Monday, November 13, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it

Not really, but this article from Catholic News Service provides a little bit of correction to those people that are always preaching the latest earth-death scenario: In scientific predictions, the only certainty is nothing is certain

Sometimes the great fun of science is knowing how small we are as human beings and how much bumbling around it takes to get to good, solid information. Think of the roller coaster ride that science has taken through the ages, all the theories that at one time were accepted by the world's scientists that ended up being at best in need of modification and at worst flat wrong. Usually they were the product of decent reasoning with a limited amount of knowledge or data. It makes religious look pretty even keel and sensible by comparison!

But, as the wise philosopher knows, its a good thing to know how little you know. We don't know the answers to many of life's scientific questions, and what we do know is subject to future revision. Still, the apple is tempting, and all too many politicians or scientists or other folks want to make absolute surety where there is none. From the article:

In an effort to remind science of the impact its predictions have on the public, the Vatican hosted a meeting on the limits and accuracy of predictability in science.

Dozens of scientists and several theologians from all over the world gathered for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Nov. 3-6 plenary assembly to discuss how far the eye of science can see into the future and when calculations might be considered certain, probable or highly unlikely.

On the one hand, most scientists want to give as much early warning as possible about impending dangers such as earthquakes or climate changes.

On the other hand, they know the earlier the forecast, the more likely the prediction can be wrong, and being wrong makes scientists run the risk of losing the public's trust.

I've always sort of wondered why environmentalists in particular seem tempted to this sin against science. In the past few decades we've see the infamous failures of the theories of global cooling or catastrophic overpopulation (and we've also seen the ill effects of pollution and reckless consumerism), both accepted by many of the world's scientists. And now it is global warming, and the suspicious claim that not only can we tell the world's future with certainly, but that we can narrow it down to precise years.

The scientists in the story talk about the conflict between making bad predictions and living with not making predictions at all. As for me, I don't know why it isn't enough to say, for instance, "the earth is warming, and there is a decent chance that we have something to do with it and that it's going to cause us some harm. We ought to begin to practice good stewardship and care for the earth the way God intended." It's always that there has to be a disaster looming, and not just any disaster, but the possible destruction of all human life...and soon!!! Maybe its our sinfulness or (particularly Western) sloth that causes the movers and shakers and thinkers to keep insisting that the next disaster is around the corner. That kind of thinking -- and those kind of stakes -- make for bad predictions.

That's why I generally avoid those charged conversations with others about how we suddenly know all there is to know about the gay gene or global warming or why (INSERT FOOD HERE) is bad/good or the surety of embryonic stem cell research. My favorite is astronomy. It's got all the grand theories and predictions -- and yes, the changes and discoveries of bad theory -- on a time scale that prevents apocalypse now and on a level that keeps the politicians and lobbyists uninterested.

So go read the story
-- it's a good balancing factor for us living at the end of the world as we know it.

Reflections from a young Catholic

Hands down, my favorite religious periodical out there is First Things, which bills itself as a "journal of religion, culture and public life." It's good stuff, and every issue is packed with much "meatier" articles than you'll find in a lot of other Catholic magazines.

This past October's issue featured a very long article by Joseph Bottum titled "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano: Catholic Culture in America." The gist of the article is a trace in the decline of a Catholic culture in America and the rise of post-Vatican II in-fighting between often self-described liberals and conservatives.

His contention is that, through mysterious ways, a new Catholic culture is beginning to come together, like loose stars forming a galaxy -- and part of the core and start of that galaxy is opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on abortion. "The result," Bottum claims, "is the beginning of a new culture: a new Catholicism that, at its best, simply bypasses the stalemates of the 1970s."

While perhaps a simplistic theory, it's got many good points and insights. The whole article is well-worth reading and pondering, and is available free online. Of particular note to me, as a young Catholic, was what he said about us. He argues that there is a growing disconnect with young Catholics from older Catholics and leaders -- even bishops.

