National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
October 8, 2004

Letters Hold that stone

Ashley Merryman, who sends rocks to bishops with whom she disagrees (NCR, Sept. 17), seems to be finding them when they fall out of her head.

If she really wanted to be educated by the church, she would pay attention to what these faithful bishops say.

At least the bishops are getting material for their rock gardens.

Libertyville, Ill.

Judge not, says Merryman

Archbishop Charles Chaput’s letter (NCR, Oct. 1) is -- while interesting -- a non sequitur. As Dennis Coday accurately stated in his article in the Sept. 17 issue, abortion is not the issue I’m addressing, and I object to the extent the archbishop’s letter indicates otherwise. Similarly, the archbishop is incorrect in his assumption that I would criticize him for taking a strong view on a social issue: I have no problem with bishops educating their flock on social issues, even if it is to instruct them to be single-issue voters. Finally, the archbishop refutes a quoted phrase, “proportionate reason,” indicating that it is based on an argument I made. I believe in fact that is a statement made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (wherein he wrote that Catholics may vote for pro-choice candidates if they had “proportionate reason”), but all I know for certain is that I made no such argument nor have I ever used that phrase.

While concerned by those inaccuracies, I am more troubled by the fact that Archbishop Chaput seems to have completely missed my point. My goal is simply to remind a few bishops to judge not lest ye be judged. My hope is that before we condemn anyone for a particular circumstance, we ask if condemnation is right in any circumstance. If bishops can independently turn away those they’ve chosen to condemn as “public sinners,” what shall we do with those who have publicly sinned? For example, why is it that a politician should be castigated for indirectly supporting abortion while priests and archbishops who have directly destroyed children’s lives may not only receive but may consecrate the host? Do we really want to go down this path? Aren’t we all public sinners? Is not the prayer before Communion a public admission of sin: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you”?

Culver City, Calif.

Portland bankruptcy

Regarding Richard Sipe’s article “American hierarchy seals its fate” (NCR, July 30): Sipe judges the Portland, Ore., archdiocesan bankruptcy without reference to the local bankruptcy file or local history He claims it is an attempt to deny compensation to victims and to hide information about Fr. Maurice Grammond. The facts are otherwise.

Portland has settled 150 claims for $53 million and its average settlement amount is the largest in the nation if articles in The Oregonian are accurate. Twenty victims of Grammond settled cases and made a sex abuse policy and an apology part of the settlement long before the Dallas charter. There are no secrets in Portland about Grammond or the archbishop who moved him.

Two cases against Grammond were set for trial: C.B. represented by Bill Barton seeking $135 million and J.D. represented by David Slader seeking $24,300,000. C.B. was Barton’s only client. Barton has a record of large verdicts in sex abuse cases and has written the proverbial “How-To” book in the field. Although there is a dispute whether the available assets were $10 million (archdiocesan) or $500 million (every parish, school and cemetery), it is entirely possible Barton could have “cleaned out the till” with that one case. No responsible defense attorney could have done anything but advise a client to consider Chapter 11. Chapter 11 will enable provision to be made for all victims, present and future.

It is my understanding that Sipe was to testify in the J.D. trial. If so, he should have disclosed this and whether it was for a fee or pro bono.

Portland, Ore.

O’Neill is cofounder of Voice of the Faithful of western Oregon.

Aquinas on polygamy

The sad story narrated by Evans K. Chama in “The Christian cost of rooting out polygamy” (NCR, Sept. 17), about how Joseph Milimo’s father was forced by a missionary to abandon his No. 2 wife so he could be baptized a Catholic, once more shows how seminarians sometimes did (and do) not learn their theology well.

The missionary had not studied well his scholastic theology or its history. An archbishop named Raymond of Toledo in 12th-century Muslim Spain organized a polyglot team of translators, including Muslims, Jews and Christians, to translate the works of Aristotle from Arabic into Latin. As a result of this broad-minded enterprise, there arose a great respect for Muslim scholars such as the Arab philosopher from Cordoba, Ibn Rushd, known to Europeans as Averröes. Yet how to explain that these scholars were polygamists?

