Abortion and the life of the mother

You may have heard something about a Phoenix nun and hospital administrator who was excommunicated last month after she allowed an abortion in order to save the life of the mother.

The case has received a tremendous amount of attention in several circles for obvious reasons. By all accounts, Sister Margaret McBride was a highly respected figure at St. Joseph’s Hospital and in the Phoenix community.

There has been much debate in the blogosphere not only about McBride’s decision and the reaction by the bishop of Phoenix — who condemned McBride’s actions — but about how Catholic teachings apply to this situation.

As a result, the U.S. Bishops Conference has released a statement to explain the difference between “direct abortion” and a “legitimate medical procedure.”

The four-page statement begins by acknowledging the Phoenix situation and the need to clarify church teachings. It does not mention McBride — but concludes, quite clearly, that she was wrong.

The statement declares that a direct abortion is always wrong, circumstances notwithstanding.

But a medical procedure that treats a serious condition and, as a secondary effect, ends a pregnancy may be permissible.

I would recommend reading the entire statement, but here is an important snippet:


The difference can be seen in two different scenarios in which the unborn child is not yet old enough to survive outside the womb. In the first scenario, a pregnant woman is experiencing problems with one or more of her organs, apparently as a result of the added burden of pregnancy. The doctor recommends an abortion to protect the health of the woman. In the second scenario, a pregnant woman develops cancer in her uterus. The doctor recommends surgery to remove the cancerous uterus as the only way to prevent the spread of the cancer. Removing the uterus will also lead to the death of the unborn child, who cannot survive at this point outside the uterus.


The first scenario is a direct abortion.

The second is, according to the bishops, a legit procedure.

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix must be relieved. The bishops backed his previous statement: “An unborn child is not a disease. While medical professionals should certainly try to save a pregnant mother’s life, the means by which they do it can never be by directly killing her unborn child. The end does not justify the means.”

‘Can ya tone down all the yelling for crucifixion, maybe?’

As the story goes, the villagers of Oberammergau, a small town in Bavaria, first put on a Passion Play in 1634, possibly in hopes that God would save them from the bubonic plague.

The Passion Play has been performed every decade, more or less, since. Only villagers participate.

The play is famous, of course, for its longevity, the remarkable commitment and faith shown by generations of villagers and — for some — the play’s contributions to European anti-Semitism.

Many Jewish and Christian scholars have long criticized the play’s traditional depiction of “the Jews” as bloodthirsty Jesus-killers. Many of the same issues have long been debated about other Passion Plays, including Mel Gibson’s movie version.

The Oberammergau Passion Play is being performed this year, through October (the photos are from a dress rehearsal in May). Village leaders in Oberammergau have made changes to their play in an effort to appease international concerns.

And now a collection of Christian and Jewish scholars are weighing in on how they’ve done.

The Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations has released a report on the 2010 version of the Passion Play.

The Council is a collection of several dozen academic centers in the U.S. and Canada dedicated to improving relations between Christians and Jews. Its members are very knowledgeable of and sensitive to the history of anti-Semitism in Christian traditions.

The current chair of the Council is Elena G. Procario-Foley, the Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Iona College.

An ad-hoc committee’s report, adopted by the full membership, credits the play’s scriptwriters for their “effort to attend to history more carefully.”

The report likes three broad aspects of the script: “(1) Jewish society in Jesus’ day is presented as variegated and vibrant; (2) Jesus is clearly shown to be a Jew; and (3) the relationship between Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate is nuanced. Other positive features of the script were also noted.”


The report finds that Jewish opponents to Jesus “are unjustifiably depicted in such extreme terms” that viewers may leave with a negative impression of the Jews in general.

The report notes: “Caiaphas, the script’s principal antagonist, as well as Annas, are unnecessarily and baselessly portrayed as fanatics driven to see Jesus crucified.  As a result the depiction of Pilate is somewhat skewed as well.”

It suggests that the script be rewritten in very specific ways.

One example:


Here is one historically reasonable approach to their interaction: if Pilate and Caiaphas agreed to remove Jesus from the scene to prevent an anticipated Passover riot, why crucify him instead of quietly assassinating him? The answer: to make a public example of him to discourage any other potential troublemakers. This seems to be more a Roman calculation than a priestly one. Caiaphas could therefore be shown to resist Pilate’s preference for a public execution of another Jew.


And another:


Although it is logistically and dramatically tempting to have large numbers of actors cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion, in the interests of historical accuracy and the avoidance of antisemitic tropes it would be better not to make this the focal point of the play. A dozen or so lower-status priestly characters (in contrast to ordinary passersby who might come upon the semi-private scene early in the morning as they are going about their Passover errands) would be preferable.


These are not minor suggestions, but calls for major editing.

