Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Two Cases of Church-State Conflict

Two unrelated issues caught my attention recently, both because they put in bold relief the culture war conflict between church and state.  One took place in Germany, the other is unfolding here in the United States.

In Cologne, Germany, earlier this year a four-year-old Muslim boy was being circumcised by a Muslim doctor, in a routine procedure practiced by Muslims and Jews for centuries as a way of marking their boys as members of the community, when something went wrong and the boy needed to be rushed to a hospital because he was bleeding excessively.

At the hospital, the tending physician, either clueless about the religious practice, or possibly afraid failure to report this unnecessary surgery on healthy flesh would get him into professional difficulty, called in authorities.  The circumcizing doctor was charged with causing “grievous bodily harm.” 

Charges were quickly dismissed on the grounds that the procedure was done with parental consent.  The district court judge commented that not only was this a well-established religious tradition, but that in America and elsewhere circumcisions were routinely performed for hygienic reasons.

The story didn’t end there.  The prosecution took the case to the state court, which overruled the lower regional court’s decision, rejecting the arguments that failure to circumcize would make the child an outsider in his community and that the parents were acting with the child’s best interests in mind. 

Although such cases have come up before, (see here under “Germany”), this case has started a church-state controversy where one didn’t exist before, and with some serious consequences, given the history of Jews in Germany. 

The intellectual and political philosophical question, if you can lift it out from its real life context, is which should take precedent, the law and practices of the smaller unit, the individual/tribe/community as expressed in religious terms, or the highest law of the collective unit, the state, as articulated in the Constitution?  In Germany, it is the Constitution (known as the Grundgesetz, or “Basic Law”), as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which critics of the practice of circumcision refer to when speaking in terms of rights of children and “bodily integrity.”  Assaults on the body have been illegal in Germany since its founding as a modern state with a constitution in 1871, but this is the first time circumcision has been seriously challenged as an assault on the body.

You can imagine the nervous reactions all over the place.  Germany has spent over half a century putting itself right again with the Jews after the Holocaust, and has had moderate to considerable success in making them welcome in Germany once more.  Now, Jews are feeling as if the rug has been pulled out from under them and are joining with Muslims to ask the question, “Is there room for us in this country?”  Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke up in defence of the traditional practice and complained the controversy was making Germany look idiotic in the eyes of the world – as well as anti-semitic.  Talk shows are full of debates.   Finally, after a four-month moratorium on the practice when even Jewish Hospital in Berlin suspended the practice, the Bundestag finally pushed through a bill legalizing circumcision once more.   Most people are breathing a sigh of relief.

All the while this controversy was raging, here in the U.S., in the run-up to the coming November election, the Republicans met in Tampa to nominate their candidate and to establish their party platform.  Part of that platform, to the dismay of the majority of Americans, is a policy supporting an all-out ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest.  Same church-state issue, but with much more severe consequences.

In Germany, the clash between traditional religion and modern progressive values was settled with some common-sense quick action on the part of government.  Here in the U.S., the Republican Party claims it is for limited government, but would use government to remove women's rights over their own body.  A sword of Damocles hangs over them as they await the outcome of the election.  Will we, can we, possibly, roll back the rights of women to this dark place?  

Adding insult to injury, the Republicans, led by the vice-presidential candidate as well as many others, are urging what they are calling a “Personhood Amendment.”  They want to establish in law that a fertilized egg must be considered a person.  That would, of course, make abortion equivalent to homicide.  It would also put an end to in vitro fertilization as well, since that process involves fertilizing more eggs than can be used ultimately, in order to assure that some will be suitable for transplanting.  There will be no way of disposing of those fertilized eggs.

As Jon Stewart satirically noted recently, in America, when you put those policies side by side what you see, in effect, is a government saying to some women, “I know you want a child, but you can’t have one.”  And to others, “I know you don’t want a child, but you must have one.”

Both issues are ongoing.  In time, I suspect those opposing circumcision will regroup and the new law will be challenged. Germany may be at the vanguard of the battle over circumcision, but other countries – Australia, Finland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden and other places have imposed restrictions and at least laid the ground for stronger ways to ban the practice.  And as more people become aware that those who see the practice as barbaric actually includes Jewish reformers, it might well go the route of same-sex marriage in America, where the once sharp division between homophobic religion on the one hand and non-homophobic secularism on the other is giving way.  Today, even evangelicals and the majority of Roman Catholics approve of full civil rights for lgbt people.  If religious Jews and Muslims seeking ways to bring their religious practices more in tune with modern humanist values, there may be room for adjustment there, as well.

