Douglas Kmiec on Birth Control, Bishops, Religious Liberty, and ‘Obamacare’

All this hoopla from the Catholic Bishops Conference on birth control, and from the Vatican on religious liberty, and from everybody on “Obamacare” can leave one wanting to ignore the papers, radio, and TV and just bury one’s head in the sand. But, in the end, all that really gets you is a sandy head and grit in your lashes.

If you’ve got 15 minutes to read and think (and I ask that seriously because most of us don’t), then I’d commend to you Douglas Kmiec’s essay War No More … Or, At Least, Peace With Obama published this week in the National Catholic Reporter.

Kmiec, a constitutional law professor at Pepperdine, carefully thinks through the forces surrounding the contraceptive debate, health care, religious liberty, the Supreme Court deliberations, Obama and the Catholic bishops, and frames them with American jurisprudence and Catholic moral teaching. It’s worth reading the whole thing. But here’s an excerpt to get you started:

When the president chose to not grant an exemption from the mandate that employer-provided insurance should include contraceptive coverage, some bishops called the decision an act of war on the church and religious freedom.

With due respect, I believe this overstated matters considerably. This is especially so, since the president responded promptly to begin discussions on how the ethical concerns of the church might be met more satisfactorily. In particular, the president proposed that no Catholic employer would be directly asked to supply contraceptive coverage; instead, that coverage would be provided by the employer’s insurance company.

To a good many theologians, this worked well enough to avoid formal cooperation with evil, but left unanswered how the problem could be avoided where a Catholic employer did not use a third-party insurer, but was self-insured. Discussions continue, with some now suggesting that it might be possible to create a public entity by implementing regulation to offer the contraceptive benefit in this self-insured context in a way that similarly separates a Catholic employer. Continue reading “Douglas Kmiec on Birth Control, Bishops, Religious Liberty, and ‘Obamacare’”

Lenten Reflections on Marina Abramovic, Todd Bentley, and Performance Healing


Tip of the Hat to Vintage Jeannie‘s eclectic tastes that led me to performance artist Marina Abramovic and “Our America with Lisa Ling,” a new TV series on OWN. Both have prompted some esoteric reflections on Lent, Lenten disciplines, prophetic witness, and social healing.

From the Lenten prayer of St. Augustine: “O Lord, the house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.”

First, the strange world of Marina Abramovic. Abramovic, born in Belgrade, is one of the leading artists from the “live act” performance art movements from the 1960s and ’70s in Eastern Europe. The performance art and body art movements in Europe can be traced back to the Dadists in 1915 who created “anti-art” to shock and critique the values of a society that preferenced the pretensions of high culture while countenancing the brutality of World War I.

In Abramovic’s performance pieces, her body is the primary medium–taking her and her audience to the limits of emotion. She creates dangerous spaces. She says, “I’m interested in art that disturbs and pushes that moment of danger.” After the terrorist attacks in New York city on Sept. 11, Abramovic performed “House With an Ocean View” at a gallery in Manhattan in which she publicly mourned for 12 days, including fasting, weeping, sometimes tearing her clothes.

“For those twelve days, in perfect silence, she ate nothing and drank only water,” wrote art critic John Haber. “She had nothing with which to read or write. Nothing stood in the way of thought or sleep but lightheadedness and danger. She sought to ‘change my energy field.’ By the end, her flesh fed on muscle, just as in an earlier work, of incisions into her skin, muscle fed on flesh.” And hundreds came to the gallery to participate with her in the public ritual, her prophetic witness. So like Jeremiah weeping for an unrepentant people.

Last year, in preparation for a retrospective of performance art pieces at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Abramovic led a workshop at her farm in upstate New York called “Cleaning the House.” Participants slept outside and did not eat nor speak for four days. They engaged in a regimen of individual and group exercises, such as walking backwards in slow motion, counting grains of rice, and observing a single object for hours. The goal of these exercises was to enable them to become aware of their limits and to find their own “charismatic space.” They pushed their bodies and minds to learn something about their souls.

The trailer to the movie Marina (see above) tracks one of those workshops. Individuals are led through a series of exercises meant to sharpen their minds and shock their bodies. They go through a 4-day process of “cleansing.” Abramovic walks through the group with an “offertory basket” collecting everyone’s cell phones, IPAs, Iphones, etc.  They are asked to temporarily sacrifice communication in order to be present to themselves and their surroundings. They take a vow of silence. They sleep in the open, in the cold. They bathe in the river. They find a spiritual space where they can identify their own limits, the spiritual boundaries of another, and the impenetrable mystery that lies in the gap between the two. Participants come away completely transformed–shocked at how much more “human” they have become in just 4 days of intense study and training.

