so high in this part of the world? Well, it actually has a lot to do with the much-maligned welfare state, at least in its Nordic incarnation. A few years back, Joƫlle Sleebos, at the OECD looked into the statistical determinants of fertility. The first thing she noticed was that there was a gap between actual and desired fertility, as families wanted the "two child norm". This divergence, despite the mocking tones of Steyn and others, reflects economic considerations. Accordingly, policies that make childrearing less costly tend to raise fertility. Such policies include subsidized childcare, generous maternity and paternity leave, and family-friendly finetuning of the tax-benefit system. Not surprisingly, the Nordics have come the furthest on these grounds, while the Mediterranean countries lag.

Note that Steyn looks at his non-facts and concludes the opposite:

"The state has gradually annexed all the responsibilities of adulthood - healthcare, childcare, care of the elderly - the point that it's effectively severed its citizens from humanity's primal instincts, not least the survival instinct."

This is totally backwards, and a good example of ideology trumping fact.

Guns and the Culture of Death in Virginia

Mayor Bloomberg of New York is trying to crack down on gun deaths in his city. Finding that many of the firearms on the city streets are coming from Virginia, at one point accounting for almost half of guns recovered by the police, Bloomberg decided to send in undercover agents to gun stores in Virginia to conduct sting operations. The idea is to see if gun shops will sell guns illegally, involving "straw purchases, in which one person legally fills out a form and buys a gun for someone else." As a result of these operations, New York filed lawsuits against six gun shops in Virginia that sold guns illegally to undercover agents.

How did Virginia respond? By having a group known as the Virginia Citizens Defense League raffle off guns to aid the guns shops under investigation. Yes, that's right, they gave out free guns. Even Governor Kaine, who has sharply criticized Bloomberg's tactics noted that when he "read about a group doing this, it just makes me wonder what makes them tick." Of course, the top Republican elected officials defended the gun giveaway, partly on the grounds of giving the finger to Mike Bloomberg. So shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre, this is pretty insensitive, to say the least. Nobody seems to care about the proximity of the actions and policies of Virginia to gun deaths in New York city. Is this cooperation in evil, I wonder? How remote?

Something is rotten in the state of Virginia.

Catholic Judges Vote the Wrong Way, Again

I noted recently that the Catholic Supreme Court justices had voted against Catholic teaching on the death penalty in three separate cases. Well, oops, they did it again. This time, the case revolved around whether or not a prisoner who would not let his defense attorney present mitigating evidence during his original trial could change his mind and get a new hearing. No way, said the illustrious Catholic justices Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, Roberts, and Alito. It was the non-Catholics (Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) who voted to uphold the prisoner's rights. As Stevens noted in his dissent, the man had a "serious organic brain disorder". And his lawyer did not uncover this fact during the trial.

Now, there are those who will undoubtedly defend the actions on the majority on legal technical grounds. There are those who will argue that there is no authoritative Church teaching directing how to vote on these kinds of procedural grounds. But this is surely misguided. While the Church does not claim that the death penalty is always and everywhere wrong (like abortion), it does carve out conditions under the death penalty may and may not be immoral, namely, that there must be no other way to defend society (see here, here, here, here, and here for more). No death penalty in the United States meets this strict condition, and hence Catholics are obliged to oppose capital punishment in this country. In the present case, it would seem that "erring on the side of life" calls for granting a new trial.

And anyway, as Patti Waldmeir in the Financial Times wrote, this is part of a more general trend:

"The recent addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the Bush appointees, might have substantially shifted the balance of power on the court on death penalty issues, experts said. Before their appointment, the court had done much to chip away at the edifice of the death penalty by insisting on improvements in legal representation for capital defendants and ruling unconstitutional the application of capital punishment to juveniles and the mentally retarded."
Thanks to the Catholics, we now have a much more pro-death penalty Supreme Court. Can we please, please, please have some moral consistency?

