Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 3

Posted: August 10th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

This next post in the series has been a long time coming. So if you want to review the earlier posts in the series, here are links to them.

I ended my last post with the question I often hear posed by other Christians to each other and sometimes even to me. What about the fate of those in groups who believe things about God that are wrong? That group could and probably does include all of us, after all. That question seems to flow from the odd obsession within at least parts of modern Christianity about whether or not this or that group or this or that individual is “saved.” I can’t really discern the source of that obsession. I could speculate, but it would be pure speculation. I understood immediately the old Romanian monk I once saw in a video who said (in subtitles) something like, “All will be saved and I alone will be damned.” I don’t understand most of my fellow American Christians on this topic at all.

I do think it has something to do with the way so much of Christianity has externalized salvation and damnation as something done to humanity by God rather than something that (at least when it comes to “damnation“) to a large degree we collectively do to ourselves. Do we turn to Jesus of Nazareth, follow him, receive healing, and find our life, our only life, in God? Or do we turn away toward death and dehumanize ourselves?

We are saved together, but we are damned alone” is a truism of the Christian faith. In one of his podcasts, Fr. John touches on this inescapable nature of Christianity. It’s a podcast worth pausing for ten minutes and absorbing, especially if you’ve externalized salvation and damnation as something done to you rather than with you.

I still find The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis one of the best illustrations of this principle at work. I think it’s important that anyone reading this understand something of my spiritual situation when I was eleven and twelve years old. (I don’t remember exactly when I read the Narnia series for the first time, but it was one of those years.) I was living inside the loop in the Montrose area of Houston. I was then attending a Catholic school, St. Anne’s, after having attending many different public and private school in various parts of the country. I was not Catholic, though I guess I would say I identified as Christian, having been baptized some years earlier. I sometimes attended youth group activities at South Main Baptist Church. I also have distinct and vivid memories of receiving communion at an Episcopal Church, though I don’t recall which one. However, I also remember attending Hindu and Jewish ceremonies. My parents hosted a number of different events, including a past life regression seminar that also imprinted itself on my memory, and we hung out with a lot of different interesting people.

On my own, I was also practicing transcendental meditation nightly. (Sadly, I never managed to levitate, though I did learn some really good relaxation techniques that continue to serve me well.) My parents also ran a small publishing company and a small press bookstore. I helped out at the bookstore and there were books on palmistry, numerology, and runes among other things. I absorbed them and became pretty good at them. My mother had starting reading tarot when I was much younger and it had always fascinated me, so I also learned tarot reading (a practice I continued though increasingly sporadically until my early thirties). I also dabbled in astrology, mostly out of curiosity, but even modern astrology gave me some insight into the way the ancient mind regarded the heavens.

So it was in that context I read the Narnia series. I caught some of the Christian allusions, of course, but not all of them. I did, however, love the series — especially Aslan. Later in life, as I truly encountered Jesus again, I think I recognized him most because he resembled Aslan in the ways that mattered. First, consider the plight of the dwarves.

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

“You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

Damnation is not something Jesus inflicts on us. We do it to ourselves. I never really found this vision described in Christianity until I stumbled across Orthodoxy. I imagine it persists in other places as well, but not the ones I traveled. And yet it corresponds precisely with the ancient Orthodox perspective. We can stand in paradise in the unveiled presence of the God who is everywhere present and filling all things and we perceive it as torment instead. God does not hate some of us and love others. He loves us all. But some of us cannot stand to be loved. And most particularly, when we fail to love, we turn ourselves into creatures who cannot bear to receive love — especially the fire of God’s unveiled love.

And then there is the case of Emeth, the Calormene warrior, who has sought Tash his whole life. In his one words, he says:

“For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”

Jewel, at one point in the book, describes Emeth in the following way.

“By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.”

And indeed he is. Emeth describes his encounter with Aslan.

“But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”

Of course, if pushed too hard there a variety of ways the metaphor can collapse. Nevertheless, there is a truth in that scene so deep that it imprinted itself on the soul of even that young preteen exposed to so many different things. I almost despaired of finding a modern Christianity that actually taught the above before I stumbled onto Orthodoxy. (Actually, Catholicism is returning to that same belief after a medieval detour. I’ve now read their Catechism. But that was not immediately clear to me since older views linger among Catholics on the street.)

So it’s from that perspective I can on the one hand say that Calvinism describes a God I consider unworthy of worship, much less love, and at the same time freely acknowledge and point to Calvinists whom I believe are some of the best Christians I know. (Hopefully nobody is using me as a measure, since they are easily better Christians than me. I’m still trying to figure out what that even means.) I feel no tension between those statements. From my framework, they can both easily be true.

