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Jewish leaders missing the point about Bishop Williamson

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I am a cradle Catholic, but not a typical cradle Catholic. My mother was deeply suspicious of Vatican II and of the new, vernacular liturgy (the Novus Ordo Missae), so I grew up loosely affiliated with parishes of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX).

Background on the SSPX

The Society of Saint Pius X is a radical traditionalist group whose leadership was excommunicated in 1988. The story is long and complex, but in a nutshell, the head bishop, Marcel Lefebvre, illicitly consecrated four more bishops, by which action (according to the Vatican) all the bishops involved incurred a canonical latae sententiae excommunication as a result of direct disobedience.

One of Pope Benedict XVI's major missions has been to normalize relations with the SSPX, and the Catholic blogs and news sources have been abuzz with the word that the Pope last week lifted the excommunications on all the bishops of the SSPX.

Bishop Richard Williamson's infamous remarks

Unfortunately, there has been one "black sheep" SSPX bishop doing his best to muck things up. The man who confirmed me, Bishop Richard Williamson, has made many outrageous statements over the years (he once opined that Pope John Paul the Great had a "weak grasp" of Catholicism), and most recently he has publicly denied some aspects of the Holocaust.

The current head of the SSPX, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has made an extraordinary statement in response to Williamson's remarks. According to the blog Creative Minority Report, always a good source for Catholic gossip, Fellay "prohibited him, pending any new orders, from taking any public positions on political or historical questions," and publicly apologized to the Pope and to "all people of good will" for Williamson's statements.

CNN misses the point

CNN, which is among the worse of sources for Catholic gossip, has been silent on this entire issue until Monday. The headline did not refer to the historic end of the twenty-year excommunication, or to the remarkable lengths the Pope is taking to bring lost sheep back into the flock. No, the headline, astonishingly, was about the Jews: "Pope outrages Jews over Holocaust denier."

I wholeheartedly agree with Jewish leaders that Williamson's public opinions about the Holocaust are outrageous. They are outrageous not only to Jewish people, but to all "people of good will." I'm outraged. We're all outraged.

But Williamson was not excommunicated for denying the Holocaust. He was excommunicated for being consecrated a bishop, in open defiance of the will of Pope. The excommunication was an internal, administrative Catholic matter. It had nothing to do with teaching, beliefs, or opinions. And likewise, lifting the excommunication had nothing to do with teaching, beliefs, or opinions.

Bishop Fellay's public censure of Bishop Williamson could not have been expressed more forcefully. With all due respect to Jewish leaders, understandably stunned by Williamson's comments, they should take their cues from this response, not from the contemporaneous but unrelated lifting of the excommunication.



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On the site ObamiconMe, one can create images in the style of the famous "CHANGE" poster for Obama. (See my profile.) A change feared by many Americans is the passage of the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would undoubtedly increase the rate of abortion and, according to some reports, require hospitals and clinics to provide elective abortions even if the management opposes the procedure.

These "Obamicons" feature the juniormost Leave the lights on blogger, my 13-month-old son. They're under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to share them. If you put one or both on your blog, you can add a link on the Mr. Linky widget below. Please note that if you do not post one of these posters, your link will be deleted.

Edit: Added new versions with improved backgrounds. For the original images, see Choose Life and Fight FOCA.


How human fertilization takes place

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As a follow-up to my post listing definitions related to the beginning of human life, here are some diagrams I drew (using my mad skills in Microsoft Paint) illustrating how human fertilization takes place. These raster drawings do not do justice to the miracle of the beginning of a human life, but I hope they clarify the technical aspects.

