Evidence of things not seen

dolanSo The New York Times covered Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s first Mass in New York. This is a good thing. Depending on when and how you accessed the article, its headline was either:

Archbishop Timothy Dolan Says First Sunday Mass in New York

Or:

A Call to Catholics to Trust What Cannot Be Seen

Our curmudgeonly copyeditor, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, noted to me last week: “No Mass is merely “said” ever. As the Associated Press Stylebook notes, the Mass (capital M, also per AP) is celebrated.” So just for copyediting purposes — although I have no personal problem with describing a Mass as being said — that first headline should be revised.

The second headline indicates what I found most interesting about the story:

His first homily adhered closely to Roman Catholic doctrine — offering only indirect signs of the activist role he has hinted he will take as an advocate of the church’s agenda in the public sphere — calling on those in his flock to build their faith on “trust in what cannot be seen,” and not only “on empirical, scientific evidence.”

Breaking: The new archbishop adhered to Roman Catholic doctrine.

I wonder if folks in the media know how funny and/or ridiculous such a line is. It’s also funny to pit doctrine against activism in advocacy of the church’s agenda in the public sphere. Advocating the church’s agenda in the public sphere isn’t separate from Catholic doctrine. But the really bad part comes when reporter Paul Vitello inexplicably adds a personal interpretation of the sermon:

The archbishop’s first homily followed the liturgical calendar in revisiting the story of the Apostle Thomas, who doubted the resurrection of Jesus until he could see it for himself. He urged people not to be doubting Thomases, who reserve faith only for the things that can be verified, like “stock portfolios, for instance.”

“Those are the things,” he said, “that let us down.”

He did not refer to it, but there is conflict between Catholic dogma and scientific conventions on several fronts, including the medical definition of brain death, the legal definition of the beginning of human life and the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.

I don’t know what, exactly, I find funniest about this last line. I probably should note the use of the word “dogma” — something the New York Times has written is a “dirty word.” But I don’t consider the word dirty!

There is certainly the silliness of pretending that Catholics define the beginning of life or the occurrence of brain death in an unscientific manner. They don’t. They don’t use religious definitions for these things. If anything, they’re less likely to use euphemisms than some in the medical community. And science (I’m unsure what we mean by scientific conventions) is certainly on their side when it comes to the definition of brain death and the beginning of human life. That’s not the controversial part of Catholic teaching on sanctity of human life. The controversial part is where the church teaches that because human life begins when it does, society shouldn’t condone the use and destruction of embryos for research. That latter part isn’t a scientific issue but an ethical issue — and one that can and does yield dissenting responses. But that’s not the only reason that bizarre interpretation makes me grimace.

There’s also the problem that the reporter wants to force a political spin on a religious sermon about faith in Christ. Quasimodo Geniti is the first week after Easter. It’s also my husband’s baptismal anniversary. We read about Thomas during this week. The propers for this past Sunday are about things that are so much more important — theologically speaking — than simply whatever the latest political issue is.

In that sense, the idea that this Christian concept — articulated eloquently in Hebrews 11 — that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” is somehow primarily a discussion not only of bioethics but, what’s more, a defensive posture relating to being on the wrong side of science, is just laughable. Perhaps rather than just inserting that last paragraph above, the reporter should ask theologians, parishioners or Dolan himself what they think it means for Christians to trust in what can not be seen.

For people interested in Dolan stories, incidentally, here’s an intriguing little bit from Gary Stern at The Journal News.

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  • Kyle

    I wonder if our intrepid New York Times reporter is aware that it’s Catholic dogma that there can never be any conflict between faith and reason, including faith and science. What the heck is a “scientific convention” in this context, anyway? Sheesh, the poor dear’s head would explode if he read the canons of Vatican I.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    Maybe somebody will get him a mitre and chausable that were not decorated with a paint brush?

  • Jerry

    Sure on the web a “headline” can be any length, but I wonder if ‘celebrated’ was shortened to ‘says’ because of a physical paper constraint. Maybe not, but how would we know? And what should be done if ‘celebrated’ is too long a word to fit into the headline?

