Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In what year was Jesus born?

In my epic, award winning post "When was Jesus Born?" we examined the reason for celebrating Christmas on December 25th. This post answers the second part of the question by examining in what year Jesus was born. Again the short answer is "nobody knows." And once again, the modern calendar used the best information at the time to "draw a line in the sand".

That line was drawn in the 6th century by Dionysius Exiguus. He calculated the year of the birth of Christ using all the data available to him. He calculated Jesus' birth as occurring in the 753rd year of the Roman empire, which we now call the year 1 AD. This method of dating the year was not generally accepted for hundreds of years, but has been nearly universally adopted today.

The bible tells us that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, and a contemporary historian, Flavius Josephus, tells us that Herod died shortly after an eclipse of the moon. The likely eclipses were:
  • Two total eclipses in 5 BC
  • A partial eclipse in March, 4 BC
  • A total eclipse in January, 1 BC
It is commonly believed today that the eclipse of 4 BC was the one Josephus mentioned, which means Jesus had to have been born before that. Generally 5 to 7 BC is cited. However, some sources claim that this notion is due to an error made in 1544, and Josephus was actually describing the 1 BC eclipse. In support of that theory, Josephus notes that Herod came into power in the year of the consulship of Agrippa and Gallus, which would be 37 BC, and he reigned for 37 years.

The distinction is important in modern theories of the Star of Bethlehem, which will be another post.

Friday, December 25, 2009

When was Jesus born?

A friend asked me today "when was Jesus born?"

The short answer is "nobody knows", but that does not a blog post make. Also, two shows I watched this week ("Good Eats" and "Big Bang Theory") both proposed that Christmas is a recent invention by the (by implication evil) Church to try to suppress Saturnalia, a pagan holiday.

The problem (if you want to consider it a problem) is that Jesus' birth date (and in fact birth dates in general) was not recorded in any official document. Biblical accounts give a description of the year in very vague terms, and say nothing about the day of the year. About all we "know" is that it took place during the reign of Herod. The exact years of Herod's reign are a matter of historical debate as well. I'll say more about that in a future blog post. And so a "line in the sand" was drawn and the best information at the time was used to determine the year when the modern calendar was invented.

Why choose December 25th to celebrate the birth of Christ, of we don't know the original day? That's a much simpler question. Recent (like last 300 years or so) scholars have proposed all sorts of reasons, but I think we can apply Occam's Razor and come up with a much more plausible reason for picking that date.

You see, in the early Church, Christmas was not celebrated. That Christ was born was certainly acknowledged as fact, but the important aspect was not that He was born but that He became man. Since it was always recognized by the Church that life begins at conception, the important Holy day to celebrate was Jesus' conception, the feast of the Annunciation. On that day, the angel appeared to Mary and she consented to bear a son conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course that date was not recorded either, so what day should the Church fathers celebrate it on? There are several lines of reasoning that all lead to picking one particular day. For one thing, we are told in the bible narrative that Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who six months pregnant with her child, John the Baptist. Luke's Gospel further tells us how the angel Gabriel announced John the Baptist's conception to his father, Zechariah, when Zechariah was serving as high priest on the Day of Atonement (in September), around the autumnal equinox. Therefore, Jesus' conception would have been around the spring equinox. Also, even without this evidence, if you wanted to pick an "auspicious" time for Jesus' conception, the natural time to pick would be around the spring equinox, when the growth of life all around us would be a symbolic reminder of the Christ child growing in the womb of His mother.

For whatever reason, the date of the Annunciation was set in the very early Church to be March 25th, and that was the day it was celebrated, even to the present time. Add nine months, and you come up with Jesus' birth being on December 25th. The first record of Christmas (the feast of the Nativity) being celebrated was in 336 AD, nearly 300 years later. Saturnalia (December 17-23) certainly was a Roman feast around that time, and so was Sol Invictus (December 25). Was Christmas "moved" to coincide with those feasts, or is Christmas a "continuation" of those feasts? Certainly not, I would claim. When the date of the Annunciation was set there was no knowledge that Christ's birth would also be celebrated 300 years later, so the choice of December 25th is coincidence.

Now, was the celebration of Christmas used to replace these feast days? Perhaps. It was a common practice of the early Church to incorporate customs and traditions of other cultures into the Church's tradition. The intent was to make it easier for converts, by using symbols familiar to them, rather than forcing them to abandon family customs and their own culture. Finding an existing feast day that corresponded with a Roman feast day would no doubt be easier for Roman converts than making them change their routine and calendar to correspond to a different set of feasts. In that sense, the popularity of Christmas today may be due to those earlier pagan feasts, since prior to Rome embracing Christianity, the feast of the Nativity was not considered an "important" feast day (like Easter or the Annunciation).

However, to say that Christians are "celebrating" Saturnalia is false. we are celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Of course, falling on the same day as Sol Invictus (the "Unconquered Sun") is kind of a cool coincidence, since Christ is our light.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Why Nelson's compromise might be a good thing

Pro-life folks (myself included) felt betrayed and dismayed by Senator Ben Nelson's about-face on abortion language in the health care bill. I was originally thinking of writing something along the lines of Nelson's one vote being akin to the one Apostle who betrayed Jesus. However, it is true that "God draws straight with crooked lines" and I'm starting to think this may actually be a blessing in disguise.

Here's what I think. This compromise is anathema to pro-life and pro-choice people alike. I just read that Planned Parenthood, NOW, NARAL Oppose Abortion-Health Care Funding Deal because it allows the opt out, while Stupak Knocks Senate Abortion Health Care Compromise. That means the compromise bill may turn out to be unpassable.

Not that I'm happy about this or anything, but rather than curse the darkness, I'm going to sit back and trust God.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Psalm 32

Blessed is he
       whose transgressions are forgiven,
       whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the man
       whose sin the LORD does not count against him
       and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,
       my bones wasted away
       through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
       your hand was heavy upon me;
       my strength was sapped
       as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
       and did not cover up my iniquity.
       I said, "I will confess
       my transgressions to the LORD "—
       and you forgave
       the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you
       while you may be found;
       surely when the mighty waters rise,
       they will not reach him.

You are my hiding place;
       you will protect me from trouble
       and surround me with songs of deliverance.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
       I will counsel you and watch over you.

Do not be like the horse or the mule,
       which have no understanding
       but must be controlled by bit and bridle
       or they will not come to you.

Many are the woes of the wicked,
       but the LORD's unfailing love
       surrounds the man who trusts in him.

Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous;
       sing, all you who are upright in heart!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Guarding Life

Once upon a time, a long time ago, people recognized the need for there to be lifeguard - someone whose job it was to save the lives of swimmers. Of course back in the day, there were no certifications or official titles, people just did what they did. Over time it was recognized that where there was someone who was not swimming, but watching the other swimmers, people were safer and society benefited. Recognizing that these people, by giving up swimming themselves to watch others, were performing a sacrifice, they were awarded certain privileges and given a higher status in society.

