Obama, Andrew, Ross and “ensoulment”

Since I am out here on the road, at times far from wireless and my usual news-media fixes, I am still playing catch-up on the actual results of the Saddleback forum (transcripts here and here) the other night.

We are all in the post-media-event commentary stage now and, you regular readers know, GetReligion tries to stay away from editorials and commentary pieces as much as possible. However, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher is onto something with his post about an exchange between Andrew Sullivan and his Atlantic Monthly colleague Ross Douthat about Sen. Barack Obama’s “pay grade” remark in response to the pivotal question about abortion.

I raise this issue here because this exchange between Sullivan and Douthat — who are both Catholics, but with very different views on the teachings of their church — focuses on a matter of fact, a fact at the crossroads of theology and law that really affects how journalists cover this issue.

Watch the video clip at the top of this post (by all means feel free to turn it off before the very political, very pro-McCain editing kicks in), then read Sullivan’s take:

Obama is being razzed by the usual suspects for saying that the theological, scientific and moral question of when human life becomes a human person is “above his paygrade.” … But even the Vatican doesn’t claim to know that precise answer. From the lips of Ratzinger:

“The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature [as to the time of ensoulment], but it constantly affirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion.”

So it’s above the Pope’s pay-grade as well.

Thus, notes Douthat, Sullivan and others defending Obama’s answer are arguing that Pastor Rich Warren asked a theological question, one that points toward the eternal mystery of “ensoulment” — which certainly is an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court is not going to be handling anytime soon. And “ensoulment” would certainly be above the “pay grade” of a layman in a very congregational, very “low church” (in the worship and church tradition sense) denomination such as the United Church of Christ.

But there’s a problem. Note the wording of Warren’s question in the forum: “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”

This is a legal and political question, one that has affected debates on several political issues, such as legislation on “Partial-birth abortion” and other bills trying to protect the lives of children who are accidentally born alive during abortion procedures. Obama certainly knows that his critics differ with him on both of those issues and want to see him defend his political views on the record (as MZ just noted).

Thus, Ross notes:

Obama tried to dodge by saying that from a “theological perspective” or a “scientific perspective” the issue is “above his pay grade.” But Warren asked a more narrow question, and one that any politician who votes on abortion laws should be able to answer. And of course, as a supporter of Roe and Casey, Obama does have an answer: He thinks that a baby acquires rights when it’s born — well, perhaps depending on how and why it happens to be born — and lacks them at every juncture before birth. He just didn’t want to come out and say it.

This is a crucial issue in the coverage. Let me stress, this has nothing to do with whether one agrees or disagrees with Obama on this issue. Please do not click “comment” to argue about that. What I am trying to underline is an actual question linked to the facts in the news story, the facts about the question that Warren asked and why he asked it.

The question again: In politics, in law, in legislation, in public life, when does a baby get basic human rights?

Forget theology for a moment. This is a political question, the way Warren asked it. It should have been possible to give a political answer. Right? If Obama gives a political answer, then reporters can quote that answer and people can debate those views in a political context. There’s no reason to pump up the theological fog in this case.

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Tips for reporters covering pro-lifers

graphic1Let me jump in here with a quick follow-up on my recent post about press coverage of the Democratic Party platform’s new language on issues linked to abortion and the sanctity of life.

Our friend Steve Waldman, the czar and protector of all things Beliefnet.com, has posted his own observations about the language that came out of meetings between left-of-center Evangelical Protestants — think Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, et al — and the people who are charged with helping Sen. Barack Obama capture more voters from pews containing church-going Catholics and Evangelicals under the age of 30-something.

It also helps to know that Waldman — with the omnipresent John C. Green of the Pew Forum — is one half of the team that produced the classic “Tribal Relations” piece in Atlantic Monthly on the various camps of religious believers who are active today in American politics.

This quick dissection of the abortion plank is Waldman’s opinion, but I share it as a handy guide to what the changed language may or may not mean. Also, I don’t think anyone would accuse Waldman of being a voice for religious conservatives. Please consider this a quick study of the basic facts, which may prove helpful for reporters who are covering the issue. For starters, he notes:

(1) The Lack of Moral Language — The key linguistic debate has been whether to “reduce the number of abortions” or “reduce the need for abortions.” Pro-life folks favored the former. Pro-choice folks favored the latter. The pro-choice folks won. In fact, the 2004 platform said abortion “should be safe, legal and rare” — language that’s casts abortion reduction as morally preferable, something this platform does not.

