Monday, October 4, 2010

Of Nobel Prizes and Playing God

The Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded today to the man who invented in vitro fertilization (IVF). I had been paying closer attention to this Nobel Prize this year because of my Advanced Cell Biology class. There was a class "contest" to see if anyone would be able to correctly predict the winner of this year's Nobel for Physiology and Medicine. Most people guessed that stem cell research of some type would win the prize.

However, it is an interesting coincidence that the prize was awarded for IVF. Why? The class I'm taking consists primarily of analysis and discussion of various scientific papers relating to important topics in cell biology. We read and discussed a number of papers on embryonic stem cells - mostly mouse embryonic stem cells, but inevitably the discussion turned to the ethics of human embryonic stem cells. During the discussion, our professor acknowledged that scientists have not done themselves favors by appearing to be "tinkering" with nature merely for the sake of tinkering. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. But he also seemed to be under the impression that opposition to HESC research was based primarily in ignorance. For instance, he stated that many HESC opponents believed that aborted fetal tissue was an HESC source. I don't know how true that is for the general population, but I don't know any educated Catholic who labors under that mistaken assumption! For my part, I'm fully aware, and have been for a long time, that HESCs are sourced from "leftover" embryos resulting from IVF, and that fact doesn't make the destruction of small humans any less a violation of the moral law.

He also made a point which I found interesting, even if I strongly disagreed with the assumption that this would be a good thing: if HESC research is able to produce a cure for a disease like diabetes, the moral opposition to the use of HESCs will eventually break down. He used IVF as an example: opposition to IVF has eroded, because who could possibly be against something that produces cute little babies and gives infertile couples their dearest wish? And thus we have a new morality in which the ends justify the means, and the Catholic Church is increasingly seen as outmoded and even cruel in its insistence that the creation of human life not be artificially divorced from the union of man and wife.

IVF is now so widely accepted that a lady at my knitting group whom I barely knew had no problem announcing to the entire group that she and her husband had just conceived a child through IVF. Her obvious excitement signaled to me that I was meant to react with squeals of delight and overflowing enthusiasm. How does a Catholic react in such a situation? I think I congratulated her briefly and excused myself to go to the ladies' room. Too much information from a total stranger, too much temptation to ask, "So how many of your leftover babies are going to stay on ice forever?" I sadly lacked the courage and wisdom to respond in a way that showed my compassion for her struggle with infertility while pointing out the moral perils of IVF. I did not wish her ill in any way whatsoever, but I did feel a profound sadness at the whole situation.

So I cannot rejoice or celebrate that IVF is being acknowledged by the Nobel Prize committee as a major scientific breakthrough. To me it was a milestone of a different kind: the point where it was no longer considered a violation of moral law to manipulate the very beginnings of human life at will and "play God." Nowadays it's a race to the bottom -- science may and should do as it pleases, ethical objections and frozen embryos be damned. These small human lives are considered merely a commodity. Please join me today in praying for an increase in respect for all human life, from conception to natural death.

ETA: Via the Irish Rover blog, a short article on a researcher who was passed over for the Prize. Many of my fellow students felt that this work on induced pluripotent stem cells would get the prize, and it's worth noting that these biology graduate students showed a great interest in and excitement about this alternative to embryonic stem cells.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"As long as it's healthy"

In a few weeks I will be going for an ultrasound and if baby cooperates, Matt and I will find out whether we are welcoming a boy or girl in February. Of course, a lot of people have already asked me whether I have any preferences as to gender. I tell them that I'm convinced it's a girl, while my husband thinks it's a boy, and then I wind up with the standard canned response, "We'll be happy as long as it's healthy."

Having repeated this several times, I've started to stop and think about what I'm really saying. What if baby isn't healthy? I have no reason to believe he or she won't be, but then, one never knows. I went for a screening test on Monday, and while I know some Catholics have moral objections to prenatal testing, my motto is and has always been "knowledge is power." But it really got me thinking, what happens if I get back my results and something is wrong?

I thought and prayed about it some and I realized that if my baby isn't healthy, it will still be OK. I realized that nothing could change my love for my baby. I have to believe that no matter what, God brought this little life into being for some reason. God would never give me anything that He and I could not handle together. With great difficulty comes a great outpouring of grace.

So I am still praying for the blessings of health for my baby, but I will respond instead to people's questions, "We'll be happy, no matter what. This is a blessing!"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An interview with Mother Dolores Hart

Here's a great interview in the National Catholic Register: Tim Drake talks to Mother Dolores Hart. What a beautiful soul she is. It was a privilege to hear her speak here at Notre Dame at this year's Edith Stein Conference.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Truth about the Pill

Heard this story on NPR today: With Birth Control Pills, New Isn't Always Better

A 16-year old with a blood clot that could have easily killed her...this is scary stuff. And yet the makers of birth control pills would have you believe that these side effects are "rare" and that the benefits of the Pill far outweigh the risks. It's good to see that Yaz has been exposed as dangerous, but the story also obscured the fact that these side effects are common to all types of birth control pills. We women pump these artificial hormones into our bodies every day for decades and expect there to be no problems. It's unrealistic to say the least.

I was also annoyed to see that not a single doctor challenged the assumption that this 16-year old girl needed to be on the Pill. Acne and irregular periods are inconvenient, yes, but they are common problems in all teenage girls and usually go away as women move into their 20s. There are plenty of other treatments for acne, and the idea that every woman must have a 28-day cycle every month or she's "abnormal" is quite absurd. Now, conditions like severe pain during the menstrual cycle are a different story. But doctors seem unwilling to address the underlying causes when it's so much easier just to prescribe the Pill. Hopefully stories like this will make some doctors rethink that approach.

