Saturday, March 27, 2010

It's the Women's Rights, Stupid

          For some 26 years now, since New York's Cardinal John O'Connor launched a vigorous attack on  Geraldine Ferraro's pro-choice stance when she was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, commentators on Catholic politics have debated the reason for the church's intense political focus on the single issue of abortion. The church, after all, in theory supports a more extensive list of human rights than most contemporary religions and philosophies. The list includes the right to life, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and the necessary social services for old age and disability. The human person also enjoys a right to religious freedom, to freedom of speech and publication, to marry and raise a family, to earn a just wage, to join a union, and to immigrate and emigrate. The church has long advocated a theory of just war, which restricts not only the wars in which Catholics may fight but the military means that may be employed in any war.
          Nonetheless, communion is denied to Catholic politicians only for their support of abortion rights, and, very occasionally, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.  
          The abortion priority was confirmed by the American Catholic bishops' recent decision to oppose health care legislation because it did not adequately limit federal abortion funding. Because the bill already restricted government funding of abortion, it became clear that the bishops' goal was to restrict as much abortion as possible by making it more difficult for women to attain any insurance coverage for abortion, even that paid for with their own money. The bishops abandoned their longstanding commitment to a universal right to health care in favor of abortion limitations. The bishops were very, very, very engaged in drafting Rep. Bart Stupak's anti-abortion legislation. They worked with Stupak's staff. Stupak consulted the bishops to make sure they were on the same page and  knew what he was doing. The bishops were really engaged in this battle in a way that is unprecedented in recent history.
          Why would the bishops ignore health care, just wages and aid to the poor during an economic downturn; tolerate presidential policies about just war, torture and detention of enemy combatants; and abandon immigration reform and other issues connected to Catholic social teaching in exchange for a single-minded focus on abortion? Allegedly the bishops emphasize abortion because they see themselves as crusaders for human rights--protectors of the innocent, the voiceless, and the powerless.
          The historical record belies that thesis. In 1985, the Rev. Thomas Doyle alerted the bishops to the overwhelming scope of the sexual abuse crisis. Doyle was fired and ignored, as were the innocent, the voiceless, the powerless and the deaf victims of sexual abuse around the world. The church, including the current pope, repeatedly protected the priests' rights at the expense of innocent children.
          It would be foolish to conclude that the same hierarchy has targeted abortion at the expense of all other human rights because of its concern about fetal life. The real battle is about women's equality, which the church opposed before and since its 1984 attacks on Geraldine Ferraro. That American legislators cooperated with the church to limit women's rights is yet another offensive chapter in a decades-long saga of abuse of the legal system.

Deaf to Civil Justice

          We learned this week that a Vatican office led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, refused to defrock a Wisconsin priest who molested 200 deaf boys. The information became available due to correspondence unearthed in a lawsuit by the abuse victims against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.  Although some of the students at St. John's School for the Deaf in St. Francis, Wisconsin, had reported their abuse at the hands of Father Lawrence Murphy to church authorities for years, beginning in 1966, their pleas for justice were ignored by church officials and local prosecutors. Instead, the pope honored Father Murphy's request to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood, while local church officials did nothing to stop the abuse at St. John's.
          Throughout the sexual abuse scandal, the Catholic Church has fought the jurisdiction of the civil and criminal courts, arguing that its own tribunals are better suited to handle the problem and that its internal documents--such as the correspondence discovered in the Wisconsin lawsuit--are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, in January the new Archbishop of Milwaukee, Jerome Listecki, testified against proposed legislation in the Wisconsin Senate that would have expanded the statute of limitations for abuse victims to file lawsuits for their injuries.
          Changing the statute of limitations [SOL] extends the deadline for victims to file civil suits against the church and their abusers. Such change is necessary not only because abuse victims frequently do not recognize or confront their abuse until they become adults, but also because the church long sheltered the abusers from criminal and civil authority. SOL reform in California, for example, allowed the state and victims to identify 300 additional perpetrators of sexual abuse whose identities would have remained buried under the old law.
          Litigation has been the only effective means of holding the church accountable and identifying the full range of the church's misconduct. Nonetheless, Archbishop Listecki accused supporters of the Wisconsin SOL legislation of targeting the Catholic Church, threatening to drive it into bankruptcy, and thus undermining its services for the poor. The poor will suffer--make no mistake, argued one Catholic opponent of the SOL legislation. In a similar manner, Pope Benedict's supporters have argued that the new Wisconsin stories are a despicable attempt to smear the pope.
          Once again, the Vatican is deaf to what is despicable. According to Steven Geier, Fr. Murphy said that God wanted him to teach the boy about sex but that he had to keep it quiet because it was under the sacrament of confession. Only the courts can bring the full extent of the abuse out into the open. It is time for Wisconsin and other states considering SOL reform to listen to the victims and open the courts so that their voices may finally be heard.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Battling Nuns