(2) Abortion Reduction — The draft platform includes — for the first time — language supporting policies specifically designed to reduce the need for abortions: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre and post natal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.” We can therefore see the outlines of a pro-active position that might woo pro-life Catholics and evangelicals. Democrats can now say, you can support the Republican party which issues grand moralistic pronouncements but doesn’t take enough practical steps to reduce the number of abortions or you can support the Democrats who do take those steps. It is an open question, however, whether Obama will go that far, since the platform clearly avoided using any moral language casting abortion as a morally inferior choice.

(3) Conscience Clause — There is no “conscience clause” acknowledging and respecting the diversity of opinion within the party on abortion. Pro-life Democrats had hoped for that. …

And so forth and so on. The key now, according to Waldman, is what kind of moral language Obama chooses to use on this kind of issue.

I have said, for months, that the conscience clause was the key. Some Conservatives have long said — this is heresy, I think — that it is impossible to be a Christian and a Democrat. However, the 2004 Democratic Party platform language put that statement in a mirror and said that to be pro-life is to back a stance on this issue that, in effect, makes one a Republican. The late Rev. Jerry Falwell could not have said it better.

So, reporters, Waldman is convinced that the debates over this part of the platform are not over. After all, the committee rejected the following proposed language from the organization Democrats for Life (look near the end of this link) that tried to restore freedom of conscience on this life-and-death issue. The proposed language, again, stated:

We respect the conscience of each American and recognize that members of our Party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, like abortion. We recognize the diversity of views as a source of strength and we welcome into our ranks all Americans who may hold differing positions on these and other issues.

It would be interesting to see Waldman apply his 12 tribes typology to this battle over abortion policy.

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Planning a family naturally

fertility chartFor how sex-obsessed our culture is, it’s surprising how little we talk about the spiritual side effects of procreation and contraception. The way we view our bodies and the manner in which we approach sex are some of the most profound theological questions we face in our daily lives, and yet it doesn’t seem to make it into mainstream media much. There are exceptions of course.

Last week, Ruth Gledhill at the Times (U.K.) wrote about Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’ view that gay relationships can be comparable to marriage. Part of his reasoning was the ubiquity and official acceptance of contraception:

In his 1989 essay The Body’s Grace, Dr Williams argued that the Church’s acceptance of contraception meant that it acknowledged the validity of nonprocreative sex. This could be taken as a green light for gay sex.

Yesterday, the Austin American-Statesman ran a provocative story on Protestants who use Natural Family Planning. The no-holds-barred account by Eileen Flynn provides a really interesting look at the spiritual appeal of avoiding artificial contraception:

Phaedra Taylor abstained from sex until marriage. But she began researching birth control methods before she was even engaged, and by the time she married David Taylor, she was already charting her fertility.

Taylor, a fresh-faced 28-year-old who would blend in easily with South Austin bohemians, ruled out taking birth control pills after reading a book that claimed the pill could, in some cases, make the uterus uninhabitable after conception occurred. She viewed that as abortion, which she opposes.

“I just wasn’t willing to risk it,” she said.

Taylor wanted her faith to guide her sexual and reproductive decisions after marriage. Natural family planning felt like the best way to honor God, she said.

The Taylors are one of several couples at Hope Chapel — a nondenominational church where David Taylor, 36, was the arts minister for 12 years — who practice natural family planning. Christian scholars say they may reflect a growing trend among non-Catholic Christians who are increasingly seeking out natural alternatives to artificial contraception.

Flynn speaks with a variety of people about NFP on the 40th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae. She nicely characterizes the document’s views on moral and natural laws and explains what NFP is. One of the things I liked is that she mentioned that NFP isn’t just used by couples who are trying to space out pregnancy but also by couples who want to get pregnant.

The natural family planning movement among Protestants is difficult to quantify, but there appears to be growing interest, said the Rev. Amy Laura Hall, a Methodist minister and associate professor at Duke Divinity School. Because she’s one of the few Protestant scholars writing about reproductive issues — her latest book is called “Conceiving Parenthood” — Hall frequently fields questions from Christians about family planning at conferences and by e-mail.

