Thursday, June 22, 2006

An Exchange of Questions

A friend sent me the following longish item about abortion, and asked, "How come Lutherans aren't considered at all?"--knowing as he does that I work for a Lutheran organization. I suggested that it could be because Lutheran statements on social issues are generally so long-winded that you have to really want badly to read them. Or it could be that Lutherans, although multitudinous where we live, aren't in the "top three", population-wise, that the article quotes. I don't know the article's origins, but here it is as he sent it to me:

The Bible
Abortion, infanticide and child abandonment were permitted under Roman law at the time of Jesus1. Surprisingly, abortion is never mentioned in the Bible, despite the fact that it has been practiced throughout recorded human history. However, a number of Bible passages may be relevant. These verses and others are often cited as evidence that a fetus is truly a living human being, and deserving the same protection:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (NIV, Luke 1:39-44)

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations." (NAS, Jeremiah 1:4-5)

I will say to God: ... "Your hands shaped me and made me. Will you now turn and destroy me? Remember that you molded me like clay. Will you now turn me to dust again? (NIV, Job 10:2, 8-9)

Several other verses are cited as evidence that a fetus is not a living being. Life is equated with breath throughout the Bible, and this passage seems to suggest that a person is not living until he or she takes a first breath after birth:

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (NIV, Genesis 2:7)

This passage from Exodus seems to say that causing death to a fetus is not as serious a crime as causing death to a person:

"And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman's husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. "But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (NAS, Exodus 21:22-24)

A literal translation of the Hebrew of this passage would be "cause her offspring to be brought forth." It is commonly thought that a miscarriage was meant, but it could mean an early birth where the child survived. Thus, this passage is cited both for and against abortion.

The Bible gives direct guidance on many, many topics, but not on abortion. None of the passages above (nor the many others often cited) were originally intended as statements about abortion, so any conclusions drawn from them represent opinions rather than Biblical evidence.

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court, in its Roe v. Wade decision, ruled that a woman has a right to an abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, the 50 states are still allowed to regulate abortion during the second trimester and prohibit it during the third trimester2. Since that time, abortion has become one of the most controversial and divisive issues within society.

Anti-abortion activists represent one extreme of opinion. They believe life begins at the instant of conception. Therefore, abortion is murder and is prohibited by the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). They strongly support laws banning all or almost all abortions.

However, the belief that life begins at conception does not have clear support from medical science, the Bible, religious tradition or legal tradition. Early Christians apparently did not view abortion as murder until well beyond conception. In the thirteenth century, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas wrote that a soul enters the body at 40 days after conception for males and 80 days for females. That became church doctrine for many centuries, and abortion before the time of ensoulment was not considered a mortal sin. The belief that life begins at conception apparently has its origins in an 1869 decree by Pope Pius IX that abortion at any point in pregnancy was cause for excommunication.3,4

English common law apparently tolerated abortion until "quickening," the first detectable fetal movements, around the fifth month. Similarly, abortion was largely unregulated in the U.S. until the mid 1800s. Anti-abortion laws were passed around 1900, but the primary reasons had to do with the injuries and deaths resulting from unskilled abortions and a struggle for control of medical practice.5

3Tricia Andryszewski, Abortion, Rights, Options and Choices, Millbrook Press, 1996, p.63.
4Donald P. Judges, Hard Choices, Lost Voices, Ivan R. Dee, 1993, pp. 87-90.
5ibid., pp. 84, 90-106.

Church Doctrine
Many churches, including United Church of Christ,18 Episcopal,19 Presbyterian (USA)20 and United Methodist, do not approve of abortion as a means of birth control. However, they support the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, if she deems that is the best choice in her circumstances, and they favor keeping abortion legal. Other churches, including Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist, oppose all abortions and favor making abortion illegal. Here is a sampling of official church positions from the three largest denominations in the U.S.:

Roman Catholic:

2270. Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person - among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.