          One group of Catholic sisters attracted a lot of media attention this week when they sent a letter to Congress affirming their support for the Senate's version of the health care bill. The letter, drafted by leaders of women's congregations with 59,000 members, was promptly denounced by the U.S. bishops and a different group of Catholic sisters. The pro-Senate nuns wrote about the women, children, and poor people who would be harmed if health care legislation failed. The bishops and anti-Senate nuns argued that the bill would increase abortion funding despite good evidence to the contrary. Catholic Representative Bart Stupak, who sponsored stricter anti-abortion funding legislation in the House, pledged to listen to the bishops.
          Maureen Dowd poked fun at this story in an op-ed called Eraser Duty for Bart?:
Dowd is obviously sympathetic to the nuns, noting that they have cleaned up after the priests' sexual abuse scandals while remaining publicly silent. More shocking is the news that the same pope and church that refused to pursue allegations of sexual abuse by priests around the world launched investigations of American women's religious orders for their alleged infidelity to church doctrine on homosexuality, women's ordination and interreligious dialogue.
          Like Dowd and unlike Stupak, I side with the liberal nuns instead of the bishops, priests or their nun-supporters on any internal church matter. Legislation, however, should not be based on any church dogma, liberal or conservative. All the nuns and bishops oppose both abortion rights and funding for abortion. They disagree only about the statutory language necessary to enforce the funding bans. The original ban on abortion funding, moreover, the Hyde Amendment, was sponsored by another Catholic legislator, Illinois' Rep. Henry Hyde, who also allowed his Catholic commitments to determine his legislative record.
          As the nuns' status indicates, the Roman Catholic Church opposes women's equality. Women's rights cannot be protected when patriarchal religion is the basis of legislation. It is time for the American people, including Catholic citizens, to battle the nuns, priests and bishops who impose their church dogma through force of law. The fate of health care reform or any other legislation should not rest in the hands of popes, bishops, priests or even nuns.

Honoring The Lioness of Iran

          The Iranian government seized Simin Behbahani's passport while the celebrated 82-year-old poet was en route to Paris to receive an award for her support of women's freedom at International Women's Day. The famous poet, known as the Lioness of Iran, had planned to read a poem and give a statement about feminism at the conference and then return home. Other women activists have been barred from leaving Iran over the last four years. I honor Behbahani's courage in defending women's rights.
          Behbahani has been critical of Iran's Sharia-based law and its restrictions on fundamental freedoms, including women's ability to work and to travel. In the past she renounced the Iranian government's practice of stoning women who committed adultery. That law even specified the size of the stones used so that maximum punishment could be inflicted. The stones used should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones." More women than men were stoned because evidence from a man carries twice as much weight as a woman's in Iran's courts.
          Despite the August 2008 suspension of Iran's stoning law, women continue to suffer deprivations of their rights under regimes based on Islamic law, as Professor Kenneth Lasson explains:

Although many Islamic women become victims of gender-based violence simply for having been born female, they are marginalized and discriminated against in a variety of other ways as well. Strict standards are set for how they shall dress and act, including to whom they may speak and whom they must marry. They are often forced into arranged marriages, some at as young an age as nine years old. They are raped, physically abused, and mutilated. Women who work as teachers are given placements at schools that require a daily commute of several hours. Many die while traveling to work as a result of the poor road conditions, traffic jams, heat, and violence. Further, afraid of being forced to marry an undesirable spouse, or simply in fear because she is too young to be married, the suicide rate among Islamic women has increased dramatically over the past five years.