A hopeful sign: in the comments, a handful of people are actually being open about the emotional and physical side effects of the Pill instead of touting it as a panacea. I'm starting to observe a wider acceptance of NFP/FAM in secular circles, which is fantastic. There are still plenty who scoff at it, of course, but there is an increased openness to the idea of natural birth control. Finally, people are waking up to the absurdity of an approach that suggests that our bodies are inherently "broken" and that the normal functioning of our reproductive systems is something to be "fixed."

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I have returned!

My apologies to my readers (all six of you!) for my extended absence. The end of the semester caught up with me, then summer rolled around and there just wasn't very much to blog about. No undergrads, no controversy du jour. However, I do love campus in the summer. It's wonderfully quiet, almost eerily so at times.

And then, there is another life change that precluded blogging. To our joy and surprise my husband and I have learned that we are going to be parents. I should say, we ARE parents, because although it's too early to feel any kicks or movement, I am as sure as I have ever been of anything that what I have inside my womb is most indeed a person. :) Building a person is hard work, though - harder than expected. I've spent most of the summer happily sitting on the couch with my feet up. Fatigue has been the major hardship - thankfully I've been spared the misery of morning sickness.

So what does this mean for me exactly? Well, at the moment, I don't have any plans to quit my Ph.D. Although I'm sure many people out there in blogland would disagree with that choice, my husband and I have decided that we have too much invested in this to give up right away. I said we because this has definitely been a joint effort. He's made a lot of sacrifices so that I could come to ND and do grad school and I will always be grateful for that. Also, somewhat selfishly, I love my job and I love what I do. My advisor is so fantastic to work with and I feel this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. Then again, so is a baby!

At the same time, I do realize a baby changes things. I'm trying my best to stay open to whatever path God may show me. I keep praying, and I know that if it becomes obvious that I need to quit for the good of my family, then that's what I'll do. My husband has his job back, thankfully, which means I can afford to take a few semesters off to stay home with baby while he or she is very small. After that, we'll see how things go.

Baby will be here in February, but until then, I'll try my best to keep up with the blog and all the goings-on around campus. Blessings to all!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Seattle priest calls Pontifical Mass at National Shrine "offensive...silly...indecorous"

The full takedown is here at Father Z's blog. I don't think I can add any more to that, except to say that after what I witnessed at my grandfather's funeral Mass, I don't know that a priest from the Archdiocese of Seattle is qualified to speak on matters of liturgical import. Among other things, I had to listen to the priest describe the Eucharist as a "family meal" - a woefully inadequate description! - and watch the Body of Christ be consecrated in what appeared to be a salad bowl from Target. (It was white stoneware, and I very distinctly saw a large barcode on the bottom when it was lifted up for the consecration.) Oh, and did I mention we had the Precious Blood in wineglasses? I cringed because I really did feel that my grandfather deserved better.

I try not to play "let's spot the liturgical abuses" because I went through a spell of that and then realized it was not only distracting me from the focus of the Mass, it was turning me into a real snob. But honestly, Jesus in a salad bowl? Maybe it's just the churches my family attends but every Mass I have been to out there in Seattle has been a little on the weird side.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nunc dimittis servum tuum

I've had a host of experiences in the past year that have made me realize I've entered adulthood - some pleasant, others less so. Doing my own taxes, buying a house, making a budget, paying a mortgage - the usual stuff that belongs to the "grown-up" world. I don't think any of these have made me feel that my childhood is now behind me, as much as the death of my grandfather has made me feel that way.

I've written about my father's father before - a stern, silent man. As a little girl I was always more than a little terrified of him. He was far from being the jolly grandpa of movies and story books. I don't ever remember being held on his lap. His hugs were always a bit stiff, and there weren't many of them. To a casual observer he and my grandmother would have seemed like an oddly matched pair. She was warm, vivacious and energetic even in her old age. Grandma was the provider of hugs, milk and waffles with powdered sugar on top. Granddad was the one you didn't annoy. I say this not with any kind of resentment - but just to tell you how it was.

On Holy Thursday I received word that my grandfather had passed away after suffering a stroke at the age of 95. Right away I felt I had to go to the funeral. I missed my aunt's funeral in November due to a bout of the flu, and I'll always regret that. I wanted to go to my grandfather's funeral - not out of some particular affection for him, but out of a desire to be there for my father, and a sense that his age and status as the family patriarch demanded this respect.

I think almost everyone reaches a point in life when they realize their parents are mortal - and it's a sobering thought. My aunt's death was that point for me, and my grandfather's funeral drove the message home again. As I watched my dad and his siblings place the pall on my grandfather's casket, it struck me that suddenly everyone looked older, more fragile. No one lives forever, but somehow when you're young you think the people who have been around your entire life will always be there. Not so - and the absence of my aunt as the remaining six children spread out the pall made that sharply clear for me.

After the funeral, during the time spent with my extended family, I was able to discern why my grandfather was the way he was. Encouraged by his mother to get an education, he left the farm at the tender age of 12 to board with another family who lived near the school, and did farm work to pay his board. He attended high school and graduated as valedictorian, in the days when a high school diploma actually meant something. He graduated from college then went on to Navy service in World War II and a long distinguished career in the federal government. In many ways he was, to use that cliched phrase, a "self-made man." Life was difficult then. It demanded that men be strong, unyielding, flinty. Is it any wonder he showed little tenderness in his relationships with his children and grandchildren?

