Saturday, July 28, 2012

Questions arising from the church's teaching on birth control

Lately church hierarchy finds literally re-translating things from source Latin to English a very important activity.  They did this for the Mass, telling the faithful it rendered a more accurate and beautiful translation.  Like the Mass text, papal encyclicals are written originally in Latin and then translated.  I am sorry to report that the current English translation of the papal encyclical on birth control, Humanae Vitae, suffers from dynamic translation issues much like the former Mass translation did.  Surely the same Vatican officials who forced the new Mass translation have endured many sleepless nights regarding this.  Therefore, in the interest of easing the worries of those literal Latin enthusiasts and since today ends National “Natural Family Planning Awareness Week” in the U.S., I thought a literal re-translation of Humanae Vitae was very fitting. 

Humanae Vitae contains a few key statements, one of which supposedly pertains to every occasion of sexual intercourse needing to be open to conception.  The official Latin text says this:
Verumtamen Ecclesia, dum homines commonet de observandis praeceptis legis naturalis, quam constanti sua doctrina interpretatur, id docet necessarium esse, ut quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus permaneat.

Humanae Vitae’s English translation appearing on the Vatican website, reads:
The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.

But a literal translation actually finds the document says this:
The truth however, the Church, urging humans to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which constant is interpreted by her doctrine, teaches that it is necessary that each use of marriage, by itself to the procreation of human life, was destined to continue.

The literal translation has a different meaning than the current English translation.   Awkwardly or perhaps as the traditionalist Catholic might say, “More poetically” the corrected translation asserts that each use of marriage by itself was destined to continue the procreation of human life, i.e. result in bringing forth offspring, i.e. conceive.  This statement actually contradicts the immediate preceding statements in the document. 
Revera, ut usu noscitur, non ex unaquaque coniugali congressione nova exoritur vita. Deus enim naturales leges ac tempora fecunditatis ita sapienter disposuit, ut eadem iam per se ipsa generationes subsequentes intervallent.

Literally translated this says:
The fact is, as experience shows, not out of each and every act of conjugal union arises a new life. For God and the times of the natural laws of fertility so wisely arranged that the generations of the same by itself now spaced.

Unfortunately the Vatican’s English translation again employs a more dynamic translation that must be considered as offensive to the hierarchy as the former dynamic Mass translation.
The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse. God has wisely ordered laws of nature and the incidence of fertility in such a way that successive births are already naturally spaced through the inherent operation of these laws.

A couple of things to observe:
1.  Humanae Vitae pertains only to married people.  It repeatedly speaks about conjugal union or the marriage act.  The word “coitus” refers to “sexual intercourse” in general.  The word “conjugal” means, “of or pertaining to marriage or the relations between husband and wife.” 
2.  Reassembling the paragraph’s flow, Humanae Vitae says that not every act of conjugal union arises in new life due to natural spacing of fertility but the church has always taught that each use of marriage is destined to conceive.  Simplified even further, it says that although each act of conjugal union doesn’t result in conception, we’ve always taught it does.  Oh, o.k…. 

By the way, the church teaches that each and every act of sexual intercourse (versus conjugal union) should remain open to the conception of children.  However, that is not what the Latin actually says.  Yet that is what church leaders teach.

Another key statement in Humanae Vitae is this:
Item quivis respuendus est actus, qui, cum coniugale commercium vel praevidetur vel efficitur vel ad suos naturales exitus ducit, id tamquam finem obtinendum aut viam adhibendam intendat, ut procreatio impediatur.

Literally translated, it means this:
Likewise to be spat out, is any act which in anticipation of or after conjugal relations, or effected by or to its natural outcomes proposes whether as an end or the way it intends to be applied in order to render procreation impossible.

Sadly again I must show the English translation from the Vatican website, exposing its deviances from a literal translation:
Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.

Much like the literalist believes metaphorical phrases like “dewfall” are so important to recapture in the Mass translation, I think we should insist upon the literal translation of Human Vitae that preserves poetic phrases like “spat out.”  Anyway, simply stated, literal translation of the Latin tells us that married people should not do things that make it impossible to procreate, i.e. conceive.

