Thursday, 30 April 2009

St. Catherine of Siena, 'Empowered Woman'

I would have written a post about this yesterday: April 29 is the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. She is one of the greatest female Saints of the Church, and even in secular terms one of the greatest women ever to have lived. Though of very frail physical disposition, she had the mental strength of a lioness. She entered the lay section of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) at age sixteen and, after living some years as a sort of hermit in her father's house, she began to write letters to the Bishops and Princes of Italy, urging them to put a stop to the wars which ravaged the peninsula. She also successfully implored Pope Gregory IX, who for various reasons had chosen to reside in Avignon, to come back to Rome. She earned widespread respect in the Italian political and ecclesiastical establishment and was even employed by the Pope as ambassador. Besides all this she worked for spiritual renewal in the Church and tended as a nurse to the sick. She received a large number of intriguing mystical experiences. Her Dialogue and letters are some of the most accomplished works of Italian litterature. She is invoked as the patron Saint of philosophers and, as one of the foremost female Catholic theologians, was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

There is no doubt in my mind that St. Catherine's extraordinary success, despite her sex and the age in which she lived, as a politician, diplomat, and theologian was not in the tiniest way up to her own natural abilities, but were the result of supernatural grace. It is quite certain that the Pope and the princes with whom she corresponded would not have lent any attention to this sickly, illitterate young lady if it had not been the case that they sensed an otherworldly authority behind her words.

It is sad that what passes for 'empowerment of women' today is frequently promotion of a woman's 'right' to pervert her own sexuality and kill her own children (I am not denying that there is other, very good, work being done in the area of promoting women's dignity and responsibility). St. Catherine shows what true female strength is about: giving oneself completely over to God and letting Him work wonders through you. This is what we are all called to do, but women can in fact easier do so than men because they tend to be naturally more disposed towards humility and care of others (cf. John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem). This is not in any way a hindrance or something to be ashamed of - it is a blessing and a gift of which at least this blockheaded male is profoundly envious.

Divine Beauty: Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

Truly one of the priceless gems of Christendom, Sainte-Chapelle, once the private chapel of the Kings of France, housed what was believed to be one of the very greatest Christian relics: the Crown of Thorns of Christ, which was displayed under the canopy seen above. I can personally attest to the staggering beauty of this fantastical edifice, although today, stripped of virtually all religious symbols and turned into a museum, it is even more soulless than the Hagia Sophia.

Schoolgirls to Obtain Morning-after Pills by Text Message

I fully understand that people worry about teenage pregnancy. In my opinion, people are not well suited to either have sex or be parents until they have gone through the turbulent years of adolescence and developed a reasonably stable sense of their own identity and an appreciation for the identity and dignity of others. It is even more worrying when very emotionally immature persons, even pre-teens, are having sex - they are being profoundly irresponsible and are doing damage to themselves and to others by not knowing how to set limits for their own behaviour, and in the case of girls they are often exploited by older teens or even grown men.

But how does one discourage this type of behaviour? The Oxfordshire County Council thought it would be a brilliant idea to set up a text message service where school pupils in some of the areas most affected by teenage pregnancies could receive easily accessible medical "support" if they thought they had "taken a risk." According to this article from the Times, the service is primarily directed towards handing out 'morning-after pills' to girls who had had unprotected sex or whose contraception had failed.

Now I, and many others, are asking exactly what good that will do? Apart from the obvious but controversial fact that 'morning-after pills' are usually abortifacient and thus entail the taking of an innocent life, this approach is solely directed towards treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause. The service may prevent some teenage pregnancies, but it is very likely that more will result from it since it will be come to seen as a handy 'back-up' plan to contraception, meaning contraception will be taken less seriously - resulting in not only more teenage pregnancies, but also more sexually transmitted diseases!

The rationale for not treating the root of this problem is, as far as I can see, that this would entail an admittance of the fact that the 'cult of orgasm' which is so prevalent in our society and is spreading to ever younger ages, is at some level problematic - that the encouragement of teens and pre-teens to delay sexual relations until they are more mature and responsible, and to develop instead within them the idea that relationships ought to be loving, caring, lasting, and not focused exclusively upon sex would amount to a disqualification of the sexual practices of adults themselves, which are often very far from this ideal. Thus the health and well-being of the next generation is essentially sacrificed in order to protect the care-free lifestyle to which the present one has become addicted.

The fact that there is no parental notification involved also makes this scheme a blatant attack upon the rights (and duties) of parents to be responsible for their children's well-being. It boggles the mind that the article states that "Child protection staff will step in if any girl aged between 11 and 13 uses the service." What of children under 11? Is that an impossible scenario? And, the legal age of consent in Britain is 16, so why set the limit at 13? As if girls aged 14 could not be the victims of exploitative relationships.