In “Our America with Lisa Ling,” the premier episode is devoted to exploring faith healing through Todd Bentley at Morning Star Ministries in Ft. Mill, South Carolina. Ling describes Bentley as a “rock star among faith healers,” and also points out he is a former drug addict whose adultery nearly derailed his ministry.

Bentley runs a school for would-be faith healers. Those who come are the addicted, the abused, the formerly incarcerated, the poor, the needy. With the praise band wailing in the background, Bentley – who looks like a biker in his black t-shirt, full-sleeve tattoos, and body piercings – mows down the line of the desperate, slaying them in the Spirit. It is powerful and pitiful, prayerful and spiritually pornographic.

It is also performance art: Bodies in space; the interacting of charismatic energies. Also with painful, though less dangerous, social commentary.

Ling visits two middle-aged sisters who have paid $600 each to attend Bentley’s workshops, hoping that when they bring their mother to one of Todd Bentley’s worship services she will be cured of her untreatable cancer. “Faith healing is,” Ling points out, “a multibillion dollar industry, and the sisters say these sessions are cheaper than medical treatments their mother’s insurance does not entirely cover.”

One commenter on the episode said, “Many turn to faith healing because they cannot afford treatment from conventional medicine (like the woman in the show with cancer who had to stop her chemo). There are many who want to go the route of conventional medicine, but when that is no longer an option for them, where do they turn? I hope that this show, and those like it, help others to see that we need to find ways of helping everyone have access to medical treatment (no matter what their financial situation may be).”

When the faithful are not cured of cancer or paralysis, Ling reframes (as people of faith have done for centuries in these situations trying to understand the mysterious ways of God). She looks at how the individuals have transformed their own lives with God’s help–turning away from drugs, leaving abusive relationships, gaining emotional and psychological strength–rather than emphasizing the somewhat suspicious snake oil of Todd Bentley.

At the end of the episode Steve, a man paralyzed for years who is convinced that the Lord will heal him through Todd Bentley, is not able to walk again. But when Ling kneels before him in his wheelchair asking how he understands what has happened, he instead pours out his prayers on her. He is compelled to release the spiritual energy built up inside him. He lays his hands on Ling’s head and she receives a peculiar annointing. All of which calls into question who or what was actually being healed.

Liturgy and ritual, stripping away illusions, prayer and healing, surprise and danger, temptations all are part of Lent. We experiment with who we are in our humanness, when masks are ripped away. We expose our wounds. We are vulnerable to Satan/hucksters selling us cheap grace.

Lent is a time to “Clean the House.” St. Augustine’s prayer continues: “My soul is ruinous, O repair it! It displeases Your sight. I confess it, I know. But who shall cleanse it, to whom shall I cry but to you?” We are such peculiar creatures. We choose such strange sins.

Photographs: ‘Dream Big Dreams’

Here are two photographs pulled from the White House Flickr stream. I like both of them for very different reasons. I hope you enjoy them also.

ohealthcareedit

This is an “Official White House Photo” taken by Pete Souza. President Obama and Jon Favreau, head speechwriter, edit a speech on health care in the Oval Office, Sept. 9, 2009, in preparation for the president’s address to a joint session of Congress. As a writer and editor, I just love to see the mark-ups. There’s a creative elegance to it.

dreambig

This photo’s also by Pete Souza. It shows Obama’s signature on a wall in a health classroom at Southwest High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, June 11, 2009. The staff at the school, where the President attended a town hall meeting on health care, left a note asking him to sign the wall for future students to see. He wrote, “Dream big dreams” (or perhaps “Dream hip dreams,” which also is cool with me).

T.R. Reid: Universal Health Care Reduces Abortion Rate

reid-healing-of-america150T.R. Reid, a longtime correspondent for The Washington Post and regular commentator for NPR, published a great Op Ed in Sunday’s Post (Universal health care tends to cut the abortion rate) on why people who want to lower abortion rates in the United States should be 100% in support of universal health care.

Writes Reid: The latest United Nations comparative statistics, available at http://data.un.org, demonstrate the point clearly. The U.N. data measure the number of abortions for women ages 15 to 44. They show that Canada, for example, has 15.2 abortions per 1,000 women; Denmark, 14.3; Germany, 7.8; Japan, 12.3; Britain, 17.0; and the United States, 20.8. When it comes to abortion rates in the developed world, we’re No. 1.

Reid, who is also a Catholic, has been researching health-care systems in industrialized countries for several years in preparation for his book The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care. Reid includes has a very lovely story in his commentary about Cardinal Basil Hume, who was the senior Roman Catholic prelate of England and Wales when Reid lived in London.