She said they ask questions like whether it’s truly Christian to be preoccupied with finances and getting children into the right schools rather than welcoming children as gifts on loan from God — even if they don’t fit into the parents’ ideal life plan.

The article explains precisely what spiritual objections people have to artificial birth control. It also includes criticism from Protestants who have moved away from NFP. Flynn also highlights some of the historic Protestant and Anglican antipathy toward NFP.

Usually NFP practitioners are mocked or marginalized. The American-Statesman account, however, is solid and interesting and treats its subjects as thoughtful individuals seeking to obey God and honor their spouses. Good work.

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Who gets to “reform” what?

StStanislausKostkaAs any regular GetReligion.org reader would know, we go out of our way to note the exceptionally good work that many religion reporters do on this very complex and difficult beat. A quick glance in the archives will also tell you that, more often than not, we are fans of the work of Tim Townsend of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

This brings me to Townsend’s latest piece on one of the most complex ongoing stories in American religion right now — the battle for control of the historic St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in St. Louis. Normally you would add the word “Catholic” to that title, but, you see, the status of that term is what the battle is all about.

The battle for control of this parish is unfolding on several levels and Townsend does a great job of explaining the background.

Basically, this is a showdown between St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke and the powers that be in this massive Polish parish. The archbishop tried to establish control by refusing to send another priest to the parish, thus denying the people the sacraments. But the parish, toward the end of 2005, found a priest who was willing to serve at their altar without permission and, thus, thumb his nose — that’s what Townsend writes — at the Catholic hierarchy.

Now, that priest — Father Marek Bozek — is in the middle of a new round of controversy that has divided the parish itself. The bottom line: It turns out that a priest who is willing to monkey with Catholic doctrines about episcopal authority may, in the end, be willing to be more than flexible about other doctrines, too (which is bad news for many Polish Catholics, who tend to be rather traditional at heart). Here is the key section of Townsend’s long and detailed report:

… Bozek has reshaped the church into a community that would be unrecognizable to those 19th-century founders. His vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith calls for supporting female ordination, allowing priests to get married and accepting gay relationships. Bozek’s stands have attracted hundreds of new St. Stanislaus parishioners who share the priest’s reform-minded vision.

But they have also divided the church, pitting newer members against traditional parishioners unhappy with how far the priest has gone in condemning the Roman Catholic church. There have also been questions about the priest’s trappings. He has negotiated a 143 percent salary hike, moved into a $157,000 Washington Avenue loft and leased a 2008 BMW for $450 per month.

Some parishioners point to another sign that alarmed them: Bozek, while in Poland last year, bought a silver ring custom-made for a bishop there. When he returned, he showed the ring to his parish at a Sunday Mass and spoke about it from the pulpit. Because it’s a bishop’s ring and he is only a priest, Bozek says, he has not worn it. But he won’t say he never will — he does not rule out the possibility of becoming the leader of what he calls an “underground Roman Catholic” movement.

All kinds of people are involved in this story, literally from the Rev. Sun Myung Moon to the Womenpriests network that causes earthquakes in the GetReligion comments pages whenever its name is mentioned.

Like I said, this is a very complicated story. Read it all.

But here is my question. Let’s back up to that crucial paragraph in which Townsend has to describe what Bozek is up to at the parish. The story, you see, is about the priest’s “vision for a reformed Roman Catholic faith” and his “reform-minded vision.”

You see, “reform” is one of those loaded religion beat words. If you look that term up online you see a number of definitions, but you’ll get the drift. To “reform” something means to:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”
* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …
* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …
* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”
* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

I think you get the point. When traditional Catholics read that kind of language, this is what they see. They see a newspaper saying that the liberal priest is trying to reform the abuses and injustices of the Catholic Church. So there.

Why doesn’t the story say that the archbishop is trying to reform the priest and the parish? Who is reforming what? In other words, who is guilty of corruption and abuses?

However, please note that Townsend has tried to attach the word “reform” directly to the views of the priest. This is his vision of reform. It is what he considers reform.

My question is simple: Does this work? Is there a wording that would be fair to both the priest and to the archbishop? Is it any better to say that the parish is attracting Catholics who share Bozek’s “progressive” vision? That share his desire to “innovate,” when it comes to crucial doctrines in Catholic moral theology? Is there a better way to say this, one that is both accurate and fair to partisans on both sides?

