National Catholic Reporter
Subscribers only section
October 26, 2007


Death’s mystery

Regarding your article “A matter of life and death” (NCR, Oct. 5): The late Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, an influential Catholic medical moral theologian, wrote an often-quoted reflection imagining a Catholic hospital filled with persons in persistent vegetative states being kept “alive” by artificial nutrition. A skeptic might observe this and ask, “Do those who operate this facility actually believe in life after death?”

Tragically, along with all of the confusion of terms and examples in the most recent Vatican document on this subject for theologians, ethics committees and Catholic hospitals to consider, its greatest harm is to the common sense faith of all Christians who look in various degrees to the church for some reasonable guidance in these sensitive matters. Families could likely now feel more confused or guilty believing that there is some obligation to pursue what has traditionally, and rightly, been identified as “extraordinary” means.

The Vatican has created a new burden that does not defend the most vulnerable among us but instead may well hasten the dismissal of the valuable Catholic tradition in their protection and is likely to prompt an ever more militant push toward an acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide. This response insults the common sense and integrity of all who would seek to permit their loved ones in a variety of terminal medical conditions to pass peacefully into that new life that we supposedly profess. The document imposes a burden without benefit and an unsupportable interpretation that diminishes the mystery of death and trust in resurrection.

Fayetteville, N.Y.

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I found it surprising to read Fr. Brian Johnstone’s comment that “if a person lacks consciousness ... [he or she] therefore cannot enter into any relationship with God.” If that is the case, then what is a soul? Is the soul of someone identified as being in a persistent vegetative state not possibly in communication with God? Perhaps Jesus’ reference to the soul that is found in Matthew’s Gospel is only a theological construct. Perhaps when Mary sang about her soul magnifying the Lord, she was referring to her brain.

Morgantown, W.Va.

Denying Communion

I was taken aback by St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke’s comment that eucharistic ministers are obliged “to refuse holy Communion to persons known by the public to be in mortal sin” (NCR, Oct. 5). Who are we to assume someone is unworthy? St. Paul asks: Who knows what pertains to a person but the spirit of that person within? The day I have to refuse Communion to anyone is the day I cease being a eucharistic minister in that parish. Whom did Jesus turn away?

Oconomowoc, Wis.

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Same stupid behavior, different election year. Perhaps Archbishop Burke needs to read John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life,” for he seems to have left out some other grave sins like war and the death penalty. Ray, tell all who support the unjust war in Iraq they cannot receive Communion. Tell all who support the death penalty that they are unwelcome to receive.


Religious inclusivity

Thank you for the article on Fr. Peter Phan’s theology and his predicament (NCR, Sept. 28). His work falls into consonance with the divine plan once we Catholics realize that Jesus Christ did not come to found a religion. He had a religion. He was a Jew. He came to found a suprareligious gathering of people who would work within their own religions and in society to bring about openness to God’s rule in their own lives and, by example, in their neighbors’ lives.

We are all supposed to be “subversives,” or perhaps the opposite of that, “assisters,” to help our religions achieve oneness with God’s will as revealed to each of us daily by the Holy Spirit and by the saints among us. The chief way to do that, of course, is by assisting our fellow human beings.

Religion is our response to the divine initiative, nothing more. Often it is a poor response. We Catholics made mistakes with the Crusades and with the Catholic church’s (that is, the Catholic religious leadership’s) current mode of monarchical government.


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Fr. Richard McBrien reminds us of the back door entry into the Catholic church through the device of communion “by desire” (NCR, Sept. 21). This Jesuitical legerdemain is grounded in the notion that non-Catholic Christians of good intention will be automatically included in the rolls of the church even though committed to the theology of their dissenting ecclesial bodies. Cradle Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians will deny they are virtual Catholics. Quite so because the Reformation erected an uncompromising wall of dissent. Instead, they proudly hold to dual membership in their denomination and in the wider society of Christian believers. Even so, welcome.

Contrary to Fr. Leonard Feeney’s notion that the road to salvation is narrowed to permit only Catholic pilgrims, the “by desire” clause widens the road to all Christians. Virtual Catholics in the Protestant churches rightly claim their confession is valid and equal to the Roman church in a roundabout way.