Writes Reid: In Britain, only 8 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 25 percent in the United States). Abortion there is legal. Abortion is free. And yet British women have fewer abortions than Americans do. I asked Cardinal Hume why that is.

The cardinal said that there were several reasons but that one important explanation was Britain’s universal health-care system. “If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it’s needed,” Hume explained, “she’s more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn’t it obvious?”

Now, I take a little issue with Reid when he argues “The failure to recognize this plain statistical truth may explain why American churches have played such a small role in our national debate on health care. Searching for ways to limit abortions, our faith leaders have managed to overlook a proven approach that’s on offer now: expanding health-care coverage.” From my location, American churches have been extremely involved in our national health-care debate, especially the Catholic church. But I appreciate his summary of why universal health-care is an issue rooted in basic moral values that nearly everyone can support for the common good.

Writes Reid: When I studied health-care systems overseas in research for a book, I asked health ministers, doctors, economists and others in all the rich countries why their nations decided to provide health care for everybody. The answers were medical (universal care saves lives), economic (universal care is cheaper), political (the voters like it), religious (it’s what Christ commanded) and moral (it’s the right thing to do). And in every country, people told me that universal health-care coverage is desirable because it reduces the rate of abortion.

It’s a great piece, read the whole thing here.

Sheena Iyengar: Health-care Debate and ‘Different Views About Freedom’

artofchoosingI was listening this afternoon to social psychologist Sheena Iyengar interviewed on the Diane Rehm show. Iyengar, who has a new book out called The Art of Choosing, made a very insightful comment on President Obama’s role as mediator and consensus-builder between Republicans and Democrats in reforming the American health-care system. She said:

The job of the mediator or the leader becomes how do I make sure that I surface all these ideas and take them in a constructive direction and don’t allow this group to disintegrate into a dysfunctional conflict. …

“[The leader’s role is] is to create a truly phenomenal choice that will work. And that’s actually Barack Obama’s challenge right now. If you think about the Republicans and the Democrats in terms of the health care debate. What they are really arguing about at its essence is the different views they have about freedom.

On the one hand, the Democrats are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom that I value, is one that gives everybody the same outcomes, the same health care. The Republicans are saying the only freedom that’s fair, the only freedom I value, is one that ensures equal opportunity, not equal outcome. So that means that anybody who’s worthy or who has more money or who has better health, whatever the criteria is for greater merit, the people who are more meritorious should get better health care and the people who are less should get less.

Neither position is particularly right or wrong but they are so fundamental to the two parties different views that Barrack Obama has this major challenge on his hands as to how is he going to come up with a health care option that will speak to both models such that people believing in either one of those models will believe in the choice he’s providing.”–Sheena Iyengar

Sheena Iyengar, researcher and S.T. Lee Professor of Business at Columbia University, is the author of The Art of Choosing.

Friday Night in Family Land

seattle

It’s Friday evening and I’m in Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle, with my Mom and my brother Joe’s family. I got to meet my nephew Zev for the first time! He’s about 7 months old and likes to have the dogs lick his face. (ick) I also haven’t seen my niece Sorelle since she was 4 months old and now she’s 2 years. She’s strong-willed–that’s the German side of the family. My nephew Gage is 6 and in kindergarten at St. Thomas More Catholic school. He got home from school around 3 p.m. and looks great in his navy blue uniform (that was appropriately covered with his light-up Spiderman hoodie). They had Mass today, he told me. There was a lot of  “get down and get up,” he said.

This trip was unexpected. At the end of August, our family got a bit of a scare when my sister-in-law found a fairly large tumor in her right lung. It was detected by her chiropractor during a routine spine X-ray. The first tests revealed a very grim diagnosis. But subsequent tests revealed kidney cancer that had metasticized to her lung from a cancerous kidney that she’d had removed when she was 15 years old. We went from a fairly dire prognosis to a very positive one. But in the meantime she has had to undergo major surgery to remove a portion of her lung, to be followed up by chemo therapy. She’s got a long road to recovery. But she’s very strong and very strong-willed with a great desire to get well. Every day she’s getting stronger and is giving all of her energy to healing.

In the meantime, an amazing circle of friends have kicked into gear to help take care of the kids and provide meals. None of our family live near Seattle, so we are staging our visits to stay with the kids and give the circle of friends a break.

Thanks be to God, in all likelihood my sister-in-law will recover from this scare and with several months of healing will be back to her old self.