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John Edwards’ “special energy”

41CZ3QJZM8LAny story of moral failing has religious overtones, and sex scandals are no exception. They usually involve broken religious vows and provoke all sorts of questions about the religious views of the participants.

Usually the mainstream media can’t get enough of sex scandals. But for some reason, they constructed a cone of silence around John Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter. Whether or not the media should cover sex scandals such as these, the bizarre double standard only reinforces perceptions of bias. Anyway, there will be many more stories to come out of the sordid affair, probably dealing with the payments Hunter has received from those within the Edwards camp. And there may be interesting religious angles to come.

The story with the biggest religious angles thus far isn’t about Edwards so much as Hunter. I’m not quite sure why Newsweek reporter Jonathan Darman didn’t publish this story months ago, but he has a really interesting look at Hunter and her spiritual views:

I struck up a conversation with the woman at the next event, as we waited outside. She told me her name and asked me what my astrological sign was, which I thought was a little unusual. I told her. She smiled, and began telling me her life story: how she was working as a documentary-film maker, living with a friend in South Orange, N.J., but how she’d previously had “many lives.” She’d worked, she said, as an actress and as a spiritual adviser. She was fiercely devoted to astrology and New Age spirituality. She’d been a New York party girl, she’d been married and divorced, she’d been a seeker and a teacher and was a firm believer in the power of truth.

Hunter told Darman that she had met Edwards at a bar in New York and thought he was giving off a special energy. Darman cultivates Hunter as a source — in his mind at least. She appears to think of him more as a friend. They meet at a bar in New York:

Her speech was peppered with New Age jargon–human beings were dragged down by “blockages” to their actual potential; history was the story of souls entering and escaping our field of consciousness. A seminal book for her had been Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” Her purpose on this Earth, she said, was to help raise awareness about all this, to help the unenlightened become better reflections of their true, repressed selves.

She explains to Darman that Edwards is an old soul who had barely tapped into his potential. She believes that he could become a transformational leader such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi. Eckhart Tolle is a popular spiritualist author who is big in the church of Oprah. Here’s a snippet from his Wikipedia entry explaining his writings:

Tolle’s non-fiction bestseller The Power of Now emphasizes the importance of being aware of the present moment as a way of not being caught up in thoughts of the past and future. His later book A New Earth further explores the structure of the human ego and how this acts to distract people from their present experience of the world. It is the feeding of the human ego that is thought to be the source of inner and outer conflict. Only in examining one’s ego may people begin to see beyond it and obtain a sense of spiritual enlightening or a new outlook on reality.

Interesting. Hunter told Darman that she and Edwards discussed Tolle “all the time.” It seems that other players in this story share some of Hunter’s spiritual views. In his Nightline admission, Edwards said that Bob McGovern called him and asked him to meet with Hunter at the Beverly Hilton. He also said that he would only go if McGovern would be there.

McGovern apparently lives in Santa Barbara, which is where Hunter was relocated by Edwards associates. Principals’ Web sites are dropping like flies but there is some information available on McGovern. The New York Times used some such information for its profile of McGovern today:

But little is known about Mr. McGovern, who is 64, according to records, and lives with his wife in a modest ranch-style home a few miles from downtown Santa Barbara. The Web site Margaretsweet.com, which promotes spirituality and New Age practices, recently carried a brief biography of Mr. McGovern, describing him as “an intuitive” and “a healer since 1988″ who had worked “with energy in the area of the emotional fields.” The biography is no longer on the site.

“He uses philosophy, psychology and the intuitive to find resolutions that move people back into alignment with the universe and into a place of peace, harmony and joy,” the site said. “Bob uses the intuitive to help people with a variety of life issues, including relationships, career and health.”

The description of Mr. McGovern, posted in a section called “Helpful Dudes,” also said he tried to empower people so they could deal with the challenges of everyday life with greater understanding.

“His knowledge of the past and the future helps people find balance in the present,” it said. “He is able to separate out surrounding negative energy, which allows people to have a clearer perception of their own options and choices.”

It is interesting that Edwards trusted McGovern so much. Perhaps the media will continue to do a horrible job with this story. But as the money trail gets scrutinized and the ties to Santa Barbara and Hunter’s trusted network undergo more examination, will it treat the New Age aspects as something loopy and marginal or will they soberly examine whether or how New Age beliefs played a part in this story?