It’s in a similar vein I find myself bemused by the current Christian debate contrasting belief and behavior or actions. Both sides of the debate seem to fall into the same trap — treating them as somehow different. They aren’t. It’s impossible for us to act in any given moment in any way that does not express and expose our true belief about reality. We act out of our beliefs and our actions in turn shape the way we see the world. It’s a process of continual reinforcing feedback. Now it’s possible to desire to believe something different than we actually do. It’s also very common for us to express beliefs different from the ones we actually hold (and which manifest in our actions) either because we think that’s what we should believe or because it’s what we want others to think we believe. It’s also certainly possible for us to regret our actions and wish to change accordingly. But in the moment, when I speak or act, I am expressing the beliefs I actually hold at that moment in time. We all understand the father pleading to Jesus for his son, “Lord I believe; help my unbelief.

I will note that the more I experience and get to know this strange God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, the more incredulous I become that his love could not eventually warm even the coldest and most twisted heart. Like St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and others, I find I’m unwilling to assert that the dwarves have no hope. It may be that they don’t. And if true, it breaks my heart. But in the Resurrection, Christ has broken the bonds of death. It’s no longer the nature of man to die. And don’t we say that where there’s life, there’s hope?

I find it horribly sad that so many Christian sects today will not pray for the dead. Almost as sad as their refusal to accept the prayers of those who are alive in Christ, though they presently sleep in the body. I’m not sure I really understand the reality they perceive, but it’s clearly different from the one I see. But then, too often today the Resurrection is presented as little more than an afterthought, not the very substance of our faith.

And that concludes this brief three part look into the way at least one modern pluralist handles our Christian pluralism. I’m not sure how many people might find it helpful or interesting, but perhaps some will. Let me know if there was any point on which you think I might not have expressed myself clearly.


Parallels Between Calvinism and Islam

Posted: August 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’ve been reflecting recently on the deep influence Islam had on the Renaissance. Much of the West’s recovery of classical texts, it’s numbering system, and a significant portion of what became the scientific method flowed into the Renaissance from Islamic sources and influences. And as I reflected on those influences, it struck me that medieval Islam had a significant impact on the Protestant reformation and that influence is most evident in Calvinism.

Hopefully my point won’t be misunderstood. I’m well aware of John Calvin’s publicly expressed opinion on Islam. (At one point, I believe he called it one of the two horns of the antichrist with the other being the Roman Catholic Church.) I don’t mean direct, conscious influence. Rather, Islam had for centuries helped shape the culture within which Calvin was born and lived and which formed the lens through which he perceived the world, but it was not an overt influence.  Culture tends to operate below the conscious level and the forces which shape culture are many and varied. But when I look at the church Calvin founded, I see a number of strands influenced by Islam.

First, the Reformers in general and Calvin specifically, made “the book” the foundation and core of their faith in a way that had never been true in Christianity. Christians never traditionally saw themselves as people of the book. That’s actually a phrase from within Islam describing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Rather Christians had always been the people of the living Lord, the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Scriptures, and the Gospels in particular, were always important in Christianity, but they were never at the center of our faith in the way Torah is in Judaism or the Qur’an in Islam.

And then I’m struck by Calvin’s fierce iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had risen within the Roman Empire in the eighth century and its rise at that point in time within Christianity is almost certainly connected to the influence of Islam on the emperor and other leading figures of the state. That led to a period of intense persecution that was ultimately ended only by the seventh ecumenical council condemning iconoclasm as heresy. That event is still celebrated today in the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Great Lent and the matter was largely settled within Christianity until Calvin revived it. Again, as in the eighth century, the influence of Islam, even on a cultural or subconscious level, can be seen.

However, the most telling influence to me lies in the sort of God Calvin ultimately described. John Calvin emphasized the sovereign nature of God over creation. His belief in predestination accords more closely with the Islamic concept of preordainment than anything found within mainstream Christian tradition. For Calvin, as for Muslims, everything that happens has been preordained by God. And that everything is truly all-encompassing, covering good and evil alike. If an army pillages a town, that was ordained by God. If a drought leaves a country in famine, that was ordained by God. A hurricane striking a city inflicting death, loss, and pain was ordained by God. We can see Calvin’s influence today when Christians point to something horrible and describe it as an act of God. And that aspect of his theology shares much more in common with Islam than Christianity.

Of course, Calvinism is also different from Islam on many levels. My point is not that it’s simply some form of Christianized Islam. Rather, I see threads connecting elements within Calvinism (and spreading from there to a wide swath of Protestant Christianity) to the cultural influence medieval Islam had on the European culture that formed and shaped John Calvin. None of us ever stand in a vacuum free from outside influence and most of the time it’s even hard to see those forces that have shaped and formed us. And Calvinism along with the other Christian strands it in turn influenced, seems to have been shaped in part by Islam.

Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

Posted: June 13th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Pluralism and the Various Christian Gods 2

I concluded my first post with the question, when faced with the myriad forms of modern Christianity, what’s a poor pluralist to do? On the surface, at least, the answer is relatively straightforward. I didn’t and still don’t don’t treat Christianity as one religion. Instead, just I had always done with different systems and practices of belief, I learned to approach each stream called Christian on its own terms as something distinct and unique. After all, they are.

I’ve noticed that a fair number of people, if they are more than superficially aware of the diversity within the umbrella labeled Christianity, seem to expend a degree of energy trying to somehow reconcile the different systems of belief, determine which one is right, or somehow try to find some kind of reductionist, minimal common ground. That’s always seemed odd to me.

If someone says they believe differently than I do or than some other groups does, and I attempt to say that actually they believe pretty much the same thing, then I am attempting to assert power over them. Different beliefs at this level are different. As a rule, they cannot be reconciled with each other.

An individual effort to, through reason or emotion, determine which one is somehow right or correct is focused on the wrong question. If I cared to do so, I could probably write a pretty good logical defense of that umbrella of theological systems of intellectual belief within Christianity called Calvinism. I could probably do the same for many others. I could also find ways to shred and deconstruct many of the same, but at the end of the day, what does any of that matter? After all, I’m not trying to conduct some sort of scientific experiment. I’m not conducting a survey of religion for credit at a university.

I’m trying to determine who offers a description of the reality I experience that seems to more accurately capture my experience. I’m trying to discern who describes a God I am willing to worship and in whom I can find my life. Simply discovering that something is, in at least some sense, intellectually coherent, even if correct, is useless.

Finally, if you strip enough things away, I suppose we could find the common ground between Hinduism and Christianity and call them one as easily as we could strip things away and distill Christian belief to some sort of essence. But what does that accomplish? I haven’t actually made Hinduism and Christianity the same thing. They are still quite different. Instead I have created this new perspective on reality, even if I have not given it a name, which consists of the common beliefs between the two with everything else stripped away.

My approach is not really as difficult as it seems. We know from surveys and studies that between 30k-40k distinctly identifiable Christian denominations and non-denominations exist. That sounds like an unmanageably large number. How could anyone possibly explore each and every one of them? Well, the answer is that nobody ever could, just as no-one could ever possibly explore the path of every guru within Hinduism, past, present, and future. But there are factors that serve, in practice, to reduce those numbers.

First, there are a great many instances of distinct belief within that overall number that consist of a single group not connected organizationally with any others (often described as non-denominational) in locations around the world where I don’t live. As a simple matter of physical location, I don’t need to concern myself about those in my personal exploration. Of course, that leaves a large of number of traditions, denominations, associations, and local non-denominations, but the list is not as daunting as it seems.

Even within those remaining, they tend to aggregate into streams. Now, I do not mean that those who hold themselves distinct within a particular larger stream, such a Calvinism, are all the same. They aren’t. There can be quite a bit of variation and diversity. But that variation and diversity may not matter to me. For instance, I determined early in my exploration that the Calvinist God is not one I would ever worship, nor would I ever agree that lens accurately describes the reality around us. Once I understood that, the distinctions and variation of the individual denominations and non-denominations within that stream became largely irrelevant to me.

For very different reasons, it quickly became apparent to me that the broad Charismatic stream did not mesh with my perception of the Christian God and our reality. I would be hard-pressed to explain to anyone the differences between the different churches in that stream. I’ve read parts of the Book of Mormon (from a literary standpoint it’s pretty dreadful, so I’ve never made it through the whole thing) and otherwise learned enough about it to know that I’m not interested.

As a result, I’ve spent most of the past two decades exploring the streams that flow from Luther, from the Anglican Communion (including those coming out of it from people like the Wesleys), the pietists, and Roman Catholicism. Not too many years ago, I discovered the distinct nature of Orthodoxy and found within it many of the things I had not found in other streams. I didn’t even realize I was searching for some of them.

There are, of course, specific ideas and beliefs I reject because they simply do not factually describe the world. I do not mean to imply that sort of our discernment of reality and perception of things as they are doesn’t matter. It does. The modern “Young Earth Creationist” hypothesis is one such example. And I don’t particularly care if it’s being stated by a Baptist or an Orthodox (and I’ve read and heard it from both of those and many more). I’m not going to believe it. I also don’t spend a great deal of energy on the matter.

But most beliefs are not subject to such simple analysis and categorization.  The strands are woven into a basket and the whole basket must be examined and, if possible, tried.

