Well-meaning scientist condescendingly gets it all wrong

Today we welcome my wife Christina as co-author of this post!

Bill Nye is a hero to many millennials.  Once a mechanical engineer by day and stand-up comic by night, his ’90s PBS daytime show Bill Nye the Science Guy introduced our generation to biology, chemistry, earth science, astronomy, and physics in much more entertaining ways than our schoolteachers ever did.  In the past four years Nye has leapt back into the public eye for his Internet activism against scientifically-illiterate education and legislative proposals, especially in regard to climate change and evolution-vs-creationism.  When he speaks, millennials listen.

But Bill Nye is starting to go astray.  His weekly video commentaries on Big Think (“a YouTube for ideas”) nowadays frequently address questions that aren’t what most of us would call “scientific”, like free will, art’s relationship to science, and religion’s place in politics.  Earlier this week Big Think posted to Facebook an abridged version of Nye’s video from last September on what science has to say about anti-abortion laws.

The full video can be found here (we don’t pay for the fancy WordPress plan that lets us embed videos).

To spoil the ending: abortion opponents probably mean well and have sincere religious reasons for their beliefs, but their ignorance of what science says about fertilized eggs makes them want to pass laws that hurt women and distract society from more important crises.

The new video has been viewed over 8 million times in the past seven days, and it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that his arguments inform the scientific and moral outlook of many American 20- and 30-somethings today.  This is a shame, because Nye’s arguments are logically muddled and incoherent.  We say this not as scientists (which we are not) nor as religious believers (which we are), but as critical thinkers – the kind of thinking that Nye ought to be doing and teaching his viewers like he used to teach us about the world we live in.

Let’s walk through the transcript of the full video linked above.

Many many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans.  Eggs get fertilized – by that, I mean sperm get accepted by ova – a lot.  But that’s not all you need.  You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.

We have no idea whether “many many many many more hundreds” is an exaggeration or not, but of course Nye is right: not every fertilized egg implants, and plenty of them do simply die.  Nye introduces two distinct events: conception, the creation of a genetically distinct human organism when a sperm fertilizes an egg, and implantation, when the blastocyst (fertilized egg already undergoing cell division) attaches to the uterine wall and the mother’s medical condition of pregnancy begins.  Nye is apparently talking about implantation rather than fertilization/conception, and talking about it as a necessary step in the process of “becoming humans.”

Now Nye clearly doesn’t want to deal with any philosophical opinions about personhood, and neither do we.  But the scientific facts are clear: the fertilized egg contains a unique homo sapiens genetic sequence, and therefore it is a human distinct from either its father or its mother.   So clearly when Nye says “human,” he means something more than just a genetically human organism.  He means a human further along the pre-natal development process.  Let’s see if he’s about to make that clearer.

But if you’re gonna hold that as a standard – that is to say, if you’re gonna say “when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual” – then whom are you gonna sue? Whom are you gonna imprison?  Every woman who’s had a fertilized egg pass through her?  Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human?  Have all these people failed you?

Nye has switched to the legal discussion without clarifying when humanity begins.  (We’re not using the usual “when life begins” language, because he doesn’t use it, and we don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.)  Moreover, he has failed to distinguish some crucial categories: “die,” “kill,” and”murder.”  Sure, plenty of fertilized eggs die en route to the uterine wall, but not a single anti-abortion bill targets these eggs.  And how could they?  Those eggs aren’t murdered, since no-one deliberately intervenes to make them die; they’re not even killed, since no-one intervenes to make them die at all, deliberately or otherwise.  There’s not even a negligence claim to be made.  No-one even knows these fertilized eggs exist at all until well after they happen to implant.  All abortions are of implanted embryos, so abortions are of blastocysts that could well qualify as human by Nye’s own account.

It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding, and you apparently literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

OK, first, that’s just really condescending.  Second, we also don’t know what you’re talking about: fertilization or implantation?  Death or murder?  We understand the science; we don’t understand your argument.

And so, when it comes to women’s rights with respect to their reproduction, I think you should leave it to women.  You cannot help but notice – I mean, I’m not the first guy to observe this! – you have a lot of men of European descent passing these extraordinary laws based on ignorance.