Human egg and sperm before fertilizationThe egg and sperm immediately before fertilization. Each has a haploid nucleus containing one of every chromosome.*
The moment of human fertilization: egg and sperm cell membranes fuseThe cell membranes of the egg and sperm fuse. This can be said to be the moment of fertilization. Instead of two gametes, there is now a single zygote.
Diagram of a newly fertilized zygote, containing two haploid nucleiAs the cell membrane fusion is completed, the nuclei remain separate. The cell itself is thus diploid (containing two copies of every chromosome), but instead of one diploid nucleus, it contains two haploid nuclei. The sperm's tail degenerates.
Human zygote (fertilized egg) preparing for the first cell divisionThe nuclear membranes (not shown) dissolve and the chromosomes replicate. The result is that the zygote now contains two diploid sets of DNA in preparation for the first cell division (mitosis).
Human zygote about to undergo the first mitosis and become an embryoThe DNA intermingles into two bodies of chromosomes, each of which comes half from the egg and half from the sperm. These begin to undergo mitosis.
Diagram of a human embryo at the two-cell stageA cell membrane forms across the middle of the zygote, resulting in two cells. It is now an embryo, not a zygote. Each cell contains a diploid nucleus containing a full copy of both the egg's and the sperm's chromosomes.

*For the sake of simplicity, I omitted the completion of meiosis in the egg's nucleus from these illustrations.


Definitions related to the beginning of life

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If you read any of the many blogs or news sources that deals with bioethics, then you will have heard of the story from the BBC that a British fertility doctor has successfully performed eugenics via in vitro fertilization. He tested embryos for a gene that is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, and implanted only those embryos that were pure enough to meet his standards; the rest were killed (euphemistically, "discarded"). What was really remarkable about the story was the ridiculous attempt to redefine standard medical terminology to make the act more palatable. Conception is synonymous with fertilization, but the BBC parroted the doctor in incorrectly claiming that conception is actually synonymous with implantation. This allows the doctors to pretend that the genetic test took place before any human individuals were created by saying it was "pre-conception." For more information, see this post on the blog Mary Meets Dolly.

For the benefit of readers who may encounter mendacious doctors and scientists who deal with beginning-of-life issues, here is a glossary of related terms:

A drug or other substance that induces an abortion. Abortifacients may cause expulsion of the embryo or fetus, killing it, or they may prevent the implantation of an embryo. In the narrowest clinical sense, the latter is not technically the termination of a pregnancy, but it does result in the killing of the embryo.

The termination of a pregnancy; usually used for terminations before about 20 weeks gestation. Abortions may be spontaneous and natural (in which case they are also called miscarriages) or intentional (in which case they are also called induced abortions). An abortion always results in the death of the embryo or fetus.

adult stem cell
Any stem cell derived from an individual after the embryonic stage of development. Despite the name, they can be obtained from fetuses, umbilical cords, and children as well as from adults. Adult stem cells vary widely in potency. They can be obtained without injuring the donor.

A non-scientific, non-specific term referring to a young human individual. Depending on context, it can refer to a zygote, embryo, fetus, newborn, or older child. Obstetricians routinely refer to embryos and fetuses as "babies" when the pregnancy is wanted, but not if the mother intends to abort the pregnancy. See abortion.

A unit of genetic material. Every species has a fixed number of chromosomes.

Synonymous with fertilization.

Having two copies of each chromosome per cell. In mammals, all cells except gametes are diploid.

Also called an ovum, a female gamete. In humans, eggs are very large cells that are usually produced one at a time.

An organism from the time of the first cell division to a set point such as birth or hatching. In humans, an individual from the first cell division after conception until eight weeks after conception (ten weeks gestation), at which point it is called a fetus.

embryonic stem cell
A stem cell taken from an embryo. Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they can differentiate into almost any tissue type. They are obtained by removing the embryo's inner cell mass, killing the embryo.

The practice of attempting to improve the human race by either killing individuals perceived as genetically inferior, preventing such individuals from reproducing, or encouraging increased reproduction for individuals perceived as superior.

The union of a haploid egg and a haploid sperm, resulting in a new, independent diploid individual. Fertilization naturally takes place in a woman's Fallopian tube after sperm are introduced through sexual intercourse.

In humans, an individual from eight weeks after fertilization until birth. A fetus that is near term is indistinguishable from a newborn except in certain physiological characteristics that change at birth, such as the closing of a blood vessel called the ductus arteriosus.