In a lot of ways, it was Jesus who had worked his way into the chinks of the walls I had established against Christianity. I had not been looking for a new belief system. I was not exploring Christianity, especially at first, because I was seeking to understand reality. I had an understanding of sorts which had been disrupted, but not exactly overturned, by this strange Christian God. In a lot of ways, I’ve always been looking for the stream that actually described something I could recognize as the God who met me, who came to me.

Still, there are a lot of people in those thirty to forty thousand denominations and non-denominations. When I say something like Calvinism does not describe a God I would ever worship, what does it say about those within that Calvinist stream? What about those in the many different streams I do not accept? To me, that’s only different in degree from the question about those within Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of a host of different rivers of belief. I’ve written about that here and there in the past. In my next post in this series, I’ll try to touch on it again.

Why I Am Not An Atheist 1 – Series Intro

Posted: May 23rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I recognize that the topic of this series might seem a little odd. After all, I’m not a lot of different things. In fact, the list of things I’m not at least approaches infinity while the list of things I am is by necessity thoroughly finite. Nevertheless, the thoughts I will try to outline in this series have been bouncing around my head for several months now. It’s time to form them into words.

I think part of the reason a series like this makes some sense lies within the culture of our country. Christianity and atheism are often set as foils against each other. I have Hindu friends, but nobody ever wonders or asks why I’m not Hindu. (Actually, for those who know my story, it would be more accurate to ask why I don’t consider myself a sort of Hindu believer any longer.) I have Buddhist friends, but again nobody wonders why I’m not Buddhist. Over the years I have had a few Wiccan or neo-pagan friends but, again, the fact that I don’t accept or follow Wiccan beliefs never seems to be an issue. By marriage, a part of my extended family is Jewish, but nobody seems to wonder why I don’t embrace modern Judaism. And yet atheistic family and friends do sometimes express or imply a curiosity about my rejection of atheism.

I think, in our modern American culture, Christianity (in some shape, form, or fashion) and atheism appear to be our two default positions, considered by many as the two opposing poles. When arguments against atheism are presented, they are almost inevitably Christian arguments. (Frankly a lot of them, particularly of the fundamentalist variety, are really bad arguments. But that’s a different discussion.) Similarly, even if they aren’t wholly cognizant of the fact, many of the atheistic arguments are not aimed at religion in general, but at Christianity specifically. Christianity and atheism sometimes appear to be the only two philosophical positions that actively proselytize in our culture and their methods and approaches can also be surprisingly similar.

This series will not be an apologetic for Christianity — at least not beyond those particular distinctions that are personally important to me. I won’t be attempting any sort of exhaustive examination of atheism. Rather, I will focus on those facets that help form my perceptions and understandings. In other words, I won’t really be trying to address the questions that other people have about religion in general or Christianity in particular. Rather, I will focus on the things that matter to me and which have been formed by my personal experience.

If anyone reading would like to comment on some of the reasons they tend toward either atheism or something else or post any questions they might have, I’ll let you know if I already plan to touch on that point. And if not, I’ll consider it and see if I perhaps have any thoughts on the subject and use it to expand my series.

I don’t assume that atheists are unfamiliar with Christianity or religion in general. Some may be, but I have a friend and long time atheist who in his youth either was a Catholic seminarian for a time or considered and explored the possibility. I appreciate it when others don’t similarly assume that even though I have not embraced atheism, I don’t know something about it. I believe aspects of that knowledge will come up in my series. I will note though, that I do not plan to write much about the so-call new atheists. Frankly, I’ve sampled their work and tend to find it caustic, argumentative, intellectually dishonest, and philosophically shallow. In many ways, they strike me as the atheistic counterpart of a Mark Driscoll. (If you don’t know who that is, count your blessings.) And I find their work similarly repellent.

Since this series is more a personal exploration, it may be that neither those who lean toward atheism nor those who lean toward Christianity will find it particularly interesting or helpful. (Someone who leans in some other direction entirely will likely find it a pretty boring series.) But it’s within the realm of possibility that someone out there may find at least some of it interesting in some way. If nothing else, writing this series will help me organize my thoughts so they stop bouncing randomly around my head.


Mary 21 – Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Posted: February 20th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Mary 21 – Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Our Lady of Carmel

Our Lady of Carmel, whose feast is celebrated on July 16, is the patroness of the Carmelite Order. Carmelite devotion focuses on the interior life of prayer and contemplation. Below is one of those prayers.

I know my mother has ties of some sort with the Carmelites. I’m not very familiar with the different ways one can be associated with a particular order in the Catholic Church, but I know she prays with them, follows their practices, and participates with different monasteries or convents.

Here is today’s lectio divina. The Carmelite order publishes a lectio online for each day.

Relevance of the Carmelite Rule today.

Mary 15 – Annunciation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »


Annunciation of the Theotokos


This feast, celebrated on December 8, is called the Feast of the Immaculate Conception within the Roman Catholic Church. The feast in both traditions celebrates the conception of Mary. However, it’s not one of the twelve Great Feast in Orthodoxy, but it is a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, which places a greater emphasis on the feast.

The Catholic feast name actually marks a point in dogma (at least since 1854) on which the Catholic church differs pretty significantly from the Orthodox. Here is the Catholic definition of the dogma from Ineffabilus Deus issued by Pope Pious IX.

We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

The Orthodox have no issue with the idea that the Theotokos lived a blameless life and that she lived a life filled with the Holy Spirit. The problem, however, lies in their difference with Catholicism over the definition and meaning of the ancestral sin. Notably, they do not believe that the ancestral sin is passed along genetically as a burden of guilt as the doctrine of original sin requires. As such, in the Orthodox perspective all infants are born blameless and untainted by any guilt. However, we are all born mortal, subject to death and all the evil and brokenness in the world.

Once you understand that view, it’s easy to see that it is necessary that Mary and later Jesus be born fully as one of us.  As an often-quoted saying about the Incarnation of our Lord states, “That which is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus inherited the fullness of our nature from his mother. He became sarx or flesh. It’s not the general term for body, which was soma.  From what I understand, it could be translated meat. He became mortal and subject to everything we suffer. Because he was also God before the Ages, the Incarnate Word, he was able to remain faithful where we fail and thus heal humanity and grant us the possibility of union with God.

I’m not Orthodox, but it’s my understanding that the Orthodox perceive the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as something Catholics have added to the faith and, as such, it’s a problem for them. Despite the doctrinal difference, the feast of the Annunciation of the Theotokos is still an important Orthodox feast even though it’s not one of the Great Feasts.

One thing I’ve noticed about many Protestants is that they almost seem to view Mary as little more than a “vessel” for the Incarnation. It’s as though they believe Mary simply served a biological function and any other vessel would have sufficed. In other words, if Mary hadn’t worked out, God would have just picked another vessel to bear the Word. (In reality, I believe that was actually a part of one of the ancient heresies that’s found new life today.) There’s no indication anywhere that’s true. Mary’s ‘yes‘ to God heals Eve’s ‘no.’ Nowhere is there any hint that God had a Plan B. Moreover, Mary did not merely give birth to Jesus. She raised him. She taught him. She loved him as his mother and shaped his human formation. That’s simply amazing if you allow yourself to think about it. We see in Jesus’ first recorded proclamation in the synagogue echoes of the Magnificat.

No, if Jesus is important to us, then Mary has to be. I don’t see any alternative.


More on Contraceptive Coverage Laws and the Catholic Church

Posted: February 4th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on More on Contraceptive Coverage Laws and the Catholic Church

So, I posted my initial thoughts on this topic in a post here as my thoughts on the topic began to gell. I also participated in a discussion on this topic in posts on Fr. Christian’s blog here and here. I also went back and read the actual rule from last August. (The January announcement was simply that they weren’t going to change the religious exemption portion of the regulation, but would give religious employers an extra year to comply.) As I read the rule, I noticed it referenced existing state laws requiring contraceptive coverage. And that piqued my interest, so I broadened my research. The things I found were … interesting.

First, I found a site that collected information on the states that require contraceptive coverage. In short, over half of US states already require some form of contraceptive coverage, many of them for a decade or more. Many of them have some form of religious exemption. Some of them have no exemption. It’s when I began reading the state laws that I noticed they tended to use very similar language when they did provide a religious exemption. Some of them even cited a specific definition from the U.S.C. So I looked up that definition. It’s in 26 U.S.C. section 3121(w)(3)(A) and (B).

(3) Definitions

(A) For purposes of this subsection, the term “church” means a church, a convention or association of churches, or an elementary or secondary school which is controlled, operated, or principally supported by a church or by a convention or association of churches.

(B) For purposes of this subsection, the term “qualified church-controlled organization” means any church-controlled tax-exempt organization described in section 501 (c)(3), other than an organization which—

(i) offers goods, services, or facilities for sale, other than on an incidental basis, to the general public, other than goods, services, or facilities which are sold at a nominal charge which is substantially less than the cost of providing such goods, services, or facilities; and
(ii) normally receives more than 25 percent of its support from either

(I) governmental sources, or
(II) receipts from admissions, sales of merchandise, performance of services, or furnishing of facilities, in activities which are not unrelated trades or businesses, or both.

That’s actually very similar, if not identical, to the definition for religious exemption used in the HHS regulation. Notably, there’s no way a hospital or a university could meet the criteria for section B.