2271. Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law. From Catechism of the Catholic Church, (c) 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.,

Southern Baptist:

Procreation is a gift from God, a precious trust reserved for marriage. At the moment of conception, a new being enters the universe, a human being, a being created in God's image. This human being deserves our protection, whatever the circumstances of conception. From Position Statements, Copyright (c) 1999 - 2001, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention,

United Methodist:

The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection. We oppose the use of late-term abortion known as dilation and extraction (partial-birth abortion) and call for the end of this practice except when the physical life of the mother is in danger and no other medical procedure is available, or in the case of severe fetal anomalies incompatible with life. We call all Christians to a searching and prayerful inquiry into the sorts of conditions that may warrant abortion. We commit our Church to continue to provide nurturing ministries to those who terminate a pregnancy, to those in the midst of a crisis pregnancy, and to those who give birth. Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel. From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church--2000, ¶161J. Copyright 2000 by The United Methodist Publishing House,

18"Reproductive Rights," United Church of Christ,
19"Acts of Convention: Resolution # 1994-A054," The Episcopal Church,
20"Abortion," Presbyterian Church (USA),

After I sent him my semi-glib reply, my friend wrote back with this:

How can something that was not a sin for roughly 600 years become a sin? If it were the Latter Day Saints I could accept the state of affairs in that the Prophet routinely receives new instructions. Moreover, if I was going for tradition, I would take 600 years over a 137 years twice a day and three times on Sunday.

What you have to understand about my friend is that he doesn't throw things like this at me (and others, sometimes) as a challenge: he genuinely likes to know what people think. And as a retired college prof, he likes to get people to think.

Anyway, I wrote back with this:

It is most passing strange. As I see it, you can coast along for eons thinking something is hunky-dory; then all of a sudden someone in some kind of position of authority decides it is neither hunky nor dory, and is in fact a sin, indeed a mortal sin, and that's that. It's now immutable, and you can't "go back." That's one thing where a church institution is concerned, but I am more than a little concerned about those who would impose such attitudes on so-called secular society--since of course they're always the "authority." Think Leslee Unruh. No, on second thought, don't: it's too close to bedtime and I wouldn't want you to get heartburn.

Here's something you can 'splain to me: If life begins at conception, then why do we (who practice infant baptism) wait till after birth to baptize' Would it not make more sense to take no chances and baptize in utero as soon as the pregnancy is known?

In re excommunication: One wonders if it carries anywhere near the weight it once did. I suppose in some parts of the world, and in some cultures, it does. But I'm not sure that many of us in danger of excommunication subscribe to the belief that the RCC is the One True Faith and that anyone booted out of it is damned. In my case, my attendance at Mass is so slipshod that I'm not sure if I or anyone else would notice if they gave me the bum's rush.

Saints preserve us from everyone who knows what's best for everyone...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Say What?

Here's another bunch of quotations that have been piling up. I think this time all of them--certainly most of them--are from A Word a Day.

We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. --Edward R. Murrow, journalist (1908-1965)

One of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence. --Charles A. Beard, historian (1874-1948)

Most truths are so naked that people feel sorry for them and cover them up, at least a little bit. --Edward R. Murrow, journalist (1908-1965)

A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side. --Aristotle, philosopher (384-322 BCE)

Permanent good can never be the outcome of untruth and violence. --Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

Civilizations in decline are consistently characterised by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity. --Arnold Toynbee, historian (1889-1975)

Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge. --Alfred North Whitehead, mathematician and philosopher (1861-1947)

It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong. --G.K. Chesterton, essayist and novelist (1874-1936)

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. --Horace Mann, educational reformer (1796-1859)

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. --Joseph Addison, essayist and poet (1672-1719)

The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does. --Maurice Barres, novelist and politician (1862-1923)

The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in a while and watch your answers change. --Richard Bach, writer (1936- )

The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book. --Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don't swallow it. --Hank Ketcham, comic artist (1920-2001)

Sit down and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it. --Colette, writer (1873-1954)

Look into any man's heart you please, and you will always find, in every one, at least one black spot which he has to keep concealed. --Henrik Ibsen, playwright (1828-1906)

We shall succeed only so far as we continue that most distasteful of all activity, the intolerable labor of thought. --Learned Hand, jurist (1872-1961)

The question why there is evil in existence is the same as why there is imperfection... But this is the real question we ought to ask: Is this imperfection the final truth, is evil absolute and ultimate? -Rabindranath Tagore, poet, philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel laureate (1861-1941)

There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents... The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provisions should be made to prevent its ascendancy. --Thomas Jefferson, third US president, architect and author (1743-1826)

The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution. --Hannah Arendt, historian and philosopher (1906-1975)

Once you label me you negate me. --Soren Kierkegaard, philosopher (1813-1855)

The trouble with this country is that there are too many politicians who believe, with a conviction based on experience, that you can fool all of the people all of the time. --Franklin P. Adams, columnist (1881-1960)

We either make ourselves happy or miserable. The amount of work is the same. --Carlos Castenada, mystic and author (1925-1998)

I found one day in school a boy of medium size ill-treating a smaller boy. I expostulated, but he replied: 'The bigs hit me, so I hit the babies; that's fair.' In these words he epitomized the history of the human race. --Bertrand Russell, philosopher, mathematician, and author (1872-1970)

One of the oldest human needs is having someone to wonder where you are when you don't come home at night. --Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1901-1978)

When I reflect upon the number of disagreeable people who I know have gone to a better world, I am moved to lead a different life. --Mark Twain, author and humorist (1835-1910)

We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. --Edward R. Murrow, journalist (1908-1965)

When work is a pleasure, life is a joy! When work is a duty, life is slavery. --Maxim Gorky, author (1868-1936)

Nothing doth more hurt in a state than that cunning men pass for wise. --Francis Bacon, essayist, philosopher, and statesman (1561-1626)

There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all. --Ogden Nash, author (1902-1971)

There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in. --Leonard Cohen, musician (1934- )

One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy. --E.B. White, writer (1899-1985

Sunday, June 18, 2006

And Yet the Myth Persists...

...that Catholic traditions are unchanging.

I refer, of course, to the proposed "new" English translation of the Mass that was foolishly approved by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last week. "Foolishly" because, I can only assume, the bishops did not hear their clunky translation actually spoken aloud -- otherwise they would never have approved anything as unmelodic as "the Lord be with you" / "And also with your spirit"--"new" because half of what I've read actually sounds like a return to phrases from the Mass of my childhood ("Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" is virtually identical to the phrase in use when I took my first communion all those years ago--except it was "come" rather than "enter," and the whole "roof" thing generated a great debate among we second-grade theologians (not second-rate, mind: we were in the second grade) about whether that referred to the roof of one's mouth). Some of it, of course, isn't new at all--there's a reference in this Religion News Service article (via BeliefNet) to the "Dying you destroyed our death" version of the Mystery of Faith: It's not used as often as "Christ has died," but it's used, and it's been in the book forever. Chalk one up for lazy reporters.

However, "the book" brings up another issue that I doubt the bishops have considered, viz., nobody uses the book. I observed quite a few years ago that I was the only one around me who was actually using the throwaway missal that churches go to great expense (I assume) to subscribe to. When that happened, I couldn't say; but it's obvious that everyone has memorized the liturgy, or at least the applicable parts, and have no use of the book. So a change in the wording of the Mass is going to cause a great deal of confusion. The bishops seem to think that an additional expense--laminated cards--will take care of the problem. I think I'd be more in favor of encouraging priests to encourage the faithful to pick up the %$#@! book that's sitting right in front of them, since of course the book will have to be changed if/when Rome approves the alteration, it the publishers want to keep their nihil obstats and imprimaturs and all that other stuff.

Meanwhile, I have to decide if I will "forget" to say "And with your spirit," just as I "forget" to open my arms for the Lord's Prayer. (When did we start doing that? And why, oh, why? Am I the only one who keeps his eyes open and realizes that we look like a bunch of people who are going to start handling snakes at any moment?) The stubborn Irish in me thinks I might just be forgetful; on the other hand, do I want to come off like the old ladies who sit behind us at my wife's Lutheran (ELCA) church and always say, " holy, Christian, and apostolic church" in the Apostle's Creed, even though the book has the lowercase catholic and has had for the 25 years I've been hanging around Lutheran churches? Are these women forgetful, stubborn, ignorant, or anti-Catholic? Will I, if "forgetful," be rightly perceived as a poet who detests the bad pacing of "And also with your spirit" (and what the hell does that mean, exactly? The priest does not say, "The Lord be with your spirit" to me; why should I say "And also with your spirit" to him? It not only sounds bad, it's illogical) or one of the old coots who can't/won't keep up with change?

Decisions, decisions. Thanks for nothing, bishops.