Another red herring here.  Again, we’re not here to debate the legality of these abortion laws, whether they’re “extraordinary” or not.  But what do European males as such have to do with any of this?  What in their European-ness is relevant here?  And what is it about their maleness as such that disqualifies them from being able to weigh in on women’s health matters?  To claim that only a woman may speak on women’s matters is a fallacious appeal to authority, and to cast aspersions on legislators’ reasons for proposing these laws is a fallacious appeal to motive.  Neither of them takes on the content of the debate on its own merits, but diverts attention to the circumstances of the debate.

I’m sorry, you guys.  I know it was written, or your interpretation of a book that was written five thousand years ago, fifty centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, they always have a baby.  That’s wrong.  And so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.

We have to say, Nye is correct that passing laws based on a belief that every sex act produces a child would be inconsistent with nature.  Unfortunately for him, we can’t fathom how any real person existing in the real world could honestly believe that.  Certainly any person who has had sex before, unless rather implausible odds are at play, knows that even unprotected sex often doesn’t produce fertilized eggs, whether or not they implant.  Nor does the Bible teach this in any of its 66-75 books.  We don’t expect Nye to have read the Bible cover-to-cover to figure this out for himself, but we do hope he would consult a slightly more authoritative source on Christian teaching than Monty Python.

Furthermore, we have here the fallacy of chronological snobbery, discounting the (wrongly characterized) testimony of something just because it is very old and dates from a time when plenty of beliefs were held that we now know to be factually unsupportable.  We know there are quite a few Christians who do take the Bible as a science textbook, and we agree they are wrong to do so.  But Nye doesn’t focus his critique on what the Bible teaches – he even concedes that he’s critiquing an interpretation rather than the book itself – but on the fact that it is so old, which in itself is neither here nor there.

It’s hard not to get frustrated with this, everybody.  I know – nobody likes abortion, okay?  But you can’t tell somebody what to do.  I mean, she has rights over this.  Especially if she doesn’t like the guy who got her pregnant.  Like, she doesn’t want anything to do with your genes.  Get over it.  Especially if she were raped and all this.  So, it’s very frustrating on the outside, on the other side.

We choose not to get sidetracked by the fact that law, of its very nature, tells people what they can and cannot do, and that this is precisely the lawmaker’s job.  Nor do we want to go down the rabbit hole of sexual ethics (though when it comes to preventing conception from rape, this article is worth looking at).  We do want observe that Nye here explicitly places himself “on the outside, on the other side” from the caricature of mainstream Christian thought, the straw man he has built for the purpose of this argument.  We also want to observe that it’s been quite a while now since Nye mentioned anything truly scientific, derived from empirical observation or experimentation.  A discussion that started with confusion over medical and legal categories has turned into something of a rant about telling people what to do.

We have so many more important things to be dealing with.  We have so many more problems.  To squander resources on this argument based on bad science, on just lack of understanding – it’s very frustrating.

At least he’s bringing up the science again, though we’re no closer now to truly understanding the science as he has presented it or exactly how it’s relevant than we were up at the top.   And “squander resources” is an odd phrase to use here, as though if we all just agreed to let abortion be we’d be a lot closer to solving climate change.  Human endeavor isn’t a zero-sum game.

You wouldn’t know how big a human egg was if it weren’t for microscopes, if it weren’t for scientists, for medical researchers looking diligently.  You wouldn’t know the process, you wouldn’t have that shot, the famous shot or shots where the sperm are bumping up against the egg – you wouldn’t have that without science.  So then to claim that you know the next step when you obviously don’t, it’s troubling.

We have no idea what Nye is saying here.  That there are no Christian scientists, or at least none who understand the process of conception?  Ah, but we’ve already established Nye’s own confused presentation of conception and implantation.  It seems that Nye’s point is simply that “science” – which apparently here means technological advances that allow us to observe very tiny things, and people who know how to do it – is how we know more about the process of conception than people fifty centuries ago did.  Which is true, and also irrelevant.

The only way these comments make sense in his argument is if he assumes that the anti-abortion legislators, or pro-lifers in general, or perhaps even his caricature Christians in general, don’t do science and know nothing about it.  But even then, what does he mean by “the next step”?  Presumably the point about implantation being necessary to gestate a human; but being a human and being a gestating human are not the same category, as we already said, and Nye seems to have a blind spot on this.  And that’s troubling.

Okay, let me do that again.  Let me just pull back.

If you haven’t watched the video, Nye is shaking off some frustration that he’s built up during that rant.  Maybe his argument will get more coherent from now on.

At some point we have to respect the facts.  Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective.  Just being objective here.  Closing abortion clinics, not giving women access to birth control has not been an effective way to lead to healthier societies.  I mean, I think we all know that.