Professor Lasson is most critical of honor killings, in which male family members vindicate ideals of women's sexual purity by killing women perceived guilty of any sexual misconduct. Estimates are that at least 5000 women are killed each year in honor killings, although the actual numbers are widely underreported.
          The mistreatment of Behbahani vindicates secular constitutionalism as a better protector of women's rights than systems based upon any patriarchal religion, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Women's rights are the child of secularism, a product of the shift from a religious to a secular state. A great article defending that thesis--Frances Raday, Secular Constitutionalism Vindicate--is well worth reading. 
          I honor the Lioness of Iran for her lifelong courage in defending women's rights. 


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Last Moderate Republican Justice: John Paul Stevens

          Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 90 in April,  is the last moderate Republican on the Supreme Court, and his departure will mark a cultural milestone. In a profile of Justice Stevens in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin reminds readers that Stevens, who was appointed to the Court by President Gerald Ford in 1975,  was the last nominee before the Reagan years, when confirmations became contested territory in the culture wars. When Stevens leaves, Toobin concludes, the Supreme Court will be just another place where Democrats and Republicans fight.
         The change in the Court is due in large part to the success of the Christian Right in putting religiously-motivated justices on the Court. The religious turn deprived the Court of more justices like Stevens, who decides issues case-by-case, on the merits, and provided it with Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts and Alito, who read the Constitution through grand theories that lead to predetermined conclusions. Although Stevens is viewed as a liberal justice, his cautious balancings are much less activist than Scalia's caustic certainties. As Toobin correctly observes, Stevens has also favored gradual change over sudden lurches and precedent over dramatic overrulings, while his new colleagues, especially Chief Justice John Roberts, practice an aggressive, line-drawing conservatism that appears bent on remaking great swaths of Supreme Court precedent.
         Oddly enough, the demise of moderate Republican justices began with President Jimmy Carter, who served between Republican Presidents Ford and Reagan. The major organizations of the Religious Right were founded during the Carter Administration. Conservative Christians argued implausibly that the devout Southern Baptist Carter was really a secular humanist who dangerously led the nation away from its religious roots. They stepped up their political participation in order to return the nation to their Christian values, and sent first Ronald Reagan and later George W. Bush to the Oval Office.
          Carter is one of the few presidents who never had an opportunity to appoint a justice to the Court. Nonetheless, Carter transformed the federal judiciary by appointing record numbers of women and minorities to the bench. Although only 8 women had been appointed to the courts by all Carter's predecessors, in one term Carter named 40 women to the federal bench, as well as significant numbers of African-, Asian- and Hispanic-American judges. Carter found these new judges through a merit system in which committees around the country identified the names of the most talented local lawyers and sent them to the White House. In 1980, however, the Republicans abandoned merit in favor of ideology.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sue the Pope

          The news from Germany is grim but unsurprising. As a German archbishop in 1980, Pope Benedict approved the transfer of a child-abusing priest to a new location where the priest enjoyed continued access to vulnerable children. The story is not surprising because it has been retold repeatedly around the world as numerous Catholic priests, bishops and archbishops covered up the sexual abuse of children and accommodated the abusive priests. Across the large Catholic world, only one priest spoke out against the abuse of victims, and he was shunned and marginalized by church authorities. Estimates are that some 9% of American clergy--over 9000 priests--were abusers. Every day's news confirms that the abuse was extensive. The numbers of identified abusers continues to climb in nations across Europe.
          We know many details of the abuse today only because courts of law finally opened their doors to abuse victims and forced the church to stop hiding its wrongdoing behind the First Amendment. For years the church argued that its decisions about the priests' employment were matters of religious freedom and its employment documents were privileged from court review. Church officials argued that the law should not touch them but should focus on the misconduct of the abusive priests (whom they never reported to the police). Church officials actively told the victims to keep their mouths shut out of loyalty to the church, and in some cases even persuaded the victims to sign oaths of silence about their complaints.
          Over time even Catholic judges and prosecutors started to protect the victims. Seven American dioceses faced bankruptcy because the costs of the abuse were so enormous. Tort liability made possible some redress for victims and some accountability by the church.
          One last hurdle remains, however: suing the Holy See itself. Whether the Vatican can be subjected to lawsuit over the sexual abuse may wind up in the hands of the six Catholics who now sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Doubting Thomas (Jefferson)