(On another note: LifeSiteNews reports that one of the schools involved in the pilot project is a Catholic school, and that the County had unilatererally included it in the project, offering it no option not to participate. Is this what passes for freedom of religion in the West?)

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Legacy of Margaret Sanger to be Fulfilled - Or?

Now it's official (as if we didn't know it): Hillary Clinton has affirmed that one of the stated aims of the Obama administration is to advance so-called 'reproductive rights', including the 'right' to abortion, throughout the world.

The same Hillary Clinton recently expressed her admiration for the founder of what would become the largest perpetrator of abortions in the US, Planned Parenthood, saying she was "in awe" of Margaret Sanger and that "her work is not yet done".

Many Catholic bloggers are going into bouts of frenzy over Margaret Sanger, stating that she was a eugenicist, a racist with ties to the KKK, and whatnot. Actually, I think they are missing a far deeper point about Sanger. I don't know much about her, but if the information about her on Wikipedia is anything to go by, it turns out she was not such a horrible person after all; in fact, she was quite conservative, even for her time. She was not a eugenicist in the most perjorative sense of the word - while encouraging women to be smart about when to get pregnant and with whom, she abhorred the murderous eugenics programs in Nazi Germany. She regarded other races than the white one as intellectually and emotionally inferior, but then such a view was not a rarity in her day. The most horrible thing she advocated was actually birth control, which, although morally reprehensible and sometimes abortifacient, seldom constitutes outright murder. On all other issues regarding sexuality and reproduction she was very much a product of the century in which she was born. She viewed masturbation as gravely disordered behaviour and had great disdain for chronic masturbators. Her rationale for birth control was not to 'liberate' women, as the feminists of the 60's sought to do, but rather to prevent their immature and irrational sexual impulses (which were of course unavoidable) from getting them into trouble. And she actually opposed abortion in all instances on the grounds that it always constituted a taking of a life.

So it seems that Margaret Sanger, godmother of abortionism and hero of the sex-obsessive Left, was herself an avid opponent of abortion and had a rather more negative view of human sexuality than the Catholic Church does today. In embracing the teaching of the Church, Planned Parenthood and Hillary Clinton would ironically be much more true to the ideals of their great hero than they are now, and even develop a more rounded view of human sexuality and the joys which accompany it than she ever attained.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Discovering Ethics III: Basic Questions 2 (Pinckaers 1995)

Continuing my analysis of Pinckaers' book (earlier entries here), some further basic questions regarding the relationship between ethics and a number of fundamental issues intrinsic to human existence:

3. Life's meaning and goal. Pinckaers quotes the pioneering Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler, as saying "The psychic life of man is determined by his goal." St. Thomas taught that happiness is our ultimate end, but later moralists dismissed this idea of Man's ultimate end as "too speculative" in favour of "the study of individual actions in relation to law, the study of cases of conscience". But this misses the point that finality is essential to human existence.

Since the question of life's goal or ultimate end is so important, we might define Christian ethics as the science that teaches us the meaning of life. It shows the supreme end toward which all our actions should be directed, the end that gives them meaning, value, and wholeness. Within this perspective, the work of the ethicist and the priest will be to help every Christian, indeed all whose lives they touch, to respond personally to the question of the real meaning of life. Their task will be to point out the highest good in the light of the Gospel and to show how all lesser goods can lead to it.
4. Suffering. Pinckaers observes that "the manuals of moral theology have little to say about suffering", choosing instead to refer this matter to treatises on asceticism. But as he points out further, both Scripture and human experience shows the centrality of suffering in human existence. The life of Christ and His disciples is steeped in suffering. The theme is prominent in the Psalms and in Job. Even on a relatively mundane level, suffering leads Man to appreciate good. According to Pinckaers, the failure of ethicists to deal with this concept is another result of the over-emphasis on obligations: "once the idea of obligation becomes dominant and determines the scope of morality, the consideration of suffering becomes marginal, since it is not a matter of obligation," and continues, "On the other hand, if the idea of happiness is the initial consideration in moral theology, the place of suffering will be obvious, for it is precisely the reverse of happiness. Suffering will then be an element of moral theology from the start." The concept of suffering is prominent in St. Thomas, too, and closely tied up with the virtue of courage, Christian martyrdom, and the Passion of Christ.