Nope.  Instead we have another non sequitur into sex education and contraception legislation.  Let’s just move on.

And I understand that you have deeply held beliefs, and it really is ultimately out of respect for people, in this case your perception of unborn people.  I understand that.  But I really encourage you to look at the facts.  And I know people are now critical of the expression “fact-based.”  But what’s wrong with that?

So if you listen to Nye’s tone of voice, it’s clear that he really is trying to extend an olive branch to believers; it looks more condescending on paper than it sounds in the video.  But here’s his assumption again that “fact-based” and “faith-based” have some diametrical opposition to each other.  We happen to be believers, and also to be completely on board with the fact-based results of scientific inquiry.  Nye’s inability to envision someone in our position is insulting.  And anyway, we’ve repeatedly said that his “fact-based” account doesn’t establish the argument he needs to make his point.

So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do, and not pursue these laws that really are in nobody’s best interest.  Just really be objective about this.  We have other problems to solve, everybody.  Come on.  Come on.  Let’s work together.

We wonder what Nye means by “best interest.”  Scientifically?  Ethically?  In terms of public health, or individual health?  Since we’re limiting ourselves to the logical problems here, we don’t want to take on the ethical implications of the philosophical debate on personhood, though those of us who accept the argument that human-hood is coextensive with personhood would certainly say that abortion restrictions are in unborn humans’ best interest.  But here’s the thing: those who buy into this philosophical argument and those who don’t are both being objective about the scientific facts.  Facts alone don’t make an argument, anyway; they need to be paired with a philosophy that gives them order and argumentative shape.  Science tells what and how things happen; it cannot tell us what is right or wrong – moral categories Nye does accept, though he seems from other videos to consider them as products of societal evolution rather than as natural laws.

Nye must not simply write off believers as being uninformed or unserious about the biological facts.  It’s simply not true for many believers, and Nye seems to be chronically misinformed about the ways in which many Jews and Christians fully accept the findings of scientific progress and harmonize them with the tenets of their faith.

In the unlikely chance that Nye ever sees this post: Bill, we encourage you to take another shot at the argument you made in this video.  You built your reputation on being able to explain concepts in ways children can understand, and we think you owe it to your fan base, the future scientists and legislators of our society, to set aside all the non sequiturs and fallacious appeals and make a truly logical case.  We also encourage you to take the time to learn the most rationally coherent versions of why the “other side” believes what it believes, so that if you decide to make an argument against ignorance again, you can start from firmer ground.


A word on the Synod

First, sorry I’m writing this weekend’s post a day late and missed last weekend’s post altogether.  As a token of my contrition, here’s a photo I took of Pope Francis when he was in DC.


It is a school day for me today (Hurricane Joaquin decided to spare us), so I don’t have time to make this a very well-edited post.  But now that it’s begun, I do think I need to acknowledge that the Synod of Bishops begins in earnest today.

I don’t want to, though.

Because I’m burned out about it already.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that our American media have zeroed in on three salient topics of conversation the Synod Fathers will be taking up this month: the status of homosexual persons and their relationships in the sacramental life of the Church; the status of civilly divorced, un-annulled, and civilly remarried persons and their relationships in the sacramental life of the Church; and the simplification of the canonical process for declarations of marriage nullity.

I’m sure I also don’t need to tell you that our American secular media failed to represent any of these three issues accurately, treating nullity like “Catholic divorce” and completely failing to distinguish between the Church’s  membership,  ministries, and sacramental communion when it comes to the civilly remarried (if they remembered to make that distinction at all) and persons with disordered sexual orientations.

What has been the most depressing, and for me the most soul-crushing, is that our American Catholic media has also largely forgotten that these are not the only three issues at stake in this month’s Synod.  I’m not providing links this time, partly because I don’t have time to look them up, and partly because I don’t want to give the conspiracy theorists and partisan pundits any more visibility.  Not only have they reduced the Synod to these three matters, but they’ve constructed apocalyptic narratives about progressive or ultra-orthodox camps attempting to “rig” the Synod in their ideological favor.

Not to say that there isn’t some truth to that – there is plenty of reliable anecdotal evidence out there that the Swiss and German Bishops’ conferences have been manipulating media coverage, the African Bishops have felt shut out of the global conversation, the Italian administrators of the Synod drafted reports that didn’t reflect the actual course of discussion within the Synod, etc.