Monday, May 14, 2007

France Vs. United States: An Argument From Economics

Mirror of Justice has been hosting an interesting debate about the efficacy of the French economy and social system. On the one hand Greg Sisk argues that Catholic social teaching should not support economic systems that lead to a dominant centralized state and widespread mandates on the private sector. To make his case, he provides a litany of problems with the French system, including a stagnant economy, high unemployment, an ingrained entitlement mentality, and "a failure to contribute much of anything in the way of creative increases in wealth to the world economy". On the basis of such a record, he concludes that:
"[I]t vitally important to regularly remind all of us that faithful recognition
of our responsibility for the common good, a sincere and sacrificial endorsement
of the preferential option for the poor, and a firm commitment to the central
role of the family in society should not shade into uncritical support for the
secular welfare state nor be confused with a political platform for new
government programs, economic controls, and regulations or unfunded mandates to
be imposed on employers"
On the other side, Thomas Berg argues that the picture painted by Sisk is little more than a crude caricature. He notes that France has "lower abortion rates, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality rates, and lower homicide rates" and argues that the welfare state has something to do with this, especially since it subsidizes childcare. Health outcomes are also better. Berg then notes that French productivity is similar to the US, and that the French are merely choosing to work less to enjoy more leisure and family time.

To assess these issues, let's use a tool that is somewhat out of fashion in these days of truthiness and relativism: facts and figures. First, Sisk claims that growth in the US is three times that of France. But to arrive at this figure, one must cherry-pick the data carefully (I suspect he looked at a single year-- I could also do the same, and find years were French growth was higher--2000, for example). In fact, since 2000, the average growth rate in the US was 2.7 percent, as opposed to 1.9 percent in France. Higher, but not astronomically so.

To go further, let me introduce a simple arithmetic exercise, highly useful when examining these kinds of empirical issues. The cleanest measure of living standards is GDP per capita, or real GDP (Y) divided by population (POP). Let H be the total number of hours worked, and L be the number of employees. We can therefore state the following:

(Y/POP) = (Y/H) * (H/L) * (L/POP)

What this does is break income per capita into three distinct terms. First, Y/H is real output divided by hours worked, or productivity per hour. H/L is hours worked per employee, or average hours. And L/POP is the ratio of employment to population. When one of these ratios changes, living standards move. This is a simple but powerful tool.

Now let's look at the numbers (the source for everything is OECD). I will restrict my analysis to the last decade, and compare France and the US. First, living standards are lower in France; in fact, GDP per capita in France is just over three-quarters that of the US. But what causes this? How about productivity, that core driver of growth? No, productivity per hour in France is pretty much on par with the US. Berg is right. The difference is explained by the other two factors. Hours per worker are, on average over the past decade, about 8 percent lower in France, and this has been made a little worse after the introduction of the 35-hour work week. But again, this is largely a social choice in France. The French are willing to accept lower living standards in return for more leisure and family time. Not all happiness is monetary!

So far so good. But there is a dark cloud on the horizon. The third category, the ratio of employment to population, is substantially lower in France, standing at about 84 percent of the US rate. [A quick aside: France might be catching up, as its private sector employment grew far more rapidly that in the US over the past decade]. Delving deeper, France's low employment rate is particularly pronounced among the young and the old. And this is where there is some merit to Sisk's arguments. It is indeed possible that generous welfare benefits, including inducements to early retirement, induce some to exit the labor force. At the same time, France's rigid employment protection legislation creates a dual labor force comprised of secure insiders and agitated outsiders. This is the cause of much of youth unemployment, and, more ominously, it lies behind the frustration of the North African immigrants who cannot pry open the labor force.

But this does not mean the welfare state should be dismantled. If you look at some of the greatest success stories in generating employment over the past two decades in Europe, you will find small-government countries like Ireland and the UK, but also big-government countries like Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands. What binds these countries together is not the size of the welfare state, but the underlying incentives. Here's a hint: all of these countries have low employment protection laws, and few regulations on the product market. Take the Danish system. If you are unemployed, your replacement rate is nearly 100 percent, as you gain from welfare pretty much what you earned at work. But this is not a free gift! The unemployed are forced to take part in labor market programs, and the welfare runs out after four years. Also, it is pretty easy to be fired in Denmark, as the cost of being unemployed is much lower. Somehow, this system works, leading to a dynamic economy combined with generous social protections.

One other thing to note, from the point of view of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, is that both poverty and inequality are extremely low in countries like Denmark and Sweden, but quite elevated in the US and the UK. The poverty rate in the US is around 17 percent, as opposed to 7 percent in France, and 4 percent in Denmark. Gini coefficients (measuring income inequality) tell a similar story. Something to bear in mind.

Let's conclude with some data on social outcomes. For education and health, the US spends a lot, and gets a poor return on its money. On primary education, the US spends $8,305 per student, while France spends $4,939. On secondary education, the US spends $9,590; France spends $8,653. In terms of outcomes, the upper secondary graduation rate in the US is only 75 percent, while it is 81 percent in France. And math scores (based on the 2003 PISA test) are extremely low in the US: 483 versus 511 in France and an OECD avearge of 507.