    And science (I’m unsure what we mean by scientific conventions) is certainly on their side when it comes to the definition of brain death and the beginning of human life.

    Sorry, “science” is not an organization to take a position on such matters. And as I had posted here earlier, there are many different opinions about when an embryo becomes a “human person” that are held by many different people, including scientists. Life is one thing. Human life is another.

  • Stoo

    Yeah i feel some lines are being blurred. Science does not currently support “life begins at conception” in the sense of the words that would make pro-lifers cheer.

  • Emily

    AP style notwithstanding, I know plenty of Catholics who refer to it as “saying” Mass. The first headline in question might not be a failure to get religion — the headline writer might even have been Catholic, and used to that phrase.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Emily,

    We were discussing that here recently. Though the AP Style Book says it can never be “said,” many Catholics have absolutely no problem with the word.

  • FW Ken

    Not only does my priest “say” Mass, I “hear” it. Not dogmatically, of course: I am perfectly willing to “assist” at Mass, “join in the” Mass, and even “attend Mass”.

  • Martha

    “His first homily adhered closely to Roman Catholic doctrine — offering only indirect signs of the activist role he has hinted he will take as an advocate of the church’s agenda in the public sphere — calling on those in his flock to build their faith on “trust in what cannot be seen,” and not only “on empirical, scientific evidence.””

    (1) We can haz agenda? In the public sphere, even?

    (2) Oooh, that sneaky cleric! He only offered “indirect” hints of when he’s going to send in the Knights of Columbus Special Operatives to storm the universities, torch the laboratories, and start rounding up the heretics for the auto-da-fe!

    (3) I am constantly amused by the amazement with which the media is given to realise that “Catholic clergyman in high-profile post and important spiritual position is actually not Richard Dawkins in a soutane”. Wow, who would have thought it?

  • http://www.samueljhoward.us Samuel J. Howard

    “He did not refer to it, but there is conflict between Catholic dogma and scientific conventions on several fronts, including the medical definition of brain death, the legal definition of the beginning of human life and the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.”

    This sentence is just false except on the most unlikely reading. I suppose the writer might have meant “the conventions of scientists”, but the way it’s phrased suggests that the knowledge is somehow “scientific” in method of acquisition, rather than in area of application. But none of these are scientific questions. When is the brain dead? Well the question of whether you can detect some brain activity is a scientific question, but whether the absence of brain activity is equal to death is not a scientific question. The case with ethics is even more obvious. It’s not the case that just because knowledge or principles are applied to scientific topics and practice are they scientific.

  • MichaelV

    Thanks for the Lols, Martha.

    Yeah, the “scientific consensus” paragraph is stupid in terms of content, and I think unfair in terms of the whole “marketplace of ideas” thingie: I think it’s weasely for someone to open up a huge can of worms and pronounce judgement on it without even really explaning it like that. If he wanted to write something about conflicts on bioethical issues between the Church and himself (speaking as the Avatar of Science), fine. But that was just a drive-by. I can’t understand why he thought it was relavent. It’s almost like he knew what he wanted to say, and then looked for some way to get it into the article.

  • Tyson K

    When I read this article in the dead-tree version of the Times, my first thought was “GetReligion will have a field day with this.” Seems like a classic example of covering all religion through the lens of politics, which had been discussed ad nauseam here. Simply put, the Archbishop was talking about theology, not about politics. But to the media, almost the only significant thing church leaders do is hold political opinions… so of course the political opinions Rev. Dolan may or may not have been hinting at in his homily become the focus of the story.

  • Dan Berger

    Science does not currently support “life begins at conception” in the sense of the words that would make pro-lifers cheer.

    Stoo, if you mean what I told my pastor recently, you’re correct:

    The blastocyst/embryo/fetus is a human organism. It’s genetically distinct from its host. It cannot live independently of its host.

    Science cannot tell us whether that human organism has any more value than a Plasmodium or a tapeworm. That’s the job of ethics.

  • david s

    Jerry wrote…

    there are many different opinions about when an embryo becomes a “human person” that are held by many different people, including scientists. Life is one thing. Human life is another.