Fr. Phan has taken this inclusivity a step further when he proposes the Asian churches and other prophetic religions are fellow travelers walking the same path to eternal bliss as Christians. Perhaps Fr. Feeney was more right than wrong.

Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

Healthy sexuality

I appreciate Greg Bullough’s reply to my letter regarding celibacy and child sexual abuse (NCR, Sept. 28). He gives a sensitive and understanding presentation of how sexual immaturity and maladjustment can lead to choosing celibacy and the subsequent ways for responding to it within the clerical system. His final comment that “celibacy may not be the direct cause of sexual exploitation of children by clergy” is in line with my original point. It is sexual immaturity, insecurity and maladjustment among other things that leads to sexually abusing children.

Many men in this predicament choose to marry, remain single, or become sexually active with adults. Many seminarians and priests with these vulnerabilities do not sexually abuse children.

I still contend that these difficulties dealing with one’s sexuality, among other things, lead to sexually abusing children, not a commitment to celibacy. Perhaps NCR could feature articles on healthy sexuality as well as on what contributes to sexual abuse of children.



Regarding Daryl Domning’s article, “Unfinished business” (NCR, Sept. 28): I share his desire for evolutionary biology’s insights to be more fully part of our theological exploration. Theology is about mystery, about the understanding of the mystery of our Creator God’s relationship with us. It seeks a deepening understanding of our Biblical vision. Even though our understanding deepens, it ever remains partial. In theology, as in faith, the affirmation is of primary importance. The explanation is secondary, for it is always conditioned by time and culture.

When it comes to the story of Adam and Eve, the critical thing to keep in mind is that it is a story. Into the echo of the refrain, “And God saw that it was good,” the storyteller seeks through the story of the first man and woman to address how sin and evil come into an all-good creation, and with consummate insight introduces the tempter, not to obliterate responsibility but to indicate the very real intrinsic and extrinsic factors that are part of every moral act.

What we have sought to affirm through the centuries in pointing to the Genesis story is human solidarity. Once we return human solidarity to the context of all our moral deliberations, we will be freed from our almost exclusive focus on individuals apart from their cultural/societal context.

Portland, Ore.

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Daryl Domning, in “Unfinished Business: Evolution offers an explanation of original sin,” offers us a quick fix for the theological challenges surrounding the doctrine of original sin. “Ruthlessly selfish behavior,” he tells us, is the result of evolution, not original sin. Just as physical evil, that is, the fact that material things come apart is inevitable, so moral evil, or sin, is unavoidable in evolving creatures with free will who have been bred for selfishness.

Unfortunately, this fix comes at a considerable price. Domning mistakenly conflates physical evil with moral evil. While it is impossible to create free creatures without the possibility of their abusing that freedom, that does not make moral evil the inevitable result of evolution.

In contemplating the crucifixion of Jesus and the ongoing tragedies in the world around us, we are not confronted with the inevitable result of evolution, but genuine moral evil that ultimately rests on human freedom.

Chiloquin, Ore.


I’ve always enjoyed reading Fr. Richard McBrien’s thoughtful analysis of theological issues but when it comes to dealing with immigration (NCR, July 20), he sounds like just another fearful middle-class white guy. Fr. McBrien paints a caricature of immigrant rights advocates as “favoring the immediate legalization of 12 million [immigrants], but offering no solution to the seemingly endless flow of illegal immigrants to this country.” No progressive immigration advocate I know of backs this proposition on immigration reform. Fr. McBrien echoes the breathless rants of nativists, that white America is being invaded by hordes of brown people who threaten our economic stability and cultural integrity.

The fact is that these brown folks, legal and illegal, sustain our economy with their backbreaking cheap labor. Most middle-class whites will do anything to maintain this endless supply of slave labor, including building a Maginot line on the border and dividing families with cruel and heartless deportations. This is why Catholics should be proud of their bishops who consistently back sensible and humane immigration legislation. As for Fr. McBrien, he should spend some time with Catholic communities on the border and he should read up on nativist attacks against his fellow Irish back in the last century.

Vista, Calif.

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National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2007