My grandmother was the great love of his life. It takes a lot of energy to be the mother of nine children (two died young, sadly) but she did it all with grace and good humor. I heard this weekend that four hundred people came to her and my grandfather's 50th wedding anniversary, and that she knew every single one. She died when I was about 12 and since getting married I've often missed her and wished I could have her support and advice. My aunt told me that when she was dying, she worried aloud about how my grandfather would take care of himself. She might have worried more had she known it would be so long before he would join her. I hope and believe that they are, or will soon be, reunited - and there's comfort in that. Death does not divide us forever, but only separates us for a while. 

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being.
For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to his God and Father, when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
 The last enemy to be destroyed is death [...] (1 Corinthians 15:19-26)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Grad student petition for improving ND policies on family life

Some anonymous soul left a drive-by link to this Petition for a Family-Friendlier Notre Dame on my previous post about grad student life at ND. (Anon, if you're out there still, I'd love to know who you are and how you found my humble blog. I violated my usual rule of not posting anonymous comments because I was intrigued by the link.) I like most of the proposals therein, although there are a few I might modify (but perhaps the authors of the petition are thinking big?) I thought they were overreaching themselves at first, but as I read I realized that what is being proposed is not radical - but simply policy changes that would bring ND up to par with the much-vaunted "peer institutions."

Although I've been thwarted in my hope that we might see real healthcare reform that lowers costs, instead of a massive federal government takeover, I think there is much ND could do to make sure its grad students get adequate healthcare. As much I admire the work of the Women's Care Center, I really think ND grad students shouldn't have to resort to charity in order to get maternity care. The latest WCC flyer I received in the mail told the story of an international graduate student whose wife unexpectedly became pregnant during his time at Notre Dame. They worried about not being able to afford the baby - and considered abortion. They were able to get the help they needed from the WCC, but the fact that ND grad students even have to think about abortion due to financial distress is sad to say the least. The situation for international graduate students is especially dire as their spouses are usually here on visas which don't allow them to seek gainful employment!

There are a host of other "quality of life" issues that are addressed in the petition. The condition of married student housing is one of them. Frankly I wouldn't live in any of the on-campus housing that's designated for married students, either with or without children. Apartments off-campus are a much better value for the price. I've heard that the apartments for married students with kids are aging and not really in good shape. The gouging on rent is especially heinous in light of the size of a grad student stipend. I'm lucky as an engineering student to receive about $20,000/year (ish...I'm not telling you how much I really make!) Students in Arts and Letters have to make do with much less. In my program's handbook we are told, in a tone of admonition, that the stipend is only intended to support one person. But that doesn't at all match up with reality - for international students whose spouses can't work, or even for American citizens whose spouses can't find a job in this recession. (Been there, done that!) Even a cost-of-living  increase from year to year would help.

The University's trumpeting of its "pro-life" policies contrasts sharply with its shabby treatment of grad student families. I'm not sure if I'll be joining this group in front of the Dome - I'm not really the protesting type - but I fully support their efforts to improve conditions for graduate students and their families.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Abuse scandal - I have to get this off my chest

Some things that must be said before I can talk about my Holy Week and Easter experience. First, I entered Holy Week with a heart churning with worry. Not only was I overburdened with work, my mind was very much occupied with the awful scandals that have again erupted in our church. In spite of Pope Benedict's stern rebuke of the Irish bishops who turned a blind eye to abuse, some were determined to implicate him in a "cover-up" in the case of a notorious molester priest in Wisconsin, while Benedict was still a cardinal and head of the CDF. Of course, this brought about a spate of anti-Catholic screeds in the media, particularly painful during Holy Week.

It was tough work to separate fiction from fact. Two things stood out for me - first, that the local diocese should have taken action on their own to get rid of this priest (why did they never bring the force of civil law to bear on this man?). Second, even if Pope Benedict is guilty of a cover-up (and I doubt it - having looked at the facts of the case, at worst he did not treat the case with due urgency, and that may not even be the case, considering how slowly the wheels of canon law turn), it doesn't change anything for me. We've had bad popes before. Catherine of Siena is an ever greater inspiration for me at this time - after all, she remained loyal to Christ and his Church in spite of a succession of sometimes greedy, weak, fearful and venal popes. It doesn't change the fact that the Catholic Church preaches Truth.

But how can you tolerate the horrors of child abuse, you may ask? It's simple. I don't. I believe, as does our Pope, that the "filth" must be rooted out from the Church. I also believe that molester priests should definitely be dealt with appropriately under civil law. If there's anything about the whole thing that makes my stomach turn, it is the fact that some bishops and church officials did deliberately protect molester priests. But I don't see any evidence that Pope Benedict is one of them. He's not a man who would turn a blind eye to evil. But even if he was, it doesn't change the truth of the Church's teachings. I put my faith in Christ Jesus and the Church he founded, not in any individual pope, much as I might admire him.

I also don't doubt that this scandal is ultimately diabolical in origin. (I can only imagine the reaction of my secular friends and colleagues if I expressed that sentiment to them.) Think about it: What better way to neutralize and diminish a great force for good and for Truth in our world, than to implicate its leaders in one of the few perversions our oversexed society still finds revolting? Make no mistake, this is the end goal, whether conscious or unconscious. Shame on those who would use victimized children as a club with which to beat the Church. I wonder if these activists, who are being widely quoted in the media (one on NPR today was openly agitating for democratically elected bishops) actually care about these children at all?