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas noted this and the fact that the biblical patriarchs David and Solomon had several wives. How to explain that? Aquinas commented in his Sentences that the Franciscan Bonaventure had appealed to a divine dispensation from monogamy due to the situation of the times “to increase the number of believers.” But that was nonsense to Aquinas. He said if there was any dispensation in favor of polygamy, it was because it was reasonable: It was not inconsistent with the primary purpose of marriage.

In Aquinas’ Summa against the Gentiles, he developed his thought on the “three ends of marriage,” later on to be taught as Catholic teaching on marriage. The first end is the bringing forth and the education of children. The second end is the common life enjoyed by the spouses. The third end is the sacramental sign given by the fidelity of one man to one woman. The last end, he said, was distinctly Christian. Of the three ends, only the third is ruled out by polygamy. The primary end is not compromised at all. The scholastics judged the Christian form of marriage to be the optimal one, but polygamy was not intrinsically evil.

If Joseph Milimo’s missionary had known his theology, he would not have caused so much grief to him or to his mother. My point is this: Before authorities make public statements, even if they believe they are being obedient to recent Roman documents, they should seek the advice of theologians before they cause another gaffe that gives rise to ridicule of church magisterium.

Bay St. Louis, Miss.

The question of myth

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan wrote that C.S. Lewis used the claim that the New Testament was a myth to defend his past atheism (NCR, Sept. 10). But later, on converting, he found that the simplicity of their eyewitness accounts was not fitting as myth. Admittedly, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are eyewitness accounts by uneducated Jews who were reporting what they saw and heard from near-firsthand perceptions. Their writings were preceded by the letters of Paul and were likely influenced by this relatively uneducated Jew. Paul certainly knew his scriptures, but it is unknown how much he was exposed to the predominant Hellenistic religion of his time and place.

I suspect that the writers of John’s Gospel were theologians and learned in the mythology based on Hellenism. The introduction of John uses terminology likely from the Stoic school. “The Word (logos) was with God,” identifying Jesus with God, appears to be based on the Stoic mythology of gods and their relationship to humankind. So I would humbly suggest that the Synoptics, and not John’s Gospel, are what C.S. Lewis found to be lacking in “mythic taste.”

Yuba City, Calif.

Depression in children

Regarding “Coping with depression among children” (NCR, Sept. 17):

I think we will never know if drugs bring on suicidal thoughts or give a depressed person the energy to carry out suicidal plans they already have.

I think we should point out that childhood bipolar disease is on the rise and no one knows the reason for this. Added to this is the fact that it is often misdiagnosed as the ubiquitous attention deficit disorder, or ADD. The treatment of bipolar disorder as ADD can result in psychosis and/or suicide. Ritalin turned my 10-year-old grandson who has childhood bipolar disorder into a monster, and further drugs treating his condition as ADD made him psychotic, requiring hospitalization.

Another facet is that many children who go to street drugs are self-medicating depression.

When any depressed person suddenly feels good, it may be that a firm suicide plan has been made and will soon be executed.

Hold your children close.

Santa Barbara, Calif.

* * *

A great deal has been written in the lay press about the possibility that selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) could cause depressed children or adolescents to commit suicide, based on unpublished studies submitted to the Food and Drug Administration by GlaxoSmithKline to gain approval for use of paroxetine (Paxil) in children. There were no completed suicides in these studies. After these results were publicized (inaccurately) by the United Kingdom’s Committee on Safety of Medicines, the FDA warned against use of paroxetine in children and recently advised caution using other SSRIs and three other antidepressants in the pediatric age group.

All SSRIs are widely used in children with anxiety and mood disorders, but high placebo response rates have made it difficult to establish their efficacy in controlled trials. Some studies have, nevertheless, found them effective.

SSRIs, like other antidepressants, may cause mania when used to treat depression in patients with bipolar disorder. This misdiagnosis may lead to increased suicidality in children. There are no convincing data showing that SSRIs, including paroxetine, are any less safe in children than in adults. Most medical consultants believe that all of these drugs are much more likely to prevent suicide in depressed patients than to cause it.

Missoula, Mont.

Homeless Catholic?