But while the two issues both help map out the extent of the church-state conflict, they are not parallel in terms of weight.  Most Jews and Muslims want their boys circumcised.  Most adults will tell you they are glad it happened.  Opponents are working with an abstract notion – bodily integrity – against a lived reality in which their arguments still sound silly.  This may not always be the case, but this is where we are today.  A victory of tradition will mean boys continue to lose their foreskin.  They can live with that.

On the other hand, forcing a woman to have a child by her rapist is seen as unspeakable cruelty by most people of compassion.  The abstract in this case – that life begins at conception – also fails to stand up against lived reality.  Only this time it’s not a few progressives in Germany at the vanguard calling the shots, the kind of people in favor of banning plastic bags and smoking.  This time, in America, it’s members of a patriarchal mindset seeking to bring back the dark ages for women. 

Unfortunately, America no longer has a functioning democracy.  The patriarchs have big bucks, and they can buy a whole lot more television ads than the other side.  We watched as the broken electoral system put George Bush in power, the country went to war on a lie and the economy tanked.

The question now is are we still on the way down?

We’ve already sold ourselves out.  How many billions are being spent to put on this election?

A Republican president would appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court, and the overturn of Roe v. Wade would be in sight.

How I wish all we had to worry about was a little bit of flesh.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Our Kids and God’s Anointed

What an awful thing that so many people still look with rose-colored glasses upon the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.  They should be seen for what they are, a pernicious gang of smug old men on a power trip, jumping in at every turn to control through fear and to manipulate human weakness.   The men and women Vatican II defined fifty years ago as “the people of God” deserve a whole lot better.  This actual Catholic church is made up of a complex collection of folk who adhere to the organization for a broad range of reasons – because they were born into it, because mama would cry if they left it, because it is an island in a sea of uncertainty, because it inspires them to be all that they can be, because it channels their spiritual longing better than any other human organization does.  But the authoritarian power structure of this very sick institution is something else again.  My heart goes out to these good catholics.  How they must squirm each time one of the self-appointed and increasingly authoritarian leaders claims to speak in their name.

Many who are not Catholic come to know Catholics through their work in schools and hospitals.  If our contact with catholicism were with the likes of Sister Helen Prejean, whose life story was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, we’d all be Catholics.  Sister Prejean took up the task of becoming the religious counselor to a brutal murderer on death row when no one else would and fought with all her might to save one man’s soul.  Whether you buy into her faith or not, her selflessness was inspired, and one might actually think a church that could do this for a human soul might be the place to be, if such inspiration as hers were not so overshadowed and mocked by what the institution has come to be known for in recent years.

Consider how the official hierarchy looks at liberation theology, for example.  Liberation theology grew out of an environment where the church hierarchy routinely sides with dictators and the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people.   The movement, rooted in Latin American poverty, has been fought tooth and nail by the pope and the hierarchy because caring for the poor gets in the way of a hard-nosed focus on doctrine.  You can be excommunicated for trying to get the church too close to Jesus.

Another example, and the reason the word “pernicious” comes so quickly to mind, is the current battle over the definition of family.  For many years, Catholic Charities in Boston was a leading force for good, especially in helping to place kids in need of adoption.  Over the seventeen years they were involved, going way back before Massachusetts recognized same-sex marriage, they placed thirteen kids with gay and lesbian families.   In doing their job they followed the guidelines of the State of Massachusetts that there should be no discrimination on the basis of sexuality or any other human category that did not threaten the well-being of children.  In fact, the policy was quite explicit.  Top priority would always be the interest of the children.  Church and state together recognized that there were children with special problems not getting adopted, found there were gay people were willing to take them in, and they followed their hearts – and their minds – to a superb solution.  Winners all around.  Not a loser in sight. 

Until the Vatican caught wind of what they were doing in Boston.   Suddenly, in 2005, according to the chairman of the board of Catholic Charities, “the Vatican ordered our diocese to cease using the single criteria of 'best interest of the children.'"  They had a larger goal – to keep up the demonization of gays and lesbians – even if it involved throwing the kids to the wolves.  All 42 directors of Catholic Charities wanted to continue helping as many kids find families as possible.   But they were no match for the pope’s man, Cardinal Sean O’Malley.  Shut down this operation, said the Cardinal.  And shut it down they did.  Vow of obedience, you see.

You will recognize the mentality.  It was the same one at work with the child abuse cases.  We’ve got more important things to do than worry about a few kids.  If the priest abuses a kid, we can shut the kid up and move the priest to another parish where we can keep an eye on him (or not).  Just don’t allow a scandal to get in the way of the flow of donations in the collection plate.  With adoptions, if a few troubled kids have to stay in an orphanage until they are eighteen, it’s a price we can afford to pay rather than to look like we’re not serious about our condemnation of homosexuality.  Besides, although they might find a home to call their own, these kids will end up doubting the need to condemn any and all forms of non-reproductive sex.  Can’t have that.