What does this mean? Well, basically it means that HHS was stating a fact when they said in the rule that the definition used was the one already in use in many of the states that required contraceptive coverage and allowed a religious exemption. Apparently Catholic hospitals and universities have continued to function in these different states just as they do in countries that provide contraceptive coverage to their citizens. I don’t recall hearing any outrage over these various state laws expressed. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any, but I don’t recall it and haven’t found any evidence of it. I also haven’t yet discovered if there were any legal challenges. However, if there were, given that these laws are still standing, they must have been unsuccessful. The HHS rule is neither unprecedented nor new. It would seem to have a pretty solid legal foundation.

Speaking the truth is important. And speaking the truth means more than just avoiding outright lies. It often means speaking the whole truth and not just the parts that serve your goals. It means expressing those truths in a way that avoids manipulation, distortion, and propaganda. That’s one of the reasons that, when I discuss things, I try really hard to provide the sources that are forming my opinions so that others can read them, check what I’m saying, and form their own opinions.

The deeper I’ve explored this issue the more evidence I’ve found that the Obama administration has simply spoken and written truth. The US Catholic Bishops? I’m not so sure. Why are they outraged at this rule and not the many other long-standing state laws that are either substantially the same or even more restrictive than the HHS rule? Why are they speaking as though this sort of requirement was something  new and radical when it isn’t? Those are some of the questions that begin to work their way through my mind.

The Bishops may be completely innocent of any intent toward propaganda and utterly sincere in their protestations. But when I keep finding things that aren’t mentioned by them in the discussion, it makes me wonder. I tend to be suspicious of institutions, power structures, and people who wield power anyway. And I’m sensitive, perhaps overly sensitive, to manipulation. My childhood was not innocent and I learned a lot of lessons that perhaps a child shouldn’t have to learn. I want to think the best of people, but there’s a part of me that has a very difficult time actually doing so.

Perhaps someone reading this will see through a different lens and offer a more positive perspective.

Update: And this is an EEOC decision from all the way back in 2000 regarding contraceptive coverage. It also references a Pregnancy Discrimination Act which apparently at that time had a Supreme Court decision supporting it. (I haven’t found or read the decision yet.) It does help explain how those states that passed laws allowing no religious exemption at all were able to do so.

Health Care Reform and the Catholic Church

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , | 10 Comments »

I am not Catholic, though I have friends and family who are, many quite devout. I attended a Catholic school as a non-Catholic for three years growing up in Houston. And my older son was born in a Catholic hospital founded by the Daughters of Charity. I’ve also had friends in health care in one capacity or another who worked for the local Catholic hospital system (which also runs our public hospital in a public/private affiliation) as non-Catholics.

I’ve listened to the recent uproar over the new regulations associated with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — specifically requiring coverage for contraception and sterilization procedures — and I’ve read many of the posts and statements about it. I responded to Fr. Christian’s post on the subject last night and overnight I believe a way to put my thoughts and reactions in perspective gelled in my mind. I’m going to attempt to outline those thoughts in this post.

I want to start by looking at health care in the rest of the world, or at least the industrialized world and many nations we would consider somewhere between third world and first world. Basically, every such nation other than the United States already provides a form of universal access to health care for their citizens. Because we do not, we have one of the worst health care systems in the industrialized world by almost every measure — including cost, access, and results. I know many people suffer the delusion that that’s not the case, but the facts speak for themselves. We spend double per capita than the next country on the list. But we get no benefit from that extra expenditure. Indeed, we sit somewhere toward the bottom in virtually every measure of health care results. Moreover, the expenditures per capita are actually skewed since almost a sixth of our population lacks meaningful access to our health care system. And many of the rest of us are one serious accident or illness away from crushing debt and perhaps losing the job and its insurance that allows us access to the health care system. Most of us are in a more precarious and vulnerable position than we are usually willing to admit. We have access to our health care system currently, but we could lose that access in a heartbeat.

So how does the rest of the world do it? By and large, they employ variations of three basic approaches. In some nations, the government runs the health care system directly. Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is an example of that approach. The government runs the clinics and hospitals and employes the doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals directly. It’s funded through individual and employer taxes. Other nations employ a single payer model. Canada’s system is an example of that approach. Employers and employees again fund the system through taxes, but the government does not directly operate the facilities or employ the health care professionals. Instead, they operate like a single, large insurer and pay the providers for covered care. Finally, some countries, notably the Swiss, combine a tightly regulated national exchange of non-profit private insurers with a mandate for all citizens to purchase insurance and subsidies for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum. And again, both individuals and employers help fund the system, both directly through premiums and indirectly through taxes.