Philip A. Cunningham of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, who co-coordinated the study, says: “This report is important because it involved both Jewish and Christian scholars who are biblical experts, historians, and theologians. It is not merely an exercise in arm-chair criticism, but a collegial review that appreciates the significant improvements that have already been made and offers explicit proposals to take this reform even further.”

Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, director of the department of interfaith affairs for ADL, says: “The scholars report is a monumental step forward in proving how Christians and Jews can work together to benefit both faiths.”

We’ll see how the report is received.

(AP Photo/Matthias Schrader, File)

One fed-up archbishop

Archbishop Dolan is angry.

It comes through loud and clear in is latest blog post, up today.

Once again, he’s not happy with how his church is being portrayed by the media. But this time he’s not going after the New York Times, his target several times in recent months.

Instead, he’s going after “a prominent Catholic journal, published in New York,” “a newspaper on Staten Island” and an “Irish newspaper” for unfairly criticizing the church hierarchy.

He doesn’t like the journal’s steady criticisms of bishops and the pope, how the Staten Island newspaper blamed the “autocratic, aloof, mean, clandestine archdiocese (Dolan’s words)” for the mosque controversy and the Irish’s paper’s blaming of the “nasty, money-hungry, mean-old (Dolan again)” archdiocese for the closing of a Catholic school.

Dolan writes:


Who likes criticism?  Nobody.  But I figure it comes with the job, and have to face it when it’s legitimate.  That happens often enough.

But I don’t like seeing “the archdiocese” blamed for something not its fault.


Upon his arrival in New York, Dolan was widely praised for knowing how to work with the media.

But he seems increasingly exasperated by media coverage of his church.

‘We’re on a mission from God’

This is one of those stories that people will be talking about because it’s such a hoot.

On the 30th anniversary of the release of The Blues Brothers, that one-of-a-kind classic about Belushi and Aykroyd’s band, the Vatican newspaper has declared the film a “Catholic classic” that should be seen by Catholics everywhere.

Sure, we all remember the movie for the Brothers’ campy one-liners and all the great musical performances from Ray Charles, Aretha, John Lee Hooker, James Brown and on and on.

But the plot, as it was, had to do with the Brothers wanting to save the Catholic orphanage where they grew up from foreclosure. They reunite their band so they can make enough money to pay off the orphanage’s debts.

Yes, that’s a Catholic classic.

So The Blues Brothers joins the ranks of other Catholic classics like The Ten Commandments, It’s a Wonderful Life and The Passion of the Christ.

Here’s the key line in question:

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Those mosque controversies

These are tough times for proposed mosque developments in NYC.

The pastor of a Catholic parish on Staten Island has withdrawn his support for the sale of an old convent to a Muslim group.

Since a contract was signed last month to sell the property to the Muslim American Society, the move has faced fierce opposition at meetings and rallies.

Of course, plans for a big mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero have also drawn cries of indignation, including from people who lost loved ones on 9/11.

The downtown project is being run by the Cordoba Initiative led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf.

Since 9/11, many people have called on moderate Muslims to condemn terrorism and forge new relationships with the West.

Rauf appears to be that guy.

The Cordoba Initiative is all about improving relations between Islam and the West. Rauf pursues this goal internationally and at home.

I got a chance to talk to him in 2005 in Yonkers, when he came to an interfaith lunch convened by the American Muslim Women’s Association. He told me about behind-the-scenes work he was doing to get Muslim and Jewish leaders to dialogue in several countries.

He also told me about his work to gather young American Muslims, potential future leaders, to talk about crafting a new American Muslim identity. In fact, he oversaw a Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow retreat at the Garrison Institute.

When I spoke with Rauf, it was apparent that he knew a tremendous amount about Judaism and Christianity and that he knows numerous American leaders from both worlds.

He told me then: “Because we believe that God created humankind in the divine image, to love your fellow human beings is to love God.”

In 2003, when the popular God Squad — Monsignor Thomas Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman — spoke at Purchase College and several other local spots, Rauf joined the squad to add a Muslim perspective on things. In the picture, that’s him on the right.

At Purchase, Rauf talked about trying to persuade a major American newspaper to print a religious edict declaring that American Muslims were religiously justified in participating in a war against Afghanistan.

The first mention of Rauf in the Journal News’ digital library is from 1998, was when he came to Valley Cottage to help celebrate the end of Hanukkah and the beginning of Ramadan with a gathering of Muslims and Jews.

I also interviewed Rauf for my book about natural disasters. I remember him as being gracious, insightful and funny. He told me then:


We should care for each other and care for the planet, utilize our smarts and our resources to take care of the planet so it takes care of us. We should be reminded of our primal relationship to the creator and of the two basic commandments of the Abrahamic religions: to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love your fellow human beings.


The guy doesn’t sound like a bad potential neighbor, does he?

Of course, any time I’ve written about Muslims, people write or call and ask me how I can know their ultimate motives. I can’t, obviously.

But Imam Rauf reminds me a great deal of the more impressive priests, ministers and rabbis I’ve met over the years.

If the Muslim community in New York is going to continue to grow — and it is — Rauf sure seems like the guy you want in charge.

Two Christian groups oppose no-fault divorce

I was kind of stunned the other day to learn that New York is the only state without a no-fault divorce law.

I guess I would have expected a few states in more traditional parts of the country to be sticklers when it comes to “preserving” marriage.

Two days ago, the NY state Senate voted 32-29 to allow “no-fault” divorce after a marriage has “irretrievably” broken down for at least six months. The Assembly is expected to go along.

Right now, one spouse must allege abandonment, adultery or one of a few other reasons in order to seek a divorce.

The only religious group that I have heard react to the Senate passage is the NYS Catholic Conference, which is predictably opposed to any changes that would make divorce more common.

Executive Director Richard Barnes released this statement:


The Bishops of New York State are disappointed with the Senate action today. Increasingly, society has come to view marriage as disposable and temporary. However, empirical evidence shows that children of divorce tend to suffer many negative consequences throughout their lives, from lower educational achievement rates to higher rates of substance abuse, criminal behavior and imprisonment.

Clearly, not every marriage can be permanent. But when serious reasons exist, such as abuse, adultery or abandonment, the law provides for quick divorces. In cases where no such grounds are present, so-called “no fault” cases, a couple may divorce following a one-year legal separation. The state has a legitimate interest in such a waiting period, where reconciliation is still a feasible possibility, because of the important place of marriage in society, particularly as it relates to the stable rearing of children.

New York State has one of the lowest divorce rates in the country. While we see that as a cause for state pride, some sadly may see it as a problem to be corrected. We urge the state Assembly to reject this proposal and, failing that, we call on Gov. Paterson to veto it.


New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical lobbying group in Albany, has not released a statement on the Senate vote (that I have been able to find).

But the group does have a position on no-fault divorce, which is basically that we’re better off without it. Their position includes this statement about divorce:


Any divorce, regardless if it occurred under fault or no-fault laws, is one of life’s most painful experiences. It signifies the failure of a dream—a dream of intimacy, of family, of security, of meaning. The consequences of divorce can therefore be severe, not only economically, but particularly physically, emotionally and psychologically.

It would seem logical, therefore, that with the massive increases in divorce rates, the rate of children involved in divorce, and the social consequences of the divorce epidemic, that the Legislature would be looking for ways to strengthen marriages not make divorces easier to obtain.


I have not been able to find any statements in favor of no-fault divorce from religious groups.

I checked the website of Interfaith IMPACT of New York, a coalition of leaders from liberal religious traditions, but did not come across any mention of divorce.

Urging multi-faith prayers for good will

Many leading liberal religious figures will gather at Princeton University later this month to muse about prayer.

It will be the 60th anniversary conference of Fellowship in Prayer, a multi-faith foundation that was founded in 1949. The group’s founders, Carl Evans and Kathryn Brown, published an ad in the NYT ” calling upon people of goodwill, across all religious traditions, East and West, to come together to pray.”

The group’s mission: “Fellowship in Prayer encourages and supports a spiritual orientation to life, promotes the practice of prayer, meditation, and service, and helps to bring about a deeper spirit of unity among humankind.”

Fellowship in Prayer encourages people to join prayer circles, groups of people that pray with the same focus or share similar religious practices.

Featured speakers at this year’s conference, June 24-27, will include Gustav Niebuhr, Sister Joan Chittister, Zen Master Bernie Glassman, Dr. Uma Mysorekar, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Daisy Kahn, Fr. Edward Beck, and Rev. James Forbes.

Fellowship in Prayer’s website now includes this:


The One In Prayer request for this week is for Kyrgyzstan where four days of sudden, brutal violence have erupted between the majority Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbeks.  More than 70,000 ethnic Uzbeks are reported to be flooding into Uzbekistan and thousands more are massed at the border.  All are in need of food, water, shelter, medical care and supplies.

May the unrest be calmed and quieted by clear voices of peace and reason.  May all who live in Kyrgyzstan – Kyrgyz and Uzbeks alike – breathe deep into the commonality that binds them. May the political leadership stand firm for peace and harmony.  May any shadows of fear and anger dissolve, that humanitarian aid may reach all who are need.

Farewell, ‘Touchdown Jesus’

It may seem like a long time ago, but when George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004, there was sense that evangelical Christianity had become a political and cultural force that was reshaping the country.