I'll leave you with some excellent links I've gathered over the past week as I try to deal with this issue:
New York Daily News: Fairness for the Pope A Response to Christopher Hitchens' The Great Catholic Coverup
National Review, Fr. Raymond de Souza: A Response to the New York Times
The Anchoress: Why I Remain a Catholic (I love the Anchoress' blog, by the way. She's a fantastic blogger - she cuts to the heart of the matter without ranting or vitriol. I wish I had just an ounce of her grace and patience, not to mention writing skill.)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 2

Finally, I am ready to go back and do part 2 of the post on the Sigrid Undset books I was reading back in January! Whew, that took a while (and I'm mortified to see that at the end of the post I promised to follow up in "a day or two.") So, the second book was actually a new one: Undset's hagiography of St. Catherine of Siena, which has recently been republished by Ignatius Press.

I didn't know much about St. Catherine of Siena before I read this book. I purchased it mainly for Undset's writing, which I already know and love. I knew Catherine mainly as the holy woman who convinced the Pope to return from his exile in Avignon, but that was pretty much it. I can be slack with my spiritual reading, taking several months to read one book. However, Undset's writing style worked its magic and I practically devoured this book, finishing it in two or three days.

Undset not only tells us about Catherine's life, but paints a vivid picture of life in 14th-century Tuscany. With her usual knack for historical detail, she tells us of the political situation of Italy and the Papal States during Catherine's life, and explains the reasons for the exile to Avignon - basically there were a lot of political games being played between the French and the Italian cardinals, and the French really wanted the temporal power that comes with having control over the papacy. The Italian cardinals were definitely biased towards selecting Italian popes, true - but Undset reveals the reasons for that bias by explaining to us how a non-Italian pope complicated the situation in the Papal States. Non-Italians were less interested in the welfare of the people, seeking mainly to plunder the papal possessions in the name of their country. The historical background is very important for understanding Catherine's life and Undset certainly treats it with all due diligence.

I had always assumed that Catherine of Siena was a nun (most medieval women saints seem to be either nuns or queens), but actually, she was a Third Order Dominican. As a young woman she joined an order of Dominican tertiaries in Siena, mostly widows who lived at home. I was surprised that she chose this route rather than that of a cloistered nun - but obviously God had His reasons for keeping Catherine out of the cloister. Catherine was also from a distinctly middle-class background, in a time when many religious leaders were of the noble class. Her father was a cloth dyer in Siena and her brothers also worked in that trade. She was not highly educated, either - she learned to read and write as an adult, and these abilities came to her almost as a miraculous blessing.

The other really striking thing about Catherine, to me anyway, was her ability to form deep spiritual friendships with men. The young men of Siena seemed to be really drawn to her - she was able to act as a spiritual guide and lead them out of lives of wantonness. Undset described how young men would enter her home, angry that she was converting their best "drinking buddies," and leave converted themselves. These young men often addressed Catherine as "Mamma" emphasizing her role as spiritual mother. In an unusual role reversal, her confessor, Raimondo of Capua, came to regard her as his spiritual guide. He could perceive that Catherine had been given graces far beyond anything he himself would have. Catherine shows that real feminine virtue is attractive to men; men want to have something to aspire to, a woman whom they can look up to as an ideal. Something to remember in our modern times, when the goal for "real women" seems to be to act like rough, crude men. The best in womanhood - graciousness, firmness, chastity - calls out to the best in manhood - courageousness, chivalry, and purity.

I would recommend this biography to anyone wishing to learn more about Catherine of Siena, or about the "Babylonian exile" of the Papacy to Avignon. Catherine is truly an example of God using the weak of the world to shame the strong. She was a woman, in a time when women were not regarded as equal to men; of humble origins, in a time when noble blood mattered most. Yet because of the extraordinary graces given to her by God she was able to admonish and guide kings and Popes, and to accomplish God's will on earth.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Edith Stein Conference, Part 2

My nerves were a bit on edge as I settled in with my knitting. (I find I do a better job of staying attentive and alert when I knit, and I'm able to follow and understand while doing so, so I brought a project to work on during ESC.) Ms. Selmys began by saying that she had prepared a talk, but would diverge from her prepared remarks slightly to address some of the accusations made against her by the protesters; namely, that she was an "ex-gay" who believed homosexuality is a disease. She countered this accusation and the others calmly and effectively, and, to my great relief, a respectful attentiveness was maintained by all in the auditorium.

As a result of the semi-ad-libbed nature of the talk, it was a bit rough around the edges, but I found her talk to be compelling in spite of some verbal hesitations. I didn't expect to come to the talk and be forced to take a long, uncomfortable look at myself, but I definitely did. She spoke about the fact that most gay and lesbian people feel themselves to be outcasts and misfits, and that the gay community provides a very welcoming place for them. In contrast, it is easy for gays and lesbians to feel like they aren't part of the Catholic community. If they decide to convert to Catholicism, it is extremely hard for them to cut those ties with the gay community, because they were accepted there when no one else would accept them. She pointed out that the Church's teaching has nothing of prejudice or bigotry about it, but that individual Catholics can sometimes be guilty of both. We emphasize that we "hate the sin, but love the sinner," but it often comes out as hating the sin with particular fervor, but loving the sinner vaguely and abstractly. This was the take-home message for me. If we want to win people to Christ and the Church, we have to love them as individuals, and love with no reservations. Only then will we be able to preach the Gospel effectively.

Ms. Selmys noted that the tendency among Catholics is to view people with homosexual inclinations as enemies in the "culture war", when they are not enemies, but children of God. Ouch. That hit home uncomfortably for me. I thought back to my blog posts, and to my own "knee-jerk response" (she used this exact phrase) to the protesting students outside. I've grown to have an affection for Notre Dame, and I've become aware that there's something special here that should be protected. When I percieve people as trying to hack at the roots of Notre Dame's Catholic-ness, I get defensive and, you guessed it, I start to think of them as enemies. This has come through in every. single. post. I've made on this issue. And it isn't nice. Ouch again. I don't know any openly gay people personally, but if I do encounter any, I am now aware of what could keep me from loving them as Christ does, and that will help immensely. I felt Ms. Selmys could make these points with an effectiveness that few others could, because of her perspective from both sides of the issue. I'm really glad that the organizers of the ESC were able to bring her here.