A haploid reproductive cell whose role is to unite with an opposite-sex gamete to create a new individual. Also called sex cells, they consist of eggs and sperm.

Having one copy of each chromosome per cell. In mammals, only gametes are haploid; all other cells are diploid.

The point at which an embryo, at the age of a few days in humans, becomes attached to the lining of the uterus.

in vitro fertilization
Fertilization that takes place outside the human body ("in vitro" literally means "in glass"). In vitro fertilization removes the sex act from reproduction. The zygotes are allowed to develop for several days into embryos, at which time one (or more) is placed inside the mother's body in the hope that it (or they) will undergo implantation, resulting in pregnancy. For practical reasons, it involves the fertilization of multiple zygotes, almost always more than can ever be implanted.

Also called spontaneous abortion, the unintentional termination of a pregnancy as a result of natural causes or, less commonly, accident.

Also called a neonate, an individual who has very recently been born. A newborn is indistinguishable from a late-term fetus except in certain physiological characteristics related to the loss of the placenta.

In mammals, including humans, the carrying of one or more embryos or fetuses in the uterus. In clinical terms, pregnancy begins at implantation, though the embryo exists as a separate individual in the mother's body before implantation. Thus pregnancy begins after the beginning of an individual human life.

A male gamete. In humans, sperm are small, motile cells that are produced daily in very large numbers by men's bodies.

stem cell
A cell capable of reproducing indefinitely, and usually capable of developing into one of several types of tissue. Stem cells are classified by "potency," that is, how many different types of tissue they can become. Stem cells are found in developing embryos, in umbilical cords, and in various other tissues such as bone marrow.

A brand-new, single-celled individual from fertilization until the first cell division, at which point it is called an embryo. The zygote stage in humans is very brief; it experiences the first cell division and becomes an embryo even before implantation.


Do pets go to heaven?

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This blog is not all philosophical, rational-Christianity heaviness. Inspired by a post on the blog Hacking Christianity, which I found via Entrecard (see my widget at right, under "Blog Love"), I thought I would post about this topic, which is deeply important to all children (including, as Hacking Christianity points out, Bart Simpson) — and not a few adults.

Do cats and dogs go to heaven?

The Catholic short answer is "No." Certainly they do not have free will nor immortal souls and therefore do not participate in God's plan for salvation. But the long answer seems a lot more complicated.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has only a short section on animals (CCC 2415-8) which says little beyond the need to respect God's creation. Against Heresies, by the second-century church father St. Irenaeus, is sometimes quoted in the discussion of animals in heaven:
Neither the structure nor the substance of creation is destroyed. It is only the "outward form of the world" (I Corinthians 7:31) that passes away – and that is to say, the conditions produced by the fall. And when this "outward form" has passed away, man will be renewed and will flourish in a prime of life that is incorruptible, so that it is no longer possible for him to grow old any more.

The context here is a refutation of the Gnostic heresy, which held that creation and the material world are evil. Considering what Irenaeus' purpose was in writing the above, it is clear that he was not addressing the question of whether our pets go to heaven.

Being rational about pets in heaven

Let's assume that some animals do go to heaven. The animal kingdom contains a spectrum of complexity; some very simple organisms are included as "animals." Related to these are certain one-celled organisms as well as fungi. (In evolutionary terms, animals and fungi are more closely related to each other than either is to plants.) Unless one wants to argue that mushrooms and molds are in heaven, there must be some cut-off point, with creatures on one side enjoying heaven and creatures on the other side stuck with the final death. It seems like the cut-off would be arbitrary, but this cannot be, since nothing about God is arbitrary.

One might speculate that animals go to heaven by merit of having been loved by humans. In other words, our pets go to heaven, but wild creatures do not. The idea that human love confers some kind of immortality on animals is alien to Christian thought; you cannot "love" someone or something to heaven, be they human, animal, vegetable, or mineral.

