1 hotel room=1 Bible. Right?

Nothing stays the same.

Even little things you think will never change — say, a Bible in every hotel room — is up for grabs.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association says that the percentage of luxury hotels that furnish Bibles has “dropped”:http://www.newsweek.com/id/69049 by 18 percent since 2001.

You have to figure that these hotels don’t get many complaints. If they did, they would probably provide the Bibles.

I wonder if the Ritz-Carlton under construction in downtown White Plains will be Bible-free?

Crucifixes also made in China

Charges from a labor rights group that crucifixes sold at New York churches are made at a Chinese factory with “sweatshop” conditions doesn’t really surprise me.

After all, everything is made in China. Why not crucifixes?

When we buy clothes, tools, toys, TVs, gadgets — whatever — that are made in China, do we stop and consider the conditions under which they were made? Hardly.

tjndc5-5hia3njfw48a6xjli6m_layout.jpgThat’s not to say that we shouldn’t. But it’s a much bigger issue than a single factory in Dongguan, a southern Chinese city near Hong Kong, where the National Labor Committee says the crucifixes are made. (The one in the picture was supposedly sold at Trinity Episcopal Church in NYC.)

Even Charles Kernaghan, director of the “National Labor Committee,”:http://www.nlcnet.org/article.php?id=479 said he doesn’t think the Archdiocese of New York “has a clue” where crucifixes sold at St. Patrick’s Cathedral are made.

Joe Zwilling, spokesman for the archdiocese, said yesterday’s news — made when the National Labor Committee held a news conference in front of the cathedral — was the first he had heard of the issue.

I wonder what would have happened if the NLC had gone to the archdiocese and other church groups, presenting them with whatever sweatshop evidence they have, before holding a press conference?

The big stem cell news: What it means

Clearly, the news that scientists have created human stem cells from adult cells — and not embryonic cells — appears to be a major, major story in the world of religion.

The “Hastings Center,”:http://www.thehastingscenter.org/ one of the nation’s most prominent bioethics research centers (once based in Hastings, now in Garrison) sent out a primer on the new development that I want to share.

If you read to the end, you’ll see that, in ethical terms, things can still be messy.

So here it is:

The News: Scientists for the first time have generated human stem cells from adult cells. These stem cells are pluripotent, meaning that they behave in many ways like embryonic stem cells. (Cell, November 30, 2007, Science online, November 22, 2007)

The Issue in Context: For ethical and practical reasons, scientists have long hoped to derive stem cells from adult cells instead of human embryos. Stem cells are primordial cells that can develop into different types of cells and therefore have the potential to yield new therapies, such as regenerating heart tissue destroyed by a heart attack or brain tissue degraded by Alzheimer’s disease.

The Science: To create human stem cells, both new studies employed a similar technique to the one used last summer to create stem cells from adult mouse cells. They took skin cells and inserted four genes into them via a retrovirus. In a mechanism that remains a mystery, these genes reprogrammed the adult cells, turning them into stem cells. The stem cells then differentiated into neuronal, cardiac, and other cells. These cells could be used immediately to research diseases, but therapeutic applications would have to wait due to safety concerns. Stem cells derived from this method could induce tumors in tissue grown from them; both teams of researchers are working on ways to reduce this risk.

The Ethical Considerations: Making stem cells from adult cells circumvents the moral problem of destroying human embryos to harvest stem cells. But, contrary to the contention in today’s news reports, the new achievement may not mark the end of embryonic stem cell research. It remains to be seen whether the induced pluripotent stem cells are as versatile as embryonic stem cells. Other ethical issues remain: Should cell donors share in the patents and profits of stem cell lines derived from their cells? And if human stem cells created from adult cells behave like embryonic stem cells, could they become human embryos?

Feds side with ‘Shabbos house’ by hospital

The U.S. Justice Department is siding with an Orthodox Jewish social services agency in Monsey that wants to continue running a “Shabbos house” near Good Samaritan Hospital — a place that Orthodox families can walk to during the Jewish Sabbath.

The Village of Suffern objects to the temporary residence there of a dozen people or so because the house is zoned as a single-family residence.

The Justice Department is saying that the village is violating the super-controversial Religious Land Use Act, which basically says that religious groups can do whatever they want with their properties unless there is a compelling public interest against it.

This month, Justice asked a federal court to issue a summary judgment in favor of Bikur Cholim, the agency running the Shabbos house.

Justice says in a “statement:”:http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/newsletter/focus_29.htm#4

The United States argues that without the Shabbos House, Sabbath-observant Jews who are released from the hospital on or shortly before the Sabbath, and those visiting patients, are without any viable options. The nearest hotel is a 1.8 mile walk along a major commercial road with only intermittent sidewalks. Furthermore, Sabbath-observant Jews are prohibited from entering commercial transactions on the Sabbath. Thus, the United States argues, banning the Shabbos House from operating imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of the Sabbath-observant patients and visitors at the Good Samaritan Hospital.

The United States observed in its brief that those using the Shabbos House have demonstrated that they have a religious duty to visit sick friends and relatives. The village’s denial of the variance forces them to choose between their religious duty to care for the sick and their duty to observe the Sabbath. As the United States’ brief concludes, the village’s “decision to deny Bikur Cholim’s variance effectively precludes Bikur Cholim’s religious exercise of helping observant Jews visit and care for the sick at Good Samaritan Hospital on the Sabbath. Indeed, it is undisputed that absent a variance, there is no location in Suffern where the Shabbos House could exist.�

Top NYS court backs away from Satmar dispute

The long running court battle between two brothers for control of the Hasidic Satmar community appears to be decided.

The state Court of Appeals today upheld lower court decisions that gave control to Rabbi Zalman Teitelbaum, who oversees most of the Brooklyn-based Satmar empire. The loser is his older brother, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, who runs things in Kiryas Joel in Orange County.

The two brothers have been fighting to succeed their father, Grand Rebbe Moses Teitelbaum, who died in 2006. (Insert Cain and Abel joke here. You won’t be the first…)

The court was considering lower rulings that the court system should not be involved in the internal affairs of a religious group or sect. Supporters of Aaron wanted the courts to intervene and give him control, insisting that he had won a 2001 election to replace his father.

As the “ruling”:http://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/decisions/nov07/142opn07.pdf puts it:

The central issue in this appeal is whether resolution of an election controversy between two rival factions of a religious congregation can be achieved through the application of neutral principles of law without judicial intrusion into matters of religious doctrine. Like the trial court and Appellate Division, we conclude that it cannot.

The Satmar empire is said to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rabbi Aaron can still try to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The war on Thanksgiving?

Yes, it’s almost that time of the year — when people of good will express their dissatisfaction with the religiosity of the holiday season.

Some, of course, will declare a “war on Christmas” and demand more overt Christian celebrations of Christmas in the public square.

Other will want to reduce such celebrations or restrict them to houses of worship and private residences.

Many will express their disgust with the extreme commercialization of the holiday season.

The whole thing is pretty much an annual dance at this point, according to a script. But many people feel strongly about how religion is expressed (or not expressed) during the holiday season and will say so. That’s their right.

pilgrims.gifBut what about Thanksgiving?

It’s not a religious holiday, per se. But the pilgrims were all about religious freedom, were they not?

Andrea Santella has a column on Slate.com about a simmering debate over how Turkey Day is celebrated. He “writes:”:http://www.slate.com/id/2178076/fr/flyout

Do we really have to choose between the extremes of calling Thanksgiving a religious holiday or a civic celebration, a day more like Easter or more like the Fourth of July? Or can’t we assume that the holiday has evolved as some more subtle mix of the secular and the spiritual, one that each of us can adjust according to our own values? It doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume some religious dimension to Thanksgiving, if only because expressing gratitude for the good things in life is in some sense an inherently spiritual act. But prescribing to others the right way to observe the day is surely one aspect of the traditional Thanksgiving best left behind.

Political proselytizing (minus the faith)

Is it fair for presidential candidates to pursue religious voters and not discuss their own faith?

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington U, has a sharp “essay”:http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/11/when-religion-b.html#more in today’s USA TODAY on this very question.

He notes:

This election, the candidates are talking so much about faith that one would think they wanted to be in the College of Cardinals rather than the Hall of Presidents. In one Republican debate, candidates spoke of their faith 16 times. Three of the 10 candidates (Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who later dropped out, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado) have even publicly proclaimed that they did not believe in evolution.

On the Democratic side, the candidates have competed equally in the parade of the pious. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois led the way and recently proclaimed his intention to be “an instrument of God” and to create “a Kingdom right here on earth.” Even the title of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, was taken from sermons by his controversial spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

But when it comes to discussing their own beliefs, Turley says, several candidates are skittish. Mitt Romney wants to avoid Mormon talk altogether. Rudy Giuliani tries to stay vague. Obama is comfortable to a point.

Turley writes:

“…when one is campaigning evangelically, it is hard to maintain that the faithful flock should not question the shepher.”

She forgives with God’s help

Twice in the past two weeks, I heard after the fact about amazing presentations given locally by Dativa Nyangezi Ngaboyisonga, a woman who survived the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

She speaks, from what I’m told, about what she believes to be the reason for her survival: that God wanted her to teach the power of forgiveness.

She spoke at the Master’s School in Dobbs Ferry and at Maryknoll (and perhaps other places I wasn’t told about). I’m sorry I missed her, but Beth Griffin covered her Maryknoll appearance for Catholic New Service.

You can read it “here.”:http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0706557.htm Ngaboyisonga’s descriptions of what she experienced are horrifying. But she somehow came out of it intact, bearing a message that defies hate, anger and resentment.

Talking about working with the perpetrators in prison, she says:

I am a walking epistle. People see what I do and they are curious and it gives me an opportunity to talk about forgiveness. When I leave, they continue to discuss it — and sometimes you see prisoners crying for the first time in a long time. It must be God, because I can’t do what I do by myself.

NY’s religious leaders looking to take a stand on immigration

I understand that many of New York’s major religious figures are working on a statement about immigration.

The statement should be released before Christmas.

The group recently met at Cardinal Egan’s residence to work on the project.

Considering how emotional the Great Immigration Debate has become — right Gov. Spitzer? — it will be mighty interesting to see what religious leaders might have to say. Will they simply insist that illegal immigrants deserve a modicum of human rights, as you would expect religious figures to say?

Or will they go further and address the tenor of the debate, which is becoming pretty dark? Will they recommend policy changes that could influence the political debate on immigration?

Immigration has become one of the most divisive issues in the country. And there is no solution in sight.

Religion leaders, you would think, have a role to play here. But how do they make people pay attention?

The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference has taken pro-immigrant stances on numerous issues, not to mention proposed legislation, over the past year. But I don’t get the sense that much has seeped down to the parish level. I’d bet that a large percentage of Catholics in New York — probably a majority — don’t have any idea how active the bishops have been on one of the most significant policy debates of the day.

Let’s see what NY’s religious leaders come up with — and whether they follow through…

The meaning of the sex-abuse scandal

Earlier this week, the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference heard a briefing from researchers who are studying the causes of the sex-abuse scandal.

What they said was quite interesting — as was the reaction of several bishops.

Researchers Karen Terry and Margaret Smith of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC told the bishops that “preliminary study”:http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0706473.htm has shown that patterns of sex-abuse by priests are consistent with such patterns in the larger society.

According to Catholic News Service:

Terry displayed a graph portraying how the major influences of different decades compare with the increase and decline in reported cases of sexual abuse. For instance, it targets peak years of abuse reports correlating to the major social changes and attention to gender and sexuality of the 1960s and 1970s.

Data so far from John Jay confirms the findings of social scientists “that general social changes have had significant impact on the lives of those who are part of or closely associated with religious organizations,” she said.

So what does it mean?

In a typically revealing column, Catholic analyst “John Allen”:http://ncrcafe.org/node/1447 writes that bishops had two main reactions: to say that the Catholic Church should not have been singled out for a problem that affects all of society; and to concede that the church should be somewhat immune from society’s problems and not just another institution that falls prey to social trends.

On the former point, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha complained about an “unfortunate media problem” that has produced “a myth, reinforced over time, that there’s something unique about a Catholic priest, about a bishop and his staff,” in regard to sexual abuse.

On the latter point, Bishop Robert Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio, said: “It’s a bit like my doctor telling me that my cancer is no worse than my hospital roommate’s cancer … Our situation should be much better.”

Allen also cites a provocative statement from Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, the new president of the Bishops Conference, about whether religion is different from the rest of the culture:

The more interesting question, though, is whether or not the church herself, and particularly the priests and bishops, should be held to a moral standard that is higher than that of the general populace. That was raised by one bishop very astutely, saying that we should not be relieved to find out that our own standards just conform to what is the normal behavior, what has become so in the last several decades.

Speculatively, and I’m not sure whether you’re interested in the question or not, but [the results of the study] point to a sociological thesis or question: Is religion an independent variable? Or is it simply reduced to a cultural reality that can be explained in terms of something other than religion itself? If that’s the case, then the secularists shouldn’t be disturbed about religion, because it has nothing original to say anyway, and it’s not going to impose itself on anybody’s behavior. That’s a very important question. It’s not going to be decided here, and I don’t know the answer to it. I have different answers depending upon which sociologist I talk to. I think that however this thing finally turns out, it will inform the larger issues that are now before us in this country about secularism, the influence of religion in society, and all those good questions that we’re not going to discuss directly here.