Ms. Selmys' talk was followed up by a panel discussion, consisting of herself, a representative of the Diocesan Office of Family Life, and Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, Dean of the College of Engineering. They discussed a document by the USCCB about the Church's teaching on homosexuality, then opened the floor to questions. The first questioner was particularly strident, accusing Notre Dame of promoting Catholic identity while denying homosexual students their own identity. (My friend told me she was a literature professor. It speaks volumes about ND that departments feel free to hire someone with such obvious animus against Catholic teaching.) I felt that no one addressed this point effectively, although it was difficult because her question wasn't so much a question as a diatribe.

This professor was conflating "Catholic identity" with identification with a race, ethnic group, or sexual orientation, and I think that is a mistake. I would have drawn a distinction between "Catholic-ness" and the kind of "homosexual identity" that she seems to want to foster, by pointing out that Catholic identity is not an end in itself. If Catholic practice and appearances of being Catholic become the end goal, then what we have are "cultural Catholics." That doesn't get people to heaven. The goal is always to become saints, to be united with Jesus Christ! As opposed to inward turned goals, the end goal of forming Catholic identity is to lead people into a relationship with Christ and his Church. Formation of homosexual identity as it is commonly understood would be about self-fulfillment, self-gratification. Encouraging students to form "homosexual identities" runs counter to the formation of Catholic identity which is centered on Christ, and therefore Notre Dame has no business doing such a thing. (I wish I could formulate my thoughts on this a little bit better, but this is what you get, sorry blog readers!)

A student, who identified himself as a member of the Core Council on gay and lesbian issues, asked a question about gay Catholics feeling excluded from the Church. I don't remember the specifics of the question, or all the answers, but I do remember something Ms. Selmys said that I agreed with strongly. She said that people with homosexual attractions perceive a hypocrisy within the Church, because the clergy and laity who condemn homosexual activity seem to turn a blind eye to the sexual sins of heterosexuals. She pointed out that it's easy for a gay person to feel put-upon when he sees a priest marrying a couple who has openly cohabited. I would add also that contraception is a serious sin which is almost never preached on from the pulpit. I agree that more attention needs to be paid to the Catholic sexual ethics as a whole. Heterosexual Catholics can fall prey to plenty of sexual sins as well, and it needs to be emphasized that we are all called to chastity according to our state of life.

I was most gratified to see Dr. Kilpatrick taking part. Although I don't think most people would consider an engineering dean to be any kind of an "expert" on these issues, it was really great to have a representative of Notre Dame's Catholic faculty present. This was especially good since one of the questions was directed towards ND's non-discrimination policy, and whether the panelists supported changing it to include sexual orientation. The young woman who asked it was one of the more vocal members of the "protest group" outside and referred to herself as "queer.". I'm not sure I heard correctly, but I think she stated that she felt "threatened" by the atmosphere on campus and by Ms. Selmys' talk. Threatened? I found it very odd. I suppose it really is threatening, in a sense, to listen to someone who used to subscribe to your entire worldview and has since had a conversion of heart. But I doubt that's what she meant.

Later on I was in the ladies room and witnessed an older woman calmly reproving this student for the obscene content of the poetry that was read. Her response was something to the effect of "This is about the body, and we celebrate the body and find it beautiful." The older woman objected to the profanities and the student responded "We'll take that under advisement." To me it showed a profound lack of understanding. If you are trying to persuade people of the rightness of your cause, why go out of your way to do something that you know will be offensive to them? Deliberate abrasiveness is totally counterproductive. (As an aside, I wonder how many of these protesters considered ND Response "disrespectful" of President Obama and believed we had no place on campus.)

I was disappointed that the "protest group" immediately left after the talk on homosexuality. They would have gotten so much more out of it had they gone to Dr. Reimer's talk on Theology of the Body. It was sort of "ToB 101" so I didn't hear much that was new, but it was a great refresher nevertheless. (Dr. Reimers is a member of the Communion and Liberation group I've been attending and he and his wife are lovely people.)

To me their hasty departure said volumes. They were not interested in understanding Catholic sexual ethics, merely in protesting what they do not understand. Again, if you are seeking to convince, why not at least try to understand your opponents? I do appreciate the respectfulness once Ms. Selmys' talk started, but I feel that they really deprived themselves by not going to more talks and seeing what we are really all about. There's this whole well of knowledge, the treasure of the Church that is Theology of the Body, that they just plain aren't interested in because of their preconceptions. It just makes me sad.

I came home to a wonderful steak dinner and a raspberry chocolate mousse prepared by my loving and diligent husband. Marriage isn't always a bed of roses, but the little things can make it very sweet. Now I'm off to finish some housework. Chinese New Year is tomorrow, and it is traditional to clean the house before hand so all is in readiness for the new beginning. It's a tradition I haven't always kept, but I'm trying to do so this year.

(Disclaimer: My record of the ESC is totally from memory, I did not take any notes. I tried to get everything right. If anyone wishes to correct any quotes I have made, please feel free to comment.)

Edith Stein Conference 2010, part 1

:This weekend was the annual Edith Stein Conference, which is put on by the idND club to bring speakers to campus to address issues of interpersonal relationships, sexuality, and identity from a Catholic perspective. I went last year and enjoyed it very much. However, made the fatal mistake of not blogging about it, so my memories are vague. I'm determined not to do the same this year, so here I am camped out on the couch, blogging away!

