Marriage Wars

September 20, 2011

On a transatlantic flight this summer, I found myself watching Bride Wars—not, to be sure, my first choice for entertainment.

The movie was nothing special:  a scheduling glitch turns best friends Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson into enemies when their weddings at the Plaza Hotel end up falling on the same day; after ruining each other’s ceremonies, in the end, they reconcile.  At around the same time I saw the movie, the New York legislature was voting to legalize gay “marriage,” which made me take the film a bit more seriously than I might have otherwise.  (And probably more seriously than the film deserved.)

One line in particular struck me as off.  As they sit giggling and awed in her office, famed wedding planner Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) tells the brides-to-be, “A wedding marks the first day of the rest of your lives.”

The line rang a false note because both of the future brides were already living with their boyfriends, and had been for some time, so it was hard to see what was going to change so radically in their lives.  For both of the women, the wedding itself—the party and ceremony and dresses and flowers and location—was what really mattered, not any change in lifestyle or family structure.

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Pontius Pilate, Postmodern American

April 18, 2011

Nathan’s post on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last year generated a lot of discussion and ended with an intriguing question:  “Why does Pilate always get so much empathy from us?”

It would be easy, at this point, to start tossing around charges of anti-Semitism, charges which would allow us to feel a certain measure of moral superiority over those less enlightened than ourselves.  Then we could pray like the righteous Pharisee, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, anti-Semites like Mel Gibson over there” (Lk 18:10).

Throwing around such charges is a way of doing precisely the same thing that blaming the Jews for the crucifixion once did:  deflecting guilt from ourselves.  I would suggest a far more troubling answer to the question, “Why do we empathize with Pilate?”

Because Pontius Pilate is the character in the Passion who is most like us.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Catholics and abortion: Single-issue voting? (Part III)

January 31, 2011

Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial.  I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable.  I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult.  Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide.  Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.

I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument.  When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts.  So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.

There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.

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Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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Catholics and abortion: A test of faith (Part I)

January 17, 2011

Because of teaching commitments here in Chicago I will not be able to join the growing number of young Jesuits, their students, and colleagues at the annual March for Life this weekend.  I thought I would use the occasion of the March, however, to address a challenge posed to me nearly a year ago in this blog’s discussion of health care reform:  why is it that Catholics—and American Catholics specifically—are so concerned with the issue of abortion?  Haven’t the American Catholic bishops in particular allowed themselves to be hijacked by this one issue?

Commonweal board member George Dennis O’Brien argues essentially this point in a new book titled A Catholic Dissent, the content of which one can surmise from the title.  In a very different way, Joseph Bottum, editor of the journal First Things, also claims that abortion has become a primary marker of the cultural identity of American Catholics.  Even if one agrees with Bottum that the pro-life cause is a significant marker of Catholic identity, it does not follow that it should be so.

The observations of O’Brien and Bottum raise two related questions:  first, should opposition to abortion be treated as constitutive of Catholic identity?  Is it really that central to our faith?  Second, should Catholics make abortion issue number one politically?  Should it be prioritized above other issues?  I’ll look at the first, more theological question, today and the second in two posts to follow. Read the rest of this entry »


Death and taxes

December 16, 2010

I have to confess that given my vow of poverty I tend to think quite a bit more about death than taxes.  And, for similar reasons, I don’t claim to be an expert on any and every political issue, even though here in the blogosphere that’s not always a bar to offering an opinion.

But I’ve been watching the progress of the tax compromise moving its way through Congress this week and there’s something about it that reminds me of the ocean… maybe it’s that fishy smell…

Perhaps my calculator is broken; perhaps my taste for irony is just that much stronger than my taste for Keynesian economics; perhaps I spent too much time around a grandfather who paid for his house in cash; but something in this “compromise” doesn’t make sense to me.  Something, in fact, seems wrong, and I’m beginning to suspect that what is wrong has a moral tinge to it, instead of being an accounting oops or a technical legislative flaw.

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