    Let’s say we’re talking about an embryo formed by a human egg and sperm: what kind of life is it, scientifically speaking–I’m thinking genus and species? Homo sapiens, or something else? Personhood may be something else, but I think science would tell us that the embryo is a unique individual organism of the human species. Does science–as differed from opinions of scientists–tell us when a human becomes a person? Is this a question for science?

  • Peggy

    Rev. McCain beat me to it. With all due respect to Episcopalians here, the good bishop looks more like he’s ready to “say” or “celebrate” a liturgy with Kate Shori.

  • Gerry

    Sorry, Jerry. A human living is human life. If that is too difficult for you to understand, you’re on the wrong site.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I am pretty sure Jerry is referring to personhood. Whether a human organism is human life is not really up to debate. It is. Whether it has rights or whether it has reached personhood or any other ethical questions is certainly up for debate.

  • Julia

    I happened to see a show on Discovery over the week-end on the gestation and birth of house cats and lions. There were wonderful pictures of cells, embryos, etc. all the way through to the actual births of kitties and baby lions.

    The program compared and contrasted the developing cats and lions from the first cells to the differing capabilities of the two different kinds of new born felines. There was no point at which the narrative said now the cells have become a kitty or a lion. Each was presented as either “cat” or “lion” from the time of the first cells. In fact, that was the point of the whole program: the differences between developing cats and lions from the first.

    Why would the development of homo sapiens cells through to new born human be treated any differently in news articles? After all, there is no issue of personhood or when souls enter the kittties and baby lions that affects whether they are really kitties and baby lions. The different treatment has to be ideology or politics, not “science”.

  • Jerry

    Mollie,

    Thanks for coming to my defense :-) That was my point. For example, some argue that a fetus has human rights when a functioning brain develops, for example, mirroring the definition of death being when the brain stops functioning. Others argue on the basis of when ensoulment occurs.

    I do have one comment to:

    If that is too difficult for you to understand, you’re on the wrong site.

    I’m on the side of good media coverage of religion; the purpose of this blog. Of course my personal beliefs leak out at least a bit by what I type, but I try to mostly keep to the purpose of this blog.

  • Dave

    Human life does not “begin” at conception. An egg and a sperm must participate in conception, and they must be a living human egg and a living human sperm to produce a living human embryo. Human life is passed along, not created, at conception.

    What is created at conception is a genetically unique human life — except when it isn’t. If that embryo divides into two identical twins, what is created is a pair of genetically identical human lives, which are unlike any other.

    Scientific definitions are not crisp enough to serve anyone’s ethics. That must flow from another source.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    At our paper (a Catholic one) the Mass is always “celebrated.”

  • Julia

    Just a bit of history.

    “Saying” Mass is probably a hold-over from the Low Masses that had no chant or music and the priest and acolytes spoke all of their parts. Toward the end of the 1950s, we started having Diologue Masses where the people spoke the acolyte parts.

    On the other hand, High Masses were largely “sung” and had chanting by the priest and the choir and/or people. The “Missa Cantata” was entirely sung with no speaking parts at all – by priest or people. Our parish does entirely-sung Masses on big feast days. We even do Latin Masses sometime – not the old 1962 version, but the 1970s one – it is still OK to do it in Latin now and then.

    Vatican II, or at least the committees afterwards, provided that all Masses were to have singing. No more Low Masses.
    S0 – technically Masses were not to be “said” any more.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I wonder if the AP mandates “celebrating” because of the singing/chanting/saying distinctions . . .

  • http://suburbanbanshee.wordpress.com Maureen

    But after Vatican II, nobody taught Catholics any of that technical stuff in religion class, because nobody could be sure what was the buzzword of the week or the preferred style. So the old default, “said”, won out. Just like nobody could decide whether it was now Penance or Reconciliation, so everybody still talks about “Confession”.

    All helped along by the fact that non-Catholic sources didn’t even know this stuff was an issue, and so they went to their known default, of course. I’ve had to break it to non-Catholics writing fiction stories that not every Mass is said in Latin. :)


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