After a time people developed a more formal notion of the lifeguard, and started having special training and certification of people with that calling. There was an organization, called the Wholly Sea, that among its other services, certified lifeguards. For a lifeguard to be certified by the WS, he or she had to go through training, agree to certain principles and work ethics, and take a pledge to guard the lives of swimmers. Lifeguards certified by WS were highly regarded.

Of course not everybody who was a lifeguard went through the WS, but WS acknowledged them as lifeguards in good standing, as if they had. Some people went through no official certification at all, but had themselves declared by the state to be lifeguards. Again WS recognized these people, since although they had no training they at least pledged themselves to the saving of lives. Perhaps they didn't save as many lives, or even any, but WS gave them the benefit of trying.

One day a group of beach frisbee players began a protest. They wanted to be acknowledged as lifeguards. They pointed out that lifeguards were often seen on the beach, and since they were too, they should not be denied the right to be called lifeguards. In fear of being called bigots, many states began giving the frisbee players some or all of the privileges that lifeguards were entitled to. But that did not satisfy the frisbee players.

They demanded that the definition of the word "lifeguard" be changed to mean anyone who is on the beach, even if they are just playing. Some organizations even went as far as according the frisbee players the title of lifeguard, to the detriment of the swimmers nearby. WS stood firm in denying that frisbee players were lifeguards and was brutally attacked for it. The frisbee players went as far as to have courts attempt to change laws and rulings to redefine lifeguard, but in all cases the public, when allowed input, reaffirmed that lifeguards are people who save swimmers, not just people on the beach, and especially not people who were ignoring the swimmers, playing a game.

Some think WS is wrong and that "lifeguard" means whatever you say it means. Others agree and say that you shouldn't get the title and privileges for playing, but for watching swimmers. What do you think?

Monday, December 14, 2009

To "Allah" or not to "Allah"?

Couldn't help posting this, as I read these two news stories back to back. The red text is my emphasis.
An elementary school in Indiana reportedly removed a mention of Allah in its holiday show after protests from a national conservative Christian group.

Thompson said officials removed the phrase "Allah is God," however, after the American Family Association complained about the program on its electronic newsletter. The alteration was made because no other deities were named in the program....
Shariq Siddiqui, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana, told the Web site that the decision to remove the word Allah was most certainly not inclusive.

"It's unfortunate if that was removed from the program just because of Islamophobic feelings," Siddiqui told the Web site. "Schools are a place where we should learn more about each other rather than exclude each other based on stereotypes and misconceptions."

Siddiqui said "Allah" is the Arabic word for God and is used by Jews, Christians and others in Arabic-speaking nations.

This is the kind of thing I'd expect on a slow news day. What made it interesting was the next article I read:

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Lawyers for the Roman Catholic Church urged a court Monday to let Christians use "Allah" as a translation for God and overturn a government ban that has become a symbol of religious grievances in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

The High Court began hearing legal arguments in the dispute, which began in late 2007 after the government blocked non-Muslims from translating God as "Allah" in their literature, saying it would confuse Muslims.
Authorities have insisted that Allah should be used exclusively by Muslims to refer to God, and its use by other religions would be misleading.
So I guess Muslims in Indiana have a very different perspective than those in Malaysia.

How Much is that Healthcare in the Senate?

I was thinking about the more than $1,000,000,000,000 price tag of the health care bill and started wondering "how much"?* I remember a few years ago I was laid off and had to get my own insurance. I was amazed that it was around $700/month to get COBRA insurance for my family (of 5). That's $8,400/year for 5 people or $1,680/year/person. Looking at what other insurance plans cost, that's exceedingly high, but hey, it's COBRA, it's "temporary" insurance. But it did get me to thinking, how much will the proposed healthcare bill cost to provide insurance per year per person?

We don't have exact numbers, but the figure is "over $1 trillion and rising". I'm going to round it up to $1.2 trillion, assuming it is going to go there (and beyond if past government projects are any indication), just to make the numbers work out evenly. Hey, $100 billion more or less won't change the conclusion (sadly). So, the $1.2 trillion is supposed to cover the plan for 6 years. That's $200 billion/year. If I believe the predictions, it will cover 93% of the population. Currently 46 million people are not covered by insurance, and we have a total population of roughly 300 million. So 7% or 21 million people will still be not covered with this plan in place.

Still with me? Subtracting the 21 million from the 46 million means that the plan will cover 25 million who are not covered now. That means we will be spending $200 billion a year to pay for insurance for 25 million people. If you do the math, we will be paying $8,000/year/person for insurance! According to AHIP the average single member insurance plan cost in the US is $2,600/year/person and Medicare costs $4,000/year/person.

Those are the cold hard facts, but if we are willing to dig a little, it gets worse. According to The U.S. Census, 38% of the uninsured live in households with annual income over $50,000/year. Since the health care plan will require these people to buy their own insurance, we can take them out of the 25 million additional Americans that will be covered by public plans. 38% of 46 million is 17.5 million. So we have 25 million minus 17.5 million or only 7.5 million people who would be getting their insurance paid for by our tax  dollars. That makes the figure per year per person to be $200 billion / 7.5 million or about $26,700/year/person for insurance!

Does this make sense?

* Before you start saying "but the bill is 'funding neutral' because we can save $1,000,000,000,000 from government waste" let me point out that we can and should cut the waste independent of any health insurance bill. Even if we were handed $1,000,000,000,000 gratis by someone, that doesn't mean the healthcare bill doesn't cost that much.

Totally Lost

Last night, my wife was out shopping, and my 12 year old son was supposed to be practicing his saxophone. He brought a chair and music stand into the living room to practice where I was sitting. He also brought a glass of ice water, which he put on the floor next to him.

We have a standing house rule that liquids don't leave the kitchen and dining room area (without special dispensation) and glasses don't leave the kitchen and dining room area (without special dispensation). This has been the rule since before he was born, and he should know it. I told him to get rid of the glass of ice water right away.

At this point, my 9 year old son wanted a glass of apple cider, which he poured at the dining room table into a very tall glass (most of you can see where this post is going). I hear a "clunk" and dash into the dining room, where the apple cider has spilled all over the table. My son has placed a bunch of napkins in the center of the spill and is pushing them around, sending waves of apple cider onto the carpet and the stack of cookbooks that are on the table to start or Christmas baking (which we never did due to this and other interruptions).

I'm upset, but that's just phase one. As I'm grabbing towels trying to contain the spill I hear another "thunk" coming from the living room. My 12 year old has dropped his (rented) saxophone on the glass of ice water, which exploded and threw shard of glass in a 7 foot radius circle around him. He, of course, is barefoot. His sax is dented and scratched. There is glass embedded in the carpet, sofa, saxophone and everywhere.

So I lost it. I totally lost it. I yelled and yelled. It was like I was standing next to myself, listening to a raving lunatic screaming, but I couldn't stop. I can't recall having ever been that angry before. I sent him to his room (the 9 year old had already slunk up to his room while I surveyed the damage) and continued my litany of anger over the next half hour or so as I washed and dried books and the table, tried to soak cider stains our of the carpet, picked up shards of glass in places I didn't even know existed, and vacuumed the carpeting four times (until I couldn't hear any more bits of glass being sucked up).

At the end of it the two boys were still in their rooms. I stopped off at the 9 year old's room first, and explained to him that I wasn't angry at him at all, his spill was an accident. He said he already knew that. We talked about strategies like only filling tall glasses half full so they don't spill so easily. That was the easy part.

Then I went to my 12 year old's room. I held him. What could I say? He is old enough to know the rules. Even if not, I told him not five minutes before to move the glass of ice water, and he ignored me. Because of that he might have been seriously hurt. The sax is just money but he and his brother are irreplaceable. How do I explain this to him?

For that matter, how do I explain why even after I knew he was unhurt I screamed and yelled like a maniac? Can he understand the adrenaline that pumps through your veins when a calamity happens, even if it's only a near calamity? Do I explain the frustration a father feels when everything goes wrong, at the same time? How sometimes fathers are not perfect and behave like children? Do I talk about responsibility and duty? Sin and redemption?

In the end all I can think to say is "I love you."

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Relativity and Advent

We were moving things around, getting out Christmas decorations, etc. in preparing for the upcoming holiday, and of course that means finding things that have been lost for a while. One of those things happened to be a paper with some information on old friends of my wife with whom we've lost touch over the years.

On the paper it notes that they have two daughters. Elise who is three, Natalie is one, and they are expecting another in May. Wonderful news, except this paper has been in a box for who knows how long. How old are those children now? We don't know.

Which got me to thinking. If only we had written down something like "Elise born in '01, Natalie in '03, expecting baby in 5/05" we would know a lot more than we do now. In fact even just writing the date the note had been made would have given us a reference point for determining the current ages of the children.

So why blog about finding a note? Because I was explaining to my son today what moral relativism is, and finding the note reminded me of the conversation. Without an absolute, there is no basis for anything. In the note, for instance, without an absolute date, there is no way to make the information on the note useful. as time goes by the confidence in the information becomes less and less until anything is possible.

The same is true morally. Even if you start out with a good standard for society, without acknowledging an absolute standard of right and wrong, good and evil, the concepts drift over time and become less and less meaningful. In the end, anything is possible. Murder becomes "God's work". Greed and theft become the gold standard of law.

Of course, you could point out that even if we had put a date on the note, dates are not absolute. They are just measuring the time relative to an event. In our calendar system that one absolute event is the birth of Christ. Everything else is based on Christ. I find that hair-raisingly significant.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Divine Sense of Humor

Functions and Objects - Computer Science Week

You may have heard of object oriented programming, in phrases like "java is an object oriented language". Fewer people have heard of functional programming. But what do these terms mean? They represent two extremes in the way we look at computing.

In general we think of computing as data and things you do to data to change it. Like in English we have nouns and verbs. You can think of object oriented programming as a language with only nouns, and functional programming as a language without nouns. You'd think neither system was workable, but in practice, they are two (radically) different ways of thinking about the same thing (data, and ways to change it).

Object oriented programming makes data the king, in the form of an "object". Objects know how to change their state, and you simply send them messages about what to do. For instance, in an object oriented programming language, "1" is not data, it's an object. "1 + 2" sends the object "1" a message to add "2" to itself (of course giving "3" as the resulting object). Object oriented programming's strength is that objects are self contained, so it is easier to write a program without having to consider what every part of it does. You can trust that the objects know what they're doing (if they are written correctly).

In functional programming we do away with the notion of data completely. Everything's a function, just like in math class. "1" is not data again, it's a function (that always returns "1"). The big strength of functional programming is that there are no "side effects". In other words, without data, a function always returns the same result with the same inputs. That makes it possible to reason about a program and mathematically prove whether it is correct or not.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It Aint So Bad...

With Christmas and other holidays approaching, and the days becoming shorter, some people feel depressed. This week it seems there is a lot to be depressed about, especially if you are a person who values human rights and life. The news is full of stories.

Despite the fact that no useful therapies have been developed, or are close or even likely to be developed by embryonic stem cells, the Obama administration announced the approval of human embryonic stem cell lines for use in federally funded experiments. Our tax dollars are supporting this waste of money and lives.

Our senate has voted down the Nelson amendment. That amendment to the health care bill would have preserved the status quo by preventing our tax dollars to directly pay for elective abortions. In this, the senate disregarded precedent, the will of the people and our consciences.

In more local news we have stories like gay marriage being approved by the NJ senate judiciary committee. Then there's the Vermont court that violated the rights of a biological mother and further rejected the rights of families by awarding custody of a woman's only child to her former lesbian lover. We have the story of a New York woman how tried to force another woman to have an abortion, and when the baby was born alive in spite of her, tried to murder it.

Nor are things better internationally, where Ireland's laws that protect the life of unborn children are under attack by the European Union. In Africa we have the sad case of a law that provides the death penalty for gays. In Copenhagen we have more bad science used to justify discarding human rights with the climate conference.

Our country, and indeed the world are suffering from economic crises and moral decay. Yep, there's a lot to be depressed about. And yet, there's also a lot to be hopeful about. This is advent, a season of hope. Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI said in an address for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Every day, through newspapers, television and radio, evil is recounted, repeated, amplified, making us accustomed to the most terrible things, making us insensitive and, in some way, intoxicating us, because the negative is never fully purged and accumulates day after day. The heart becomes harder and thoughts become darker. For this reason, the city needs Mary who ... brings us hope even in the most difficult situations.
The media, he said, tends "to make us feel like spectators, as if evil regards only others and certain things could never happen to us." Instead, "we are all actors, and for better or worse, our behaviour has an influence on others."

And of course he is right. If we listen to the news of the day, we can get so bogged down with the evil in the world we forget the Truth; that Christ has already conquered sin and death - that Christ died for us, personally. We have been assured "the gates of hades shall not prevail against the Church".

So don't give in. Be hopeful and have a blessed Advent.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Recursion - Computer Science Week

Another concept in computer science is that of recursion. Recursion is defined as "repeated application of a rule", but that's not quite accurate. Recursion is the ultimate in "divide and conquer".

A recursive algorithm consists of two parts. The "divide" part turns a problem into two (or more) simpler problems, and the "conquer" part solves the most basic case for the problem. They are an alternative to "iterative" algorithms, which solve a problem by performing the same simple steps over and over. An example of a recursive algorithm is the "merge sort". To sort a list of names in alphabetical order we can do the following:

If the list has one item in it, it is sorted. we are done.
Otherwise, split the list in 2 parts, sort each part and merge the two sorted lists.

Recursive algorithms generally require more memory and computing resources than iterative ones, but they are great for today's supercomputers which have many CPUs, because each one of the "simple" problems can be computed in parallel on a separate CPU. So even though more resources are involved, the problem can be solved faster.

When the last step in the recursive algorithm is the "go do the simpler problem" part, the algorithm is called "tail recursive". Tail recursive algorithms can be transformed (often automatically by today's tools) into iterative algorithms, which makes them more suited to single CPU computers, where resources are limited and running in parallel isn't an option anyway.

Indirection and Parameters - Computer Science Week

This is the second post for Computer Science Week, on random topics in computer science. There is an old saying attributed to David Wheeler "All problems in computer science can be solved by another level of indirection". Kevlin Henney's corollary to this is, "...except for the problem of too many layers of indirection."

Indirection is simply something pointing to something else. It is often used to mean pointers or references in computer programming, but in a more general sense of computer science, a "handle" or a "parameter" is a mechanism for indirection. For instance, if I were writing a program to control robot, I would not want to make code to move the arm forward one inch, more code to make it move two inches. Instead, I would write code to move the arm and parameterize it to specify how many inches to move.

As long as we're doing that, why not parameterize the direction to move? Or which arm to move? Or whether to move an arm of a leg? Ultimately, indirection lets us factor out common attributes at the expense of potential complexity in a subcomponent, when the parameter is accessed and the data is "dereferenced."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Boolean Algebra - Computer Science Week

Ok, a brief respite from my usual blog topics for National Computer Science Education Week. Each day this week I'm going to blog about some topic in computer science. My goal is to make these topics introductory enough so that anyone can read them and learn something, and perhaps get an interest in learning more.

Today's topic is Boolean Algebra. I know the work "algebra" scares people off. Months of sitting in school trying to fathom what "x" was has left a bad taste in the mouths and minds of millions. But the word actually comes from the title of a book, עilm al-jabr wa'l-muḳābala ‘the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like,’ by the mathematician al- K wārizmī. So let's restore what is missing in algebra - fun (well, maybe not, but we'll try).

You're familiar with arithmetic operators, + - x and /. George Bool came up with a system of operators on the values TRUE and FALSE. There are three basic operators (which can actually be reduced to 2), that describe all the things you can do. They are AND, OR and NOT, and they are pretty simple to understand.

"I'll eat chicken OR beef." Means I will eat chicken. I will eat beef. I will eat both. The only way this is FALSE is if I will eat neither chicken nor beef.

"I had bacon AND eggs for breakfast." Means I had both, I could not say this if I didn't have bacon or if I didn't have eggs.

"I did NOT eat the peas." This of course, would be false if I did eat the peas.

Pretty simple, and yet George made it complicated by adding formal equations and parentheses and varous properties. The nice thing that falls out of it are some general principles that let us simplify logic. For instance, the sentence:

"If it is NOT Tuesday OR it is NOT raining I will NOT have duck for dinner."

can be shown to be logically the same as

"If it is Tuesday AND it is raining I will have duck for dinner."

Of course, that sounds obvious, but just like numerical algebra, you can use boolean algebra to take some complicated logic problems and find a simpler form that is equivalent. For more information see Ones and Zeroes: Understanding Boolean Algebra, Digital Circuits and the Logic of Sets.

The Beam in Thy Own Eye


You spent quite a while lecturing me on how Bush was evil. You spoke to me of his condoning the torture of prisoners, the killing and degradation of innocent people just because they lived in a country that supported terrorism.

Yet you yourself condone and even encourage the torture and killing of innocent women and children, while sitting on your high horse lecturing me about morality. Torture? You are incredulous. Don't be.

Four thousand times a day in this country a living baby is dismembered, or burned by chemicals for 24 to 48 hours of agony until it dies, or denied food for days until it slowly starves to death. I can't imagine how you could not consider that torture. How ignorant can you be? Apparently pretty ignorant, because you only listen to sources that support your narrow minded point of view.

But it's not just the children whose torture and death you support and actively encourage. Women are told that they have no worth, that being a mother isn't wanted or useful. That their role is to serve their betters (men) by holding down a "real" job, and by providing sexual pleasure without tying their men down with responsibility. Yes, if women don't provide you with money and pleasure they're of no use. You listen to music and laugh at jokes in which women are called "bitches" (in other words, sub-human) and lecture me about women's right? You hypocrite!

You degrade and devalue women and children so, then insist that the way to stem the rising tide of violence against children and young women is to do more of the same.

You speak of abortion being the way to make "every child a wanted child" but the reality is that child abuse rises with the abortion rate. If a child is considered disposable, it continues to be treated that way. You don't teach people to love children by telling them that children are not valuable.

You speak of anti-abortion violence, but ignore abortion violence. you speak of George Tiller but ignore James Pouillon. And when I mention him you attack him and justify the fact that he was gunned down? You disgust me.

You speak of the women who would be killed in back alley abortions if abortion wasn't legal, yet the leading cause of death of pregnant women is murder. Murder by their husbands/boy friends/partners who are enraged by the fact that they would dare to "punish" them by having a baby (in the words of your great leader).

You have zero credibility to speak about torture or murder to me. The next time you want to lecture me about morality or human rights, just shut up. Or better yet, open your eyes, remove that beam, and learn something.


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

New Jersey and Same Sex "Marriage"

Hey Mike, how can the church be against gay marriage and yet recognize civil unions of heterosexual couples? They must just hate gays.

In 2003, New Jersey became the second state (after California) to have "domestic partnerships" recognized. In 2006, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill permitting same sex civil unions and recognizing those of other states. So in effect, the only thing that's missing is the term "marriage". That is now being pushed for, but the movement does not appear to have enough support to pass at this time.

Last week, the New Jersey bishops instructed priests to read and distribute a letter affirming the church's teaching on marriage. Sadly, this letter was not read at any of the parishes of my friends here in NJ. Since there is no mention of it online or in any of the Diocesan publications that I can find, I can't comment on the exact content.

I can, however, comment on my understanding of the issue. First let me state unequivocally that the Catholic Church does not hate gays, nor condone violence or discrimination against gays by anyone. Through programs like Courage the Church tries to reach out to those with same sex attractions. However, it is an uphill battle because people who put sex above God have taken a position that any criticism of one's sexual antics is persecution of the person. Of course, many of those same people criticize the actions of churchgoer, and fail to see the irony. I can see that it's a natural thing to resent criticism of your actions, be they good or bad. For instance, an alcoholic will react viciously against someone who tries to point out their drinking problem. However, an alcoholic doesn't have the media and lobbying groups fighting for their right to drink.

But to get to the point. If the Catholic Church recognizes Protestant marriages, and Buddhist marriages and Muslim marriages, and even civil marriages and common law marriages, why not gay marriages? It has to do with what a marriage is, and why it was instituted in the first place. Huh? Marriage is when two people love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together, right?

Wrong. Certainly that is necessary for a good marriage, but not sufficient, and not what marriage is about, either religiously or in secular society. Marriage is the basis of the family. It is when a man and a woman who have no relationship to each other come together as one, for the purpose of forming a family, and raising children. The family in turn is the basis of society. It ensures that the next generation will carry on not only our genes, but our society. It is the unit from which clans, tribes, towns, cities, states, nations, and ultimately civilization itself is formed. It is the method of continuation of the species.

Can't two men or two women form a family? Isn't a family defined by love, not by DNA? Again, love is necessary but not sufficient for a family, Disney movies notwithstanding. God created two sexes to complete each other. This is reflected in nature. It takes a male and female to reproduce. The family in nature is the group which ensures that children are protected and nurtured.

At this point I usually hear things like "what about couples who can't have children. Are they not married?" Yes, they are. Not everything on this Earth is perfect. People don't always succeed at their goals, but that doesn't mean that the goal is not a valid one, or reduce the worth of those who try. Nor should we hold a sterile couple up as the ideal by which we judge marriage.

OK, but what about homosexuality in nature? First off, we can't really label animal behavior as "good" or "bad", since animals don't have free will as we do - they are governed by instinct. We have the ability to decide to act in contrast to our instincts, which is where good and bad come in. Yes, I have heard that some animals commit homosexual acts, but that is not the basis of animal families. Marriage is about families, not sex, remember?

One other thought occurs to me. There are stories of various state legislatures attempting to (or at least considering) defining the value of pi to be 3 instead of 3.14159... Of course, we all laugh at how ridiculous this is. Government has no business trying to redefine laws of nature to suit political whim.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Kill Bill

Yes, more health care. As expected, al of the concessions of the house bill have been removed and then some! The senate bill is an abomination of death. There has been, of course, a lot of press about the abortion language in the bill, less so about euthanasia, so I thought I'd talk a bit about that. Of course, some people will immediately say “but the bill doesn't say we'll have euthanasia”, make a joke about “death panels” and start chanting “Sarah Palin” while rocking back and forth.

Yes, the bill doesn't say it will cover euthanasia explicitly. Then again it doesn't say it will cover cancer treatment, but we all expect it will. That's a silly argument, as the bill doesn't actually say what will be covered and what will not. But in fact, this bill does mention euthanasia, and in a very troubling way:

(a) IN GENERAL.—The Federal Government, and any State or local government or health care provider that receives Federal financial assistance under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act) or any health plan created under this Act (or under an amendment made by this Act), may not subject an individual or institutional health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the entity does not provide any health care item or service furnished for the purpose of causing, or for the purpose of assisting in causing, the death of any individual, such as by assisted suicide, euthanasia, or mercy killing.
This is a conscience clause for those who do not “provide any health care item or service” for the purpose of “causing the death of any individual”. So, there's no language saying that euthanasia won't be covered under the plan, and language that says but not every doctor has to offer it. As troubling (or more) to me is the terminology. A health care item or health care service is something to heal or promote life. Here it is explicitly stated that we are redefining as a health care item or health care service something that is intended to kill the patient.

But that's not all. In section 1323 of the bill, on page 186 it reads:
(F) PROTECTING ACCESS TO END OF LIFE CARE.—A community health insurance option offered under this section shall be prohibited from limiting access to end of life care."
So while an individual doctor might not offer euthanasia, all insurance plans must cover it, and therefore you and I must pay for it. This is pretty telling language for a bill that is supposed to not support euthanasia. If the bill is not going to support it, this language would be unnecessary.


Before continuing on the topic, I'd like to clarify the terms I am going to use. There are different types of care: ordinary, palliative, proportionate and disproportionate. Ordinary care is, well, ordinary. It's the basic care we would give any human being at any time. It includes food, water, shelter from the elements, a reasonable room temperature. You are (hopefully) receiving ordinary care every day. Palliative care means relieving pain or other symptoms. When you take an ibuprophen or some cough medicine for a cold you are getting palliative care.

The Catholic Church requires that all people be given ordinary and palliative care. That means you are not to starve someone to death, leave them out in a blizzard, or withhold pain medication. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.
The rest of health care is further divided into two categories: proportionate and disproportionate. Proportionate health care must meet all of the following conditions. It must have a reasonable chance of curing or contributing to the cure of the patient. It does not carry a significant risk of death, and it must not be excessively burdensome. Setting a broken leg, for instance, is proportionate health care. Care that does not meet these three criteria is called disproportionate. The Catholic Church considers offering proportionate care to be mandatory, although the patient does not have to accept it. Disproportionate care is not considered mandatory.
2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
There is considerable room for debating whether a procedure is proportionate. A pacemaker might be considered proportionate, but in the case of a patient with a terminal illness or other serious health conditions the risks and burden might put it in the realm of disproportionate care. Every case must be examined on its own merits.

“Mercy” Killing

According to a report by the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law titled When Death Is Sought: Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia in the Medical Context (emphasis added by me):
“American society has never sanctioned assisted suicide or mercy killing. We believe that the practices would be profoundly dangerous for large segments of the population, especially in light of the widespread failure of American medicine to treat pain adequately or to diagnose and treat depression in many cases. The risks would extend to all individuals who are ill. They would be most severe for those whose autonomy and well-being are already compromised by poverty, lack of access to good medical care, or membership in a stigmatized social group. The risks of legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia for these individuals, in a health care system and society that cannot effectively protect against the impact of inadequate resources and ingrained social disadvantage, are likely to be extraordinary.

The distinction between the refusal of medical treatment and assisted suicide or euthanasia has not been well-articulated in the broader public debate. In fact, the often-used rubric of the 'right to die' obscures the distinction. The media's coverage of individual cases as a way of presenting the issues to the public also blurs the difference between a private act and public policy; between what individuals might find desirable or feasible in a particular case and what would actually occur in doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals, if assisted suicide and euthanasia became a standard part of medical practice. Public opinion polls, focusing on whether individuals think they might want these options for themselves one day, also offer little insight about what it would mean for society to make assisted suicide or direct killing practices sanctioned and regulated by the state or supervised by the medical profession itself.”
Some people refer to euthanasia as “mercy” killing. The implication is that these people are “better off dead” because they are in pain or because they are suffering. The danger with this type of thinking is that instead of providing palliative care, our response to suffering is to kill. But killing is not palliative care. As Dr. Gregory Hamilton, the chair of Physicians for Compassionate Care, stated in an article in the Oregonian: "Comfort care results in a comfortable patient; assisted suicide results in a corpse.

I think it is important to recognize that the suffering “mercy” killing strives to end is that of those who don't want to watch, or care for, or bear the financial burden for those who are in need. As John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, "True 'compassion' leads to sharing another person's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear."

When “mercy” killing is considered a viable option for health care, it becomes the preferred option by those who would seek to reduce costs. You can “mercy” kill someone for $35, while it is hard to find any reasonable medical treatment today that is cheaper. Legalized euthanasia will result in discrimination against the “undesirables” of society; the poor, the immigrant, the weak and elderly, and ultimately, their murder. As reported in Inside Catholic:
“Dr. Diane Meier, a former advocate of assisted suicide, said in a 1998 New York Times article, 'Legalizing assisted suicide would become a cheap and easy way to avoid the costly and time-intensive care needed by the terminally ill.'

Substantiating this claim is the fact that Oregon's Medical Assistance Program (OMAP) for the poor moved to provide physician-assisted suicide to its recipients as soon as the Death with Dignity Act was passed in 1997. Only 18 months later, the OMAP announced plans to cut back on pain medication coverage for the same population. Hospice care has also suffered -- the International Task Force reports that one Oregon insurance company has a paltry $1,000 cap on in-home hospice care. With the cost of a lethal overdose running about $35, there would be little motivation to pay any more for palliative treatment.”
Also, as noted, the issue is presented to the public by the media in a way which lumps all the issues into a single mass. The implication is that if any part is acceptable, the whole thing should be. Thus, many people equate euthanasia with refusal of treatment, when they are two radically different ideas. The difference is like the difference between a fireman being unable to save a life and the arsonist who set the fire. One is recognizing an inability to cure, the other is murder.