Evangelicals, you may remember, were credited with keeping Bush in office, despite the poor start to the war in Iraq.

I talked to an evangelical pastor in Putnam County who told me that evangelical culture out there in the Heartland was a mysterious and potent force, impossible for a New Yorker to understand or relate to.

So I spent a week in West Chester, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, hanging out at four evangelical churches and asking dozens — hundreds? — of evangelicals what politically correct New Yawkers might want to know about them.

One of the churches I visited was Solid Rock Church, a large, vibrant, ministry-rich and highly diverse Pentecostal church in Monroe, Ohio. The place was regionally famous because a few months before, it had commissioned an artist to build a 62-foot-tall statue of Jesus in front of the church.

The statue, built right beside I-75, was quite controversial.

It showed Jesus from the waist up, rising out of the ground, with his arms outstretched toward the heavens.

It was officially called “King of Kings.” But people in the region referred to it as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Some considered it garish. In fact, the pastor of another evangelical church I visited cringed when I brought it up. He was afraid that reporters like me would be drawn to the area because of the statue and would make fun of Christians as a result (I don’t believe I did so).

I can tell you this: When driving along I-75 at night, the statue could give you a chill.

That’s me in front of the statue. From what I remember, there was a cold, December wind blowing right into my face.

When my article ran in the paper, everyone asked me about the statue. Why did they build it? What did it look like up close? What did the neighbors say?

I mention this now because, last night, “King of Kings” burned. To a crisp.

Apparently, the statue, made of fiber glass and foam, was struck by lightning during a storm. The entire thing went up in flames.

As pictures from the Cincinnati Enquirer show, all that’s left is some kind of wire frame. An accompanying video shows clumps of charred statue scattered across the grounds. An adjacent amphitheater was also damaged.

According the paper’s website: “Authorities on Tuesday were urging motorists to resist the temptation to stop on Interstate 75 and snap photos, fearing that drivers pulling on and off the berm could cause crashes…The Ohio State Highway Patrol is issuing warnings to those who stop — and will soon start writing citations, a dispatcher for the patrol’s Lebanon post said.”

I’m sure that the people of West Chester, Ohio, are going to need some time to get used to the great statue not being there. You also have to figure that some jokes are being told today about the statue’s fate and that some may even find meaning of some sort in its demise.

The members of Solid Rock Church were real nice to me. I attended a meeting about their intense prison ministry and visited their elegant home for young, single mothers.

So I can’t help feeling kind of sad.

The Dayton Daily News reports that Solid Rock has gotten calls of support from around the world and that work will begin this summer to rebuild the statue.

Fire photo by Michael Ryan

A Catholic Bible ‘summit’ in challenging times

The Catechetical Office of the Archdiocese of NY has put on some big conferences the past few years for people who want to dig deeper into their Catholic faith.

But they really seem to have come up with something special this year on June 26.

The New York Catholic Bible Summit will take place from 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. at Fordham U’s Lincoln Center Campus.

The theme is “Living the Word of God in Challenging Times.”

The keynote address in English will be given by Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete (that’s him), an internationally known and high regarded theologian and writer  from Yonkers who has a good sense of humor and is a fine story-teller.

The keynote in Spanish will be delivered by Rev. Virgilio P. Elizondo, professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at Notre Dame.

Ticket info, directions, presenter bios — and whatever else you want to know — can be found HERE. The conference is being sponsored by the Catechetical Office, Fordham and the American Bible Society.

Here is a line-up of workshop presenters:

Rev. Dempsey Rosales Acosta, Ph.D., St. Agnes Church, New York City, En Espanol
Sr. Dianne Bergant, CSA, Ph.D., Catholic Theological Union, Chicago
Rev. Lawrence Boadt, CSP, Ph.D., Washington Theological Union, Washington, DC
Rev. Claudio M. Burgaleta, SJ, Ph.D, Fordham Univeristy, Bronx, En Espanol
Eleana Salas Caceres, FMA, Peruvian Epsicopal Conference, Lima, Peru, En Espanol
James Campbell, Ph.D., Loyola Press, Chicago
Rev. Virgilio P. Elizondo, Ph.D, Notre Dame University, South Bend, En Espanol
Bro. Ricardo Grzona, FRP, Ph.D., United Bible Societies of the Americas, En Espanol
ValLimar Jansen, OCP Publications, Portland, Oregon
Liana Lupas, Ph.D., American Bible Society, New York City
Rev. James Martin, SJ, America Magazine, New York City
Sr. Margaret Palliser, OP, Ph.D., Living with Christ, New London, CT
John Pilch, Ph.D., Georgetown University, Washington, DC
Rev. Timothy Scannell, Ph.D., St. Joseph Seminary, Yonkers