Saturday, December 29, 2007

George Washington: An American Legend with an RPG

Wandering through Denver's "LoDo" section last night, I walked by the Sloane Gallery of Art. The art in the window display, part of a Russian artists exhibit, arrested me where I stood. The most remarkable piece:

Any man whose heart does not leap upon seeing George Washington astride a Roc-sized bald eagle as he wields an RPG is either dead or un-American. Stephen Colbert needs this kind of imagery in the Colbert Report's opening credits.

The surrealism increases:

What rough beast, its hour come 'round at last, wriggles in the arms of the Father of the Country?

This scene reminds us that Washington is one of the few presidents to have killed another man in close-quarters combat. George should play hurly-burly with the head of Hitler. Stalin's noggin should be mounted above the gates of the White House.

V.I. Lenin wearing Washington's mask. A subtle comment on the Trotskyite roots of pompously patriotic neo-conservatives? An intimation that the monetary system is communist plot? Nah, it's just a creepy portrait.

I don't think Americans could produce so extreme a parody of monumental art, though they certainly can commission it. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid developed these paintings for the 1998 opera Naked Revolution. The artists' home page links to more photos from the opera. Local coverage of the art collection, whose owner lives in Denver, is found in the Rocky Mountain News and in Westword.

Denver GOP drives pro-lifer to Democrats

John Wren is one of the most civic-minded men I've ever met. A devotee of Ben Franklin, he has endeavored to recreate Franklin's circles for networking and idea-sharing across the Denver metro area. He is a booster of the Socrates Cafe, which tries to bring philosophical discussions out of the academy and into the lives of ordinary laymen. Wren's support for the party caucus system is second-to-none, and he helped spearhead a campaign to keep it running. His enthusiasm has filled my e-mail box with the numerous bulletins he sends out to his considerable mailing list as he constantly recruits his contacts to become involved in their community.

Wren was also one of the nicest local Republicans I know. A former president of the state College Republicans, he has been quite active in the party for three decades. He played the sacrificial lamb in a state legislature race for a Democrat-dominated Denver district only a few years ago.

So Wren's announcement that he has become a Democrat was quite a surprise to me. In his own words:
The final blows were: 1) A note I got from a Denver Republican volunteer telling me that if I was prolife, they wouldn’t help me as a precinct committee person, making concrete the underlying current in the Denver GOP; 2) I was sensitive to this issue ever since I’d had no cooperation from a former Republican district captain because of the same issue; and 3) Finally, when Denver GOP leaders were so forceful about their support of pro-death candidate Rudi Giuliani. It became clear it was time for me to leave.

The incongruity between the opinions of local party leaders and the policies of their state and national parties very easily goes unnoticed, especially if one only reads partisan periodicals. Wren's impressions of the city GOP remind me of similar tensions I've seen within the Jeffco GOP even after only minimal attention, as when a local Republican, on pro-choice grounds, endorsed in a television commercial a Democratic U.S. Representative candidate.

John Wren says "what makes the most sense politically is to join the majority party in your county if you are interested in helping improve local government." That kind of localism is admirable, and it usually is overshadowed by state or national disputes. I wish him the best of luck in his new party.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Merry Christmas!

The bitter taste of that last post will, I hope, be washed by the joy of the Christmas season.

Do not click till X-mas.

Also see Christmas in the Trenches, a tearful song about the Christmas Truce of WWI.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"You Christians brought this on yourselves!"

Another murderous mass killing in Colorado. Another aftershock of the massacre at Columbine High School.

The first shootings were less than three miles from my home.

The locked doors announced by this sign inconvenienced me as I tried to stock my parish basement with some empty boxes for food distribution. I suppose we Christians brought that inconvenience upon ourselves.

But, to say the least, my inconvenience pales in comparison to what others lost. Four young people, ranging in age from 16 to 26, were murdered by 24-year-old Matthew Murray, who had been nursing a grudge against Pentecostalism and Christianity for years.

Here's a touching excerpt from a eulogy given by a friend of 16-year-old victim Rachel Works:
Four close friends of Stephanie's and Rachel's also spoke, though it was Aimee Donahue who evoked the most emotion.

Dressed in black - even her fingernails were painted black -- Donahue was supposed to see Rachel this week. Donahue lives in Virginia and the two have been close friends for two years.