But Everything's Great in Europe!

Let's take a look at what has happened in a country that has euthanasia. According to the International Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Task Force there are widespread abuses in countries that have euthanasia (bold is mine, italics are in original).
“The data indicate that, despite long-standing, court-approved euthanasia guidelines developed to protect patients, abuse has become an accepted norm. According to the Remmelink Report, in 1990:
  • 2,300 people died as the result of doctors killing them upon request (active, voluntary euthanasia).(7)
  • 400 people died as a result of doctors providing them with the means to kill themselves (physician-assisted suicide).(8)
  • 1,040 people (an average of 3 per day) died from involuntary euthanasia, meaning that doctors actively killed these patients without the patients' knowledge or consent.(9)

    • 14% of these patients were fully competent. (10)
    • 72% had never given any indication that they would want their lives terminated. (11)
    • In 8% of the cases, doctors performed involuntary euthanasia despite the fact that they believed alternative options were still possible. (12)

  • In addition, 8,100 patients died as a result of doctors deliberately giving them overdoses of pain medication, not for the primary purpose of controlling pain, but to hasten the patient's death. (13) In 61% of these cases (4,941 patients), the intentional overdose was given without the patient's consent.(14)
  • According to the Remmelink Report, Dutch physicians deliberately and intentionally ended the lives of 11,840 people by lethal overdoses or injections--a figure which accounts for 9.1% of the annual overall death rate of 130,000 per year. The majority of all euthanasia deaths in Holland are involuntary deaths.
  • The Remmelink Report figures cited here do not include thousands of other cases, also reported in the study, in which life-sustaining treatment was withheld or withdrawn without the patient's consent and with the intention of causing the patient's death. (15) Nor do the figures include cases of involuntary euthanasia performed on disabled newborns, children with life-threatening conditions, or psychiatric patients. (16)
  • The most frequently cited reasons given for ending the lives of patients without their knowledge or consent were: 'low quality of life,' 'no prospect for improvement,' and 'the family couldn't take it anymore.'(17)
  • In 45% of cases involving hospitalized patients who were involuntarily euthanized, the patients' families had no knowledge that their loved ones' lives were deliberately terminated by doctors. (18)
  • According to the 1990 census, the population of Holland is approximately 15 million. That is only half the population of California. To get some idea of how the Remmelink Report statistics would apply to the U.S., those figures would have to be multiplied 16.6 times (based on the 1990 U.S. census population of approximately 250 million).
Falsified Death Certificates ---In the overwhelming majority of Dutch euthanasia cases, doctors--in order to avoid additional paperwork and scrutiny from local authorities--deliberately falsify patients' death certificates, stating that the deaths occurred from natural causes. (19) In reference to Dutch euthanasia guidelines and the requirement that physicians report all euthanasia and assisted-suicide deaths to local prosecutors, a government health inspector recently told the New York Times: 'In the end the system depends on the integrity of the physician, of what and how he reports. If the family doctor does not report a case of voluntary euthanasia or an assisted suicide, there is nothing to control.' (20)

Inadequate Pain Control and Comfort Care -- In 1988, the British Medical Association released the findings of a study on Dutch euthanasia conducted at the request of British right-to-die advocates. The study found that, in spite of the fact that medical care is provided to everyone in Holland, palliative care (comfort care) programs, with adequate pain control techniques and knowledge, were poorly developed. (21) Where euthanasia is an accepted medical solution to patients' pain and suffering, there is little incentive to develop programs which provide modern, available, and effective pain control for patients. As of mid-1990, only two hospice programs were in operation in all of Holland, and the services they provided were very limited. (22)”
Consider more recent cases in the UK. According to the latest volume of the IAETF patients in the UK are being put in euthanasia protocols mistakenly or due to negligence or poor care. In the interests of brevity I will only cite two short passages:
An 80-year-old grandmother who doctors identified as terminally ill and left to starve to death has recovered after her outraged daughter intervened. Hazel Fenton, from East Sussex, is alive nine months after medics ruled she had only days to live, withdrew her antibiotics and denied her artificial feeding. The former school matron had been placed on a controversial care plan intended to ease the last days of dying patients. Doctors say Fenton is an example of patients who have been condemned to death on the Liverpool care pathway plan. They argue that while it is suitable for patients who do have only days to live, it is being used more widely in the NHS, denying treatment to elderly patients who are not dying. [Sunday Times, 10/11/09]

Fenton lived to tell the tale. Not so for 76-year-old Jack Jones. Jones was hospitalized in the belief that his previous cancer had recurred and was now terminal. The family claimed he was soon denied food and water and put into deep sedation. But his autopsy showed that he did not have cancer at all, but actually had a treatable infection. The hospice denied wrongdoing but paid £18,000 to Jones’s widow. [Daily Mail, 10/14/09]
It Can't Happen Here

You might think doctors here in the US would certainly not be part of starving someone to death or withholding medication, but it happens. Consider the case of Terri Schiavo. According to media reports she was allowed to die “naturally”. The fact is she was allowed to die slowly of starvation and dehydration, while her parents sat and watched for 13 days, not being allowed to give her food or water. I can only imaging what it would be like to watch my child die, knowing that I could prevent it except the state forbade me from doing so.

Then there's the case of baby Gabriel.  The East Tennessee Children's Hospital (ETCH) “ethics” panel decided not to treat baby Gabriel, specifically the hospital was going to stop feeding him milk and giving him his medications. According to an Alliance Defense Fund press release:
“After doctors decided that Baby Gabriel was not worth treating, ETCH started discriminating against him by denying his basic care. Staff stopped bathing him, ceased applying cream to alleviate his chapped skin, reduced his diaper changes, and have not allowed his physical therapy. ETCH doctors have also discouraged Palmer's attempts to have her son transferred to other medical facilities where he could receive treatment.”
Consider the case of Barbara Wagner. Barbara was diagnosed with lung cancer and was hen told that the treatment prescribed by her oncologist would not be covered by insurance. Instead she was told the “health” plan would cover an alternative treatment, doctor-assisted suicide.
"'Treatment of advanced cancer that is meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not a covered benefit of the Oregon Health Plan,' read the letter notifying Wagner of the health plan's decision.

Wagner says she was shocked by the decision. 'To say to someone, we'll pay for you to die, but not pay for you to live, it's cruel,' she told the Register-Guard. 'I get angry. Who do they think they are?'"
So these things do happen, today, and they happen against the wishes of patients and their families in our “free” country. Do we really want to make this the norm, rather than the exception?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Horse's Tale

There once was a horse who lived in peace and freedom, except for one thing. He knew there were wolves nearby, and he was afraid they would come and attack him some day. He knew this, even though they had not shown themselves, because for some time he had been hearing them howling at night.

There was also a man living nearby. The horse and man had never been friends, because the horse wasn't quite sure the man was trustworthy. Although he wasn't a bad man, he had his own goals and looked out for his own interests, which didn't necessarily coincide with the best interests of the horse.

