Friday, July 31, 2015

Cecil the Lion and Planned Parenthood: Everything is Connected

By now anyone reading this knows about the Planned Parenthood videos, and the controversy surrounding their selling fetal body parts for Lamborghinis. I stipulate that a reader of this blog would know about the story, because you are more likely to be a reader of other faith based sites that, along with conservative news outlets, seem to be the only ones covering it. The MSM has generally loosed the crickets on this particular item, which sadly, should surprise no one. 

The story that has gotten a lot of coverage is the illegal killing of a lion in a game preserve in Zimbabwe. He even has a name: Cecil. The killer was an American dentist on safari. Western culture has progressed to the point that killing animals for purely sporting reasons is looked down upon, to say the least. The killing of Cecil the lion is especially egregious when when we take into account the fact that the poor animal was in a place specifically designated as a safe haven from poachers and thrill seeker. 

Many of my friends in the Pro-Life movement, of which I am a member, have seized upon this disparity of news coverage to ask why so much attention is being given to one lion half a world away when thousands of pre-born babies are being slaughtered and sold for parts right here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave? Isn't one human life, be it in utero, walking the streets or in a nursing home, worth more than any number of lions or tigers or bears? Where is the outrage at the ghoulishness of these Planned Parenthood doctors caught on camera?

The simple answer is that of course there is nothing more precious in the created world than a human life, and we should be outraged by the callousness and inhumanity on display in these videos. But as Mary Jo Anderson points out in Catholic World Report, many of our nominally pro choice friends who have great sympathy for the fate of Cecil will be put off by our critical comparisons instead of drawn in to see the disparity in the reactions to these two situations. I say "nominally pro-choice," because most people are less heated about the issue than the true believers on either side. They accept that abortion is legal (in the popular mind legal equals moral), and while they may have personal misgivings about it, they've bought the line that we shouldn't impose our personal values on others. They've also made the mental break between seeing the life inside the womb as something less then fully human, while the "inviable tissue mass" who happens to make that brief journey down the birth canal is a baby. We can only hope that things like sonograms and talk of fetal livers and hearts for sale can change hearts and minds. What won't work is heaping scorn and condescension on animal lovers who are scratching their head, wondering why we're picking on them. . 

There is a bigger point at work as well. In his latest encyclical, Laudato Si', Pope Francis has tried to emphasize that everything in the created order is connected. The disrespect for the human life in the womb is a sign of a wider disregard for the created order. As he puts it:
Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”. (120)

The babies being torn apart and sold for scrap are an example of a culture that views human life, and by extension the natural order, as a commodity to be exploited. Rather than nature being a force to be harmonized with, it is a competitor to be conquered and controlled. Once subdued, it is to be exploited for its financial benefits. Nature has no intrinsic value to the consumerist, utilitarian mind, only a market value. Rather than human beings having an intrinsic value, it is a value predicated on productivity and commercial viability. 

We are told that abortion is a matter of individual rights, specifically a women's right to personal autonomy. But the roots of the movement, and of Planned Parenthood (PP) in particular, are tied up in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. The patron saint of the PP, Margaret Sanger was open about her desire purify the society of "undesirables." She certainly used the rhetoric of women's rights, but more so the desire to eliminate African Americans, Jews and Mediterraneans from the population. She also included "morons, mental defectives and epileptics" among those whose populations needed to be curbed through forced sterilization and segregation. I'll link here to some fascinating quotes from Sanger, and it will supply links to the original sources, just in case you think these things are being made up by Pro-Life "fanatics." My personal favorite is about the need to recruit Black ministers to get the community in line, lest the word gets out, "that we want to exterminate the Negro population," and their more "rebellious members" start to act up. 

These quotes from the 1920's and '30's, you say. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made more veiled, but just as chilling comments about the topic of the poor and abortion in the last ten years.

So, for Margaret Sanger abortion was more than about personal autonomy, but about the control, "purifying" and submission of society in general. In her vision, human life is to be perfected through birth control and abortion, eliminating undesirables to ensure racial purity. Today it may be spun as a way of controlling poverty, not a matter of race, (which isn't any better in my book) but it's still curious that Blacks make up around 12% of the population and account for between 30 to 34% of all the abortions in the US, and Hispanics make up roughly 16% of the population but account for between 20 and 25% of abortions. Whites, who make up 63% of the population are responsible for between 36 to 38% of the abortions performed. Is this all by chance, or is it strategic planning?

That PP and other abortion providers are trying to make a little coin off the carnage should also come as no surprise. Once nature is subdued and conquered, it has to be exploited and commodified, and if it can be done in the name of science, better yet.

Going back to Cecil the lion, we are horrified at this senseless thrill kill masquerading as sport. We understand the intrinsic nobility of the great cats, and the animal kingdom generally. We are rightly disgusted at the thought of endangered whales being hunted to make high priced sushi for the rich, or elephant populations decimated to make ivory trinkets. We have a better understanding that nature has a worth beyond a dollar value. The created order is to be cherished, nurtured and harmonized with, not used, abused, and then discarded. 

The key to changing minds and hearts is not to ridicule those who morn Cecil, but help them to see the inter-connectedness of reality. The life growing in the womb is special, unique, and dignified. It has a value beyond price. While a lion isn't of the same dignity as a human being, they both come from the same creator God who imbued them with life. All creation points to the Creator, and the wonders of God. We can never hope to restore balance to nature or society if we fail to see the intrinsic, unique and irreducible value of every human life, from the moment of conception to natural death, and that life's interconnectedness with the whole of creation. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

First Impressions on Bishop-Elect Robert Barron

PLYMOUTH, MA -- I'm in the midst of taking a few days of R&R with my family, but just a quick take on the appointment of Bishop-elect  Robert Barron.

I was waiting for my flight early Tuesday at O'Hare when I got a text informing me that Fr. Robert Barron was named auxiliary bishop for Los Angeles. It was a day that I knew would come, I just didn't think he would be taken away from us in Chicago. As I posted on Facebook, it's Chicago's loss, but the Church's gain.

I was joyful, but also felt myself having to fight back tears. I've never met the man, but for many of us Catholic types either dipping their toes in the new media, like me, or diving in head first, Bishop-elect Barron is a hero. It felt like this was a great event, but that in a way, he's too good to be made a bishop. It's like a talented professor who gets swept up into the school administration. He deserves the promotion, but will he be using his real talents? If Archbishop Gomez is wise he won't have Bishop Barron spending all his time performing confirmations and sitting on finance committees, but continuing his media ministry.

The comparison is often made of Fr. Barron with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and for good reason. Like Sheen, Barron has mastered the mass media of his age to spread the good news. Barron, like Sheen, uses a keen intellect and copious learning to craft a down to earth message. Both men connect well with audiences (Sheen has gotten a second career of sorts by way of repeats of his old programs on EWTN and posted to Youtube). There are many differences between the two, also. Barron doesn't have the dramatic flair of Sheen, or possess the late Archbishop's ability to spin a folksy tale or tell a joke. Like Sheen, Barron makes references to literature and other art forms out side of theology to make his points. In the case of Fr. Barron, he probably makes more references to popular culture, like movies and music, then Sheen did.

Fr. Barron is also less known outside the Catholic world then Sheen was in his day. Sheen's weekly program ran in primetime on a major network, and had incredible ratings. He was watched by Protestants and Jews as well as by Catholics. He appeared on gameshows and had his face on the cover of Time magazine when such a thing still meant something. Barron could have that broad appeal, but because of the fragmentation of the media, and the mainstream media's reluctance to put on overtly religious content, he has a tougher time breaking through to a larger audience. While he appeared as a guest commentator on NBC during the papal conclave in 2013, it was a struggle to get PBS to broadcast his Catholicism series, and at that it was presented in a truncated form. He may get hundreds of thousands of hits on Youtube, but it still hasn't made him a household name outside of Catholic circles.

Maybe that's why L.A. is his landing place, for now. It's a media capital, along with New York, and there will be great resources at his disposal. Hopefully, with God's grace, it will translate into more people hearing the message of the Gospel in a clear, engaging and relevant manner.

So, we say goodbye to Bishop-elect Robert Barron. May the Lord continue to bless his ministry and enable his gifts to be shared by the larger Church.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Some Thoughts on the Blessed Martyrs of Compiègne from the Apostleship of Prayer, and Me

I post video's from the Apostleship of Prayer quite often because they are topical, pithy and, being produced by a ministry dedicated to promoting the pope's monthly prayer intention, often feature words of wisdom from the Holy Father. Edgy is not a word I would use to describe the reflections prepared by Fr. James Kubicki, SJ and his team out of Milwaukee. They're usually a nice little cup of chicken soup; nutritious for sure, but also pleasant and comforting. This week the good Father has crossed into provocative territory by not merely highlighting the Blessed Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne, but by suggesting that the Reign of Terror that took their lives could be repeated in our own time.

The French Revolution, which is usually thought of in romantic terms in the popular mind, had it's intellectual grounding in the Enlightenment, a period itself which is idyllically thought of as the birth of the modern rational world. In doing away with monarchy, and the entire established aristocratic order of which the Church was seen as a major part, the revolututionaries were seeking to establish a new order of liberty, equality and fraternity, founded on the rule of reason and science. While I can't vouch for the fraternity part, the other goals of the Revolution are still held up as the guiding principles of contemporary culture. What gets ignored amidst the high minded rhetoric and poetic sentiment is the Reign of Terror. This new age was to be brought about by the liberal use of the guillotine. Those who resisted, or even tried to simply live in passive indifference to the prevailing trend were enemies of the state, and of rational progress. So, quite simply, they needed to be eliminated.

For all the carping about the sins and excesses of organized religion (which usually means the Catholic Church) the New Atheists and their fellow travelers never seem to want to deal with the wholesale slaughter of the French Revolution.  They also go on as if the horrors of twentieth century communism and fascism never happened. They don't want to face that all these movements used reason and science to justify their atrocities.

It is easy to think that such a persecution could never happen here, but remember that France of the eighteenth century and Germany of the twentieth were among the most advanced cultures of their time. The movements that led to their crimes against humanity took hold quickly, almost without warning. In both cases fired by philosophies that put human beings at the center of reality, detached from any higher power that could keep us accountable. We were the judges, the jury and the executioners, all guided by enlightened minds and scientific knowledge. I won't even get into Soviet communism.

We think that we are very different. We act as if we have discovered some new concept. No, it is the same old song that's been sung since the Garden. We believe that we can best decide what is right and wrong without reference to God. How many more Reigns of Terror, or Holocausts or Cultural Revolutions must we endure before we realize that this way leads to death?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Welcome to the Village. Who's the New Number 2?

Patrick McGoohan, Number 6 (L) with the most famous of the Number 2's, Leo McKern
Sometime in the late '70's or early '80's PBS rebroadcast the British TV series The Prisoner. The 17 episodes originally ran in the fall of 1967 to February of '68, and gained a cult following on both sides of the Pond (it was broadcast in the States for the first time on CBS later on in '68). Even in my tweens I was curious about both late sixties pop culture and anything representing itself as being even remotely "artsy" or "deep," so I eagerly tuned in to see what the legendary series was about. Alas, at the time I possessed a curiosity beyond my actual ability to comprehend such material, so I tuned in but am not sure I made it through the first installment. It was surreal beyond my capacity to "just go with it." Which is too bad. Recently I've caught a few episodes on You Tube, and the first episode (The Arrival) is still pretty much as incomprehensible as I remembered it, but not so much so that it didn't set a context that makes each progressive episode more understandable, and a bit frightening.

Patrick McGoohan, who co-created the show, as well as writing some episodes, stars as a secret agent who resigns abruptly from what we presume to be a British spy agency (who is on what side of the Cold War era divide is never made clear). That very same day he is abducted and brought to an island containing an idyllic village, complete with public parks, a cafe, a general store, a gymnasium, and even a village government. He's assigned a cozy town house with all the comforts of home. But make no mistake; this is a prison, and he is being held captive. Anyone who tries to escape is pursued and smothered by an ominous white orb called Rover, which either subdues or kills the inmate, depending on the situation. And like all prisoners he has a number which replaces his name. For the run of the program McGoohan's character is known only as Number 6.

The Village contains other numbered prisoners of course, but also official observers and overlords, and it's not always clear who is an inmate and who is a guard. We only know that the warden, for lack of a better term, is Number 2, and he reports to the never seen Number 1 (whose identity is the great reveal of the finale). The Number 2 rotates frequently, and there is at least 1 new Number 2 each show, though two actors have multiple appearances in the role. Their job, along with the general oversight of the Village, is to get Number 6 to tell why he resigned so abruptly. He is a sensitive and valuable intelligence asset, so they don't want to use brute force to get him to talk, but they rather employ psychological manipulation to get at the truth.  I have about five installments to go, and because of research I know how it ends, though not how they get there, which will keep me watching.

The Prisoner was conceived of quite deliberately as an allegory, with Number 6 representing the individual struggling to resist a society that demands conformity and submission to group think. It's like Orwell's 1984, but instead of a hard oppression, the residence of the Village live in middle class comfort. They are free to while away the hours playing chess or loitering about the beach. There are group recreational activities, and even carnivals. But all the time they are being watched. The other inmates, like Number 6, are former agents whom the wardens are trying to extract information from, or are confined there after similar resignations because they know too much. As long as the prisoners comply peacefully and supply information, they can go on living their peaceful if meaningless existence. If they don't they are subjected to sophisticated psychological experiments, drugging, and aberrant conditioning (similar to what is seen in A Clockwork Orange). For those who refuse to follow the rules and show violent tendencies extreme measures like frontal lobotomies are performed. As I mentioned, Number 6 is spared the worst of it all because he is seen as being so valuable, to point that his handlers hope that he can be put back into regular society to resume his duties as a spy.

As an allegory all the characters are types, and we never get to know who they really are on any deep psychological level, not even Number 6. McGoohan envisioned seven episodes, but the production company wouldn't back it unless he committed to a full season. They compromised at 17 shows, and you can tell that some installments are rather pointed social commentary, while others are more straight forward action adventure, though still of a decidedly surreal nature. This leads me to believe that the former type episodes are what were intended, while the latter are a kind of filler (though again, of a very high quality).

Another thing I noticed was that Number 6 plays off of many different leading ladies during the course of the series, but never becomes romantically involved with any of them, even when such an occurrence would be logical or otherwise expected based on the established conventions of TV. There is one exception, and this is done through a conceit that has the Prisoner's mind transferred into another man's body, so that McGoohan himself never does the kissing. I found out, as I suspected, that McGoohan, being a practicing Catholic, refused to do any "love" scenes in his films and TV shows (he also refused to use guns). It didn't matter that it was "just acting"; passionately kissing and cavorting with a woman not his wife on screen was a nonstarter; one that often had him at loggerheads with producers and directors. It's the reason he turned down both the James Bond franchise and The Saint TV show. For him it was very simple; men such as Bond and Simon Templar, who had a new paramour every night and held human life as cheap, are not heroes or roll models, and he wasn't going to have his daughters see him playing such characters. He was also ferociously devoted to his wife, who he reputedly wrote love letters to constantly (so he can't be accused of not being romantic).

Lest the reader thinks I'm setting up McGoohan for canonization, he was a decidedly flawed man. He struggled with drink, and could fly off into terrible rages. His female co-stars especially found him difficult to work with. But he was a man of principle who chose a quietly distinguished career over international superstardom, and doesn't appear to have regretted it. He passed away, after 57 years of marriage, in 2009 at the age of 80.

So what's so frightening about The Prisoner? I've spent a lot of time on the set up, I'll get the dark, but resonant message of the series next time.