This is a very interesting statement to ponder.  The church teaches that God is all-powerful, even causing a virgin to conceive.  Mary doubted this asking the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, “How is this possible since I haven’t had relations with a man (LK 1:34)?”  But the angel of the Lord reassured her, “…for nothing will be impossible for God (LK 1:37).” 

Doesn’t this statement in Humanae Vitae directly contradict what the messenger of God stated?  Doesn’t it limit God, making God less than all-powerful?  Isn’t this grievously problematic from a theological standpoint: both refuting a message from the Lord, and limiting the power of God?  Indeed Jesus’ conception outside of the marriage act and Mary’s unwillingness to have sexual relations with her husband directly violate church teachings.  This seems problematic too.

Regardless, every method of birth control has incidences where conceptions still occur.  This seems to highlight that God is more powerful than human efforts to prevent pregnancy.  Thus, is it even possible to suggest married couples can render conception impossible if God wills a conception should occur?

The church teaches that married people cooperate with God to bring forth new life.  This is a very humbling and beautiful thing.  Humanae Vitae discusses what does or doesn’t constitute cooperating with God’s will for conceiving children.  Though it proposes to re-examine church teachings based upon new understandings, it actually doesn’t.  It just regurgitates centuries-old teachings and basically says they are right “because we always said they were right and we said we’re always right too so we were right”.  In the world of logic, this is a classic example of the logic error called, “circular logic.”

Nonetheless, Humanae Vitae examines some important concerns such as the possibility governments might try to control conception.  The Chinese government with its one-child law comes close to this regulating number of births though not specific timing of conception.  Therefore, Humanae Vitae does pose some valid questions for society to ponder.

Laying aside the debate about what does or doesn’t constitute married people cooperating with God’s will, aspects of Humanae Vitae are improperly taught.  For example birth control usage in any circumstance is declared evil though Humanae Vitae only applies to married relations.  In the meantime, more than 40% of births occur to unwed mothers.  Wouldn’t it seem reasonable for the church to encourage unmarried people who engage in sexual relations to use birth control as the lesser of two evils?  Promoting the lesser of two evils is regularly used within Catholic moral theology.

Finally, in honor of the week’s theme, I must say something about Natural Family Planning (NFP).  In Humanae Vitae, the church clearly teaches that NFP is o.k. even though its intention is to prevent conception.  As an aside, by definition, that is contraception – something that tries to avoid conception – though NFP advocates vehemently deny it is contraception.  Nonetheless, permission of contraception while banning contraception is another example of the document contradicting itself.  Humanae Vitae splits this hair by saying that in one case contraception occurs while open to conception though trying to avoid it, while in the other cases contraception occurs while trying to avoid conception.  This is curious because according to NFP resources, NFP methods have as high or higher effectiveness rates than the other contraceptive methods.  So it would seem that since other methods result in as many or more pregnancies, they are every bit as or more open to conception as NFP.  It would also seem that NFP is more capable of avoiding pregnancy and thereby frustrating God’s will, thus making it more evil than other forms of birth control.

The document also states that using contraceptive methods for non-contraceptive purposes is o.k.  For example someone with endometriosis is o.k. to use hormone therapy, i.e. the birth control pill.  Here’s a little table to summarize the church’s teaching:   

Husband and Wife Intend to Prevent Conception
Husband and Wife Don’t Intend to Prevent Conception
Natural Family Planning
Other forms of birth control

I also think “Natural Family Planning” is a misnomer.  A woman tracking the thickness of her cervical mucus and taking her temperature regularly are not natural parts of a woman’s day.  They are not natural precursors to marital relations.  These contraceptive methods are called “natural” because they are said to cooperate with nature versus other contraceptive methods that evidently are believed to not cooperate with nature. 

Again this raises serious theological questions.  The church teaches God is the creator of everything – everything – that includes contraceptive devices does it not?  Indeed scripture explains that humans have no power except that which God permits and that God reveals only that which God chooses to reveal.  Thus, is it not good theology to say that God has given us these contraceptive devices because God could have confused the minds of humans preventing them from discovering these capabilities?