This all happened seven years ago.  I might be tempted to say it’s water under the bridge.  We’ve moved on.  Gays are adopting kids right and left these days.  There’s no need to wake that sleeping dog.  But perniciousness is once again rising like scum to the top of the hierarchy’s meddling in civic affairs. 

When the church bowed out in Boston and elsewhere, others stepped up and the adoptions continued.  In the end, no kids were hurt, although I can’t be sure there weren’t delays.  By the pope’s action, the church merely disqualified itself as an agent of compassion.  The rest of the world worked around them, keeping their eye on the kids.  So far, 65,000 kids have been adopted by gay and lesbian parents, four percent of all adopted kids in the United States. 

But that’s not how the church is telling the story these days.  Ask the hierarchy and you’ll find a gnashing of teeth and a rending of garments over how religion was given short shrift, how the state made demands on religion they had no right to make.  Never mind the 42 presumably Catholic folks on the Catholic Charities board who were happy to go along with the state’s insistence  that citing gay parents’ sexuality as a reason for disqualifying them as parents was illegal.  The religious beliefs of the “actual church – the people of God,”  the same folk as the 90% who practice birth control, had to give way, and the views of the hierarchy held sway.


You can see the “church as victim” playing out these days in Washington State.  On the ballot in the upcoming election on November 6 is Referendum 74, which would extend to lgbt people the right to marry.  The majority of American Catholics are in favor of this extension of human rights.  Not so Yakima’s Bishop Joseph Tyson.  In a letter to his flock he states:

As a law, R-74 … conditions our society to forget or ignore basic realities of human existence, and, rather than foster human rights, it is actually offensive to basic human rights and equality. This is the tragic irony: a law touted as a victory for civil rights and equality is actually a loss of civil rights and equality for the most vulnerable among us, children. 

I understand, Bishop, you don’t want gays to marry.  It’s tied in with not wanting women to practice birth control.  With teaching boys not to “touch themselves down there.”

But “a loss of civil rights”?  Now that is some sweet double-talk.

Loss of equality for the most vulnerable among us?  The children?

Joseph.  Joseph!   Do you hear what you’re saying?

 photo credit

Friday, October 5, 2012

No to Dark Ages Morality

There is an article in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle titled "Anti-gay record of incoming archbishop scrutizined by supervisors."  That's not of much interest to those outside the Bay Area, probably.  (And not of much interest to most in the Bay Area, either, actually.)

As is often the case, there's more meat in the discussion that follows than in the article itself.   I find it naive that some are claiming there is separation of church and state in this country, and therefore the Board of Supervisors should have nothing to say about the installation of a radical hardliner as Archbishop of San Francisco.

Separation of church and state is an ideal state, not a present-day reality.  Like democracy, it exists only in the daily reminders of how far we are from that ideal and how hard we have to work to reach it.

The Vatican has made a decision to teach lgbt people a lesson by putting a man like Cordileone in charge of Bay Area Catholics.

Fortunately, the majority of Bay Area Catholics know when to tell the good Archbishop when to take a hike.  Most times of the day on most days.

It gets tiresome to keep beating this dead horse, and I don't want to repeat what I said a couple days ago.

But if you're following the story about this new attempt on the part of the Chief Shepherd in the Vatican and his dogs to get his flock back in line, protests like the one outside of St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco are noteworthy. 

Sometimes you've got to feel sorry for His Holiness.  Beating away at the outer reaches out here in San Francisco, while his own butler is being abused (I don't want to say tortured.  It's not torture to keep a man in a cell with the lights on day and night, is it?) for stealing his private papers.  Not to hurt this man he loves and works for, he says, but to expose corruption.   Watching the pope try to fix San Francisco is like watching a man trying to hang onto his dignity with his pants down around his ankles.

In any case, here's the latest about the outspoken catholic members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors giving the archbishop something less than a 21-gun salute of welcome.

I include my comment to the article.



11:57 AM on October 5, 2012
If we had real separation of church and state in this country, those urging the BOS to keep silent about this man's appointment would have a case to make. But he represents the institution chiefly responsible for taking away the right of lgbt people to marry, non-catholics as well as catholic gay people. He speaks for "freedom of religion" but ignores the fact that most catholics don't agree with him. Freedom of religion ought not to be restricted to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He works to impose limitations on women (again, non-catholics as well as catholics) that range from uncharitable to inhuman. Protesters outside of St. Mary's are doing a real service to the community by revealing who this man really is and what he represents. Thank you, catholic (and non-catholic) members of the Board of Supervisors, for speaking out as well.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Week in Hiding from the Presidential Election

In a perfect world there would be no masters, no slaves, no abuse of the weak by the strong, no cruelty to the handicapped by the well-bodied.  And it would not be widely held around the world that men should dominate the women in their lives.