There are many variations of the above systems, but pretty much every other industrialized nation’s health care system employs one of them. Compare that to the United States. We have a segment of our population, veterans, served by a government operated health care system. The VA operates hospitals, employs health care professionals, and provides health care directly to eligible veterans. Then we have another segment of our population, senior citizens, served by a government-provided insurance program similar to that employed by single payer nations. We call that program Medicare. It’s funded by a payroll tax shared by employees and employers and is the mandatory single payer (though other insurance can be used as a secondary payer to supplement it) for its target population. (Medicaid is a safety net government insurer program as well, though it is administered at the state rather than the national level with predictable confusion and mixed results.)

Then we have had two categories that other industrialized nations do not have. The first, and the linchpin of the health care system for most of us, is employer-provided insurance. That’s essentially a hidden tax on employers in the global economy and it’s highly variable and inconsistent. It’s also unreliable when people can lose their job or otherwise have to change jobs. Moreover, as we deregulated insurance companies in the eighties and nineties, the vast majority of insurance companies converted from non-profit to for-profit status. Medical loss (the ratio of premiums collected actually spent on health care) plummeted from 95% to something on the order of 70% and costs to employees and employers skyrocketed. Fortunately, our regulations do still prohibit insurance policies for large companies from excluding pre-existing conditions. And they have to cover all eligible employees in the pool. So those of us fortunate enough to work for large employers, most of whom have continued to pay the hidden tax to provide insurance to their employees as a necessary cost of doing business in the US, have been somewhat shielded from the most predatory aspects of the for-profit health insurance industry we created in the nineties. Still, no other industrialized nation dumps this burden on its largest employers instead of treating it as one that should be shared by the nation as a whole.

The other huge category that does not exist in other industrialized nations is, of course, the uninsured and the under-insured. Those are all the people who do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, who are not eligible for care from the VA, and who do not work for a large employer offering subsidized and affordable health insurance. That’s something on the order of 40 million people uninsured and tens of millions more who are under-insured. And frankly, it’s a deplorable and utterly amoral situation.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) does not actually reform or rationalize our overall hodge-podge of a system. Personally, I wish it had. I think we would be much better off if we simply picked one of the approaches and applied it across the board. But politically that’s clearly not possible. We’re an irrational nation with irrational politics. Even the process of passing the legislation was a national lampoon. Basically, the Democrats threw in the towel and agreed to adopt the long-standing (as in decades) Republican proposal for health care reform. The long-standing Democratic proposal had been some variation of Medicare for everyone. They basically gave up and decided any reform, even the Republican proposal, was better than no reform. Instead of claiming victory, though, the GOP went ballistic. (And that was one of the more bizarre turns in this whole process.)

But that’s beside the point now. The ACA is what we have and we appear fortunate to have even it, flaws and all. Our only option at this point is to figure out how to make our hodge-podge of a system work more effectively. The core of the ACA uses something similar to the Swiss approach to establish health insurance exchanges for the large group of Americans in the last category — the self-employed, or those employed by a small business. Unlike Switzerland, these exchanges will be state based instead of national. And the insurers will be for-profit rather than non-profit. Both of those are pretty severe negatives. Since Medicare recipients, veterans eligible for VA care, Medicaid recipients, and those employed by large organizations are excluded from the pools of those insured by the exchanges, the overall pool is already smaller. When you further divide it on a state by state basis, the pool of insured, and thus the shared risk, becomes even smaller. Non-profit insurance companies typically operate at a 95% or greater medical loss ratio. So by adding profit margins to the exchanges, we are simply increasing the costs for no added benefit. However, the ACA does at least begin to reform and regulate that private, for-profit insurance industry. Personally, I think prohibiting denial of insurance for pre-existing conditions, rescission, and mandating 80% medical loss levels are woefully inadequate and minimal measures. But they certainly improve what we currently have in this segment of our population.

That’s the background, and it’s only in that context that we can discuss the regulations implementing the ACA and the reaction to those regulations by the Catholic Church. The first thing I want to note is the structure of the ACA itself. As a political necessity, it leaves the large employer provided health care portion of our framework largely untouched. The only thing it does is try to make sure that all citizens, whichever part of our system covers them, have access to the same basic level of health care. That’s essentially all that this regulation does. If the Catholic Church employed no-one but Catholics, perhaps that would be a reason for an exception. (In fact, I believe the regulation provides for such an exception in those institutions that do meet that criteria.) But that’s not the case and, in fact, some of the Catholic institutions, at least, couldn’t continue to function if they had to operate under such a restriction. The hospitals, in particular, have to be able to hire non-Catholics to function.

The next thing I note is that the Catholic Church is a huge global organization with established institutions, including hospitals and schools, around the world. That’s only one facet of the Church, of course, but it is an important one for this discussion. Many of the nations in which they operate those institutions have some form of universal access health system that includes access to contraception and sterilization procedures. As an employer in those nations, the Catholic Church participates in those systems. (At least, I’ve never heard anything to the contrary.) Basically, that places them one step removed. In those countries they don’t directly provide coverage which insures and provides access to such services, but they pay whatever is required of employers into the system which then does provide such access. Since we chose to leave the large employer-based framework in place, in our system we end up with this regulation.

Frankly, I think the Church is making a rather fine distinction. It’s OK to participate as an employer in a national health care system that provides access to those procedures, but it’s not OK to provide the health insurance policy directly as a large employer in our system under the ACA. That’s basically the way I perceive the position of the Church on this issue. The regulation doesn’t require that the Church provide contraception or conduct sterilization procedures. It simply requires that, as a large employer, it provide its employees access to health insurance that does cover them, leaving use of that part of their coverage to the individual conscience of the employee.

But set that aside. If it’s truly such a matter of conscience for the Church, then it has the option under the ACA to stop providing health insurance to its employees in 2014. They will then purchase health insurance from the state exchanges established by the ACA. And the Church will pay a penalty/tax for those employees who require subsidies. (There are various ways of calculating it.) That will place the Church at the same remove from the coverage as they are in some of the other industrialized nations. As far as I can tell, that would resolve its current moral crisis on the matter. Of course, if the Church chooses to take that step, it could make them less attractive as an employer, which could have a negative impact on its ability to perform the central mission of its various institutions. But if it’s such an important moral stand, I suppose that’s a price they have to be willing to pay. I agree it would be more equitable if we had one uniform system in which all employers and citizens participated, but we aren’t going to get such a system. The ACA is what we have and we were lucky to even get it.

Personally, I don’t share the Church’s beliefs on contraception or sterilization, but I do try to respect them, especially in the few Catholics I know who actively practice them. (And honestly I know more Catholics who don’t than do.) However, in this case, I think they are making a mountain out of a molehill. And it’s probably because of my two decades of association with American evangelicals, but I tend to get uncomfortable when Christian groups start clamoring about their “rights.” The heart of Christianity seems to me to include sacrifice, love, self-denial, and service in pursuit of union with Christ more than it does individual or organizational rights. I favor individual freedom, of course. We tend to end up in bondage to sin and death, but God offers us true freedom in Christ. Individual civil liberties treat us with something of the same dignity that God does. But Christianity isn’t much about “rights.” Certainly Christ did not assert his rights.

As I wrote on Fr. Christian’s blog, it will ultimately be up to the courts to decide the fate of the regulation. That’s their role. But the way the regulation is shaped, it may well stand up to the strict scrutiny standard required in such situations. It’s hardly a given that it won’t. Besides, if the government didn’t believe they had a good case for the regulation, they wouldn’t have proposed it. It’s not a black and white case and I can’t predict where the courts will land. I don’t think anyone can.

Does anyone have any other thoughts or think I missed anything? I tried to be pretty comprehensive in this post since it’s a complex issue, but it’s so complex that it’s hard to catch every nuance.

Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Posted: February 3rd, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 14 – Presentation of the Theotokos

Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple

This feast is also called The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in Orthodox tradition and The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition. It commemorates the entrance or presentation of Mary as a child at the Temple in Jerusalem by her parents to serve as one of the Temple virgins. It’s celebrated on November 21.

It’s not clear to me exactly where this feast ranks in Catholic tradition, but it’s one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year. (Four of the Great Feasts commemorate the Theotokos; this is the second one. As a note Pascha is not one of the twelve Great Feasts. Rather, it is considered the Feast of Feasts and stands alone and above all other feasts.)

Fr. Thomas Hopko has an essay online about the feast that’s well worth reading. As he notes, a central theme of the feast revolves around Mary entering the Temple to become herself the living Temple of God. As such, her entrance into the Temple celebrates the end of the physical temple in Jerusalem as the dwelling place of God.

Mary 13 – Our Lady of the Rosary

Posted: February 1st, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Mary 13 – Our Lady of the Rosary

Also called Our Lady of Victory, this feast was initially instituted as a day of thankfulness in the 16th century following the miraculous defeat of the Turkish fleet and the end of Muslim domination of the Mediterranean. It’s celebrated on October 7, and I believe the whole month of October is dedicated as the month of the Holy Rosary. Over time the feast became more focused on the celebration of the Rosary itself, in no small part because the devotion of the people through the Rosary plays a key part in the story of the Turkish defeat. I discussed the Rosary in my post on the Hail Mary prayer, so I won’t repeat that here. However, for those interested, I did run across a short pdf outlining a typical Rosary devotion.

As with Our Lady of Sorrows, there are a number of Catholic Churches with Our Lady of the Rosary as their name and patron.