I guess the thing that keeps plaguing me though as I reflect upon Humanae Vitae is this: Why does the church’s hierarchy believe in such a weak God?  How powerful is the God in which you believe?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Why will the NCAA move quickly to protect children but the Vatican won't?

I sent this email to my bishop today.  I was encouraged to post it on my blog.  As background for readers outside the United States, today the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) announced severe sanctions for Pennsylvania State University's (Penn State or PSU) football program in response to exposure of the university's culture that harbored a pedophile assistant coach for over a decade.  The former assistant coach was found guilty of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys, misusing his position with the university and being enabled by the university's head coach and multiple officials.  
Dear bishop,

I think Penn State will heal from their child abuse scandal sooner than the church though the enabling factors were quite similar.  The reason I think they will heal sooner is tied to this article about the NCAA sanctions. 

The NCAA must have children to exist because they feed the program.  This is the same as the church. 

However, the NCAA is a true governing body over the individual entities (schools).  They work carefully to maintain proper boundaries and eliminate conflicts of interests.  In contrast, the individual parishes and dioceses somewhat answer to the Vatican.  The Vatican is fickle as to when it intercedes or doesn't.  Also, the Vatican seems to place a higher value on their brotherhood than the children needed to justify having a brotherhood to begin with.  Perhaps this is because the Vatican brotherhood seems tainted to make decisions that preserve their best interests versus ones in the best interests of the church.  Often the two seem to conflict.  In the professional realm, the church's governance model would be seen as a nightmare or joke.  It operates under a dated managerial model that has been repeatedly demonstrated to be ineffective if not detrimental to the organization at large.  Who in the church hierarchy studies modern models of organizational dynamics and organizational theory?

Back to the NCAA - they know that they must restore trust of children and parents or their entire being is threatened.  They need to make a bold statement (with these reparative and punitive sanctions).  They need to send a strong signal to children, parents and coaches that such behavior as occurred at PSU WILL NOT BE TOLERATED, and the perpetrators and enablers WILL NOT BE LAUDED IN ANY WAY.  The perpetrators and enablers are not models to emulate.

Conversely, the Vatican tries to diminish the severity of the abuse claims, skirt the issue, and deal with the victims only when forced.  They fail to acknowledge the collateral damage to their credibility to the church at large.  Cardinal Law, one of the worst enablers of perpetrators has been rewarded rather than reformed.  He makes over $200k/year - far more than the vast majority of families in the world.  He has a prestigious position at Santa Maria Maggiore.  Thus, few people take the Vatican seriously that they care about the children.   If the Vatican told Law, Finn, Rigali, etc.... that they personally must pay from their treasuries (which are far greater than an apostle should have, btw) for child abuse prevention programs - that would make a positive impression.  If these same guys were stripped of their laudatory titles such as bishop, cardinal, etc.... that would make a positive impression.  If these guys were made to work as parish priests (vicars - not even pastors) working with the poor in inner cities, that would make a positive impression.  But dragging feet, and then making weak conciliatory gestures all the while that laudatory titles remain, and positions are given with higher remuneration than 90% of the world - that makes a profound negative impression - that is almost irreparable. That is what the Vatican and bishops have chosen to do and that is why their credibility will continue to spiral and the sheep will continue to scatter.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

On sheep and shepherds...

Catholic clergy call themselves “shepherds” tending their flock of sheep.  This Sunday’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah indicates that God will hold religious shepherds accountable, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  What causes sheep to scatter?  How do shepherds mislead God’s flock?

Last Sunday’s reading from Amos 7 gives some insight into shepherding.  Amos says, “I am a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores, but the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ …”   I added the bold and italics for emphasis.  Shepherds follow their flocks versus rope, drag or parade before them.  Flocks actually follow leader sheep within the group, and shepherds in turn follow the flock.  When shepherds want the flock to go somewhere, they must get the leader sheep to go there first. 

Sheep are born fairly independent so they graze dispersed.  However they remain close enough to flock together when frightened or threatened because they lack individual defense capabilities.  Sheep consider most humans to be predators and flock away from them but through sustained lack of inflicting harm, sheep learn to trust their shepherd.  Thus good shepherds must spend most of their time with sheep to gain and retain trust. 