          What secular reasons can explain the Texas State Board of Education's recent decision to replace Thomas Jefferson with Thomas Aquinas? None that I can think of. It is a decision calculated to promote religion over religious freedom. In the old curriculum, students were expected to evaluate Jefferson's impact on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. The new standards replace Jefferson, the third president of the United States, with Aquinas, the medieval Catholic theologian and saint. Board members also rejected a proposal to require students to learn about the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That proposal would have required students to learn why and how the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others.
          That last statement-- barring government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion over all others--is an excellent summary of the Establishment Clause. The Texas Board rejected that proposal, however, because it is so fearful of the notion of separation of church and state (which is usually attributed to Jefferson) that it decided to omit Jefferson, the Establishment Clause, and the Enlightenment from the curriculum. The Board members relied on the argument that the words separation of church and state cannot be found in the Constitution.
          The Board members should educate themselves instead of others. It is irrelevant that the words separation of church and state are not in the Constitution. The Establishment Clause is an actual constitutional text that the Board members seem intent on avoiding and violating.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Judeo-Christian Tradition: No Such Thing

          Some of my readers criticized my last blog for referring to the Christian Ten Commandments instead of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments. Judeo-Christian? No such thing. The Judeo-Christian tradition is the Christian tradition, which interprets Christianity as the fulfillment and completion of Judaism. Judeo-Christianity merges Judaism and Christianity within a Christian world view. Judaism, however, is its own independent religious tradition. Similarly, the Old Testament is a Christian term that suggests the New Testament is the second part of a two-volume story. Jews read the Hebrew Bible, not the Old Testament.
          The American Ten Commandments debates usually involve battles among Christians about the proper interpretation of the Jewish text. The fact that different groups of Christians argue about the Jewish text confirms that the government has no business posting any version of the commandments on public property. Sadly, the politicians and some judges refuse to learn that lesson and continue to support Protestant Christian versions of the monuments.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

No More Commandments and Lots More Aphorisms

          The Ten Commandments were back in the news this week. A ballot proposition in favor of public acknowledgment of God was approved by 95.14% of the voters in the Texas Republican primary. According to those voters, the use of the word "God," prayers and the Ten Commandments should be allowed at public gatherings and public educational institutions, as well as be permitted on government buildings and property. The Supreme Court denied review of a Tenth Circuit ruling that Haskell County, Oklahoma officials violated the Establishment Clause when they allowed a Ten Commandments monument to be displayed on county courthouse grounds in Stigler, Oklahoma. County officials had asked the Court to hear their appeal because of confusion in the case law and the lower courts about the constitutionality of Ten Commandments displays on public property.
          That confusion should be easily clarified. The Court should rule that all Ten Commandments displays commenced after June 27, 2005 are clearly unconstitutional. Such a ruling is necessary to stop any plans by Texas Republicans or other commandments supporters to fill the public spaces with Christian monuments.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Are Guns Just Like Religions?

          The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in a case (McDonald v. City of Chicago) that will decide whether the Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms, should apply to the states as well as the federal government. A ruling against the City of Chicago would make guns more difficult to regulate. In arguing that state and local regulations of firearms should be limited by a constitutional right to bear arms, the lawyer for Otis McDonald, the city's challenger, compared the Second Amendment to the First Amendment. The right to worship, he says, doesn't mean that you have "to choose from a select menu that's offered to you by the government. And likewise, with arms, if you have an arm, which is the kind that people would want to have for self-defense, then that arm cannot be banned entirely."
          Are guns just like religions?