Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Church of Over-Simplification

The Catholic Bishop whose diocese includes Notre Dame, John D’Arcy, has announced that he will not favor the university’s May 7 commencement with his presence. The reason for this pique-ish pronouncement is that he disagrees with the main speaker for the event, Barack Obama, about a single issue: the use of embryonic stem cells for research.

This attitude is analogous to the silly policy on homosexuality now under review by the military: “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The bishop’s position—a throwback to the Bush-era approach to foreign policy—is “don’t listen, don’t talk.” The basic premise is that when you disagree with someone, you get on your high horse, stick your nose in the air, and ignore the offending personage. You don’t listen to anything that person has to say, on any subject; and although you don’t sully yourself by speaking directly to whomever you happen to disagree with, you do plenty of talking about him or her.

This is a popular game played in middle schools. It’s also first cousin to the head-in-the-sand approach to problem-solving, both of which are variations on a theme: “Ignore it and it will go away.”

It’s fundamentally silly and counterproductive to simply not talk and not listen to those we disagree with. But apart from that, let’s look at a few facts.

First, neither the President nor anyone else is advocating that we kill any babies to do stem cell research. There’s no need to do that. Here’s the reality, like it or not: over 800,000 abortions are performed every year in the United States, and thousands of embryos are “left over” from fertility procedures. If that embryonic tissue is not used for some purpose—such as stem cell research—it’s discarded. If those embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, why not allow a few of them to be used in a way that may some day allow others to live better, more productive lives?

It’s a terrible thing that children and young adults die every day in accidents; but isn’t it good that sometimes their organs can be transplanted into the bodies of others to allow them to live? The donors are dead, anyway. There’s a need for organs, but no one is advocating that we go out and kill healthy teenagers in order to get them.

Second, what about the issue of quality of life? How do we quantify the amount of human misery—in the United States alone—represented by figures like these: over 5 million with Alzheimer’s; at least 500,000 suffering from Parkinson’s disease; 30,000 living with ALS (the disease that killed Lou Gehrig and disabled Stephen Hawking); millions living with the effects of spinal cord injury, burns, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis—all conditions that may be relieved or reversed as a result of stem cell research.

Ironically, D'Arcy's boycott comes 25 years after former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo delivered a speech at the same august institution in which he argued for a true separation of church and state and acceptance of others who may, in good faith, have arrived at different conclusions than we have.

“Catholicism is a religion of the head as well as the heart,” Cuomo said. “I am absolutely convinced that we will all benefit if suspicion is replaced by discussion, innuendo by dialogue.”

Speaking of Catholic bishops, Cuomo observed that the National Conference of Catholic Bishops had said they would not “take positions for or against specific political candidates” or “use the power of their position . . . to give an imprimatur to individual politicians or parties.” Apparently the bishops—or at least some bishops—are not as enlightened or socially responsible as they were 25 years ago.

The Catholic Church is a huge barge that takes a long, long time to turn. The medieval inquisitions weren’t officially abolished until the mid-1800s. It wasn’t until 1992 that the church admitted that it made a mistake in condemning Galileo for teaching that the earth revolves around the sun. Clearly, intellectual progress in the Church sometimes moves at a glacial pace.

Meanwhile, however, President Obama has a lot of damage to undo and a world to save in terms of the economy. For God’s sake, let’s quit quibbling over abstractions and get on with business.

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