The story is similar when it comes to healthcare. France spends $2,401 per capita on health, while the US spends $4,497 (almost double!). In return, life expectancy is 68.1 in the US, 71.5 in France. Infant mortality: 4 per 1000 in France, and 7 per 1000 in the US. And maternal mortality: 8.8 in France, and 10.5 in the US. I guess socialized medicine has some benefits after all! [One more aside: the inefficiency of the US system stems from the fact that the insurance companies cream off a huge skim as middlemen, but that's a story for another day.]

Friday, May 11, 2007

Unsatisfactory Mormon Documentary

I watched the first part of the PBS documentary on the Mormons last night and found it somewhat lacking. Sure, the attempt to provide balance was laudable, but certain aspects of Mormon theology were simply not mentioned, and may even have been covered up. While it did note that Mormons view God and Jesus as bodily creatures, we got no further indications of Mormon cosmology, its strongly Gnostic undertones, and its great difference with Christianity.

It is crucial to note that Mormons believe that human spirits existed with God before the creation of the world, and that man and God are co-eternal. All spirits, including Jesus and Satan, are seen as spirit children of heavenly parents. God's plan involved sending these spirits to earth in bodily form behind a veil of forgetfulness to obscure humanity's divine origin. Humans had free will, and those who obeyed God's commandments could return. Jesus, identified as the God Jehovah in the Old Testament, volunteers to go to earth to help humanity on its return journey to God, by overcoming sin and death. Lucifer objected to this plan, arguing that free will should be taken away, so that salvation could be assured. The rejection of his argument led to a war in heaven and Lucifer's expulsion.

Upon death, humans enter the spirit world, awaiting final judgement, after which they are sent to one of three heavens or kingdoms. Ultimately, humans can achieve their destiny of becoming Gods, just as God was once mortal. As the well-known Mormon dictum goes: "as man is, God once was; God is, man may become". And God is viewed as living on or near a planet called Kolob, and pious Mormons (those in the highest heaven, or celestal kingdom) can follow similar paths, becoming Gods, ruling their own planets, and bearing spirit children.

These tenets adhere closely to classical Gnosticism. Gnosticism believes that within every human being is a "spark of the divine" that is itching to escape the confines of the world (sometimes seen as evil, the creation of a lesser God) to be re-united with a greater God, from whence it came. As with Mormonism, what underpins Gnosticism is the idea that the difference between "God" and creation is one of degree, not of kind, and the view that humanity is returning to some kind of equality with "God". And yet, PBS opted not to explore this fascinating but somewhat bizarre cosmology.

One further quibble, relating to the discussion of the infamous Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon settlers brutally murdered a group of migrants from Arkansas-- up to 140 men, women, and children. The documentary went to great length to provide extenuating circumstances, detailing the oppression against Mormons and the pervading sense of persecution. One commenter argued that Brigham Young simply went too far. The next time PBS or anybody else does a documentary about the Catholic church and mentions the inquisition, the crusades, or Galileo, I expect a similarly sympathetic portrayal of extenuating circumstances. I won't hold my breath.

Ten Reasons Why The American Right Dismisses Global Warming

Friday seems to be the day for lists. So, here we go, in no particular order:

(1) If Al Gore is for it, we must be against it. That's politics after all (Don't tell them that Nicolae Ceausescu banned abortion, by the way...)

(2) Environmentalism is a hippy-dippy new age religion that must be opposed. So, if some tree-huggers believe in global warming.... see point (1). Actually, the Church teaches that "Care for the environment represents a challenge for all of humanity" and Pope Benedict recently condemned the "destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources".

(3) A willingness to ignore scientific consensus. In other words, faith and and reason are in opposition, "truth can contradict truth". But we believe that God is reason and infinite intelligence, and that faith and reason are intimately entwined. We simply cannot appeal to faith to dismiss basic scientific tenets that we do not like. That would be voluntarist. Or it could simply reflect the Bushite post-modernism that denies objective truth and endeavors to create its own reality, re-modeling facts in its own image.

(4) A love of consumerism, materialism, individualism. This truth we hold to be self-evident...

(5) American exceptionalism, or the belief that America is somehow exempt from the responsibilities of other nations. This often relates to the Calvinist notion that America is uniquely favored by God, comprising the "elect", those chosen by God to be saved through no action of their own. That pesky UN certainly has no right dictating to America!