Periodically the flock must be led to fresh pastures or it will overgraze the area and eventually suffer food shortage or starvation.  Therefore shepherds sometimes instill fear in the flock such as by using herding dogs so the flock bands together and moves.  However, sheep thrived before shepherds domesticated them so instinctively they will move to fresh pastures even without a shepherd.   

What’s the purpose of shepherds?  They try to prevent untimely sheep deaths so that each sheep dies when the owner decides, thus maximizing profits from fleece, milk and eventually meat.  Because sheep are so valuable, good shepherds don’t leave any sheep behind, drive then from the flock or inflict damage upon them.  Instead, the shepherd offers personal care, binding wounds, attending, nursing, or even carrying injured or sick sheep to keep the flock as large and profitable as possible.  Thus, “scattered” sheep occur when neglectful shepherds repeatedly abandon injured and sick sheep that cannot stay with the flock as it moves.  Or, “scattered” flocks occur when some sheep follow leader sheep to fresh pastures while a comfortable shepherd refuses to move.  

With hundreds of Christian denominations the second largest of which in the U.S. being ex-Catholics, and the vast majority of Catholics worldwide not regularly attending Mass, one might justifiably observe that the current shepherds are textbook examples of scattering and misleading sheep.  Woe to them. 

How did this occur?  Recent history mimics the church’s long history.  Many ecclesial shepherds spend more time with other shepherds than with sheep.  Others openly refuse to interact with sheep such as my own pastor refusing correspondence from me.  Thus they don’t know their sheep and their sheep don’t know them.  Subsequently their sheep don’t trust or listen to them. 

Historically church shepherds also fight flock movement.  They want the sheep to continue grazing on the same patch of grass that fed the flock for two thousand years.  Actually, this is hailed amongst the shepherds as a positive thing called “Sacred Tradition”, an institutionalization of restricting the flock’s movement.  “This is the same blade of grass that Ignatius of Antioch ate in the first century A.D.  Surely it must be good enough for you, little sheep.”  Meanwhile, the sheep are saying, “Um….that blade of grass is kinda dead…not so nutritious...”  Large portions of the flock, following leader sheep, have moved to life sustaining pastures but the shepherds have not followed the flock.   

Furthermore, numerous leader sheep have actually been driven from the flock for pointing to fresh pastures.  For example, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have censured or excommunicated about 100 theologians for pointing to fresh pastures.  Granted, one might counter that the shepherds banished those sheep because they felt the new pastures contained unhealthy grass.  Even if that were true, good shepherds don’t drive such sheep away.  They draw even closer to them.  Also, I would ask this, “To which new pastures have the shepherds led the flock?”  Many sheep suffer spiritual starvation grazing only in the same two thousand year old pasture and so they follow leader sheep seeking sustenance.  

The shepherds feign threats drawing on the flocking instinct but they do not do this to move the flock but rather to convince the flock to remain in the same overgrazed pasture.  However, many sheep feel the shepherds’ obstinacy poses a greater risk to the flock than the things the shepherds call threats.  Some things the shepherds call threats the sheep actually know keep them healthy.  Again, trust is lost and sheep won’t listen to the shepherds.

Thousands of shepherds have injured sheep by raping the lambs.  The brotherhood of shepherds protected their brotherhood more than the flock.  Once shepherds inflict such unspeakable harm on the flock, they lose all trust and are viewed as predators.  Sheep flock away from predators; they don’t follow them.  Such loss of trust is not easily overcome if overcome at all.  Because they spend most of their time bandying about with other shepherds, they do not understand sheep and are frustrated that this broken trust continues to plague them.  Rather than address it, they deny and minimize it which only further erodes trust.  Rather than care for the injured, many shepherds whimper that they are actually the injured ones. 