I quote quite liberally because he says it better than I could:

These were serious Catholic kids—daily communicants, pro-life marchers, soup-kitchen volunteers, members of perpetual-adoration societies. They were showing off a little for their guest, no doubt: taking stronger positions than they actually feel, arguing for the joy of arguing, the way college students do. It was revealing, however, that when one of them shyly mentioned the Tridentine Mass at the renegade chapel in Garden Grove, the others shouted her down.

Sure, they agreed, pretty Masses are better than ugly ones, and they all preferred high-churchy smells and bells to guitar services and liturgical dance: the things their parents’ generation, poor souls, fondly imagined would “engage today’s youth.” But the radical traditionalists seemed cut from the same cloth as the radical revisionists—and the students dismissed all that kind of 1970s stuff as simultaneously boring and infuriating: the self-obsession and self-glorification of the two sides that, between them, had wrecked Catholic culture in this country. We live with a million aborted babies a year, daily scandals of corruption in the Church, millions of uncatechized Catholic children, and this is what those tired old biddies are still squabbling over?

“You remember how, you know, the old hippie types used to say, ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’? Well, they were right. Only it was their own generation they were talking about,” the thin, quiet one in the back announced as we pulled up to the hotel. “You can see it clearly out here in California. That whole generation of Catholics in America, basically everybody formed before 1978, is screwed up. Left, Right, whatever....The best of them were failures, and the worst of them were monsters.”

- - - - - - -

This quick, irritated impatience seems common in the emerging Catholic culture. You find it in the parishioners of the Polish Dominicans working at Columbia University, and in the conservatives gathered around the political theorist Robert George at Princeton. For that matter, it is present among the graduate students at such places as Notre Dame and Boston College, and among the younger theology professors around the country. The public figures of the new culture—the Catholic lawyers, magazine writers, and think-tank analysts—have it in spades: an intolerance, an exasperation, with everything that preoccupied an entire generation of American Catholics.

- - - - - - -

Still, in at least one sense, these Catholics seem right to reject the battles of the recent past. The greatest work of John Paul II may prove his reintegration of Vatican II into the history of the Catholic Church: a swerve, a changing of the trajectory that both sides in the 1970s had assumed could not be altered. Far too many in those days believed the Second Vatican Council had definitively broken the Catholic Church from its past. Whether they wept or cheered, whether they were traditionalists or spirit-of-Vatican-II reformers, they acted as though the new Church were no longer in continuity with the old Church.

I find myself all too often getting pulled into these battles, taking various side, letting myself get angry and worked up...I find myself stepping back -- or yanking myself back -- into remembering my "JPII heritage." Ultimately Bottum's point about the pro-life movement gathering together a new Catholic culture that is ready to change our culture is tied up with the efforts of Pope John Paul the Great to preach an authentic vision of the Second Vatican Council and of the nature of man.

For me as a young Catholic, and for the many, many other young Catholics I know, this is what it's about: seeking through Jesus Christ the wisdom that answers the two great questions we have, that is, Who is God, and What is man? College students embark on their journey with these questions and there is a certain sickness that I feel when I think of how many get the wrong answers -- even by Catholic priests and teachers of the faith.

Pope John Paul was, for so many of us, the living icon of this answer. He was the genuine leader in whose shadow you could trace the life and teachings of the One he followed. More and more Catholic young people are growing up with the benefit of his scholarship: we are people whose whole lives have been informed by a rich, Catholic view of who we are and how we are to live. For us, the Church's answers to the hot-button questions of contraception, homosexuality, abortion, ESC research, the death penalty and female ordination are beautiful -- and more than that, they are true. To say that the teachings on those subjects in particular are true and beautiful is more than a little scandalous to many older Catholics I know -- almost as though I've crossed some invisible line that has actually called my Christianity into question.

One of the hallmarks, in my opinion, of this new, growing breed of young Catholics is not so much the rejection of the warring camps that Bottum suggests, but the simple joy with which they embrace Jesus Christ and his Church, the happiness with which they live the tenets of our faith. Those same warring camps are always trying to drag us into their battles -- trying to make us fight on their terms and fit their stereotypes and have their motivations.

But another hallmark is what Bottum mentions and what many of the saints had: the "get out of my way" attitude toward silliness and stalemate rivalries that is what Christ demands. The world is in danger, as it always is: the devil and sin stand to devour the souls of our brothers and sisters, and we must stand in their way -- we must sacrifice and battle and answer the heavenly call to action. There is no time for us to fight a battle that isn't ours and that distracts us needlessly from the task.

In the end, we're trying to be saints and to follow Jesus Christ and prophetic voices like that of Pope John Paul the Great -- we shouldn't care about all the hip buzz terms in lay ministry or whether we're for a "cultic" priesthood or if we like to be under the thumb of Rome or if we lack a pluralistic mindset or why we're too divisive or any of the other endless arguments...we're trying to live for Christ and to love what Christ loves, even those parts that make our culture hiss. And power politics and Church theories and doctrinal fighting cannot stop that.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Religion and science, etc., etc., etc.

Whenever I hear of religion and science I tend to think more in terms of faith and reason, and the miraculous balance that the Catholic Church has achieved between them. It seems like media types aren't the only ones endlessly interested in prolonging a dead war between two's hard to pick who to shake your head at more: those philosophers and thinkers who, generation after generation, insist that we are in the last days of religion, or the Christians who insist that the only reasonable way to read Scripture is an utterly reasonless literal interpretation.

I was treated this morning to a few minutes of local talk radio with call ins debating how Adam and Eve's sons had children and how the story of the Tower of Babel accounts for the different races of the world. Adam and Eve, the fall of man, the drama of salvation -- these are the great themes that interest me to no end...unless the conversation falls into either an obsession with whether our first parents had belly buttons or how the mere thought of anything outside of Darwinian evolution is a threat to democracy.

Time magazine apparently has a story about the debate, titled provcoatively enough: God vs. science: Can religion stand up to the test? I was not aware that religion had anything to prove, nor that science was in the business of testing God. The link I provided is only to a summary; the real story must be paid for, thus I have not read it, but it seems like the usual back and forth, noting that those on the side of what could be called "evangelical atheism" have come into new prominence:

It is not an epithet that fits everyone wielding a test tube. But a growing proportion of the profession is experiencing what one major researcher calls "unprecedented outrage" at perceived insults to research and rationality, ranging from the alleged influence of the Christian right on Bush administration science policy, to the fanatic faith of the 9/11 terrorists, to intelligent design's ongoing claims. Some are radicalized enough to publicly pick an ancient scab -- the idea that science and religion, far from being complementary responses to the unknown, are at utter odds.

I would gladly point anyone interested to this most excellent series of articles on the question of Catholicism and evolution (which was, by the way, adapted for publication in Our Sunday Visitor).

But, as always, Pope Benedict cuts through the chatter with a much simpler, more brilliant summation than I could ever offer:

"Christianity does not posit an inevitable conflict between supernatural faith and scientific progress," he stressed, recalling how "God created human beings, endowed them with reason, and set them over all the creatures of the earth." In this way, man became "the steward of creation and God's 'helper.' ... Indeed, we could say that the work of predicting, controlling and governing nature, which science today renders more practicable than in the past, is itself a part of the Creator's plan."

"Man cannot place in science and technology so radical and unconditional a trust as to believe that scientific and technological progress can explain everything and completely fulfil all his existential and spiritual needs. Science cannot replace philosophy and revelation by giving an exhaustive answer to man's most radical questions: questions about the meaning of living and dying, about ultimate values, and about the nature of progress itself."

There seems to me something almost intrinsically dehumanizes about using "hard science" alone to determine your world view, or to demand that only those things with absolute empirical evidence be allowed into the public life of humanity. And the defense against such a mindset needs to be more than forcing philosophy into every biology textbook.

There is a living and true God who created the universe -- and to the great majority of men who have ever lived, this is common sense. And that same God endowed us with the marvelous ability to study that wide world and grow in our understanding of how it works. To me, the scientist that uses DNA and brain patterns to "prove" that religious sentiments are no more than impulses is as silly and guilty as the religious who claims that evolution isn't real because you can't see it happening in a lab.

To quote the late, great John Paul II: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth."

And to quote popular culture: come on, faith and reason, can't we all just get along?

(UPDATE: I saw on Amy Welborn's blog that she has a link to the whole text of Pope Benedict's comments to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences).

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The devil makes a good argument...

I was on Mark Shea's blog recently and saw a link to this story: "Parish cancels 'Catholic' drag queens' bingo games"

What is most interesting to me is not how the parish of the chancellor of the Archdiocese of San Francisco ended up renting its hall to the notorious "Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence," or how the grassroots strength of Catholics from around the country called and wrote in on this matter until action was, the most interesting part was contrasting the sordid details of this story with the response from the "Sisters" upon their bingo event lease being cancelled. An excerpt:
The primary mission of The Sisters is involvement in and support of the local community. This includes working with and supporting many local community organizations whose ability to serve their constituency is dependent on contributions from charitable groups like the Sisters. Without the thousands of dollars raised by the consistently sold-out monthly bingo event, their services may be cut at a time when charitable giving is more critical than ever.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence believe that our commitment to giving is in alignment with the philosophy of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which represents a cross-section of the San Francisco population. It is unfortunate and extremely disappointing that this appears not to be the case, and that our shared values cannot overcome our differences of opinion when it comes to how we serve the community.

Let's imagine that you only heard that a group gay "Catholics" holding a charitable bingo game had been kicked out of a Catholic parish, then read that group's response. It sounds pretty reasonable, pretty squeaky clean, pretty convincing almost...almost...

I find oftentimes that so much of my frustration comes with the oft-repeated human experience that the devil makes a mighty good argument...and distracts people from common sense. The common sense in this particular story comes in realizing who the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are, and how they were raising charitable funds. From the story:
The next game, featuring master of ceremonies "Peaches Christ" -- was scheduled for Thursday, All Souls Day, when Catholics typically pray for deceased loved ones.

The Sisters' motto "Go and sin some more" is indicative of their use of mockery to express opposition to Catholic moral norms. They are infamous for their offensive street theater, in which they use Catholic symbols and images to shock opponents and entertain allies. Catholics who walked in the West Coast Walk for Life in 2005 and 2006 report they were heckled and jeered with blasphemous catcalls by the group.

- - - - - - -

A Sept. 14 article by "Sister Dana Van Iquity" in the homosexual newspaper San Francisco Bay Times stated, "The long awaited return of the Castro's longest running Bingo – Revival Bingo —kicked off at Ellard Hall on Sept. 7 at 100 Diamond Street and 18th [the address of Most Holy Redeemer] in the heart of the Castro. The new home includes more space, more seating capacity, a big stage, and a brand new sound & video system (thanks to Dave the bear) with all players on one main floor instead of having to hang from the rafters at the old venue. … A gaggle of nuns -- dozens really -- opened the show, carrying candles and acting rather solemn with slow, marching steps. But when the sound system played 'Gonna Make You Sweat,' the Sisters commenced to clapping and dancing wildly down the aisles, getting everyone's energy up."

The article went on to describe sexual "punishments" meted out to participants whose cell phones ring during the game or who call a false bingo. Prizes distributed to winners, according to the article, range from "wines to porn DVDs to sex toys to toasters and more."

So the group basically stands in ridicule and intense mockery of nearly everything that the Catholic Church is, then feigns disapointment that "our shared values cannot overcome our differences of opinion." Well, there are differences of opinion and there are differences of opinion, apparently.

Go read the whole story to see it all