(6) A theological position that supports using the earth as mankind sees fit. At its most crude, this approach has been defended by Ann Coulter: "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours." In one sense, this follows naturally from (5). Needless to say, this position is diametrically opposed by the Church.

(7) If the rapture is coming soon, why worry about global warming? Only the damned (read Europeans and other assorted non-Americans) will be left, and the heat they will face won't be from the climate!.

(8) Anti-intellectualism. After all, global warming is made up by all those pointy-heads, when we can see quite clearly that this winter has had some really cold days. (The Matt Drudge contribution to the debate). This populism plays very well in the United States, especially in the Republican sphere.

(9) The American culture of suburbia that developed in the wake of the second world war. It's almost built into the genes that people travel everywhere by car, and that big SUVs are needed to cart kids around. A more sophisticated version of this argument holds that Europeans don't own big SUVs because they don't have kids, which makes Americans morally superior. But why are SUVS needed for kids in the first place?

(10) Comfort with passing problems to the next generation. This is especially true of baby-boomers. Let's cut our own taxes and run up massive debt, leaving the burden for future generations! And anyway, we'll be long gone by the time the icebergs melt, so why worry? Live for the moment!

Did I miss anything?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Should The Liturgy Be Dumber?

Rocco is reporting some renewed criticism of the upcoming English translation of the liturgy by Bishop Donald Trautman, chair of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy. According to Trautman:
"What will the person in the pew hear and comprehend? Will the words “prefiguring sacrifices of the Fathers” and “born ineffably of the inviolate Virgin,” for example, resonate with John and Mary Catholic? Is this prayer intelligible, proclaimable, reflective of a vocabulary and linguistic style from the contemporary mainstream of U.S. Catholics?... In the new missal you will hear awkward phrases like “We pray you bid.” This is not American English. Ponder these concrete examples and judge for yourself."
First things first. The liturgy is supposed to glorify God and unite us with God. It should be soaring, majestic, transcendental, poetic. We are ill-served by the current, rather banal, translation, and I, for one, will welcome the new translation with open arms. Trautman, in his zeal to dumb down, does not give the congregation enough credit (nor do a good number of priests with their homilies, but that's another story.) But there's something else. This is the English language translation. There is no such thing as American English. There will be one translation for the entire English speaking world. Really, American exceptionalism knows no bounds...

More on Communion Politics

The Vatican is scrambling to prevent any misinterpretation of Pope Benedict's remarks pertaining to the excommunication of politicians who voted to legalize abortion in Mexico. No, said Rev. Lombardi, the pope is not planning to excommunicate anyone, but "legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist". This has a feeling of deja vu surrounding it, given the attempt of some on the American right to inject this into the presidential election of 2004, an unconscionable attempt to exploit and politicize the Eucharist.

Everything I have to say on the matter is here. I have nothing to add to what I already wrote back in January.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

When Is A Terrorist Not A Terrorist?

Via Kevin Drum: international terrorist Luis Posada Carriles is free today. There is stark evidence that the Department of Justice never really cared about this case, botched it up, and may not even appeal. Now, the word "terrorist" is assuredly over-used, but this guy certainly meets the classic textbook definition: he "plotted the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, and he has admitted being involved in hotel bombings in Havana". And now he's enjoying life in Miami.

I guess the "war on terror" is not global after all, as it excludes terrorist actions against "enemies" of the United States. Sounds like moral relativism to me. Then again, this is not a new phenomenon, as, during the heyday of IRA terrorism, their representatives moved with impunity in prominent US political circles. Most of the cash that paid for the bombs was raised in the United States, and those donors had (and still have) blood on their hands.

Hilarious aside: both Venezuela and Cuba sought his extradition in 2005, but these requests were denied on the grounds he might be tortured. Tell that to Maher Arar.

Pope on Oscar Romero

Before his trip to Brazil, the Italian press is reporting that the pope mentioned Oscar Romero:
"'I have no doubt he will be beatified. I know that the cause is proceeding well at the Congregation for the Cause of Saints,' but said he did not have precise information.' He was certainly a great witness for the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who was committed to peace and against dictatorship.' Recalling that Romero was assassinated during the Consecration of the Host, he said it was 'an incredible death.'"

Christianity and Immigration: Cardinal Mahony Or Utah Republicans?