But very much to say that if the leading Catholic voices in America have allowed themselves to be drawn into the seedy politics of fallen humanity and lost sight of the spiritual and human truths at stake in this Synod, they have become part of the problem.  They are giving scandal to the faithful no less than the politicking Bishops are, and frankly it is shameful.

So my advice for the next three weeks (to you and to myself): ignore all media coverage of the Synod.  Ignore the secular media outright, since they have no idea what they’re talking about when it comes to matters of faith and probably don’t realize that and wouldn’t make any effort to fix it if they did.  Ignore the Catholic media (perhaps making an exception for the reliably level-headed John Allen), since they’re more likely to obscure the working of the Holy Spirit in the Synod Fathers’ discussions than to draw attention to it.

Instead, just read the working document for the Synod.  Notice that those three hot-button issues are 1-2 paragraphs each in a 16-page document.  Look at the chapter and section headings.  Reflect on the much larger, much more fundamental questions.  How does the family foster faith?  How can it do so when the spouses may not even know their faith?  How does a post-Christian secular world, including the media, stack the deck against healthy families?  What can the Church do to help?

And notice that Christian doctrine is never in question.  No Church teachings will change at this Synod.  Practices may change; emphases may change in light of the needs of this day and age; but we will not emerge from this Synod with any less Christian truth than we had before.  If all goes well, we may even gain some.

And then remember that the Synod, unlike an Ecumenical Council, is only a consulting body.  It has no legislative power of its own.  It makes recommendations to the Pope, who decides what sort of statement or changes to make (if any) after a few months.  Even the final report on the Synod that comes out later in October has no “authority” like an Apostolic Exhortation does.

So read the text linked above, reflect on it, pray on it, pray for the Pope, pray for the Synod, pray that the Holy Spirit guide the Synod to remain faithful to the Word of Christ and the eternal truths put in place by the Father while also advancing the pastoral care of souls in the modern world.  And then forget about the Synod and go on with your lives.  As Padre Pio is quoted as saying: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry.”

Pope Francis and Saint Matthew


First, I don’t know what’s happening, but Rocco Palmo is not exactly on top of his game with posting the full texts of Francis’ homilies and speeches in Cuba.  You can find them, though, at Edward Pentin’s blog for the Register.

Second, I was about to write a whole long thing about the special relationship Pope Francis has with Saint Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast day is today.  Lo and behold, this post says it all better than I ever could have done.  Please take the time to reflect on it, as it reveals a very important side of Francis that you won’t often see in press reports.

Here, though, is the text of Saint Bede the Venerable referenced in the article above, part of the Office of Readings in today’s Liturgy of the Hours (mostly translated by me, since the 1980’s breviary isn’t very accurate):

Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him: Follow me. Jesus saw Matthew not so much with the sight of bodily perception as with that of his inner mercy.  He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him by having mercy on him and choosing him, he said to him: Follow me. But in “Follow me”, he really said “Imitate me”:  “follow” not so much by how he directed his feet as by how he carried out his way of life. Whoever says he abides in Christ ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

And he rose and followed him. It should not be surprising that, at the first sound of the Lord’s command, the tax collector abandoned the earthly wealth that used to worry him and, neglecting his work, attached himself to that band of men which, he thought, had no riches at all. On the outside, the Lord himself used words to call Matthew; on the inside, he taught him how to follow by an invisible impulse, flooding his mind with the spiritual light of grace by which Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had the ability to give incorruptible treasures of heaven.

As he sat at table in the house, behold many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. This conversion of one tax collector gave an example of repentance and forbearance to many tax collectors and sinners. And as a beautiful and true anticipation of his future status as apostle and teacher of the nations, no sooner was Matthew converted than he brought with him a flock of sinners to salvation; he began his duty of evangelizing, which he would come to fulfill with great growth in merit and power, while he was still in the first rudiments of faith. Furthermore, if we want to see what Matthew has done with deeper understanding, not only did he provide a material banquet for the Lord in his earthly residence, but far more pleasingly, he prepared a banquet for him in his own heart through faith and love, as the Lord himself attests to it when he says: Behold I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.

On hearing Christ’s voice, we open the door to receive him when we freely make our assent to his promptings, whether they come secretly or openly, and when we give ourselves over to completing the things that we know we must do. And Christ enters so that we might dine with him and he with us, for he dwells in the hearts of his elect through the grace of his love, so that he may ever refresh them by the light of his presence insofar as they advance more and more in their longing for the higher things, and so that he may nourish their zeal for the things of heaven as though it were for a greatly pleasing meal.

#PopeInUS #PopeInDC #PopeAtCUA #PopeOnMyBirthday

(First of all, if you’re not yet “Follow”ing this blog, I strongly recommend you subscribe.  Especially my Sanford, NC friends – I won’t be emailing you about every new post, so Follow-ing me is the most reliable way to stay updated.

Also, again especially for Sanford friends: if there’s anything you’d like me to write about, or anything you’d like to ask about or revisit, from the Scripture and Liturgy courses, please let me know by email or by commenting on one of my posts.  I want to write things I know my readers will care about,  rather than just writing to read myself write.

And everyone, comment on my posts!  Start a discussion!  Dialogues are way more fun than lectures, aren’t they?)

Dear Friends,

Being at CUA is sort of a surreal experience.  For example, this is the view I get when I step out of the library:


And in the parking lot of my main classroom building:


Of course, none of it looks that clean and organized right now, because work crews have spent the whole past week building platforms and risers and tents to prepare the Shrine and the quad for His Holiness’ visit.  Every door along that side of  the Shrine is roped off from both sides, but if you’re willing to walk around to the front and then back behind the main altar, you get to see this:


If I had the time and didn’t mind being fussed at by security staff every few minutes, I could literally sit on the floor and watch people build Pope Francis’ altar and chair for the Mass on Wednesday.  (This is a photo from last month, and it’s much closer to finished now, but I don’t want to spoil the end result for anyone.)

The Mass on Wednesday, by the way, for which every CUA student who requested a ticket got one.  Myself included.  It’s a standing-room area off to the left of the 15,000 chairs they’re setting up along the whole east facade, but at least it has a view of the stage.  Most standing-room areas are just places on campus to watch the Mass on a Jumbotron.  So I’m not complaining!

(Especially since the 23rd is my birthday, and if I had not gotten a ticket, I certainly would have complained to anyone I thought might have any power over this until I did get a ticket.  But now I don’t have to be a nuisance to anyone, which is nice.)

So I know most of you who have access to EWTN will be following the Pope’s visit on TV.  “But which websites,” some of you may be asking, “should I follow for good Internet coverage?  I mean, I know about the Register and the Reporter, but might there be some other good sites you can recommend?”

Indeed there are, and indeed I can!

Those of you who’ve read the Reporter for a while and remember their Vatican reporter John Allen should know that he now runs a Catholic-news satellite website to the Boston Globe called Crux, which is where you can find his reporting now.  He will be the best U.S. journalist working the Pope trip, and you should try not to miss any of his work.  He has a great preparatory Guide to “decoding” Pope Francis, about some of his favorite terms and phrases that mean something slightly different to ol’ Frank than we might naturally assume they mean, and I highly recommend reading it before you start reading his U.S. speeches and homilies.

“But where will I find the texts of the speeches and homilies?”, you may ask.

For this you need the best U.S. Catholic freelance journalist, Rocco Palmo, and his blog Whispers in the Loggia.  He will post the text of each speech as soon as it’s available (allowing some time to translate the Spanish ones into English).  He’s also a Philadelphia native, so he’ll have a lot of first-hand inside info to share about the World Meeting of Families portion of the PopeTrip, but he’ll be present in DC and NYC as well.

Incidentally, Palmo has recently re-posted some of ol’ Frank’s most important homilies and speeches of the past two years, to remind his readers of what His Holiness is really all about.  Here are quick links to:

Palmo also has a Twitter feed for those of you who do that thing (I don’t), which you may want to follow as well.

Finally, if you haven’t read Frankie’s most recent interview, with the Portuguese radio program/station Renascença, here it is.  The first half or more is about the migrant crisis as it’s gotten even worse in Europe recently.  There are some fun personal details about the Holy Father towards the end.

I’ll do my best to take photos at the Mass on Wednesday, and I’ll post here all the photos that turn out to be any good.  I’ll probably have some posts about his homilies and speeches, too.

Until next weekend,

Pax et bonum


Scientist: Atheism Is Good For Society

Lawrence Krauss is one of the leading theoretical physicists of our day.  His work on dark energy is as famous and well-respected as are his pop-culture books on the science of Star Trek.  A scientist with his kind of intellectual and literary gifts ought to be the sort of person we can trust to write about the universe in a way we can understand and believe.

So it’s especially sad to see a name like his under a title like “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists”.  Indeed, Krauss considers it part of his mission as a scientist to argue the notion of God out of ordinary people’s minds.

I could spend this article fact-checking Krauss, especially the bit about Planned Parenthood where he elides the moral issue of repurposing fetal tissue with the legal issues of turning a profit and obtaining parental consent.  I could pick apart the logic of his article: how he invokes his expertise in theoretical physics as if it qualifies him to declare on political questions (more on that part later), or how he takes for granted that beliefs in vaccine poisoning and zodiac charts are perfectly comparable and equally “religious”, or how he simply lumps all religious people together as if there were no difference between Evangelical fundamentalists and Catholics who read Vatican documents on faith and reason.

But since this is a blog about human identity, and since its founding text is Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes, let’s look at this angle instead (especially paragraphs 5, 7, and 19, for those of you who’ve clicked the hyperlink).

Lawrence Krauss, in fact, is a textbook example of the modern man that the Council Fathers particularly wanted to address.  He places too-excessive value on the mathematical and natural sciences and the technology which stems from them (GS 5); he sees the denial or abandonment of God and religion as a requirement of scientific progress (GS 7); and he explicitly rejects the intimate and vital link between living fully according to truth and freely acknowledging the love of God that created and constantly preserves us (GS 19).

I should point out here that unlike Krauss, who lumps all kinds of religions and religiosities into one undifferentiated object of contempt, the Council Fathers took their time to distinguish the various forms and phenomena of atheism:

  • Those who expressly deny God
  • Those who believe man can assert absolutely nothing about God
  • Those who so scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem meaningless
  • Those who contend that everything can be explained by scientific reasoning alone
  • Those who altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth
  • Those who praise man so extravagantly that their faith in God becomes anemic
  • Those who form such a false idea of God that they do not actually reject the God of the Gospel
  • Those who never experience religious stirrings or see why they should bother with religion, and so never get to the point of raising questions about God
  • Those who protest against the evil in this world or the effective deification of human values

I suppose we could file Krauss under the “scientific reasoning” point with a dash of “fallacious idea” thrown in.

My point, and the Council Fathers’ point, is that none of these are sufficient reasons to reject God.  They are “poisonous” and “contradict reason and the common experience of humanity” (GS 21).  “The root reason for human dignity lies in man’s call to communion with God” (GS 19), and by denying that fact, atheist doctrines “dethrone man from his native excellence.” (GS 21)  They kill not only faith, but also hope and charity, for by their silence on divine things “riddles of life and death, of guilt and grief go unsolved with the frequent result that men succumb to despair.” (GS 21)

In this light, Krauss is at his most dangerous when he claims, “when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy.”  Never mind that he exalts “modern secular democracy” like he does the mathematical sciences.  He’s really saying that when people speak openly of living godly lives in society, they undermine society.

In fact, turning now to the Vatican II constitution on the Church, “it has pleased God to make men holy and save them not merely as individuals, without bond or link between them, but by making them into a single people, a people which acknowledges him in truth and serves him in holiness” (Lumen gentium 9).  Society only truly functions at all with a shared reference point in God and the universal call to holiness that unites us in this world for the next.  To reject the implications of that is truly to undermine society.

Krauss concludes by saying that no scientist should be ashamed of the label “militant atheist.”  In fact, every person who hopes to be of service to the human community should be ashamed of it.  Because if that’s who he really is, he’s doing more to keep us all in the dark than to enlighten us.

What Really Matters Here: Pope Francis on abortion and “annulments”

This will be a long one, because we’ve got two big announcements to look at.  It’s basically two posts attached to each other.  I’ll try to keep it concise.

Last week, the media were all abuzz that Pope Francis is forgiving everyone’s abortions.  Today, the media are all abuzz that Francis is bringing no-fault divorce into the Church.  Both are, of course, gross misrepresentations of what he actually wants to happen.

My intent here is not to “set the record straight” (the best blogger to read for that is Jimmy Akin; here he is on last week’s and this week’s announcements).  My intent is to go beyond the details of the changes, take a closer look at what Francis himself has to say about the changes, and pinpoint the larger lessons we should be learning from him.

First, abortion.

Francis’ decision “to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” came in the context of a letter to his “front man” for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Abp. Rino Fisichella.  Francis wrote the lettter to announce the channels of mercy he wishes to open for the faithful in the context of this Jubilee Year.