One day the man approached the horse. He said "I know you're afraid of those wolves. I've been hearing them too. I know that you don't always trust me, but I am willing to help you so that we can both rid ourselves of these wolves."

The man went on to explain that although he had a club to beat the wolves, he couldn't stay up all night and watch for them, so he wanted to get rid of them once and for all. He needed the horse's speed to catch the wolves so he could get close enough to use his club.

The horse was still suspicious of the man's motives, though, and refused. But after a few nights of listening to the howling of the wolves coming closer, he was desperate for a solution. One Saturday evening he acceded to the man's wishes. The man quickly got a bridle and saddle and put mounted the horse.

The horse bravely started out towards the forest, where he thought the wolves lived. "Get your club ready!" said the horse, but the man just pulled on the reins, dug in his spurs, and howled.

Friday, November 13, 2009

You want me to do what!?

The Constitution of the United States of America, in the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantees you the right to free exercise of religion, but I am not required to pay for your religion.

The Constitution of the United States of America, in the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantees you the right to free speech, but I am not required to pay for your air time to speak it.

The Constitution of the United States of America, in the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantees you the right to free press, but I am not required to buy your paper.

The Constitution of the United States of America, in the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantees you the right to assemble, but I am not required to rent you a convention hall.

The Constitution of the United States of America, in the Bill of Rights, explicitly guarantees you the right to bear arms, but I am not required to buy you guns and ammunition.

The Constitution of the United States of America, in... well, where is it? They claim it's in amendment 14*, but there's nothing in there about abortion... oh, it's implied but not mentioned - and you want me to pay for it?

* Amendment 14 - Citizenship Rights. Ratified 7/9/1868.
1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.
3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.
4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.
5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Things I Wish I'd Thought Of

Sometimes I see news stories about someone becoming rich off an idea and someone inevitably says “I wish I'd thought of that!” Things like the iBeer iPhone app. This is an essential application for any iPhone or iPod touch owner. It simulates actual beer that sloshes around and "pours" according to the movement of the phone. Here's a guy who spends some time writing a program and it goes viral and he sells a million copies of it. Or maybe something like Ruth Wakefield's story. She put pieces of chocolate in her cookies, expecting them to melt, and invented the tool house cookie (aka chocolate chip). She didn't become rich, but did get a lifetime supply of chocolate. Yum!

The people of whom I am most envious, however, are not the “viral video” types, but a class of people I call “ethical entrepreneurs”. These are people who come up with an idea or product that not only benefits them, but also the poor or neglected members of society. How good would it feel to go to work every day knowing that the world was a better place because of what you do? we all like to think we do our small part, but sometimes it would be nice to see something concrete.

Suzanne Sadler thinks so too. Her blog "The Entrepreneurial Catholic" is all about family enterprise. Working for yourself and your family, while serving others is a truly Catholic way to work and live. Only a few posts, so far, but she has some great advice and ideas for starting a business that will change your life and other lives as well.

So what kinds of things do I admire? One of the inventions I like is the “Q drum”. This is a donut shaped plastic container that enables someone to easily transport up to 50 liters of water from a water source by pulling it along the ground. This is a big help for people living in areas without a safe water source in their home. Another is this human powered irrigation pump. It can help poor farmers in undeveloped areas grow more crops and be less dependent on weather. Suzanne Sadler called to my attention the safe bottle lamp. This is a simple kerosene lamp that won't cause a fire if it tips, helping to save third world children and families from burns or death.

Then there's the "Freedom Leg" from Forward Mobility. This is a lightweight brace that replaces crutches by redistributing force to the upper leg. It's more comfortable and helps strengthen the upper leg muscles. The company uses Kids First Enterprise to manufacture its devices in Vietnam. Twenty percent of that Kids First's workforce is disabled, and all of its profits go to projects that support the disabled and disadvantaged. How cool is that?

Of course, my area of expertise is computers, and you don't find many poor impoverished people needing software. However, the other day I came across this cool invention. With a few cheap parts and some software this inventor has found a way to turn a cell phone into a holographic microscope. In many places in the world, access to a medical lab or hospital may be difficult or impossible, but cell phones are everywhere. A doctor even in a remote area could use this invention to diagnose certain diseases.

So, got any good ideas you're willing to share? I'm interested.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Grace and Taxes

I've been wanting to write this for a long time, but the words would not come. Recently, I read several pieces, by Matt Warner and others, that said what I wanted to say with enough eloquence to make me want to copy their work and add my own meager words to it.
I don't support the health care plan passed by the house recently. As you know, I've been attacked for being selfish and “un-Christian”, since how can you deny the right of the poor to have healthcare? Well, the easy response to give was the most obvious flaw in the healthcare plan; that it would support and fund abortion. In theory it does not, although I truly believe that the concessions made by the Stupak amendment will be watered down or removed entirely before the senate is done.

So I could continue to argue about abortion coverage, or euthanasia, or other life issues, but that is all probabilistic argument right now. Instead, there are the harder-to-explain (at least for me) reasons. For many of my friends the reason is money. They are already overtaxed, and with faltering economy, high unemployment, and depleted savings, the last thing they want is congress to spend another $1,000,000,000,000.00 (remember when the U.S. Deficit hit that number a few years back? Now we're talking about spending that much money in one bill in addition to the rest of the budget).

But although I don't want any more taxes, and I think spending money you don't have is ridiculous and criminally irresponsible I have reasons that bother me as much or even more. At the risk of sounding cryptic, I sum up my reason as “there is no grace in paying taxes”. Let me expound on that a bit.

Jesus explains in Matthew 25:34-40 (quoted from the New American Bible http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/matthew/matthew25.htm)
Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
From this passage and others we get the seven “corporal works of mercy” which are:
  • Feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Clothe the naked
  • Shelter the homeless
  • Visit the sick
  • Visit those in prison
  • To bury the dead
One can clearly extend the “visit the sick” to mean “care for the sick” and conclude “we must pass healthcare legislation!” But just because legislation says it will care for the sick, does that make it an appropriate remedy?

What I mean by “no grace in paying taxes” is this. When I perform corporal works of mercy I m doing God's work. When I pay my taxes, am I doing God's work? I have no choice in the matter, so I am not choosing to do these things. On the contrary, anyone who does not pay taxes is fined and in the case of healthcare thrown in prison as well.

Likewise, since money is fungible I can't even claim that my money went to help the uninsured. In Luke 20:22-25 Jesus is posed a question about taxes
Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?"
Recognizing their craftiness he said to them,
"Show me a denarius; whose image and name does it bear?" They replied, "Caesar's."
So he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
I've heard that used to defend paying taxes for healthcare legislation. But I'll note two interesting things. First off, Jesus does not say it is good to pay taxes or even right to pay taxes. He says it is lawful to pay taxes. In other words, you are not sinning when you pay taxes. But the cool thing is that there is always another level (usually many) in every Gospel story.

Jesus tells the scribes and chief priests that they should pay Caesar the coin, which belongs to Caesar because it has Caesar's image on it. He also tells them to repay to God what belongs to God. What do you suppose we have that is made in the image of God? Ourselves. That giving of ourselves is not part of paying the tax, but in addition to it. We can't sit back, pay taxes once a year and say “I have fulfilled a moral obligation.” we personally need to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned and bury the dead. Forcing others (and being forced ourselves) to do it is not in keeping with the Gospel.