If you have not yet seen Half the Sky, please take the time.  I’m talking about the film based on the book by New York Times husband and wife team, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to call attention to the abuse of women around the world.  Don’t shy away from it because you think it will be a downer.   It is a downer.  But it’s also a look at heroes at work, and there is every reason to bypass the despair and focus on the heroes.  It’s in two parts.  Part I is here.  Part II is here.  They will only be available online until October 8 and 9 respectively.

There have been other antidotes to the despair that comes from fighting off the non-stop appeals for money for the American election campaign.  The Explorer flying six inches over my house, for example.  And my favorite niece-person flying into town for a wedding.   And then there was the lecture last night by Paul Elie.  He is one of the world’s experts on Bach, and his talk included musical performances by Albert Schweizer, Glenn Gould and Yo-Yo Ma – as well as an in-house cellist doing it live.  (It was a book promotion – for you Bach fans, check out the book reviews here.)  

But the winner of this week’s highly contested upper of the week award, for me, was the news that a  new law will go into effect on January 1, 2013 that will prohibit state-licensed therapists from imposing what they like to call “reparative therapy” on gay men and women.    Just as a doctor’s first obligation has always been to “do no harm,”  we have finally recognized in California that the work of religious organizations to make “ex-gays” out of gays has been a cruel attempt to “fix” something that was never broken in the first place.  And the law has finally caught up with common sense.

Not that the religious indoctrinators aren’t fighting back.   The Pacific Justice Institute, a group of four lawyers representing right-wing religious organizations, has challenged the law on the grounds that it “tramples on family rights.”  I won’t beat that dead horse.  The courts will fight it out, and despite all the “God love you” salutations, praying the gay away seems headed for the dustbin of history.  What’s not to love about that?

Love that word zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.   The current zeitgeist includes a sea change in cultural attitudes toward gay people.

Homophobia in the Western world is clearly rooted in its three patriarchal religions, both in the notion that men should rule over women, and there should be no cross-overs in gendered behavior roles, and in the scriptures themselves.  Fortunately, we are also home to the values of humanism, without which the non-democratic churches would still have us in their clutches.

Civil equality has taken what seems like an eternity to roll around.  The same forces resisting rights for women and rights for people of color are only now letting go of their need to make lgbt people beg for crumbs from the table.  Little by little the barriers are falling.  On the right to work, to live wherever one chooses, to adopt children, and to marry and share in the same benefits that are available to straight people. 

And it appears the speed is even picking up.   Last February, a public policy polling survey found that 50% of Rhode Islanders were in favor of same-sex marriage, and 41% opposed.  More recently a WPRI-TV (Providence) poll showed 56% in favor and 36% opposed.  Not a fair way of comparing two polls, possibly, but the gap would still seem to be widening.

And it’s worth noting that Rhode Island is about 60% Catholic.

In Maryland, the polls now show 49% in favor, 39% opposed, with over half of African-Americans now voting in favor – a group that had been more opposed than the average.

Alongside these positive stories, to be fair, is an item in today’s paper about another supporter of Prop. 8, the law that took the right to marry away from gays in California - beside the Pacific (ahem) Justice Institute boys, I mean.  The Reverend Salvatore Cordileone  is assuming office as archbishop of San Francisco.  And how is he being welcomed?  At a Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Christina Olague announced, “It’s disappointing that the church has assigned a person here who has shown a great deal of hostility to the (lgbt) community.”  She described him as “lacking in compassion.”  Two other gay supervisors (Olague is bisexual), David Campos, like Olague, a catholic, and Scott Wiener tried to tone down the rhetoric, speaking of common ground and the need to work together.

Imagine having to do his job…

Up at dawn.  Mass in the chapel.  Scold some women for practicing birth control.

Explain to the parishoners at Holy Redeemer that they are sinners and will not be able to take communion.

Read the reports on the latest child abuse cases.  Explain once more that you don’t really have anything against women.  They just cannot become priests because Jesus was a man.  And of course, that’s logical.  You just need to pray about it.

Seek common ground with two gay supervisors who want to work with you and one bisexual who doesn’t.

Explain to some high school kids that your name is not a Mafia name.

And no, the Catholic church is not “just another kind of Mafia, Johnny.  Take your seat, please.”

I suspect it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It was so much easier in the Middle Ages when you were the only guy in town who could read.

And nobody was trying to persuade you that women hold up half the sky.