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An abused story

abuseI was in high school 20 years ago. It was an age of great pop music, mullets, and impending U.S. victory in the Cold War. If that sounds like a long time ago, it was.

Which is why I find it odd that The New York Times buried this fact in its story about a Catholic priest who has been removed from ministry because of allegations that he fondled two teenage boys.

Reporter Paul Vitello’s story was curious. It had strong virtues but also strong defects.

On the one hand, Vitello showed that in some cases at least, the Catholic Church’s new policy about removing alleged abusers is severe:

Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the first accuser came to the archdiocese in June. After an internal investigation, he said, the church sent the case to the district attorney’s office, but did not remove Monsignor Harris because it is church policy “not to alert the target” of a potential criminal investigation.

During the district attorney’s investigation, the second accusation against Monsignor Harris emerged, and the diocese ordered him to step aside, Mr. Zwilling said. The five-year statute of limitations has lapsed in both cases, and charges are not likely to be brought, said Alicia Maxey Greene, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office.

The archdiocese still must decide whether Monsignor Harris will be returned to his duties, “returned to the lay state,” or permitted to retire to “a life of prayer and penance,” an inactive status, Mr. Zwilling said. Monsignor Harris is one of 15 archdiocesan priests who have been removed since 2002 on sexual abuse allegations, with just one returning to his post, he said.

Also, Vitello showed that the priest, Monsignor Wallace A. Harris, was no recluse or loner; on the contrary, he was popular and influential:

Monsignor Harris, 61, is widely known in Harlem for his church’s charity works, and known in the community of 648 priests who serve in the Archdiocese of New York as an expert organizer and charismatic leader. He is the chairman of the archdiocesan priests’ council, a position to which he was elected by the priests. He was appointed by Cardinal Edward M. Egan as vicar of central Harlem, one of five vicariates in the five boroughs.

Later, Vitello added

The monsignor was assigned to coordinate Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Yankee Stadium in April — and it is part of local legend that the task involved making sure that 100,000 ponchos were ready in case of rain. “How many people could do that?” Ms. Tuckett said. “He is a very smart man; he makes things work like clockwork.”

On the other hand, the story’s lede was buried. The story opened not with the allegations against Monsignor Harris, but rather about the fact that one former pastor was addicted to cocaine and booze while another one was convicted of molesting a 12-year-old girl. What this angle has to do with the main story line I don’t know.

Also, the fact that the alleged abuse 20 years ago was buried. Here is the relevant paragraph:

Neither the archdiocese nor the Manhattan district attorney’s office would provide more details. But people familiar with the district attorney’s investigation said the complaints involved the fondling of two boys, about 13 or 14 years old, when they were students at the Cathedral School in Manhattan, where Monsignor Harris was assigned before becoming pastor at St. Charles Borromeo.

Readers only learn that the alleged fondling occurred two decades ago comes via a quote from an upset parishioner. By contrast, Oren Yaniv of The New York Daily News highlighted that the alleged abused occurred 20 years ago:

A popular Harlem priest accused of sexually abusing two minors 20 years ago will not be charged because the statute of limitations has expired, prosecutors said yesterday.

The allegations against Msgr. Wallace Harris of St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church on 141st St. date from the late 1980s.

The Catholic Church’s new policy is strict in many ways. Yet I think that the Times‘ story needed to explore the question of why abused teenage boys would come forward 20 years later. Is this unusual? Is it possible or likely that the boys’ memory is faulty? (In the early- and mid-1990s, the question of recovered and repressed memory was a big one.)

As is, the story conveys the impression that the church, St. Charles Borromeo, is somehow to blame. As one parishioner says,

“Must be something about that building,” said Roger Firby, 50, a retired corrections officer who has lived most of his life within walking distance of the church. “Always got some trouble.”

Yeah, I guess. But that is a strange way to explain the abuse and the allegations.

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AP twists Anglican timeline (again)

canterbury cathedral 01Another Lambeth Conference has come and gone and, as you may have noticed, there wasn’t much happening in the way of news. That is, of course, the real news. The archbishop of Canterbury and his staff managed to hold a global meeting of most of the Anglican bishops without anything really bad happening in front of the mainstream press.