She lamented the moment she got the news her friend had been shot and killed, saying she "cried for 13 hours." She said they both loved The Lord of the Rings and called each other Sam and Frodo - the duo of protagonists from the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy.

"I think what hurts the most is that all I think about is the things she'll never get to do, but I can do," Donahue said. "Why did I live and she die?"

And then she referenced the end of the The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo leaves Sam behind and tells his best friend to complete the story he began to write.

"There are still some pages left for you, Sam. Your story will go on," Donahue said. "So, I have to finish my pages - maybe some of hers too - because my story is still going on whether I like it or not."

People are calling Works' murderer crazy, citing an incident where he claimed to be hearing voices:
One night Werner was awakened by Murray's chattering and complained: "Hey, Matt can you just stop that. What are you doing?

"He just turned and said, 'Dude, I'm just talking to my voices,'" Werner recalled.

"Richard ... you don't have to worry," Murray reassured him. "You're a nice guy. The voices like you."

Werner would go on to say: "We didn't know if he was being serious about it or he was just messing with everybody's head." I have to doubt insanity in this case. Though filtered through one man's memory, this incident sounds far too polished. It's like a deliberately creepy line one would hear in a B-movie. That is to say: it's just what a young unoriginal outsider would say to scare a roommate.

In contrast to the Works and Donahue girls' playful imitation of noble Frodo and loyal Sam, the news reports that Murray would imitate the wretched Smeagol/Gollum. Perhaps we do become what we pretend to be.

Our culture often has great difficulty interpreting violent malevolence. We are quick to place it in the "crazy" category, even if there are no clear signs of psychosis in its perpetrators. This is in part an understandable move: there are never good reasons for killing innocent people. From this premise, we say that therefore murderers lack reasons for their action, therefore they are insane.

Yet this confuses mental insanity with spiritual insanity--that is, sin. Though we talk a lot about freedom of choice, we sometimes imagine that the willing choice of an evil deed is impossible.

Armchair character analysis is always risky, of course. But there is certainly a type of person that fetishizes violent insanity, one that looks at Gollum as a figure not to be pitied but emulated. Murray seemed to have enjoyed the aesthetics of chaos and brokenness. Why else would he have made an ironic performance of Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park at a Christian Christmas party? Why else would he have gone on at great lengths about the depths of his despair? Why did he laboriously blame his strict upbringing for ruining his life?

This stylized approach to life, with its pretensions to psychoanalysis and its choice allusions to music and movies, could be used to the good. But these killers reference not revelatory artworks or the words of heroes but each others' fevered hate-riven writings. Murray himself quoted the writings of Eric Harris, the lead murderer at Columbine, as if he were Murray's prophet of doom, a devilish mock-Isaiah.

While it would be ideal if we could erase all memory of these killers from popular culture, that is not going to happen.

These young killers do have parents who loved them very much, and speaking ill even of those wickedly dead should be tempered for their families' sake. But in a world where public figures are attacked for every minor gaffe, a murderer deserves similar outrage.

Murray was a child of the internet era. His last bloodthirsty words, titling this post, were meant for public consumption. He's a ripe target for flaming.

These murderers require unapologetic attacks unforgiving of their motives, irreverent towards their self-importance, and contemptuous of their violence. I proceed in that spirit.

Judging from what is reported in the press, Matthew Murray was a thin-skinned, self-pitying megalomaniac who wrote horrible poetry about how screwed up he thought his life was. The quality of his poetry and his themes can be summed up in a tremulous doggerel: Oh, what a fragile and noble soul,/suffering from so many forces beyond his control!

Murray wanted to be bisexual, but no woman would have him. (For some ludicrous reason, some gay activists are eager to claim this mass murderer as one of their own.) The Mormons baptized Murray, though he left them after two weeks. He couldn't even get the Satanists to approve him: his standards were that low.

The 25-year-old Murray quoted the writings of Columbine murderer Eric Harris, an eighteen-year-old possessed of neither talent nor insight. Ever the victim, in a subtle, original, and proportionate simile Murray compared his strict upbringing to a police state regimen. Christianity and his parents had caused all his problems. To him, his pains were the greatest of all. He was more sinned against than sinning.

In his writings, the real victim is obvious. The deaths of those four young strangers are peripheral.

[They were also peripheral to anyone who was eager to score a quick debating point in the first days after the shootings. Conservatives tried to blame secularism, atheism, and Islam(at first the killer was reportedly wearing a "skullcap"). Liberals tried to blame the easy availability of guns. Rank opportunists, before the victims were even identified, disgustingly blamed Christianity, New Life Church, Youth With a Mission, and the putative homophobia found therein. Sometimes they sided with the murderer in his own hate-ridden self-justifications. Some blog comments were a hideous reminder that every bloody internet story with national attention will attract the worst people: those incapable of grieving for the innocent.]

Murderers like Murray, not to mention their sympathizers, deserve mockery and ridicule. They merit no glamorous re-tellings of their story in film, song, or video game.

A mass-murderer should be malignantly caricatured in a dark comedy about his failed attack on a school or church. His utterly baseless motivations should be obvious and unsympathetically derided. The perpetrator should act obnoxiously to well-meaning people and then complain that nobody likes him. The character should take inspiration from Eric Harris, who ranted against the mentally retarded in his notebooks. Imagine a would-be shooter, convinced of his own greatness and intelligence, enviously resenting a Down's Syndrome teen for being his social better and moral superior.

This kind of deprecatory art would illustrate the revolting bile that leads a man to inflict his despair upon the undeserving. It would serve the social function of challenging potentially violent aesthetes on their own ground.

There are many professions of forgiveness from Murray's victims and their families, and I do not question their authenticity. Speaking for myself, I am good at excusing and minimizing genuine crimes. I can pretend to "explain" them. I am truly bad at actually forgiving the criminals who perpetrate such enormities. To forgive the kinds of characters I have intuited and imagined here requires more virtue than I yet possess. When I invoke the Prince of Peace this holiday season, I hope the purity of heart to forgive a clear-minded murderer will be my Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Illiterate Poetry

Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.”
Twilight of the Books

This suggests a thought exercise: shun abstractions in one's descriptions of color and use metaphorical descriptions to the point of abuse.

The article, which theorizes how a visual culture differs from a literate one, also touches on the work of Walter Ong, SJ.

Another provocative excerpt:
Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to "think memorable thoughts," whose zing insures their transmission. In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There's no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in "enthusiastic description of physical violence." Since there's no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past's inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.

Writers could react to this conclusion in a fit of Romanticist primitivism and aim to swamp cool reason with the most tempestuous of imagery. A more productive reaction would be to create a synthesis between the poetic and the analytic, a synthesis that could survive YouTube-ification.

Picking Up the Pieces

Children of illegal aliens deported by recent immigration raids are being reunited with their parents only with great difficulty, at private expense:

Eight-month-old Christian Daniel Ortiz will be in his mother’s arms again for Christmas.

He’s a ray of hope in light of the many families separated by recent immigration raids who can’t say the same for their children.

“I know that there are at least 15 to 20 families in Greeley that had children separated from them in similar cases,” said Sister Molly Muñoz, C.H.M., who worked with local English teacher Pablo Castellanos and Denver Spanish radio station (La Buena ONDA) KNRV 1150-AM to reunite the infant with his mother this holiday season.


United States-born Ortiz was flown on Dec. 6 — the feast of St. Nicholas — to his mother in El Salvador, who was arrested in Rifle five months ago in an immigration raid.


After her July arrest, Anna Delme, 26, was held in a detention center for three months where she was not able to have contact with her son, whom she had been breastfeeding, Sister Muñoz said.
Denver Catholic Register

This looks like a significant lapse in government policy. If the ICE swoops in and ships parents thousands of miles away from their kids, they shouldn't just dump the poor semi-orphans on the local community. The children of convicted felons would receive better treatment.

I can't find any trace of this story in the local Anglophone papers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Let there be sung Non nobis and Te deum

This day, December 17, will always be special to me. My unexpected healing one year ago certainly did not propel me to full health straight away. But aside from a few aftershocks to my bodily systems, the past year has been marvelous.

Perhaps this next year will fulfill all the hopes I again began to harbor one year ago today. Dum spiro, spero.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Democrats are Blue, Because Pro-lifers are Exiled

I thought I already knew what happened to Governor Casey.

The outline is bad enough. The governor who had won his state in 1990 by an astounding 66 percent of the vote was forbidden by his own party leadership from addressing the convention because of his pro-life views.

The rebuke is infamous among Catholics. Bill Galston noticed as much while discussing religion and the Democratic Party: "I cannot manage to find a Catholic intellectual who will not in conversation refer to what happened to Bob Casey at the 1992 Democratic convention."

But the details of the Casey insult are agonizing to read.

Casey described the rejection letter the DNC sent in response to his request for floor time as "the kind of letter they might have sent Lyndon LaRouche, had he asked to address the convention." One of the guests on the convention platform was Kathy Taylor, a Republican pro-choice activist who had campaigned for Casey's opponent in the gubernatorial race.

The governor described his place at the convention:
And so from my seat in the outer reaches of the Garden, I watched a pro-choice Republican supporter of my pro-choice Republican opponent, whom I had defeated by a million votes to be re-elected as Democratic governor, proudly proclaiming her allegiance to the pro-choice forces.

In his latest book Mark Stricherz provides the exemplar of Casey's humiliation. "On the convention floor was Karen Ritter, a state Democratic legislator, selling large buttons with pictures of Casey dressed up as the Pope."

How did the Democrats, who were once denounced for being the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion," reach a point where an activist on the convention floor could confidently, if unconsciously, echo the propaganda of the Know-nothings and the Klan?

Stricherz answers the question well in his book Why the Democrats are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People's Party.

In Stricherz's telling, the old party bosses who dominated the party from the New Deal through the 1960s selected candidates with an eye towards practical success. A winning candidate on the national level could bring home the bacon for the bosses' working class constituents. Ideological concerns were minimal. Though the corruption of Daley and Curley is legendary, bosses could act quite justly. Pittsburgh's David Lawrence, for instance, helped push through civil rights reforms.

These bosses were overwhelmingly Catholic and patrons of blue-collar workers.

Though often democratic in outcome, the boss system was undemocratic in process. Realizing the need to create a more responsive party leadership, the ethnic bosses and other party leaders agreed to reform the party delegate system. In 1968.

That was a bad time to rewrite the rules for selecting delegates. Young anti-war activists, fearing for their lives, made sure their partisans were on the selection committee.

Enter the McGovern Commission. Though only racial discrimination was a problem in Democratic caucuses, the commission instituted quotas based on race, youth, and sex.(This explains the Democrats' continuing affinity for quotas)

Young female delegates were, with good reason, presumed to be more anti-war. The feminists, whose loyalty then could have swayed to the Republicans, were well-organized enough to exploit the quotas and install their delegates. (Stricherz explains the specifics here)

The only other demographic that was poised to benefit from the change was the secular college-educated liberal. Their numbers and goals significantly overlapped with the feminists. Their opponents easily tarred them as partisans of Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion. As their shared cultural liberalism became more prominent, the loyalty of more conventional Democratic voters waned.

One passage particularly shows the transition:
The differences between the leaders of the McGovern Commission and those in charge of the Chicago convention were stark. In 1968, the chairman o fthe DNC(John Bailey), the chairman of the Platform Committee(Rep. Hale Boggs), the chairman of the Credentials Committee(Gov Richard Hughes of New Jersey) and the kingmaker at the convention(Mayor Daley of Chicago) were all Roman Catholic; were professional politicians; were based either in the big cities or in state houses; and had a cross-racial, Catholic, and working-class constituency. In 1969, the chairman of the commission(McGovern), the general counsel to the commission(Segal), the chief of communication consultants(Wexler), the director of research(Bode), and the most active commissioner(Dutton) were all either mainline Protestants or non-Orthodox Jews; were predominantly activists or political aides; were based in the universities; and had a largely suburban, upper-class, white constiutency. The leadership of the party was about to change. ( p. 92)

What Catholics remained in the party leadership had sworn servility to the pro-choice party line, and contemporary rising stars must follow their lead. Even the token pro-lifers Bob Casey, Jr. and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, have been easily domesticated and compromised by the Democratic establishment, who are even more cynical in their token appeals to social conservatism than the Republicans are. If one is willing to be compromised, staying Democrat still looks good to many Catholics. Such candidates even pick up the votes of nice old little ladies who think that because they go to Mass, they must be a pro-life Democrat.

Why the Democrats are Blue can teach one a lot about politics. The tale of the McGovern Commission is a perfect example of how the pragmatic, broad aims of an establishment prove vulnerable to the concerted efforts of a well-organized ideological faction. As Stricherz says,
...socially conservative Democrats had failed to mount an effective effort. Nellie Gray, a delegate for pro-life Democratic presidential candidate Eileen McCormack, suggested that her side suffered from a dearth of lobbyists: “In those days, all of us in the pro-life movement were active in three or four things at the same time.”