Pinckaers believes that the separation of ethics and suffering is the product of a rationalistic mindset, according to which reason and will occupy the paramount position in the moral life of the individual, while love and suffering are secondary concepts. On an even lower level is to be found the (largely irrational) sentiments, which must be dominated by reason. But, says Pinckaers,

In setting up this dichotomy between reason and appetite, rationalism misunderstands the existence of what might be termed spiritual sensibility... [which] is associated with direct perception - a kind of instinct or connatural knowledge - and with the unique movement of selfless love which is the love of friendship... And delightedly [St. Thomas] called the gifts of the Holy Spirit "instincts of the Holy Spirit" in both intellect and will.
Instead, Pinckaers, here as always, calls for a more integrative approach which can also effectively take in the question of death which is so prominent in our society.

I can't determine whether his assertion that the separation of ethics and asceticism is due to rationalism is correct, or whether this separation necessarily implies that one is superior to the other. I might seem reasonable to separate the two for investigative purposes. But the integrative approach called for by Pinckaers certainly seems to promise a more rounded view of human existence and the role of ethics in it.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Divine Beauty: Humility and Charity

Perhaps not such a beautiful image per se, but what it signifies is: HH Pope Benedict washing the feet of priests on Holy Thursday, in imitation of what Christ did to His Apostles (in ancient times, washing someone's feet was the work of slaves).

This rite is accompanied by the singing of several antiphons, among them the profound Ubi Caritas. The most beautiful modern setting of this originally gregorian antiphon is, in my mind, that of Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986):

This captures the essence of Christianity wonderfully. The text of the full antiphon, with translation:

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor.
Exultemus, et in ipso iucundemur.
Timeamus, et amemus Deum vivum.
Et ex corde diligamus nos sincero.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul ergo cum in unum congregamur:
Ne nos mente dividamur, caveamus.
Cessent iurgia maligna, cessent lites.
Et in medio nostri sit Christus Deus.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Simul quoque cum beatis videamus,
Glorianter vultum tuum, Christe Deus:
Gaudium quod est immensum, atque probum,
Saecula per infinita saeculorum. Amen.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
Christ's love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
As we are gathered into one body,
Beware, lest we be divided in mind.
Let evil impulses stop, let controversy cease,
And may Christ our God be in our midst.

Where charity and love are, God is there.
And may we with the saints also,
See Thy face in glory, O Christ our God:
The joy that is immense and good,
Unto the ages through infinite ages. Amen.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Abortion Ads to Air In the UK?

Advertisements for murder on prime time TV? You can't make this stuff up.

"Abortion clinics are to be allowed to advertise on television and radio for the first time.

"Condom manufacturers will also be permitted to broadcast advertisements at any time of the day or night."

See the rest of the article here.

To be fair, I'm not sure this is all it's cracked up to be. Given that abortion clinics in the UK operate on the basis of referrals from hospitals and GP's, I think it's unlikely that they will advertise directly. But 'reproductive health services' which, among other things, refer people for abortions, might well do so - and they are notoriously better funded than Christian advisory services which do not refer for abortions. Such services would also be required to state that this is the case if they advertise. All in all, the match between pro-abortionists and pro-lifers will become increasingly uneven.

Apart from that, it is completely inappropriate for condom advertisements to be able to pop up at any time of day. Sure they will be barred from breaks in children's programmes, but given that children typically watch a whole lot more than just children's programmes that is not a great help. Then again, many things should be barred from daytime TV - all forms of depiction of sex, violence, drug abuse etc. But oh no, that would be a disaster for the industry which feeds on our disturbing fascination of these things.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

In Condoms We Trust: The Fallacies of the Contraceptive Ideology

Pope Benedict XVI was hugely criticised for his remark on the way to Africa that "this problem of Aids cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it." From New York to Sydney, Western public opinion pounced on the Holy Father, condemning him and the Catholic Church as "stuck in a mediaeval world view", "liars", and even as "assassins", claiming that the Church's opposition to contraception has caused the death of untold millions because it has exposed them to infection with HIV.

But in the heat of all this, very few have stopped and asked themselves the obvious question: Do condoms lower the risk of HIV transmission? Perhaps people think it's too obvious. Encasing the male genitals in a protective barrier during intercourse must necessarily lower the risk of HIV transmission. And so it does, under ordinary circumstances. But that does not mean that it eliminates this risk, and that is an entirely different issue.

Some controversial writers, including prominent Catholic moralists, have argued that the pores in the material which condoms is made of are so large that a considerable number of virus particles will escape the condom. I went through the research on this a while back. Very little is published on it. Those articles that are available suggest that some leakage of virus particles does indeed occur, but that the amount is for all practical purposes negligible. For HIV infection to occur, it is already necessary that a large number of virus particles are transmitted; thus condoms do actually lower the rate of transmission to levels which are, for all intents and purposes, undetectable. One study suggested that they reduced the risk of transmission from 0.1% (for normal intercourse) to 0.00001%. (Carey et al. Effectiveness of latex condoms as a barrier to human immunodeficiency virus-sized particles under conditions of simulated use. Sex Transm Dis. 1992 Jul-Aug;19(4):230-4.) That is, 1 infection in 10 million intercourses. This figure would be higher for people who engage in homosexual practices, as anal intercourse bears a higher risk of transmission than vaginal.