A sick notion that is a direct affront to Jesus’ teachings currently floats amongst the ultra-pious.  Such people believe the dwindling flock is a positive thing because it results in a “purer” church.  Meanwhile geneticist say that the purer the breed, the weaker, more vulnerable and emotionally unstable it is.  Such breeds suffer from inbreeding, shrinking the gene pool and allowing the amplification of weak, recessive traits.  “Purification” impedes survival.  Is this why scripture says, “…thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds (Jer 23:2).”?  God is not looking for a purified flock but rather desires the biggest bleating flock possible.

Sheep’s choices seem limited.  Wandering individually carries the danger of lost flock protection yet some sheep assume this risk. The remaining choices seem to be either risk starvation in the 2,000 year overgrazed pasture in which the shepherds reside, or follow leader sheep to other pastures.  No wonder the flock is scattered; the shepherds are culpable, not leader or individual sheep.  But laying blame doesn’t feed starving sheep. 

What are hungry sheep to do?  First, scripture reassures us, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them and bring them back to their folds; there they shall be fruitful and multiply (Jer 23:3).”  God protects sheep, “banishing” them from incompetent shepherds.  Look at your shepherds.  Do they exclude, reject or censure anyone?  If they do, should you follow them or does God “banish” you away from such harmful men?  Next, look within yourself.  Are you called to be a leader sheep, helping guide starving sheep to fresher grazing grounds?  If not, who seems to be a healthy leader sheep?  Follow them.  Finally, don’t worry; good shepherds will follow the flock.  May God send us good shepherds and in the meantime, may we flock together for protection.

P.S.  Keep in mind that at times such as now when the church's leadership teemed with corruption, God sent us many saints.  Often those saints were viewed by the corrupt leaders as heretics but were later canonized.  There are far worse things in life than being rejected or censured by inept or corrupt shepherds.  Fear not.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How does ancient Greek medicine impact the church today?

Beginning around the 4th century B.C., ancient Greeks held that human health was controlled by balancing four essential fluids called “humors”: blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.  When balanced, there was good health and when imbalanced there was disease.  Humanity has rejected most ancient Greek misconceptions about human biology, psychology, medicine and sexuality.  Yet, some of those flawed secular beliefs still influence Catholic teachings today. 

Ancient Greeks believed combinations of four elements (air, water, fire, and earth) formed everything in the universe.  Four levels of human digestion, controlled by the four humors converted these four elements into the body for use.  Each humor processed an element that was considered hot or cold, and wet or dry as described in the table at the end of this article.

Ancient Greeks also believed the human body had four principle organs: brain, heart, liver and gonads.  The brain thought, the heart felt, the liver controlled digestion and moods via the four humors, and the gonads controlled sexuality.    Furthermore, “radical moisture” from too much of the wet humors overflowed forming secondary sexual characteristics.  

Since men emitted their “radical moisture” during sexual intercourse, sex was considered depleting to males.  Withholding these fluids was believed to preserve youth and vitality, somewhat striving towards godly immortality.  Does this mentality still influence the staunch yet theologically unfounded attachment to priestly celibacy? 

Man’s “radical moisture” was believed to contain the “seeds of life.”  Woman’s womb was considered just a fertile vessel to receive the seeds.  This is rather inverted from reality.  Woman’s egg is the seed; man’s “radical moisture” initially fertilizes the egg and disintegrates upon conception though ongoing nourishment does come from the womb.  Nonetheless, the church deemed spilling man’s “radical moisture” outside of heterogeneous intercourse a sinful waste of “seeds of life”.    Why is emitting imaginary seeds from man considered a sin while emitting actual seeds from woman not?      

Since ancient Greeks believed women conceived children by merely acting as passive vessels, they also believed “natural” female psychological disposition should be receptive, passive, submissive and demure.  Meanwhile men, needing a fertile garden for their life-propagating seeds, were believed naturally disposed to aggressive outward searching. In reality women carry seeds in need of fertilizer.  Should female disposition therefore include natural outward aggressive searching for fertilizer instead?