I missed Friday's talks last year due to my scheduling and this year was the same. Between lab meeting, a TA walkthrough, and Bioseminar, my Friday afternoon was packed! I intended to make it to this morning's first presentation, but I was, frankly, slothful this morning and didn't get there in time. The first presentation I made it to ended up being something I wouldn't have chosen for myself, but it turned out to be great. The speaker was Mother Dolores Hart, the abbess of a Benedictine abbey in Connecticut. She spoke about her former life as an actress, both on film and on Broadway, and how she was able to continue her vocation in acting even after she joined the Benedictines. (She had been in two movies with Elvis Presley, and I particularly appreciated her description of Elvis as "a lovely man.")

Mother Dolores' background in acting was evident in her bearing and presence. Listening to her was like listening to a favorite older aunt recalling her life. While still a successful actress, she had come to know the Mother of the abbey, and she was invited to spend a vacation with the nuns. In spite of wanting to continue her career, she found herself drawn more and more to the cloister. She eventually could not ignore the call of God and entered religious life. However, she still maintained contacts and friendships from her Hollywood life, and these friends, after they had come to spend time at the abbey, gave money to build a theater there. During the annual "Abbey Fest", which is well attended by the locals, the sisters put on plays there - everything from Shakespeare to Sartre. In recent years they have even put on musicals with kids from the community. It was really wonderful listening to her story and thinking about how she was able to integrate two callings as seemingly disparate as acting and religious life. I'm thinking in particular about my own life, and my two conflicting calls to academic life and motherhood.

After Mother Dolores' talk, it was time for lunch, and I met up with my DH at Chipotle for a nice break. Coming back I was a little startled to see a group of maybe 20 people, whom I didn't recognize from the morning's talk, standing in a circle reading aloud and applauding each other. The subject matter ("let us define our own love") made it evident to me that these people were probably not in agreement with the aims of ESC. They were passing out slips of paper which stated that their purpose was to read "queer poetry" to protest the afternoon's speaker, Melinda Selmys, a lesbian turned Catholic who was going to lecture on homosexuality. It also became evident that the poems were what most people would call obscene. One of the conference organizers announced that the next talk would start soon, only to be shouted down by a "poet" who read a line and loudly emphasized the word "c**k." This in the presence of children. I was feeling quite upset and wondered if they would disrupt the talk.

I caught up with a fellow grad student inside the auditorium and we chatted a little bit about the disturbance outside. I struck up a conversation with a student sitting in front of me, who told me he was gay. "At least they could have picked some good gay poetry," he quipped. "Not exactly Oscar Wilde, is it?" I replied, smiling. "Or 'Glory be to God for dappled things,'" he said. "I probably won't agree with everything this speaker says, but what they are doing doesn't do anything except make people angrier."

(This is getting lengthy, and it's dinnertime, so you will hear all about the speaker in the next post!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"That's Unchristian!"

In my second year of grad school I have now become accustomed (I think) to being one of a handful of folks of the conservative persuasion in my workplace. If I'm going to pursue a career in academia, I'd better get used to it, right? Usually it doesn't really affect things - lots of good-natured teasing around election time last year, but otherwise nobody talks much about politics, and that's the way I like it.

One of the guys I work with closely is pretty liberal - I don't know if he uses the term "Christian Left" but I think if he heard it, he'd like it. He's very anti-war, anti-military spending, pro-universal healthcare, the whole nine yards. He likes to post a lot about political views on his Facebook. One thing that bothers me immensely is that he frequently accuses those who do not support socialized medicine, social welfare, and the like, of being "un-Christian." This seems to be a favorite tactic among the Christian liberals I have known. You can't lose when you have Jesus on your side, and slinging around slogans like, "Jesus would be for socialized medicine!" is a surefire way to make your opponents look bad.

Needless to say, I bristle at the implication my co-worker is making - that all who are politically conservative are by definition, "un-Christian." Jesus came among us as a man to establish a Church, not a political school of thought. Disagreeing with someone's politics doesn't make you less of a Christian than them, and there are people on both the right and the left who need to realize that. My views are these: Jesus gave us a very specific set of commands with regards to our duty towards the less fortunate. He commanded us plainly to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. He did not, however, command us to force Caesar to do these things. Our responsibility is personal and not to be shoved off on the government.

Christians can differ in their views on how Christ's commandment is best carried out. I personally think there is a place for some form of a social safety net in our society, but I don't necessarily believe that federal government is always the best means of establishing one. Some of these programs, as they are now structured, do not promote human freedom but rather a kind of bondage to the state, which I feel is antithetical to the dignity of the individual. (I should emphasize that certain issues are non-negotiable, i.e. abortion, euthanasia, and the like. We have to be careful to distinguish the non-negotiables from other issues which fall in the political and not the moral realm.)

The Church is neither Republican nor Democrat, but eternal. My co-worker is a Christian, and I am a Christian, in spite of the fact that we disagree on the way the country should be run. For anyone to say otherwise would be, well, un-Christian!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Bad Vestments R Us

I'm addicted to snark blogs, so this was right up my alley. Via Shrine of the Holy Whapping, a site skewering bad vestments. Although Episcopalian priestesses seem to be overrepresented, the blog is refreshingly ecumenical; Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions are well represented, with a few Lutherans and even an Orthodox priest thrown in for good measure. Love it! Now I'd like to see them take on some of the more flamboyant Black Pentecostal churches. They have bishops with croziers and vestments that are downright blingin'. They'd put the priestesses to shame!

Monday, February 1, 2010

And so it begins

I was wondering how long it would take for the Observer to publish a letter (responding to another student's defense of Catholic teaching on homosexuality) that accuses observant Catholics of "bigotry" and homophobia. I actually thought it would come a lot faster. Observer, you slay me.

This is why I believe that a change in the non-discrimination clause opens the door to disciplinary and legal actions against students who hold Catholic convictions about sinfulness of homosexual acts. If a student can be slandered openly as a bigot for daring to quote the Catechism, well, it doesn't bode well, does it?

I have to say I really don't understand these students at all. If I was going to a school whose policies I discovered to be utterly against my most deeply-held beliefs, I think I might transfer rather than trying to remake an entire university in my own image. But hey, apparently what Notre Dame really needs is to become another Purdue or UC Berkeley or Yale, devoid of any vestige of that icky-sticky Catholicism stuff. Sure, we could keep the nice art, and that cool teaching about social justice, but all that medieval blather about sin and natural law needs to go! All hail Progress!

Keep the stained glass and the pretty statues but pull the moral and theological foundation from under them - that seems to be the prevailing line of thought amongst some of the students agitating here. It makes no sense to me - perhaps because I have come to understand that the Catholic Faith is a beautiful and coherent whole. If the Catholic Church has no authority to teach the truth about homosexuality or birth control or any one of a host of "difficult topics," how can we trust Her authority on anything else? This schizophrenic mindset is one that is present among so many today. We accept the teachings only when they make us feel good, only when they coincide with our particular world view. I know this is a challenge that I struggle with myself.

I am so very much looking forward to the Edith Stein conference this year - not just for the petty pleasure (and I freely admit it is petty - I've never claimed to be a saint) of being amongst like-minded people, but for the insights I will gain about theology, about the universal call to chastity, about God and man and the relationships thereof. Notre Dame is one of the few places I would have such an opportunity every year. God grant it may always be so.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When the king returns...

From NPR, a fascinating piece about a Royalist memorial Mass for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette at the Church of Saint-Denis. They talk briefly about the Royalist movement in France, albeit with a little scorn. But I think there is something wonderful, noble, and dare I say, romantic about their loyalty to a long-gone king, improbable as the restoration of the French monarchy may be. "When the king shall come again" and all that. I very much like the way the story is centered on the requiem Mass (in Latin - an Extraordinary Form Mass, most likely). It highlights the ancient identity of France as royal and Catholic.

Although I am thoroughly American and as such believe in a government "of the people, for the people, and by the people," I admit I have always had a fascination with doomed royalty. In high school I was thoroughly obsessed with Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family. The story of the mild autocrat, his strong-minded, religious wife, and their five children captured my imagination. I even have a term paper I wrote for 10th grade world history on the reign of Nicholas II - I seem to remember summing him up as a good man but a poor ruler.

Now my interest has turned to France, thanks to Antonia Fraser's bio of Marie Antoinette, which I've read so many time that it is starting to get quite worn and wrinkled. She was very far from the harpy she is often portrayed as - she was actually noted for her good works and her concern for the poor. There are certain similarities between Nicholas and Louis XVI - both inherited problems from their predecessors which they were ill equipped to deal with, their foreign-born wives became the center of the people's bitterness and discontent, and their deaths were and are considered as martyrdom by some. For those who are interested in learning more about the Catholic Monarchs Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the blog Tea at Trianon has a wealth of information.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Is Notre Dame intolerant?

The other day I wrote, "Unfortunately Mr. Klee's letter will probably go unnoticed in the brouhaha over an offensive cartoon published in the Observer..." Sadly I was correct. In true Observer fashion, the Viewpoint section has been utterly dominated by a single point of view on a hot-button issue. The resident progressives have spoken and apparently Notre Dame is "gay unfriendly."

It's sad that I should even have to state this, but I am bound by my sense of justice to state that absolutely nothing in Catholic teaching on homosexuality promotes hatred and injustice toward same-sex attracted persons. We are to love them just as we love every child of God. If there are people on campus claiming that their animus towards SSA people is due to their Catholic upbringing, I will be the first in line to call them out and shame them for their twisted understanding of Church doctrine, and remind them that the average undergraduate has plenty of sins of his own to worry about without concerning himself with his neighbor's. However, I doubt their loving adherence to Catholic doctrine is the cause of their animosity. Some students lacking in charity may be hiding behind a facade of Catholicism, but I think it's nothing but good old-fashioned bigotry at play - nothing Catholic about that!

Predictably, however, some people with an agenda are using this latest flap as a pretext to continue to undermine Notre Dame's Catholic identity and silence authentic Catholic teaching on campus. The cries of "backward" and "prejudiced" are being flung recklessly around, as are the words "hatred" and "discrimination." Not one of these people defines the nebulous term "hatred," which makes me think that "hatred" in this case stands for "holding the belief that homosexual activity is sinful." One particularly silly letter to the Observer urges us to look to the Jesuits on how to treat SSA persons on campus. I have to wonder whether this writer is aware that most Jesuit universities have distanced themselves from Catholicism, describing themselves as "in the Jesuit tradition" with little to no connection to the universal Church. Boston College is known as "Barely Catholic" for a reason, you know. I see that the author did go to a Jesuit school, so I suppose he thinks that kicking Catholicism to the curb is a plus. Needless to say, I vehemently disagree. Jesuit universities are hardly a model for Notre Dame to follow.

A final thought - is it real charity if you see your neighbor rushing headlong toward the edge of a cliff and you do nothing to stop him because you "accept his lifestyle choice?" If any friends or family members of mine were actively gay, I would love them just the same. Nothing would change for me. But for me to pretend that I do not believe that they are making wrong choices that are hurting their relationship to God, would be extremely dishonest and would be doing them a disservice.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A grad student speaks out

Today there was a letter to the editor in the Observer that was actually worth reading. Bravo, Mr. Klee! And it touched on a subject near and dear to my heart - quality of life for married grad students and grad students with families at ND. Read on, my friends: Family Life at Notre Dame

I don't know Mr. Klee personally, but we are most certainly on the same wavelength. He touches on a lot of the points I made in a previous post about women in academic life - the policy which allows grad student mothers a bare six weeks at home with their newborns and the lack of child care on campus for children younger than two years of age. He also brings out a point I had missed - the cost of grad student insurance for spouses. I had originally planned to put my husband on my insurance when he lost his job, but thanks to COBRA he can keep his US Steel insurance for a fraction of what it would have cost me to buy it from ND. Our stipends are small enough already, and insurance payments are a significant expense.

To my great surprise, Mr. Klee points out the family policies that benefit grad students at schools like Yale, Cornell, and the UC system school. I won't repeat what he wrote in his letter, but the plans they have sound great and frankly, put ND to shame. When I came to ND I didn't really see the maternity policies here as a problem, because I assumed the secular schools would be even worse. I just assumed that it was like this everywhere because grad students are fairly low on the academic food chain. Now that I see it isn't, I feel just a little bit angry. I trusted that a Catholic school would recognize the primacy of the family - and clearly, that isn't the case.

On a more personal note, this letter hit a real chord with me because of my husband's continuing unemployment and the financial difficulties resulting from that. He is still unable to find a job in the area because of the dismal economy, and is now starting to look out-of-state. I don't want to quit grad school - I worked really hard to get here and I love what I'm doing - but part of me wonders what the point would be in continuing. If he moves and I stay here to finish school, I'd only be starting all over again, looking for a postdoc in one specific area of the country with my very specific skill set. The never-ending two body problem would just continue to plague me. And I know couples do it, but living apart as a married couple would be very painful to me and, I feel, contradictory to the spirit of Christian married life. I want to start our family soon and continuing on in academic life would just throw up more hurdles in our way. I wonder why I should go on in a profession that is so very unwelcoming of women who actually want to be wives and mothers.

In any case, it makes me very happy to see a fellow grad student standing up for us. It's easy to feel neglected here, with ND being so heavily undergrad-centered. If ND really wants to become prominent in research, they need to be able to attract graduate students with family-friendly policies. Unfortunately Mr. Klee's letter will probably go unnoticed in the brouhaha over an offensive cartoon published in the Observer (which I apparently missed) but I say to him again, bravo, sir!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two by Undset: Part 1

The beginning of the semester is always a nice time for leisure reading. I'm not yet bogged down with classes and in the mood for more meditative pursuits. I have been reading two works by Sigrid Undset (you may recall my earlier post on her masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter). The first is her tetralogy The Master of Hestviken, and the second is her biography of Catherine of Siena, recently republished by Ignatius Press.

I actually re-read The Master of Hestviken, which is composed of the four books The Axe, The Snake Pit, In the Wilderness, and The Son Avenger. I really can't do justice to the plot of this epic novel in a blog post - and it really is epic in the best sense of the word, as Undset was inspired by the old Norse sagas. Like Kristin Lavransdatter, the novel is set in medieval Norway, and is roughly contemporaneous to Kristin (a young Lavrans Bjorgulfson makes a cameo appearance towards the end of The Snake Pit). The main characters are Olav Audunsson, the eponymous heir of Hestviken, and Ingunn Steinfinnsdatter, his foster sister. Olav and Ingunn are betrothed as children and raised as brother and sister. When they grow into teenagers and succumb to temptation, they naively expect that their eventual marriage will shield them from the consequences. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The family intrigues come fast and heavy as Olav rashly kills a relative of Ingunn's and is forced to go into exile. When he returns to find that Ingunn has been seduced and borne an illegitimate child, he kills her seducer, and for complicated reasons, finds himself unable to confess the sin for many years.

This book is nothing short of depressing, in all honesty. Things never really improve for Olav and Ingunn after the sins of their youth. Just when you think it is impossible for them to make their lives worse, it gets worse, without fail - and they usually do it to themselves. In Kristin, Undset deals with the reality that there is no "happily ever after" and she makes that even more bleakly clear in The Master of Hestviken. Even after Olav secures his ancestral manor and marries Ingunn, she suffers ill health and dozens of miscarriages, dying after years as an invalid. He raises Eirik, her illegitimate son, as his own, alternately trying to do penance for murdering the child's father and hating the boy for not being his own blood. In the end, it is Eirik who resolves the conflict of his parents' sins, but only after following his own crooked path.

Reading this description probably doesn't induce you to read the book - but there is so much more to it than the bald list of Olav's endless sufferings. The love between Olav and Ingunn is beautifully described. Almost like Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, their childhood affinity grew into a love that has so shaped them that they cannot imagine life without each other. (Olav even begs Ingunn to come back to him after she dies, a scene which should be familiar to readers of WH.) In spite of all Ingunn's failings, Olav shows an amazing selflessness towards her which raises them above Cathy and Heathcliff's animal passion. Later, as Olav realizes the gravity of his sin and struggles to confess, we are treated to inner monologues that perfectly describe the crushing weight of sin and the pain of separation from God. It is a book well worth reading - not "leisure reading" but a novel that will help you grow spiritually. There aren't many books I can truly say that of.

After typing up this lengthy post on The Master of Hestviken, I realized that Catherine of Siena really deserves its own post. I will follow up in a day or two.