Further, Stricherz's study finally explains why blue-collar concerns have taken a back-seat along with the Catholics: the unions themselves were the Catholic vote, and the marginalization of Catholics was, in effect, the marginalizing of labor leaders.

Stricherz suggests that since the Democrats have lost their elections since shunning the Catholics from leadership, simply reversing that trend would help the Democrats win elections and restore pro-life concerns to the party.

Maddeningly, he never expands this argument in necessary detail. Stricherz, I think, needs to attack the specific claims of Fred Dutton, who worked on a 1968 Democrat commission examining the party structure. Dutton justified changes in the system by claiming the old demographics were shifting. He wrote:
But the traditional blue-collar base, while still very substantial politically, is disappearing over the long run by losing most of its children to a different political and social group with rising educational levels, affluence, and the greater cultural sophistication taking hold.(p. 124)

To a significant extent this evaluation seems to have borne out. Irish-Americans are now among one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in the country. Many Catholics now mouth anti-union sentiment that would have mortified their grandfathers. The collapse and sabotage of Catholic education has reduced Catholic identity and practice and has left even mass-going Catholics more indifferent to moral standards and their application to politics.

Further, it's not clear that the party's rejection of the pro-life Catholic vote has as much impact on the presidential race as Stricherz suggests. As one can tell even from the map that adorns the book's cover, most of the significantly Catholic states are still reliably Democrat. Only Ohio and perhaps Florida are, I believe, key states where the Catholic vote can swing elections.

It seems more clear that the loss of the South to the Republicans has doomed Democratic presidential campaigns. Southern governors Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have been the only Democratic candidates to have won the presidency in the post-McGovern era.

Stricherz offers several proposals for reforming the Democrats away from their pro-choice absolutism and, by implication, towards decades of dominance in presidential elections. He proposes abolishing the state party caucuses, allowing independents to vote in primaries, eliminating delegate quotas and party-appointed "super-delegates," and moving the first primary elections to the swing states.

I think the last idea is brilliant. But I think the Democrats are too committed to quotas in other areas to remove them from their own system, especially if the present leadership has benefited from such quotas.

However, I worry about Stricherz's arguments for the abolition of the state party caucus. Stricherz says that
The main problem with caucus elections is the amount of time and effort they require of voters. Those who attend caucuses have to do more than show up and vote; they have to spend at least an hour and often several hours sitting through a meeting before declaring themselves for a candidate.

Oh, the agony of political participation! Hours of boredom, once every two years!

I admit being under the influence of John Wren, a tireless advocate of the caucus system. To abolish the caucuses would be to abolish one of the last remnants of localist neighborhood politics.

Another of Stricherz's arguments against the caucus system is that caucus meetings are disproportionately attended by activists. But if the caucuses favor organized partisans, why can't one better organize one's own partisans instead of directing energy into changing the whole system?

Stricherz's other objections are that caucuses are held only at night, are sparsely-attended by working-class voters, and lack elections by secret ballot. Again, these seem to be problems best addressed by methods other than abolition.

These several criticisms are offered only because I think the book is quite good. Why the Democrats are Blue effectively describes how Catholics used to be a power in Democratic leadership. The book captures the limbo of the Catholic who is now exiled from the Democratic party. Stricherz tells a well-researched story of how structural party changes made by seemingly minor figures can hijack a party.

Now to hijack it back.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hands that shed innocent blood...

The murder of two missionaries took place a five-minute drive from my Arvada home. The Youth with a Mission were leasing space from Faith Bible Chapel, the megachurch of the city.

The gunman reportedly asked for shelter for the night. I have to wonder whether his request was genuine.

It's not clear whether or how the crime is related to the other shootings at New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The priests at Spirit of Christ Catholic Parish took care in their homilies to relate the crime to the first reading today, from Isaiah 11:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

...but not yet.

Grant rest to them, Lord. Thy kingdom come.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Shakespeare meets Neuroscience

I took this hypothesis—about grammatical or linear shapes and their mapping onto shapes inside the brain—to a scientist, Professor Neil Roberts who heads MARIARC (the Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre) at the University of Liverpool. In particular I mentioned to him the linguistic phenomenon in Shakespeare which is known as "functional shift" or "word class conversion". It refers to the way that Shakespeare will often use one part of speech—a noun or an adjective, say—to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida", "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello", "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

From The Shakespeared Brain, an exploration of the neurological effects of the Bard's functional shifting.