Unfortunately Ancient Greek’s incorrect understandings about sexuality, gender roles, biology and psychology pervade Catholic theology.  For example John Paul II teaches that woman is “given” to man as though a passive object.  The man’s “gift” to her is that he accepts her, like she was a toaster or ’69 Corvette or something.  Man “enriches” her by pouring out his masculinity upon her, sort of like how a car benefits from someone’s doting attention.  Woman’s body is described as primarily being designed to “receive” the gift of life via children, though she already contains the seed of life and accepts man’s fertilizer. 

The church teaches woman’s role ties overwhelmingly and primarily to motherhood.  Since she has a uterus, it must be the most defining important part of her.  Since she has a uterus, it should be maximally employed, sort of like maximizing the utilization of a truck’s cargo hold.  Such concepts based on errant secular science in turn fuel the church’s discrimination and marginalization of women.    

These ill-founded gender notions impact more than individual women.  The bishops call the church, i.e., the masses of laypeople, a female, married to male clergy.  They expect the female church to act like women “should” by being submissive as they disseminate their manly seeds of eternal life to fertile gardens.  Inserting the corrected biology into the theological reasoning don’t we arrive at this - since females carry the seeds of life, shouldn’t the female church comprised of laypeople sow the seeds of eternal life?  In turn, doesn’t that make the male clergy’s contribution analogous to fertilizer which disintegrates upon conception?

Church theology and dogma are based upon Aristotle’s philosophy in addition to his teachings on biology.   He (and St. Thomas Aquinas) believed objects had a nature with an inviolable purpose.  Theology and dogma grew from this concept by first declaring “the” purpose of something and then declaring “sinful” any deviation from that purpose.  So, sexual intercourse was deemed to have a procreative purpose “by nature.”  Violating that natural purpose was and is considered sinful by the church.

The notion of a single inviolable purpose is not universally enforced.  If it were, eating or drinking anything beyond what is required for nutrition would be sinful.  Nonetheless, the church teaches that sex with its inviolable procreative purpose must always be open to conceiving children.  Hence the church bans artificial birth control. 

The church also teaches that conception must occur from the “two in one flesh” unity of husband and wife.  Separating procreation or procreative functions from “the marriage act” is forbidden.  Thus the church also deems things like artificial insemination sinful because they occur outside of sexual intercourse or require collecting the man’s “radical moisture” outside of intercourse. Yet, God created Jesus outside of the marriage act.  This seems to pose a difficult either/or question: is it that the bishops believe Jesus, conceived outside of the marriage act, was conceived in sin or do they believe through Jesus’ conception outside the marriage act that God approves conceptions outside the marriage act?        

Over the last few thousand years many things have disproven foundational understandings about science, nature, biology, sexuality, philosophy and psychology.  These foundational understandings themselves were not religious dogma.  But religious dogma was built upon them.  So if advances in secular knowledge disprove secular foundations upon which theology and dogma are based, the theological and dogmatic stories fall like a house of cards unless the theology and dogma accommodate change. 

With the infallibility doctrine, church leaders painted themselves into a corner, preventing themselves from changing dogma as humanity continues to learn.  Since they refuse to change their dogma and scientific understandings no longer support their dogma, they see scientific advancements as threats they must discredit. 

However, this is difficult because the science that shakes their dogmatic foundation is commonly taught at the high school level or earlier.  The church loses many youth because the average high school graduate accepts scientific advancements made since the 4th century B.C. while the bishops do not.  In response the bishops focus on turning Catholic schools and youth groups into ideological institutes, trying desperately to retain some youth who will inhabit a 4th century B.C. world with them. 

Tragically, the bishops also respond by clinging to the ancient yet proven to be ineffective if not fatal practice of bleeding the body.  Clinging to their dogma based upon flawed secular science they encourage if not rejoice as people leave the church, the Body of Christ.  What can be done to stop the bleeding?  What responsibility do we have in refusing the bishops’ damaging archaic bodily healing practices?  Are the bishops beyond amendment?

Many thanks to my children for inspiring this article.

Element Processed
Hot and wet
Life’s essence distributing inhaled air’s energy throughout the body
Cold and wet
Moistening and nourishing the body
Yellow bile
Hot and dry
Opening lungs, acting as a laxative, and thinning blood
Black bile
Cold and dry
Blood’s sediment taking and depositing earth minerals in the bones