The headline for this event: Stay the course.

But there is a problem. Various parts of the Anglican Communion continue to chart separate courses, which was true before Lambeth and that’s still true now.

The bishops who came to Canterbury — as opposed to the 200-plus that did not — agreed that they hope to hang together, somehow. They agreed to produce a new covenant that will draw a few crucial doctrinal borders. Maybe. Someday.

And repeat after me, again: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay and the British write the resolutions.” Who do you think will write this covenant? And, with Lambeth about $2 million in the red by many estimates, do you think the small, but very rich, and thus powerful, American church will have any chips to play in this game of high-church poker? By the way, there were 135 American bishops at this conference, out of the 650 present.

The New York Times offers a few basic facts to sum things up:

The push for a covenant amounted to a stratagem for finding both short- and long-term solutions to a dispute that has bitterly divided an estimated 80 million Anglicans worldwide. The split has expressed itself most keenly in the starkly opposed views of traditionalists, primarily in Africa and Asia, who oppose any concessions on homosexuality, and of more liberal elements, especially in the United States and Canada, who favor the ordination of openly gay and lesbian clergy members and church blessings of same-sex unions.

Archbishop Williams told reporters that he hoped Anglican leaders could agree on a draft covenant within a year, but said that winning approval for it among the 44 national and regional churches of the Anglican Communion could take until 2013. That period might coincide with a push among the bishops here to hold another Lambeth meeting after only five years.

In the meantime, the archbishop said, agreement was widespread for continuing “moratoria” on the ordination of gay and lesbian priests and blessings of same-sex unions and for matching restraint by conservatives who threatened to walk out unless traditional views proscribing church acceptance of homosexuality prevailed.

“Continuing”? There has been a moratorium on strategic actions on the left and the right? How did I miss that?

Meanwhile, the most important words in the short Washington Post story about the Lambeth finale were right there in the byline above the lede:

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 4, 2008; A-8

LONDON, Aug. 3 – In the end, the 2008 Lambeth Conference will probably be remembered most for the bishop who was not in attendance but who nonetheless threatened to break apart the world’s third-largest church.

Note, in addition to the fact that this story ran on A-8, those telltale words “Special to …” That means that the Post did not send a reporter to cover this event.

Without a doubt, high travel costs and falling revenues had a major impact on Lambeth coverage this time around. This means that the basic Associated Press story by veteran Rachel Zoll is even more important than ever, since it will run in many newspapers from coast to coast and in other parts of the world.

AnglicanBomb1 01 01 01I am sad to report that it repeats one of the most important myths in recent coverage of the local, national and global Anglican wars. Here we go again:

The 77 million-member Anglican Communion has been splintering since 2003, when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Williams barred Robinson and a few other bishops from the meeting, and designed the event without legislation or votes, instead focusing on rebuilding frayed relationships.

So what is wrong with that? Well, click here and head on over to the home page of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, one of several conservative networks that is working with Global South bishops to offer alternative parishes and leadership for Episcopalians and others. There you will find this piece of history:

In a groundbreaking response to the western crisis, some leaders of the Anglican Church in Africa and Asia acted to provide seeds of hope for the dire situation in the U.S., by establishing the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA) .

In 2000, Archbishops Emmanuel Kolini (Province of Rwanda) and Moses Tay (Province of South East Asia) consecrated the Rev. Chuck Murphy and the Rev. Dr. John Rodgers as missionary bishops to the U.S. At a gathering in Amsterdam on July 28 of the same year, the Anglican Mission in America was formalized as a missionary outreach charged with fulfilling the Great Commission through church planting. Four additional bishops were consecrated in Denver in 2001 by Archbishop Kolini and Archbishop Yong Ping Chung (Archbishop Tay’s successor who served as archbishop until his retirement in February 2006).

Note the dates on those extra-legal consecration services — 2000 and 2001.

Those shots over the Episcopal bow took place well before 2003, right? In fact, if you look at a more detailed timeline of the Anglican wars, you’ll see that things have been rolling right along for a quarter of a century or longer.

So it is simply wrong to say that Anglicanism “has been splintering since 2003.” Also, there are a variety of doctrinal issues involved in the fighting, not just the raising of one noncelibate gay male to the episcopate.

A correction is needed. Alas.