The author, English professor Philip Davis, wanders into speculative territory:
"When the brain is asked to work at more complex meanings, the localization gives way to the movement between the two static locations.

Then the brain is working at a higher level of evolution, at an emergent consciousness paradoxically undetermined by the structures it still works from."

The scientific rigor of this statement is doubtful. It will certainly annoy anti-dualists. However, if his speculation proves reasonable, it will locate meaning in the relation of things. The relational interplay of areas of the brain prefigures the relational interplay of persons. This suggests The nuptial meaning of the mind.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Prepare for a world after Roe v. Wade

Patrick Deneen asks a good question:
Has any "pro-life" Republican President been preparing the ground for a post-Roe future, much less seeking to repair the culture of our Roe-governed present?

...the jury is still out (as it were) whether any candidate is prepared to use the bully pulpit and educative role of the Presidency to move the polity away from our half-century of libertarian self-indulgence and to urge self-governance in all its forms. Such admonishment will have to encompass not only "social" issues but "economic" issues as well, since the two are ultimately deeply and intimately connected.

Deneen thinks too many people trust in constitutional law to solve the problem of abortion. In practice this means waiting for one Supreme Court decision to do the hard work we should be doing right now.

At the same time, I don't know how people would respond to a president paternally lecturing Americans about how to put the country back on track without the aid of the federal government. Such a vision seems like it's from the Eisenhower era.

Hospitals for sale: no Catholics need apply?

A bioethics dispute is brewing in Colorado.

The Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health system is in talks to take full ownership of two non-Catholic hospitals in the Denver area, but disputes over the instatement of a Catholic code of ethics could halt the deal. CNA has a summary.

The acquisition is being challenged by both hospital staff at the two hospitals and various activists. If the Colorado Attorney General rules the acquisition would constitute a "material change of purpose" of the present hospitals, it would be prohibited.

Following an open request for input at, I wrote the following letter:

At a time when many Catholic institutions and individuals follow
Christian ethics only when it is convenient, I applaud the Sisters of
Charity for adhering to a consistent ethic as they consider expanding
to take responsibility for Exempla hospitals.

It is understandable that this code of ethics will confuse or even
anger those who don't share all of the same committments.

Regrettably, news coverage rarely lessens such confusion by explaining
the logic behind controversial ethical stances.

I am sure many do not understand certain Catholic moral concerns, such
as why vasectomies or tubal ligations should be considered unethical.
Though there isn't space for a full discussion, I'll venture my
layman's understanding of that reasoning:

Suppose there became popular an elective surgery that severed the
optical nerve for those who no longer wanted to see. We can see the
principle by which medical professionals would refuse that
"treatment." Eyesight is healthy, and not a medical problem.
Deliberately to blind someone, even at their request, is a kind of
mutilation directly contrary to the art of medicine.

In a similar way, deliberately to mar healthy reproductive organs is
not consistent with medical practice. Sterility, not fertility, is
the ailment to be treated. Medicine aims to heal rather than thwart
the natural functions of the human body, which Catholics and many
others believe to be a work of God.

Centuries of considered ethical thought has helped lead to these
controverted conclusions, and I hope the skeptical will examine that
reasoning in more detail, as explained by intelligent scholars at
places like the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

Even so, some might object that a medical institution coming under
Catholic auspices has no business imposing its revised medical ethics
on its staff or patients, when those ethical principles aren't
widely-shared and seem to intrude upon individual prerogatives. But
if, to suggest an extreme example, the euthanizing of disabled
newborns(with parental consent) ever became an accepted, HMO-covered
medical procedure, I hope the principled minority would support
Catholic organizations that defy that norm and refuse accommodation.
Majority rule can't be the deciding factor in medical ethics.

The Sisters of Charity are responsible not only to God(a most
important patron), but also to their thousands of benefactors across
the years who have expected the Sisters to carry on their mission in a
manner consistent with Catholic principles and sound medical ethics.
Indeed, the principles the Sisters of Charity hold are in part
responsible for their present prominence.

If the merger goes through, millions of dollars from their endowment
will supply medical facilities that otherwise would not be available.
As a Kaiser Permanente member, that's fine by me.

Catholic ethics requires not only these presently controversial moral
stands; it also mandates care for the sick and dying. To obey that
mandate, we can all agree.