According to the Utah Republicans, Satan is behind illegal immigration. Yes, you heard right. Here is the quote from Andrew Sullivan's blog:

"Utah County Republicans ended their convention on Saturday by debating Satan's influence on illegal immigrants...Don Larsen, chairman of legislative District 65 for the Utah County Republican Party, had submitted a resolution warning that Satan's minions want to eliminate national borders and do away with sovereignty. In a speech at the convention, Larsen told those gathered that illegal immigrants 'hate American people' and 'are determined to destroy this country, and there is nothing they won't do.'...Illegal aliens are... trying to 'destroy Christian America' and replace it with 'a godless new world order - and that is not extremism, that is fact,'"
And here is Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles courtesy of Rocco Palmo:
"In Catholic thought, the human person should not serve the economy, but the economy should serve the human person, so that each person and his or her family can live in dignity and without want and can move, if needed, to find the place of hope... The current reality in our nation, however, is that we accept their labor, their separation from family, their taxes, and their purchasing power, yet we do not offer the undocumented population the protection of our laws. While such a system might meet our economic needs in the narrow measurement of monetary gain, it fails to meet the broad definition of oikonomia or the call of Scripture... Thus, to restore order to God’s household, we must ensure that all are welcome to the table. This means that we need to reform our immigration system in order to provide legal protection for those who live on the margins of our economy and are not invited to share in the banquet: the undocumented and future migrants who come to our nation, to work, to join family, or to support family at home....Any law that does not serve justice violates basic human dignity and human rights...Current immigration laws are, in a word, unjust....When convenient politically, we scapegoat the immigrant without acknowledging our complicity...In the area of immigration, the Church leadership argues that our country has a moral obligation to change the law because it violates the order of God’s household and undermines basic human dignity."
Now, which of the two views is more compatible with Christianity? Let me give you a hint:
""Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.'" -- Matthew 25: 42-45 (NAB).
The position of the Utah Republicans reflects a secular nationalistic ideology, tinged with religious (Messianic) overtones. In particular, it violates the "Catholic principal", the idea that there should be no boundaries on who is and who is not our neighbor. Borders serve a practical administrative function, and should not be endowed with mystical qualities. By the way, this is not mere prudential judgment to be blithely dismissed, but a core component of the Church's social teaching. For much more on how Christianity should inform the immigration debate, see here and here.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Support the Troops?

An official Pentagon survey of US soldiers in Iraq throws up the following points:
  • More than one third support torture for gathering information.
  • 40 percent support torture to save the life of a fellow soldier.
  • Two-thirds would turn a blind eye to mistreating civilians or wantonly destroying property.
  • Less than half think that non-combatants are worthy of respect and dignity.
  • 10 percent have actually mistreated civilians.

I find these statistics staggering. And yet, as in any organization, the ethical standards are set by the top. If Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld say torture is OK, is it any wonder that the soldiers on the ground feel they have a green light, and that this kind of treatment is legitimate?

Let's break this down yet again. Torture is condemned unequivocally in the conciliar document Gaudium Et Spes. Specifically, it condemns ""physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit". The encyclical Veritatis Splendour went even further and said it was intrinsically evil, meaning it cannot be legitimated by intent or consequence. That rules out saving lives, ticking bomb scenarios, and all other sorry excuses for violating the God-given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of a person. You cannot use human beings as a means to an end, treating them as a mere object. Consequentialism is wrong. Note that this applies to psychological as well as physical torture, which experts believe is actually more harmful. Lest there is any remaining doubt, the Compendium of Social Doctrine declares that "international juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances."

And yet, we have arrived at the situation whereby a president who flaunts his Christianity actively supports and implements a policy that is evil. Note that the proximity of Bush and Cheney to each specific act of torture is far closer than an average Democrat's proximity to each specific incidence of abortion. And yet this is something you will not hear from the right. Nor will you hear it from Catholic apologists like Jimmy Akin, who actually come dangerously close to defending torture.

I've talked about this many times, but it bears repeating. Akin errs when he defined torture as "the disproportionate infliction of pain". If not disproportionate, then not torture, then not evil. This is not much different than Bush official John Yoo defining torture as "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function". Coming up with a quantitative definition always means that something falling just below the standard does not constitute torture. Obviously, psychological torture is not torture. Akin also posits that waterboarding may not be torture under his definition if there is "no, less painful way, to save lives". This is a truly appalling exercise in naked consequentialism, no different from justifying the use of nuclear weapons during the second world war.

Let us remember the words of the martyr Oscar Romero: "There is no dichotomy between man and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being,whoever abuses a human being,Whoever outrages a human being, abuses God’s image."