That leaves only one final argument in favor of pets in heaven: that since we will be happy there, we will have everything we need to make us happy — including beloved pets. That's a nice thought, but a childish one. We already know that everyone we love will not necessarily be in heaven (Catholics believe in hell), so the happiness of paradise must be possible without the actual presence of loved ones. I tend to think that part of perfect happiness will be the peaceful acceptance of those things that bother us here on earth, such as separation from beloved humans and pets.

Always with us

In a way, our pets will always be with us. In heaven we will be united with God, and God exists outside of time, so in a mystical way I think we will be somehow reunited with the good of creation throughout time, including our pets. And, of course, our love and the memory of our pets' natural love will always stay with our intellects, even in heaven. But I cannot find room in Catholic teaching for the idea that pets will be physically present with us after the Resurrection of the Body, the article of faith enshrined in the Creeds.


Good Pope, Bad Pope?

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The blog Science and Religion News, whose author Salman Hameed strongly favors science over religion, recently posted about two stories out of the Vatican. The post, entitled "Good Pope, Bad Pope," praised the pontiff for paying "tribute" to Galileo, but criticized him for the bioethics document Dignitas Personae.

"Good Pope": The Galileo Affair

In regard to the Galileo affair, it needs to be pointed out that the popular view — that Galileo was a noble pursuer of scientific truth against a scientifically backwards and rigid Church — is false. Galileo got in trouble for, in the words of Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, being a jerk. Pope Urban VIII was actually sympathetic to Galileo's hypotheses about heliocentrism, despite being concerned that it would be difficult to work out the theological implications (which have since been reconciled with Scripture). He asked Galileo to explain, in Galileo's book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the competing hypotheses of geocentrism and heliocentrism but not to advocate heliocentrism. Instead, the book ridiculed geocentrism and the pope himself, though there is controversy as to whether the apparent insults were deliberate or unintentional. It was the perceived riducule that got Galileo in trouble, not heliocentrism per se.

"Bad Pope": Dignitas Personae

In regard to Dignitas Personae, Hameed warns that in upholding previous teaching on bioethics (which asserts that all humans, including embryos, have certain rights, one of which I explained here), the Catholic Church risks becoming "irrelevant."

In other words, Hameed says that society as a whole will collectively dismiss the Church if she fails to accede to fickle public opinion.

This is the same Church that allowed the Protestant Reformation to become permanently entrenched in England over the indissolubility of marriage (in the Henry VIII affair). The same Church that suffered 400 years of prosecution in the Roman Empire for "irrelevantly" teaching that there is one God, incarnated in Jesus Christ, and denying the existence of the Roman pantheon. The same Church that has unblinkingly held to the "irrelevant" teaching that artificial contraception is an affront against God and against one's own spouse (a teaching consistent with the sublime Theology of the Body of John Paul the Great).

I'm laying my bets one who will be considered more irrelevant by history: the Church or the supporters of indignities against the tiniest humans.


Self-existing God

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This is just a quick note to say that if you do not regularly read the blog The Deeps of Time, go over and read Michael's excellent post on self-existence. He compares the rational reasons behind the Thomistic belief that God is self-existing to the idea that the physical universe may also somehow be self-existing. Michael effectively shoots down the claims of some scientists (like Neil deGrasse Tyson, of whom I am a fan, as a loyal Nova viewer) that these two claims are equally reasonable.


Only one true religion?

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I recently had a conversation with science blogger Gumby the Cat, who said this in the comments:

I do think though, that either all religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity and the non-Abrahamic religions) were originally inspired by God, or none of them are. I think the tendency of the adherents of one particular faith to ascribe "The One Truth" status to their religion is a man-made conceit. How could one possibly know that?

Is it logical to believe that there is only one true religion?

Let me first make some postulates:

1. God is perfect and unchanging. In another manner of speaking, he is self-consistent and non-contradictory.
2. Many of the world's religions contradict each other. For example, Islam and Christianity have different views of God, both of which are radically different from the Hindu view of God/gods, which in turn is different from Buddhist and Shinto views.