The largest part of the letter actually covers the plenary indulgence Francis is proclaiming for the Jubilee Year, which is attached to making a pilgrimage through the “Holy Door” of any cathedral or basilica that has set one up for the Jubilee.  (A “Holy Door” is an entrance to the cathedral that has been sealed until the Jubilee begins, when it will be opened again as a symbol of the Church throwing its doors open for the Year’s festivities and welcoming all to the banquet.)

Under the usual circumstances for an indulgence, namely:

  1. Make a good confession within 3 weeks on either side of performing the indulgenced act;
  2. Receive Holy Communion worthily within 3 weeks, etc.;
  3. Pray for the Holy Father and his prayer intentions;
  4. Be free from all attachment to sin, even venial, at the time of performing the indulgenced act (a commonly forgotten requirement)

all the faithful who make a pilgrimage through a Holy Door may receive a plenary indulgence.  Those who are unable, through no fault of their own, to make the pilgrimage may receive the indulgence by fervently uniting their prayers and devotions to the Jubilee message of mercy.  Particularly, those who cannot because they are in prison may receive the indulgence in the prison chapel by thinking of the threshold of their cell as a Holy Door.  We can also obtain the indulgence for the poor souls in Purgatory.

In short, Francis is going out of his way to remove every obstacle to any soul receiving full remission of temporal punishment due to sin during the Jubilee Year.  This mercy is to be denied to no one, especially not to those who would feel closed off from it by circumstances out of their control.

Now, Francis doesn’t tie the abortion issue directly to the plenary indulgence; it is a separate topic.  But by its connection to the Jubilee Year of Mercy and its close proximity to the bit about the indulgence, I think the message is the same: no one must feel closed off from mercy during the Jubilee Year.  The same goes for extending absolution faculties to SSPX priests: the mercy of forgiveness this year is not even denied to those faithful who receive their sacraments illicitly from priests who are not even in communion with the Holy Father!

In these U.S. of A., the abortion grant doesn’t really change anything; almost every U.S. bishop has already extended to all his priests his personal prerogative to remit the excommunication associated with procuring abortion.  But even here, the proclamation is not something to ignore just because we’ve “gotten used to” mercy around here.  (Plus, if a Catholic who has been suffering from exclusion from the Church didn’t yet know she could be absolved, this grant is a new proclamation of mercy to her.)

On to “annulments” .  This is the last time I’ll use that word, because it’s the wrong word.  It implies making something null that was not null before.  Really, a declaration of nullity finds that the marriage was null from the start.  Also, no link to the text this time, unless you can read Italian – or Latin.

Here I will ignore the new norms themselves (though if anyone wants to discuss Jimmy Akin’s #6 and #7 in the comments, I’d be happy to offer my thoughts).  I want to look at Francis’ introduction to the new norms and briefly discuss what I see as the three overarching themes of his desire to simplify the nullity process.  I’ll provide some quotes as well, of my own translation.

First, Francis makes it clear in several places that “the marriage bond is indissoluble” and “the hinge and wellspring of the Christian family”.  An interpretation of this procedural change that suggests Francis is thinking of nullity as “divorce” is a false interpretation.

But Francis recognizes that the disciplines of the Church are “always able to be made more perfect”.  In one sense, this means “easier and more flexible”, so that “the hearts of those faithful who are waiting on the status of their decision should not be kept in darkness for very long”.  This perfectibility also means, though, that “ecclesiastical discipline should be more and more coherent with the truth of the faith that it confesses.”  So in Francis’ view, these changes do not only simplify and speed up the nullity process; they also do a better job than the old ones of representing what marriage and nullity really are.

Second, Francis is requiring the local Bishop to get directly involved in the nullity process much more often than before.  In setting up tribunals, in hearing appeals (which now only happen if a spouse demands it), and now even in deciding the nullity question himself in an accelerated procedure, the Bishop is the point of reference for nullity cases.

Francis is thus recapturing the theological truth of the Bishop’s primacy within his own diocese.  This is not the first time Francis has undid something St. JP2 did, in order to shift the symbolism of authority down the hierarchical ladder.  A major theme of Francis’ pontificate has been rediscovering the meaning of synodality and collegiality between the Pope and his Bishops.  He is insisting that Bishops, “sharers in the ministry of the Church,” be judges of nullity precisely to display the Bishop’s “catholic unity, in faith and discipline, with Peter.”

This doesn’t mean Francis is intentionally diminishing the role of the papacy in the Catholic Church.  He did, after all, convene the panel of canonists to revise these norms and promulgate them himself without even waiting a month to consult the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family.

But it does mean that he wants the Church to practice the same balance of subsidiarity and solidarity that it preaches to the world.  It’s messy and inefficient as a business plan, but it lets those who know the local situation be the ones in position to handle them, while still maintaining the single unity of the Church.   If the Bishop is the first pastor of his diocese, as we say he is, he should act the part.

(Incidentally, Francis is now allowing two of the three tribunal members to be laypersons.  Another of Francis’ central themes is reclaiming the role of the laity in the life and work of the Church.  To those who complain that making Bishops nullity judges adds to their already oppressive workload, I suspect His Holiness would respond by asking whether the Bishops are wasting time on administrative duties that laypersons could handle just as well – or better, if they have the training.)

Finally, and tying things back into the Jubilee, Francis states that “zeal for the salvation of souls, today no less than yesterday, remains the final end of the Church’s institutions, laws, and norms”.  If it happens that the current nullity process rules are impeding the salvation of souls, “charity and mercy require that the Church make herself close, like a mother, to her children who feel separated from the flock.”  They do seem to deter people from returning to full communion with the Church, so they must be changed.

Again, mercy is an interpretive key.  It is no accident that December 8 – feast of the Immaculate Conception, 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II – is also the beginning of the Jubilee Year and plenary indulgence and abortion grant and the date these new norms take effect.  It is vital to Francis that the Church begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy with a bang, bringing forth from the storeroom both new and old vessels of compassion and reconciliation for the faithful who so desperately need it.

And that, dear readers, is more than enough for one post.

Welcome to the blog!

Dear reader,

Welcome to The Unsolved Puzzle!

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because I invited you to take a look at it.  And if I invited you, it’s probably because you belong to one of these three groups:

  1. Friends from the UNC Newman Center, who have pestered me about starting a blog for many years now;
  2. Members of the Adult Faith Formation community of St. Stephen the First Martyr in Sanford, NC, whom I kinda sorta promised a blog about 5 months ago;
  3. New friends on the graduate-school journey of CUA’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, who haven’t actually asked me about a blog yet, but who hopefully will contribute eagerly to the discussions here.

The name of the blog comes from the Vatican II Constitution Gaudium et spes, “On the Church in the Modern World”.  After reviewing the major social and philosophical difficulties facing human persons in the post-war, post-modern era, the Council Fathers observe:

‘Every man remains to himself an unsolved puzzle, however obscurely he may perceive it. For on certain occasions no one can entirely escape the kind of self-questioning mentioned earlier, especially when life’s major events take place. To this questioning only God fully and most certainly provides an answer as He summons man to higher knowledge and humbler probing.

‘…It is the function of the Church, led by the Holy Spirit Who renews and purifies her ceaselessly, to make God the Father and His Incarnate Son present and in a sense visible. This result is achieved chiefly by the witness of a living and mature faith, namely, one trained to see difficulties clearly and to master them….

‘Above all the Church knows that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart when she champions the dignity of the human vocation, restoring hope to those who have already despaired of anything higher than their present lot. Far from diminishing man, her message brings to his development light, life and freedom. Apart from this message nothing will avail to fill up the heart of man: “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” O Lord, “and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee.”‘

As such, the primary focus of this blog will be to comment and reflect on the foundational questions of human identity, especially concerning the human soul and the right relationship between the soul and God.  I’ll often be addressing this second topic in relation to Scripture and the Liturgy, which happen to be the two Adult Faith Formation topics I taught last year and which finally inspired me to get this blog off the ground.

Of course, whenever something noteworthy happens in the Catholic world, I’ll be covering it here too.  Since I’m in a Church History program here at CUA focusing on the first 4-5 centuries AD, don’t be surprised if I get inspired to write about my academic work now and then.  Once in a while, my wife Christina will be guest-writing here for a change of perspective.  And of course, anyone with a blog post request is always welcome to email me at ross.twele@gmail.com with the idea.

I’ll be posting once each weekend at first, maybe more when the Catholic world gets really exciting, so check back regularly for updates.   I haven’t decided on a signoff yet, so for now,

Pax et bonum,


P.S.  I’m starting out the blog on a free WordPress platform, so if you see any ads on the blog, I have nothing to do with them.  Please don’t harass me about them if you see anything you don’t like.