Seepage of virus particles, thus, does not seem to pose a significant concern as to the effectiveness of condoms. There are other, much more pressing, problems which should be addressed and the issue of seepage is an unfortunate distraction from these:

1. Condoms occasionally break or slip off during withdrawal. Studies apparently show that each occurs about 2% of the time (Warner L, Steiner MJ. Male condoms. In: Hatcher RA, Trussell J, Nelson AL, Cates W, Stewart FH, Kowal D, et al. editor(s). Contraceptive Technology. 19th Edition. New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 2007:297–316.)

2. Condoms are most often not used in long-term relationships. For a long while it was presumed by many in the scientific community that HIV in Africa was first and foremost spread through prostitution and casual sexual intercourse. Recently, some scientists have drawn attention to the fact that very few Africans actually engage in such high-risk behaviour. Rather, it is the norm in many African cultures to be essentially polygamous, with both men and women having multiple concurrent long-term partners. This pattern is much more inducive to HIV transmission than either casual sexual encounters or serial monogamy. (Epstein, BMJ 2008;337:a2638)

3. It seems that reliance on condoms may encourage a phenomenon known as risk compensation. Sunbathers who spend more time than usual in the sun after applying sunscreen is an example of this. In other words, condoms make people over-confident and causes them to engage in even more risk-seeking behaviour than they otherwise would have, thus offsetting any positive effect condom use by itself produces.

While I have not been able to find any positive scientific evidence for this last point, it is touted by senior Harvard research scientist Dr. Edward Green as a fitting explanation for the fact that there is actually no scientific evidence that increased use of condoms causes a reduction in HIV transmission rates. Green has given an interview to Catholic News Agency, in which he states that although he is a Liberal and is not ideologically opposed to contraception, he agrees with the Pope's statements as they are supported by science. The interview is quite enlightening. Among other things, Dr. Green, who is the director of Harvard University's AIDS prevention project, draws attention to the fact that Uganda early on produced a dramatic reduction in HIV incidence by developing home-grown programs focusing on promoting faithful monogamy. In 2004, after Western 'advisers' had successfully lobbied for greater access to condoms, the incidence rates rose again.

Dr. Green is also of the impression that many organisations combating HIV espouse a false and somewhat racist ideology according to which behaviour change is impossible, especially as regards Africans, and that the only viable option is risk reduction.

A final point: as Dr. Green notes, "anyone who worked in family planning knew that if you needed to prevent a pregnancy, say the woman will die, you don’t recommend a condom.". The chance per intercourse of becoming pregnant is admittedly somewhat higher than the risk of HIV transmission, but still: scientific evidence suggests that condom use only lowers the chance of pregnancy about 85% (Trussell J. Contraceptive efficacy. In: Hatcher RA, Trussell J, Nelson AL, Cates W, Stewart FH, Kowal D, et al. editor(s). Contraceptive Technology. 19th Edition. New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 2007:747–826.) It is clear from this that condoms are far from being a fool-proof device against pregnancy, so how can one expect it to be so against HIV transmission? One review conducted in 1994 even concludes that the risk of HIV transmission is only lowered 69%! (Weller 1993)

In conclusion: used consistently and properly, condoms may lower the risk of HIV transmission somewhat, but they in no way eliminate that risk. They may even encourage risk-seeking behaviour which offsets these gains. Condoms have shown to effectively lower the risk of HIV transmission in sub-populations which are already engaging in high-risk behaviour (such as prostitutes), but not on a larger population level. Given the grave consequences of HIV infection it really is imperative to eliminate the risk of transmission entirely, and condoms can not effect this. Even in the case of married couples where one is infected and the other not (serodiscordant), it is gravely irresponsible to have sex using condoms as the risks are simply too great. Not only the risk of HIV transmission, but also the chance of producing a pregnancy where the child would risk being infected with HIV upon birth if the mother is HIV positive. The Church's opposition to contraception is of course not based on its inefficiency in combating HIV/AIDS, but on the fact that it distorts human sexuality. Nevertheless, even apart from this, the Church is absolutely justified in promoting abstinence outside marriage (and in the case of serodiscordant couples) and fidelity within marriage as the only viable method currently available to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS - both for individuals and populations.

In other words, to quote Dr. Green: "The Pope is right." As usual.

Some additional reading: