Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Dark Ages

As I write this, the Space Shuttle Endeavor is preparing to dock with the international space station. There astronauts, scientists, and engineers will perform new feats and experiments that will further advance human knowledge.

Every time science takes another leap forward like this, I’m reminded of Galileo, whose teachings about the solar system got him in trouble with the Catholic Church. Under house arrest for the last decade of his life, he was forbidden to communicate with the outside world lest he infect others with his revolutionary (and accurate) ideas. Even at that, due to the money and influence of his family, he fared a good deal better than his contemporary, Giordano Bruno, who was periodically tortured in prison during the last decade of his life, then burned at the stake for his failure to recant his heretical teachings—including that insidious notion that the earth revolves around the sun.

It’s a very good thing for Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and other Catholics in Congress that the church has gotten out of the habit of burning people at the stake. However, some Catholic bishops are pressuring priests to punish and publicly humiliate Catholic politicians by refusing them the sacrament of communion—not because of any actions they may have committed but because of their beliefs (or in some cases, because of assumptions said bishops have made regarding their beliefs).

This situation raises some interesting questions regarding science, sociology, and the role of religion in modern affairs.

The issues involved, of course, are abortion and related matters, such as the experimental use of embryonic stem cells. The position of the Catholic Church (and other churches, as well) is that abortion is an absolute evil and—by extension—that all believers should try to prevent and condemn these practices.

Here’s the irony: by virtue of its opposition to all types of birth control and comprehensive sex education, the Catholic Church probably does more to promote the practice of abortion than any other institution on earth—not to mention other evils, such as starvation and infant mortality in Third World countries.

Someone needs to tell the Pope, I guess, that just telling people not to have sex usually doesn’t work.

But back to the subject of abortion. As Barack Obama has said regarding his own position, nobody is in favor of abortion. To be “pro-choice” is not to be “pro-abortion.” It is simply to acknowledge two obvious facts: 1) that making abortion illegal doesn’t make it go away, and 2) that there is—and should be—a big difference between “illegal” and “immoral.”

I happen to believe that smoking—poisoning one’s own lungs and the air others breathe—is immoral. I don’t think the federal government should address the problem by making smoking illegal. This is a social problem that should be and has been addressed through education, raising public awareness, and providing support to people who are addicted to nicotine. As a result of these measures, the Center for Disease Control recently announced that the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped below 20% for the first time.

Similarly, abortion is a complex social issue that needs to be addressed through scientific, social, and ethical discussions by educated people--not those who are hampered by simplistic, “either-or” thinking. Catholic clergy who subscribe to the notion that politicians who recognize the complexity of the issue should be “punished” by being denied communion are betraying both ignorance and arrogance—the same traits that inspired their predecessors during the Dark Ages to torture and kill those who disagreed with them.

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