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Almost getting Humane Vitae

humanaevitaeI am remiss in not writing about coverage of the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, the papal encyclical that upheld the Roman Catholic Church’s prohibition against artificial birth control and contraception.

Here’s my excuse: When I was old enough to read stories about this topic, coverage of the church’s position relied heavily on ad-hominem attacks and priests rarely explained this unpopular church teaching. I knew I would have to go back and re-read Humanae Vitae as well as the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ 2006 document against artificial birth control and contraception. (Bear with me. This preamble will be important later in the post.)

I am glad to report that coverage has improved. Gone is the implied criticism that because the Pope and Vatican officials are all single males, they have no right to tell married couples what to do in the intimacy of their bedrooms. In fact, several stories are serious and thoughtful. Yet I think that none truly get religion.

For Religion News Service, reporter Daniel Burke wrote about Humane Vitae and its legacy. His lede struck a fair and accurate note:

Some say Pope Paul VI predicted the dangers of loosening sexual morals: widespread divorce, disease and promiscuity. Others say he cracked open a culture of dissent that has seeped into every corner of the church.

Either way, 40 years after Paul VI released “Humanae Vitae” on July 25, 1968, the papal encylical banning most forms of birth control continues to be a flashpoint in the Catholic Church.

Throughout his story, Burke treated the encyclical seriously, as a document that Catholics struggle with. For example, he presented what I regard as the best argument against Humanae Vitae:

Lisa Cahill said young Catholics in her ethics classes at Boston College don’t understand why the church allows married couples to avoid pregnancy through what the church calls “natural family planning” but not by other means.

“The arguments don’t really fit together coherently,” she said. “As soon as you concede that it is moral to have sex while trying not to procreate,why does everything rest on the natural structure of the act?”

In addition, Burke also gave readers the historical and theological context in which Pope Paul VI wrote the encyclical. While Burke could have dismissed the pope’s perspective and rationale, he sought to explain it:

In July of 1968, expectations ran high for Paul VI to at least partially allow artificial contraception. The Second Vatican Council had just called for lay Catholics to play a larger role in the church. The now widely available birth-control pill offered a discreet means to avoid pregnancy. A leaked press report hinted that a Vatican committee studying the ban favored ending it.

Instead, Paul VI dug in. He defended tradition and encouraged Catholics to savor “the sweetness of the yoke.” Sex exists for the connected purposes of unifying married couples and creating new life, Paul reasoned. Contraceptives break that connection and frustrate God’s designs, he said. Abstinence during a woman’s fertile days to avoid pregnancy — known as “the calendar method” — is acceptable. But other forms of birth control are “repugnant” and wrong in all circumstances, Paul said.

What Burke did not do, however, was present the encyclical’s main argument against artificial birth control and conctraception. As Peter Steinfels notes, Humanae Vitae was not at its heart a warning against the evils of the sexual revolution in general and artificial birth control specifically. Its essence was theological, not sociological:

The central point of “Humanae Vitae” was that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be free of any deliberate effort to prevent conception.

It was here that Pope Paul VI rejected the recommendation of his own papal commission. After extended study and debate, the commission, though heavily weighted with conservative churchmen, concluded that the inseparability of the bonding and procreating aspects of human sexuality had to be respected over the course of a marriage but not necessarily in every instance of sexual intimacy.

Steinfels got that first part right at least. And while like John Allen, Jr., he strives to explain the theological basis of the encylical and church teaching, going so far as to quote from an interview with Cardinal Ratzinger a decade ago, his summary too is incomplete.

Humanae Vitae forbids Catholic couples from using artificial birth control for one main reason: those who use artificial birth control attempt to assert mastery over their own fate rather than being open to God’s will. It casts the issue as one of control — Man’s vs. God’s. As the encyclical states,

[T]o experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. Just as man does not have unlimited dominion over his body in general, so also, and with more particular reason, he has no such dominion over his specifically sexual faculties, for these are concerned by their very nature with the generation of life, of which God is the source

It is probably too much to expect Burke to described this theological justification accurately. With its elliptical sentences and length, Humanae Vitae is no easy read. (The Bishops’ 2006 statement is clearer and better written.) But I do think that Allen and Steinfels, two prominent Catholic thinkers, should have described this admittedly thorny church teaching and encyclical more accurately.

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