Like so many Americans dealing with health issues, this one hangs by a thread. My brother works as a glazier in downtown Seattle (our joke is that he actually DID install windows for Microsoft because he worked on the new MS office building). Their health insurance depends completely on him. If he loses his job, they lose insurance. So, much to his despair, he hasn’t taken a day off from work during all of this family crisis. He’s left early at times–sometimes paid, sometimes not. But he couldn’t risk getting laid off. “If I show up, they’ll keep me on,” he says. Otherwise, probably not. Right now my sister-in-law has 100% coverage (because Zev is still under a year old). On December 31, her coverage drops to 80%. I’m not sure what they will do then. Like most couples raising three kids on one salary, there is absolutely nothing left at the end of the month.

A recent study found that 62 percent of all bankruptcies filed in 2007 were linked to medical expenses. Of those who filed for bankruptcy, nearly 80 percent had some kind of health insurance. I would guess, like most American families, we’ll all share our resources as best we can to cover the additional expenses. But this is the kind of situation that can and does financially devastate families for years.

Right now, Congress has gotten farther on health-care reform than it’s ever gotten in 50 years. The House bill is probably the one that will help the most people the most. Let’s just get it done–and deal with the tweaks later.

Now … back to playing “Indiana Jones” with Gage on his DS (whatever THAT is!)

Do You Say to a Sister “Goodbye. Be Healthy”?

paxchristilogoHere’s a shout out to Patrick Mahon for sending me his current post on Health Care and Gospel Values.

Pat blogs for Pax Christi South, a web site for two Pax Christi groups—the Berrigan Peace and Justice Community at St. William Church in Murphy, NC, and its mission, Immaculate Heart of Mary in Hayesville, NC. Pat is a leading nonviolence teacher and retreat leader. He and his wife Joan live in Georgia.

I really like his paraphrase from the epistle of James. Check it out:

The readings for this Sunday offer further thoughts for reflection. Let’s paraphrase James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is unable to secure affordable and adequate health care and one of you says to him/her, “Goodbye. Be healthy!” without giving him/her access to health care, what good does that do?

As Christians we always face the struggle of discerning, espousing and working for Christian values. Pope John XXIII made the Christian value explicit when it comes to health care. It is the right of every American. Period! End the debate! Now let’s find out how to make it a reality.

Read Pat Mahon’s whole post here.

Holy Health Care! Laying Hands on the Whole System

healthcarecartoonDebates on our national system of providing health care are raging in political and corporate offices around the country. Traditionally, however, churches and faith centers have been the sites of healing, health, and wholeness for a community.

In the 1970s, many churches in the U.S. experienced a resurgence of “healing ministries” that accompanied a renewed charismatic movement. Healing services, laying on of hands, anointing with oil, healing prayer, and many other manifestations all spring from the healing ministry of Jesus. It’s what he did: He healed. He taught. He saved.

This “making people whole again” was a way Jesus prepared those he met for receiving the good news into their lives. Karin Granberg-Michaelson wrote in her article The Healing Church:

In considering the healing miracles of Jesus and the profound emphasis he placed on wholeness, we must ask what Jesus wished to communicate through his healing works in people’s lives. That is best answered in the context of more basic assumptions about the meaning of Jesus’ overall ministry in and to the world.

While many churches are deeply faithful to their healing ministry, it sometimes doesn’t make it past the church doors. It doesn’t flow into a social concern for how we as Christians can serve the common good. “If the church is to reclaim its healing ministry, it must ask the question ‘what constitutes wholeness?’” writes Granberg-Michaelson.

Wholeness is not just for the individual or the community of Christians; it is a gift God gives to us and through us for the larger society. It is part and parcel of how we move as a society “toward healing and reconciliation,” as Granberg-Michaelson puts it.

If healing and wholeness (spiritual, physical, and emotional) is a gift that God gives to the church, then it is our responsibility to find ways to share the workings of that gift in service of the common good. Granberg-Michaelson says:

Whole person health care [the treatment of a person as a unity of body, mind, and spirit] is, therefore, the heritage of the church. We must reclaim our function as the primary mediator of healing in society.

One important way that we as Christians can “reclaim our function as the primary mediator of healing in society” is by educating ourselves on the nitty-gritty of the health-care debate and working to craft a system that allows healing to flow throughout our land.

We want to craft a health-care system that honors a fair exchange of money for services, that redistributes our social capital toward the health and healing of all over the long-term, and that allows for philanthropy and generosity of heart by those who can give freely for the betterment of all.

A generous health-care system that reflects a commitment to healing and wholeness for the sake of securing human dignity is a priority. It’s one way Christians can extend our healing ministry toward our national body.

You can read Karin Granberg-Michaelson’s whole article here.

This article first appeared on Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog on 07-21-2009. Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners.