Saturday, February 23, 2013

Light: Reflections on the Second Sunday of Lent

Light goes through the sacrifice of Abram to signify God's acceptance. When we die, we do not know exactly what awaits us, but we do know that we will be glorified with bodies of light. Peter, John and James are shocked to see their rabbi glow and appear with Moses and Elijah.

Light is a symbol for the divine that transcends time and space. We have in the Hindu faith the festival of Diwali. A friend of mine has been to India before during this festival and he said it was as if the Ganges was on fire.

Like this.
In Judaism, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of the re-dedication of the Temple.

In Buddhism, there is the Tazaungdaing festival. Believed to be a remnant of a Hindu festival, it is the time of year when the monks get new robes and are offered alms.

So, what is it about light that groups around the world see it to be such an apt symbol for the divine? Does it date back to our distant ancestors huddling close to those early campfires for protection from the wild? On the flip side of that, is it from our almost universal fear of the dark? Here are a few of my thoughts on the topic:

What does light do and what does that tell us about God? Light illuminates. Okay, good. What is that supposed to mean?

Well, it makes it safer to walk around because you can see things in your way. And so, God, if we let Him, can guide our way.

It also makes you feel exposed because everyone can see you. As in the end, God sees everything we say and do and we will be judged on how much and how well we love others.

Light can also provide warmth. Warmth helps with a lot of different things. It protects us from frost-bite. It helps the plants to grow. Light's warmth points us to the more maternal aspects of God. See, God is neither male or female. He is in a category of His own.

Tangent Alert: We refer to Him as a male because it's easier, it is tradition, and God not only revealed Himself in the form of a man in Jesus but Jesus Himself called Him Abba, Daddy. So, since we've always called Him Father and He seems to want to be called Father, we call him Father. But that is not to disparage the parts of Scripture in which God is described using feminine imagery. God is shown to be nursing His people (Isaiah 49:15). The character of Wisdom, which is found frequently in the Old Testament, is described as a woman and seems to have an awful lot in common with God (Proverbs 8, especially verse 22 on). In short (CCC 370):
 In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband.
</Tangent> (Look Mom, I'm learning HTML)

Light makes us feel secure because we know what is in front of us. In the dark, our imaginations can go wild wondering what may be in the dark with us. Light gives us the security of knowledge. Similarly, if we let Him, God can help us to see things clearly. If we put God first, everything else will fall into place.
That is all I got for now. What about you?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Are Drones Moral?: A Catholic Perspective

When it comes to morality questions, I tend to follow my gut. If I feel a moral discomfort about something, even if I can't put words to my concern, I don't do it. Unless I have grave reasons to go against my intuition, I do not support things that make me feel uncomfortable. When I first heard about the drone program (months before the NBC leaked memo), I didn't like them. I wasn't able to say why. Just something seemed inherently unfair about sending unmanned machines in to assassinate people with "smart" bombs even if those people were sworn enemies of the US.

I know all of this is old news, but I wanted to think about it long and hard before I said anything. My specialty is medical ethics, not war. Although I did come across a very insightful article that made a connection between being anti-abortion and anti-drones. The first time I heard an argument that gave voice to my concerns however was through The Daily Show's Jon Stewart:

Now, he did get criticized by a lot of people for not being harder on her. But this did get the ball rolling in my mind about what exactly about this program bugs me. What was it? When the memo leaked, I found more voices in the media giving words to my feelings. In the following video from MSNBC's The Cycle, I find myself agreeing strongly with conservative talking head, SE Cupp.

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So, what does my Church say? First of all, my Church would applaud my tendency to follow my gut. Assuming one's conscience is formed by Tradition and Scripture (or at least one makes an earnest attempt to form it by the Church), one can always trust one's conscience.

Since this controversy has hit the fan, the USCCB has not issued a statement specifically about the drones, but they have said things about the "war on terror" in general and in 2011 they did write an open letter to our National Security Advisor saying "...we encourage the US to review the use of unmanned drones." In last year's Rosary Novena for Life and Liberty, drone aircraft is mentioned as an example of how the technology used in killing is more advanced, but "the end result is the same for the victims."

In looking through the Catechism (CCC) and statements made by the Bishops I run into a little problem. How the heck do you categorize drone strikes? Do I look up war? Do I look up self-defense? What about assassination? Luckily for me, all of these things say similar things.

Borrowed from here.

The need for Absolute Certainty

In the case of the death penalty (CCC 2267) and in war (A Pastoral Message: Living with Faith and Hope After September 11), we cannot use lethal force without absolute certainty that we are punishing the correct person. This requires if not due process than at least an accountability structure in place.

"Accountability and transparency" is notably lacking in this instance. It seems as if we simply need a high-ranking official, presumably President Obama, to make the phone call and it's as good as done. Where is the certainty in that?

Side-rant: This is one of the areas where this entire issue makes me sick (you know, aside from civilian casualties). Where are the anti-war activists? I belong to basically every tree-hugger mailing list in the US and I have never received anything about these drones. I had to actively search on the Amnesty International site to see one report and an action. To put this into perspective, torture has it's own section. For the record, I'm a pro-life Democrat (as near impossible as that is some days) and it makes me sick to see so many liberals and Democrats defend the president out of some kind of party loyalty. The same Democrats who questioned the policy under Bush are defending its expansion under Obama. (Some articles about it.) What? Because you trust Obama more? I trust no human being with this kind of power. We are not God. Now back to your regular programming...

Grave and Certain Threat

Just War Theory (as summarized CCC 2309) clearly states that:
"The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain."
The memo states that the person targeted for the drone strike must be an "imminent threat." Commentator after commentator after commentator has pointed out that "imminent threat" is twisted and turned nearly meaningless in this policy. So, this requirement of "just war" is arguably not met. Certainly, terrorism is lasting and grave, but without some sort of due process (see above), how can you be determine that a particular person is imminently going to attack? In order for an act of war to be just, it must be in response to a real threat, not an imagined one.

Proportionate Response

In CCC 2264, St. Thomas Aquinas is quoted saying that moderate means of self-defense is always morally licit because one is bound to care for one's own life more than another's. Even if lethal means are necessary, it is acceptable to do whatever you need to do to defend your life. That said, it is unlawful to use more force than necessary. The drone policy reflects this in stating that capture must be infeasible. But, once again, who is the judge of that? And, is capture or death the only way we can defend ourselves? Would it be more proportionate to use the billions we're spending on drones in beefing up security? I'm sorry that I have more questions than answers on this issue, but I think these questions need to be raised.

Prospects of Success

Killing one terrorist inspires many others. Our war on terror isn't gaining us any friends in the middle east. A war is only just if there are "serious prospects of success" (CCC 2309). IMHO, this part of Just War Theory has not been met in a very, very long time in any of our armed conflicts. But I regress, I have no evidence for the first two sentences in this paragraph. All I have are quotes from people who know the region much better than I do and my own observation seeing terrorists celebrated as martyrs.

Take our strikes in Yemen for example. It made an enraged populace more sympathetic to Al-Qaeda. This only led to more violence, leading many people to question its effectiveness. (Tip of the proverbial iceberg.)

So, when killing one terrorist makes ten more, when is the killing going to end? Here's some more Daily Show for you:

My conclusion, I know that what is legal is not always moral and what is illegal is not always immoral, but it does bother me that only a third of all supporters of drones are concerned about the legality. I have recently lost all respect for one of SE Cupp's colleagues on The Cycle over this very thing (granted, he didn't have very far to fall). 

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CCC 2312 clearly states:

"The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. 'The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.'"
People who are for the drone program have said that we are in war, we are in a different kind of war, so anything goes to defend ourselves. This is fundamentally wrong. The state of war does not rob our enemy of his or her humanity. Because they are against us does not make them any less human than those who are for us. This is the primary reason that my conscience cannot support our current use of drones.

My Catholic conclusion, looking at Just War Theory and statements made by the bishops, it would seem as if the appropriate Catholic response would be to question the morality of how this program functions. I could see, however, how a Catholic in good conscience could support the program in general.

For example: CCC 2309 states:

the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Although I don't agree with ipso facto judging many lives to be more valuable than one (each life is infinitely valuable), our best estimate is that the number of civilian casualties of drones is in the hundreds while the attacks on 9/11 killed nearly 3,000. So, it can be argued that the evils of drones are not as bad as the evils of terrorism that the drones protect us from. But I still say we need more transparency and oversight.

Writing of interest:

An MA Thesis that argues that Just War Theory legitimatizes the CIA targeted killing program

A paper titled "The Right to Life in War and Peace"

An interesting NCR article

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Reproductive Health Act: A Pro-Life Feminist Rant

Tonight at the monthly Lay Dominican chapter meeting I heard for the first time people discussing in person Governor Cuomo's Reproductive Health Act. It's hard to cut through the verbose bill and the vitriol on both sides. Basically, it will make it easier for women to get late term abortions and it will strongly penalize hospitals that refuse to do abortions or make referrals (i.e. Catholic hospitals).

I've written about this less than a month ago, but I'm going to say it again from another angle.

I can think of several circumstances in which this dashing young man would not be here. 
Abortion ends an innocent human life before it has a chance to begin and the blood is on each and every one of our hands. It's not simply on the woman's hands or the abortionist's hands. It is on the hands of all of us who allow this culture of self-centeredness and instant gratification to continue.

I wish I could take credit for this one. I doubt that business would approve of my current use, however. 
We all want a quick fix. Just now, I was really hungry. Instead of reaching for something wholesome that would help me be healthier in the long run, I grabbed whatever was the easiest out of my fridge. We all do this on the bigger issues as well. The education system is in shambles, let's just throw more money at it. We're all getting fatter, let's just ban junk foodWomen in poverty who are striving to make a better life for themselves are getting pregnant with unwanted children, let's just get rid of the fetus.

This does not address any of the underlying problems. In fact, it makes the underlying problems worse. I go into this in great detail in the original post, so I won't rehash it here.

If Gov. Cuomo really cared about women, he would not weigh down a perfectly laudable bill (the Women's Equality Act) with an abortion bill that does nothing to help women and will cause the entire thing not to pass. He wouldn't hold laws that protect domestic violence victims, promote equal pay for equal work and stop pregnancy discrimination hostage for his presidential aspirations. If, God forbid, he ever got the Democratic nomination for president, I would gladly split my ticket for only the third time ever in entire my voting life (and I'm quite the regular voter). Heck, I'd happily drive Republicans to the polls.

It is a lie to claim you are pro-women and do nothing to address the underlying causes of abortion. Shame on you, Cuomo! If you really cared, you would not hold the Women's Equality Act hostage. You would not be for the "quick fix." Abortion is not a simple problem, there is no simple answer. Women deserve better and children should not be forced to pay the ultimate price.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What is Salvation History? (And what does it mean to me?): First Sunday of Lent

Looking at this week's readings, I am struck by one major theme and that is "salvation history." Salvation history is what we call it when we look at the Old and New Testaments as a whole; The God who freed the Israelites from slavery as the same God who frees His people from their sins on the cross. It is God's relationship with humanity throughout all of time.

The first reading summarizes a major portion of the Old Testament's part of the story. God worked through a "wandering Aramean," meaning the patriarch Jacob. God had promised Jacob's father Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and they would settle in a land of milk and honey. God lead Jacob to Egypt via the cruelty done to his son Joseph and a famine in the land forcing Jacob to move. When Jacob's descendants are eventually enslaved, God frees them to finally arrive at the land of milk and honey. Our reading shows us how out of gratitude, the Israelites sacrifice the first fruits of their new land to God.

The Temptations in the Desert by Michael O'Brien
Skip hundreds of years and we meet Jesus. The Gospel reading shows us how before Jesus starts his years of ministry, he goes out into the desert to pray (which is, by the way, what we are asked to do during Lent). The devil tempts him, but does not succeed. What does this have to do with salvation history? Well, both Jesus and the devil quote scripture (yes, even the devil can quote the bible). Just like the Israelites in the first reading, Jesus chooses to trust the Lord and see where he is led. We are asked to trust as well in the second reading.

And this leads well into what does salvation history mean to me. I love the Old Testament. (I don't even like calling it the Old Testament because I think it's kind of insulting. I prefer Hebrew Scriptures.) Some people read the Old Testament and they claim to see a hateful, angry God smiting everybody. I don't see that. I see a God deeply and passionately in love with His people. I see a God who works through the craziest of situations and the most unruly of people to make His will be done. This God doesn't contradict in the least with the God we meet in the New Testament. The God who set His people free from slavery is still madly in love with His people, so much so that He gladly suffers and dies for them.

I just started my first "Faith Profile" this evening. Once I get to publishing them you'll be able to find them at Basically, they are interviews where I talk to various people about their faith lives just to see what makes them tick and they say some very interesting things. And to give a spoiler, this first one talks about the vast love, energy and "wonderfulness" of God. That is what salvation history means to me.

The following is an awesome video summarizing salvation history:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Call: Reflections on the Fifth (and Fourth) Week Ordinary Time

Over the last two weeks, we have been introduced to several "call stories." Anyone who has been on a vocation retreat can tell you about them. The members of the religious order that you're visiting will share with you the moment in time that they felt called to join the order. They will talk about feeling a sense of peace on their first vocation retreat. They will talk about feeling a kinship with the founder of the order or falling in love the order's charism. The call stories we have seen over the last two weeks, however, have had a distinctly different flavor.

 Don't be such a Jeremiad!

The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo

Last week, we heard about the prophet Jeremiah. God came to him and said:

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you." Jer. 1:4-5
What we don't hear is Jeremiah's response. He complains that he is "too young." God responds saying that He is always with him.

It's a good thing, too. Because Jeremiah's journey is not an easy one. He is the author of Lamentations, after all. His life as a prophet is very difficult. He gets to see his land invaded and his temple burn. He's imprisoned  tortured, and abused. His mission is to tell the people why their land is being invaded and to point out to them their sins. No one likes their sins to be pointed out to them! But God is with him through it all and he is now one of the "major prophets" of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Burn, baby, burn!

Isaiah's call as painted by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

This week, we hear about Isaiah's call. Isaiah was likely a priest as it seems that his call story occurred deep in the temple where only the priests were allowed. As Jeremiah complained that he was too young, Isaiah was worried about his own ritual purity. He saw himself as a sinner surrounded by sinners so he didn't think he was a worthy vessel for God's words. God takes care of this, however, by burning away his sins. After his sins are burned away, he seems to gladly accept the call, shouting, "Here I am. Send me!"

Like Jeremiah, Isaiah travels a tough road after his call. He also has to point out his society's sins. He also suffers for his message although his sufferings aren't nearly as well-documented as Jeremiah's (I guess because he didn't complain as much :) ). Tradition states that Isaiah was eventually martyred for his beliefs.

And now for the first Pope

Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew by Duccio di Buoninsegna

In today's Gospel, we read the call story of Simon, later known as Peter. Simon is minding his own business trying to fish when Jesus tells him to lower his nets one more time. He tells Jesus that there's nothing there to catch, but he does as he's told. When it comes time to pull the net back up, he needs to call in help because it's so heavy with fish. Like Isaiah, he tells Jesus that he's too sinful, that he's not worthy. But he is overcome with awe over such a huge catch. Jesus says he will make him a fisher of men and Simon Peter and his friends drop everything to follow him.

This is the reason why popes wear the ring of the fisherman. 

We know the rest of the story. While Peter did put his foot in his mouth from time to time, he followed Jesus to the end and beyond. Tradition states that he was ultimately crucified upside down  at what is now the site of St. Peter's Basilica. 

What does this have to do with me?

As evidenced by the call stories at the vocation retreat, people are still called today. Your calling doesn't have to be dramatic nor does it need to be to the religious life. Ordinary people get ordinary calls every day. Let me share some with you.

The women of ICAN of Syracuse-

Oftentimes callings don't come when they are invited. They unexpectedly interrupt your life and force a change in direction. This happened to many of the women I have met through ICAN. ICAN stands for the International Cesarean Awareness Network. These women went to the hospital to give birth to their children and instead faced unplanned and emergency c-sections. They left these traumatic experiences to find a world that didn't understand and had little sympathy for what they went through. Out of a desire to help other women and to teach the world, they started this organization. 

Some women have gone a step further and dedicated their lives to helping pregnant women. One started an organization specializing in pre and post-natal yoga. Others became doulas to help women give birth the way that they wish. The international organization was founded by ordinary women in Syracuse.

I know one of the things that bugged me in my particular situation was the fact that the birth center that I went to did not have a dependable chaplain staff. I was scared. Before my c-section, I hadn't had surgery since I was 5-years-old. When I found out that I was going to be cut open, I wanted to see a priest! Since my real passion is end of life issues, I'm not planning on changing everything because of this, but I am planning on volunteering to be an on-call chaplain at the birth center since my internship is over and I'm currently still unemployed.

How do I know if I have a call?

There are a lot of ways to look at discernment (the decision about a call). One of my favorites is through Ignatian spirituality. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, has left a wealth of tools for discernment. Here is a site full of information to get you started.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Christian Personalism in Medicine

Being the medical ethics nerd that I am, I happily ate Victoria Sweet's God's Hotel up. This awesome book taught me a lot and gave me a lot of food for thought from a medical ethicist point of view.

Just so's you know, this book is part memoir, part manifesto. She mainly writes about her experiences working for the last almshouse in the US, Laguna Honda, in San Francisco. Her experiences at the hospital informs her studies of pre-modern medicine, particularly the recently declared Doctor of the Church St. Hildegard of Bingen. And her studies of Hildegard makes a big impact on her treatment of her patients.

St. Hildegard of Bingen

 There is a significant religious overtone to the entire book, although she rarely invokes explicitly Christian doctrine. She talks often about the anima, the life-force, that she believes is the main difference between the living and the dead. She does not speculate what happens to the anima after death. Her pilgrimage, the Compostela, seems to have a big spiritual impact on her as it teaches her that she has no real control over life, she just needs to roll with the punches.

But that's not what I'm here to principally write about, I'm here to write about the ethics of it all. She covers several diverse topics in ethics:

- The treatment of the poor
- The treatment of the mentally ill
- The treatment of the elderly
- The relationship between administration, the doctors, and the nurses
- Medical efficiency

An overall critique that she has is that the medical establishment does not really pay attention to patients anymore. I remember hearing once that in an appointment with your doctor, you only have your doctor's attention for maybe 5 minutes and you need to get out all of your concerns early. The doctor is under a lot of pressure from insurance companies and their own superiors to get you examined and treated quickly and move on to the next patient. This pressure leads to major abuses in the treatment of the poor and the treatment of the elderly.

She is concerned that there are many elderly people who are getting the label of "dementia" or "Alzheimer's" that do not have it. There are many different reasons for the symptoms of dementia and they need to be considered before giving someone the diagnosis. I agree with her concern. Elderly patients are often written off because, well, "They're old." Working in nursing homes, I saw time and again my residents not getting the level of medical care from their doctors that they deserve because the medical establishment would rather spend that money and energy on the young. Just because someone is old, doesn't mean that you can neglect them.

The same logic sometimes goes to the poor. In the book, Dr. Sweet gives numerous examples of poor people coming under her care who are in horrible shape. She discovers that what is ailing them is actually something very treatable that the other doctors just didn't notice. She argues that the other doctors would have discovered it if they had only sat down with the patient and spent some time with them instead of rushing from bed to bed.

She gave me a lot to think about in regards to the mentally ill. I am definitely not for re-opening the mental institutions. However, she makes a compelling case that there cannot be sweeping laws that apply to all of the handicapped. For example, they all have the right to refuse their meds. Now, for the patient that still has his reason, this law makes sense and it empowers them. But for the patient that no longer has their wits about them, in their refusal to take their meds they are not only hurting themselves but perhaps endangering those around them. Similarly, the idea that all mentally ill people have the right to live out in the community. It certainly sounds good, but Dr. Sweet argues that it is not always a practical idea for all patients. Certainly, the mental institutions cannot run like they used to, but, she argues, they shouldn't be completely closed, either, because some people cannot live out in the community. And, she points out repeatedly, that sometimes the closing of the mental institutions caused more problems than it solved because, while some of the patients got to move into the "real world," many if not most of them were moved into nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

I have always been for the closing down of the mental institutions. I have always been for giving the mentally ill all of these rights that she talks about in the book. But she gave very good arguments against my long-held beliefs. Maybe, just maybe, in exceptional cases, institutions should stay open, but they would have to undergo a "culture change" like what is currently happening in nursing homes all over the country. I think I would be comfortable with that. It would be better than having them in prison or homeless on the streets like what frequently happens to the severely mentally ill in our society.

The most interesting sub-plot in the whole book IMHO is the fights with Dr. Stein. I cannot remember Dr. Stein's official title, but suffice to say he was a big shot in the local, governmental medical hierarchy. He was in charge of the public hospitals. He was apparently used to always getting his way, so when Laguna Honda told him "no," they were on his hit list from there on. It was fascinating to me to read about all of the politics and infighting going on between, mainly, the doctors and administration. I would have to agree with Dr. Sweet, that healthcare decisions are best left to the doctors and patients and economics should have little, if anything, to do with it. But, that's not the way the healthcare system in the US works and that is a shame.

We do seem to sacrifice efficiency for care in this country. It's easier to go to the doctor and get a pill then wait to find out what is really wrong and go through whatever arduous process we need to in order to bring about true healing. Health is about much more than just pills. We have pills for everything and some of them are very good and life saving, but I think we all could probably afford to discontinue some. We want quick fixes and easy answers, but what we really need most of the time is to sit down, watch and listen.

Taken from here.