Matthew Warner has expressed it succinctly and far more beautifully than I can in his post at Fallible Blogma “A Tired Democracy”:
There will always be people in need. We must help them – not empower some ultimately corrupt government to do so on our behalf. Jesus commanded us to love/feed/help/clothe others. Nowhere does he teach that we are to force others to do so on our behalf. And I would challenge every Christian out there who continues to attack “rich” people they’ve never met, and those of you who demand and empower our government to take from one to give to another, to search your heart as to whether Jesus would ever do that? Or to find one place where Jesus calls us to do that?
Lastly, there is subsidiarity. I had internalized the definition of this word many years ago, without having the word to describe it. I only came across it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church recently, and it has been used often by the bishops in discussions of the current healthcare legislation. The CCC has this to say (http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s1c2a1.htm#I):
1883 Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."
1885 The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.
So we have to examine the question, “is healthcare reform necessary on a national level?” I would argue that some forms of healthcare reform are appropriate on a national level. Things like interstate competition between insurance companies, and availability of generic treatments from foreign sources should be addressed at a national level. Sadly, none of these issues is addressed by the current health care bill.
Bishop James Van Johnson had this to say in “Skinning the Health Care Cat"  (which I also quoted in “Why I Can't Support the Health Care Bill Part II” and which I will repeat part of here - color added to text by me):
“One might legitimately ask if giving a large, inefficient, but powerful bureaucracy like the federal government control of health care is a wise move. For one, this runs counter to the well-known principle of subsidiarity, so prominent in Catholic social teaching: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

How much of a role the government should have is a matter of prudential judgment. However, there are ethical dimensions to this question. Certainly, it has a role to play, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be the sole provider of health care. The government can act to remove abuses, and to regulate the health care industry so that the markets efficiently serve all the people.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Bishop Robert Finn have this to say in “Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform” (text colored by me - I didn't have the audacity to color any of the popes' text - it is all relevant):
The writings of recent Popes have warned that the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs, and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care.
Pope John Paul II wrote:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus #48)
And Pope Benedict writes:
“The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. … In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est #28)
While subsidiarity is vital to the structure of justice, we can see from what the Popes say that it rests on a more fundamental principal, the unchanging dignity of the person. The belief in the innate value of human life and the transcendent dignity of the human person must be the primordial driving force of reform efforts...
It is very clear that, respectful of this principle, we must find some way to provide a safety net for people in need without diminishing personal responsibility or creating an inordinately bureaucratic structure which will be vulnerable to financial abuse, be crippling to our national economy, and remove the sense of humanity from the work of healing and helping the sick.
The Church clearly advocates authentic reform which addresses this obligation, while respecting the fundamental dignity of persons and not undermining the stability of future generations.
Both of us in our family histories have had experiences that make us keenly aware of the necessity for society to provide a safety net to families who suffer catastrophic losses. Yet, these safety nets are not intended to create permanent dependency for individuals or families upon the State, but rather to provide them with the opportunity to regain control of their own lives and their own destiny...
For example, legislation that excludes legal immigrants from receiving health care benefits violates the principle of solidarity, is unjust and is not prudent. In evaluating health care reform proposals perhaps we ought to ask ourselves whether the poor would have access to the kind and quality of health care that you and I would deem necessary for our families. Is there a way by which the poor, too, can assume more responsibility for their own health care decisions in such manner as reflects their innate human dignity and is protective of their physical and spiritual well being?
So, even with the Stupak amendment I oppose the current health care legislation. Aside from the fact that I believe it will bankrupt our economy and do more harm to citizens and good, I have these objections. It still contains at least the capacity (and arguably the reality) of life issue abuses. It is unjust. It violates principles of subsidiarity. And it supplants good works with corrupt buearocracy.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Urgent that you tell Congress to vote "NO" on Obamacare

As reported at http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/11/04/health.care/index.html
Washington (CNN) -- House Democratic leaders have put the finishing touches on their health care bill and could bring it to the full chamber as soon as Friday.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the chamber's second-ranking Democrat, said Wednesday that the bill would probably come to a final vote Saturday.
A 42-page manager's amendment posted Tuesday night made mostly technical changes in the nearly 2,000-page health care bill compiled from three Democratic proposals passed by three House committees.
This means that the existing bill, without any pro-life concessions or amendments, will be put to a vote this week. If this bill passes it will mean the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v Wade, and your tax dollars will be directly paying to murder innocent human life.

Please CALL (too late to write) your representative and tell them to vote NO on the health care bill! You can find the phone number to call at


If you don't know who your representative is, you can find that information on those sites by entering your address.

You can call any time of day or night (like right now). You will not be speaking to a person, but an answering machine. Simply say you urge them to vote NO on the health care bill. Leave your name and address. That's all you have to do, and it will take less than one minute. Please don't put this off!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Money is Fungible

Last year for my birthday my mother gave me a check, with the admonishment “Don't put this in the bank. Use it to treat yourself to something nice.” Of course, the check went straight into the bank account. I did treat myself to something nice (some books) but I paid for that with a credit card and paid the credit card with another check. Did that check that I wrote use the same dollars form the check she gave me? Who cares? Money is fungible.

Money is what? Fungible. It's not only fun to say, it's true. Something is fungible if individual units of that thing are interchangeable. So a United States ten dollar bill can be exchanged for any other United States ten dollar bill (barring the fact that a numismatist might favor one over the other). Or to put it another way, there's no way to tell whether the money my mother gave me was the money used to buy the books, and it doesn't matter!

Other things are fungible as well. Gold, oil, wheat, electrons – the list is endless (well, long at least). The fun part about fungibility (yes, it's a real word) is how you can use it to manipulate public opinion to support legislation.

Let's take schools, for instance. If you go to public school, the state pays all your expenses. Teachers' salaries, books, a building, perhaps a nice library, playground, etc. are all paid for by the tax payers. Catholic schools perform the same function as public schools and have the same expenses, but the state doesn't fund them. Why not? The specter of “separation of church and state” rears its ugly head (oh there will be more blog posts on that topic). Since money is fungible, if the state gives one dollar towards teacher's salaries, part of that dollar might somehow wind up paying for a crucifix for a classroom, and we can't have that.

So let's accept that money is fungible and get on with our lives. But wait! According to the Capps amendment to our current health care bill, we can have abortions covered, but they will only be paid for by the money from premiums. Your tax dollars won't be the dollars that pay for that. All of a sudden, money has become un-fungible (and no, that's not a word) when it suits the agenda of politicians.

This week there will be an important vote (hopefully) on this bill. Please call or write your representatives immediately and tell them abortion is not health care, and we don't want to pay for it. Tell them to support the Stupak amendment. You can find you representative's contact information by going to http://www.house.gov/ and entering your zip+4 code in the top left. A phone call would be best, but at least visit http://usccb.org/action and send them an email. Do this now. We are out of time to act on this. Thanks.