After reading “The case against George W. Bush” in the Sept. 3 issue, I have this request to make concerning the paragraph about “sexual and reproductive rights”: Please don’t kick me out onto the street! I don’t want to be homeless! Isn’t there a home for “progressive” or “left of center” pro-life Catholics? Isn’t there a paper that I can use as a tool for dialogue with “conservative” Catholics, Evangelicals and the like? Please help me out!

San Antonio

Ukrainian correction

Regarding the story on the pope’s Russia policy (NCR, Sept. 17):

Stop using the expression “the Ukraine.” We’re not going to tell you again using nice language. This expression is offensive to Ukrainians. The correct name of the country is “Ukraine.” Your editors and writers are not morons that they have to offend Ukrainians continuously. Educate them! And by the way, it’s not “Western Ukraine,” but “western Ukraine.” Do you write “Western France”? No, you don’t. Western Ukraine is not some separate state. There is only one state, and it is called Ukraine.


Nothing to preempt

At the risk of sounding like a retired English professor, I must object to your designation, in the editorial “Fear-mongering instead of facts” (NCR, Sept. 17), of what we did in Iraq as a preemptive invasion. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq represented no imminent threat to the United States; in fact, the president has denied he ever used the words “imminent threat.” But if there was no imminent threat, the invasion cannot have been preemptive.

In the mid-1990s, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith and other neoconservatives who have served as official or unofficial presidential advisers were already calling for action in Iraq. They based their position on supposed benefits such action would reap for Israel’s strategic position in the Middle East. Moreover, these and others involved in the American Century project, including Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, have called for the establishment of American global dominance in this century. The strategy to be followed includes a series of small wars.

If the intentions of the president’s advisers are any criterion, then the invasion of Iraq might most accurately be considered an act of aggression.

Whitestone, N.Y.

Origins of addiction

When Mr. George J. Bryjack, in his article “It’s never our fault these days” (NCR, Sept 10), cites that erosion of behavior and responsibility is linked to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, I would like to refer Mr. Bryjak to Page 62 in the Alcoholics Anonymous book, which states: “So our troubles … are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves …” Further the book states that sobriety will only work when alcoholics are true to their responsibilities.

Schuyler Lake, N.Y.

* * *

Dr. Bryjak’s defense of free will (“It’s never our fault these days”) leaves one question unanswered. If people freely choose to become addicts, criminals, abusers, etc., then why do they so choose?

For example, why would one of 10 people all raised in a poor neighborhood become a criminal, and the other nine not? Bryjak says it’s because that person simply chose a life of crime out of free will. But isn’t it rather more likely that this person had worse parenting, was exposed to more violence, perhaps had a particular genetic predisposition for risk-taking or any number of other explanatory factors? After all, why else would they have taken that life path? Similarly, the other nine didn’t simply choose to ignore the criminogenic conditions surrounding them; rather, they were lucky enough not to be exposed to enough of those conditions to become criminals.

Free will explains nothing; it simply points to something mysterious and unexplained within the individual. It places ultimate blame on the person, ignoring what caused the person’s character, motives and actions. This view is useful if we want to avoid taking responsibility for remedying the conditions that create crime, addiction, etc.

I agree with Dr. Bryjak that personal responsibility is vital, but disagree that free will is the necessary basis for it. We can, and do, hold persons responsible as a way of getting them to behave properly. As a researcher in the addictions, I’ve explored the consequences of giving up free will for our attitudes toward addicts and for our prevention and treatment practices. Seeing that behavior is fully caused undercuts the stigma surrounding addiction, which makes it easier for addicts to access treatment. It also permits the design of effective interventions, in which we hold addicts accountable in compassionate and productive ways. About all this, see the Addiction page at, in particular, “Causality, Victimhood, and Empowerment: How to Hold Addicts Accountable.”

Christianity champions forgiveness and compassion as virtues. Seeing through the myth of contra-causal free will is a path toward both, even as it permits more effective approaches to crime, addiction, mental illness and social inequality.

Somerville, Mass.

Tom Clark is the director of the Center for Naturalism, which is based in Somerville.

Letters to the editor should be limited to 250 words and preferably typed. If a letter refers to a previous issue of NCR, please give us that issue’s date. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Letters, National Catholic Reporter, P.O. Box 419281, Kansas City, MO 64141. Fax: (816) 968-2280. E-mail: Please be sure to include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 2004