It follows, then, that all religions cannot be true. Therefore at least some of them must be at least partially false.

An atheist might conclude that no religions are true. This does not necessarily follow from my two postulates; they are equally consistent with the view that exactly one religion is completely true. I do not think it is logical to believe that more than one religion is completely true, though.

So either one religion is completely true, or none are. If God is truth, that means that either one religion is "the one" God wants us to follow, or none are. I believe that one is, and I believe this is more logical than believing that many religions are equal in God's eyes.


Empiricism v. rationalism

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Over at the Raving Theist, formerly the Raving Atheist, there is ongoing hubbub over the author's recently-announced conversion to Christianity. A recent post about conversion compared the conversion from atheism to theism, or conversion between different religions, to conversion between two philosophical schools of thought: empiricism and rationalism. I must admit that I had never thought too much about these metaphysical approaches.

One of the themes of this blog is that religion is rational. Clearly I am a rationalist. But I also am a woman of science, which necessarily makes me an empiricist.

The bottom line is that I cannot accept either philosophy as completely superior to the other. They complement each other. In science, purely empirical observations can only describe the world, not explain it. A rational approach is also necessary. On the other hand, science is meaningless without an empirical approach. A hybrid of the two philosophies, in which reason informs observations and observations guide reason, is best for learning about the natural world.

Another theme of this blog is that there are two distinct realms of truth, what Stephen J. Gould called the two magisteria: natural truth (the laws of nature, which are explored and explained by science) and supernatural truth (those parts of existence that are outside nature, meaning God and other non-material beings). In exploring the supernatural world, I favor rationalism as coming before empiricism. Empirical observations of the supernatural would include revelation (such as the Bible) and personal experience. These must be subject to the rational mind. The abundance of contradicting religious beliefs are evidence of what happens when one relies only on "empirical observations" of the supernatural without using the rational mind.

Some religions utterly rely on abandoning the rational intellect. If you have ever talked to Latter Day Saints missionaries, who encourage people to read the Book of Mormon and wait for a subjective fiffy experience to decide whether it is true, you know what I am talking about. ("Fiffy" means related to a "fif," or "funny internal feeling.")

What do you think is a better philosophy for looking at the world, empiricism or rationalism?


Six things about me

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This is not a meme-oriented blog by any means, but Brian Steele, author of the excellent new blog The Secret of Newton, tagged me, so what can I do? I'll follow this with a post with some content.

1. I grew up the oldest of eight kids, all with the same biological parents, no multiples. Unlike most new mothers today, I was comfortable around babies before I ever had kids of my own.

2. Speaking of kids of my own, I have two: a preschooler and a one-year-old. Both are boys. We adopted the older one and the younger one is biological.

3. I have worn many hats, including animal control officer, parrot trainer, and professional aquarium biologist. Now my only hats are mother (and that's a big hat) and writer.

4. I have read several books in the Harry Potter series — in Spanish. It was slow going and required frequent use of a Spanish-English dictionary, but I improved my Spanish immensely.

5. My only pets are three cats, one of whom regularly channels Satan, but in the past I have had a Pueblan milk snake, an Indian Ringneck Parakeet, a Yellow-Collared Macaw, a lovebird, a bunch of parakeets, an anole lizard, a couple of hermit crabs, and assorted freshwater fish.

6. I helped build this at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. I was going to be a vertebrate paleontologist — until I did my senior project and realized that looking at hundreds of tiny teeth through a microscope was not up my alley, after all.

It seems I am now supposed post the rules (rules?) and tag six bloggers. I am uneasy about the tagging. I don't want to pressure anybody, and besides, I am not sure everyone I would tag is a regular reader here. So how about this: If you have a blog, consider yourself tagged, if you would like to be. Let me know if you take me up and I'll link to you.

Tag Rules:
1. Link to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Write six random things about yourself.
4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
5. Let each person know they were tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.