One local bioethicist Dr. Lawrence Rust really does think majority rule should be the deciding factor in medical ethics. Catholic ethics can't have the final say in Catholic-run hospitals, but it deserves a "prominent voice." How nice!

The Rocky Mountain News recently ran an article with the amusing title Catholic-run Hospitals Not New. According to New Advent, Christian hospitals have been around in some form since the fourth century.

Less amusing is the article's implication that Catholic ethics is professed, but that profession never restricts actual medical practice. Exempla CEO Jeff Selberg describes how the code of ethics works in practice:
"The language is there that says we respect life and we will not accept anything that would encroach upon or impact the dignity of one's life," Selberg said. "At the same time, judgment must be used to determine what is best for the individual and what is in alignment with one's conscience."

"On first blush, you see these rules as very literal, very black and white," Selberg said. "But when you read the entirety, you find that there is latitude in terms of judgment.

"There's discretion as long as there's good faith that the directives are being carried out to the degree possible and the patient's welfare is always put first."

That kind of flexibility is shown, for instance, with end-of-life issues, Selberg said.

If a patient is in an irreversible coma or vegetative state, doctors counsel relatives. If relatives want feeding tubes or ventilators to be removed, the request goes to the ethics committee, Selberg said.

"I can't think of a case that we've had where we have denied or refused the request," he said. "It is something that is reviewed or evaluated, but it is not unreasonably withheld."

As much as I would like to think correct decisions are always made by patients and doctors, that last paragraph makes the ethics committee look like a rubber-stamp council.

The latest article, Coalition: Hospital deal violates law, further discusses the controversy.
Ed Kahn, special counsel at the Center on Law & Policy in Denver, argues that charitable donations were made to provide non-sectarian medical care at both hospitals. If the sale goes through, both hospitals would become Catholic facilities and medical care would be restricted, Kahn said. Doctors would have to follow religious directives against performing tubal ligations, vasectomies and abortions, and not remove feeding tubes from patients in a vegetative state.

Opponents, too, can cite the will of charitable benefactors.

Yet the hospitals in question are named Lutheran Medical Center and Good Samaritan Hospital. These hospitals' very names could be considered sectarian. It seems Kahn would have to argue Lutheran donors wouldn't want their facilities used by Catholics. The typical example of a sectarian hospital, I think, would be one which only permits sect members as staff or patients. Neither Lutheran nor the Sisters of Charity hospitals qualify.

Kahn's invocation of "non-sectarian" is troubling, considering its history. The only mention of non-sectarianism in public law that comes to mind is in the Colorado State Constitution, which prohibits school funding for sectarian education in its "Blaine Amendment."

This calls to mind Justice Clarence Thomas' opinion of such amendments in Mitchell v. Helms:
Opposition to aid to “sectarian” schools acquired prominence in the 1870’s with Congress’s consideration (and near passage) of the Blaine Amendment, which would have amended the Constitution to bar any aid to sectarian institutions. Consideration of the amendment arose at a time of pervasive hostility to the Catholic Church and to Catholics in general, and it was an open secret that “sectarian” was code for “Catholic.” See generally Green, The Blaine Amendment Reconsidered. Notwithstanding its history, of course, “sectarian” could, on its face, describe the school of any religious sect, but the Court eliminated this possibility of confusion when, in Hunt v. McNair, it coined the term “pervasively sectarian”–a term which, at that time, could be applied almost exclusively to Catholic parochial schools and which even today’s dissent exemplifies chiefly by reference to such schools.

The RMN article further informs us that Kahn wrote the letter on behalf of the ACLU of Colorado, the state chapters of Compassion & Choices and the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Women's Law Center and other groups. They apparently meet at the First Universalist Church of Denver.

By the standards of yellow journalism, one could write the sensationalistic headline "Jews, Universalists oppose Catholic hospital expansion."

There is another legal challenge in the article:
Opponents also contend that the seller, the Community First Foundation, would spend money from the transaction on non-health care-related operations. That would violate the general Nonprofit Corporations law and the Uniform Management of Institutional Funds Act, Kahn said.

I wish the article told us what the money would be spent on.

This dispute isn't an easy one. I would be quite sad if many doctors felt they had to quit because of ethical differences. But I would be even more affected if a victorious rationale prohibiting this merger means Catholic hospitals can never expand into existing facilities.