Sunday, February 6, 2011

11-02-06: 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 58:7-10 / Psalm 112 / 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 / Matthew 5:13-16
When George W. Bush was running for president the first time, his bona fides as an evangelical Christian made the news when he declared Jesus his “favorite philosopher.” W was really just following suit in a long line of Christians who found in Jesus exactly what they wanted to find, from philosopher to revolutionary to proto-hippie. Reading today’s gospel about the properties of salt and light we might be tempted in the same vane to add chemist and physicist to Jesus’ resume. Problem is, if we take the parable about salt literally, Jesus would have failed the chemistry final.

Do we detract from Jesus’ importance, his uniqueness, or even his divinity, if we admit he was no scientist? Is it disrespectful, or downright blasphemous, to declare the Bible not a science textbook? Some evangelicals would have you believe so. Convinced in the literal truth of Genesis for example, they suggest God placed the fossils in the rocks so as to create the impression (and not the evidence) for evolution.

Science and religion are often viewed through dualist eyes: one true, the other false. For fundamentalists who base their faith on the literal word of scripture, that has long been the case. Everything, including scientific conclusions, must coincide with the Bible in a literal fashion or be rejected. We, as Catholics, are warned against making that dualist error. Science and religion do not represent opposing truths but are simply two differing ways to express what is discovered or revealed to be true. The late Stephen Jay Gould, admitted atheist that he was, often debated with Biblical literalists. Apart from his conclusions concerning evolution he made a valuable contribution to the debate by suggesting that science and religion represent two separate “magisteria” or “teaching authorities” concerning human experience and discovery. In this he echoed (probably unknowingly) the recently beatified Cardinal Newman who said much the same thing in his Idea of a University. “Theology is one branch of knowledge, and Secular Sciences are other branches,” Newman wrote. “Theology should not interfere with the real freedom of any secular science.”

Newman found no difficulty in accepting the basic premises of his contemporary, Charles Darwin, concerning humanity’s physical origins. Newman, in fact, made a remarkable statement quite relevant to the discussion of evolution today: “I do not see,” Newman wrote, “that the accidental evolution of organic beings is inconsistent with divine design – It is accidental to us, not to God.” In other words, God not only reveals himself through the Bible but through nature as well. The tools we use to interpret each of these revelations are different; we do not serve the truth by switching tools, so to speak, in expressing a theological truth by scientific categories, or a scientific truth by theology.

The intersection of these two magisteria or ways of knowing is never more apparent than in the sphere of health care. Just last week Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, signed an agreement with Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, affirming the authority of the local bishop to interpret the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. The necessity of such an agreement comes, no doubt, in the wake of the extraordinary action taken by Bishop Olmstead rendering St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix no longer “catholic.” The question then becomes: for fear of misinterpreting the directives, must a hospital submit every case to the local bishop for his judgment. This, of course, is virtually impossible in cases requiring emergency action. Will the hospital then “err” on the side of caution in the increasing ambiguous areas of healthcare where the best interest of the patient can be argued from both sides of the debate. The unfortunate sound bite of “preserving a culture of life” now borders on a fundamentalism worthy of an evangelical, implying that physical life should be viewed as an absolute value.

This increasing inclination to insure Catholic institutions are not perceived to be influenced by the so-called “culture of death” – even when they are not – will lead before long to treat physical life as an absolute value that must be preserved at all costs. It won’t be long before some bishop, albeit with good intention, will venture from his theological domain into the ambiguous and complicated world of medical science and suggest that there is never a reason to withhold or withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration from a patient; or that palliative care may no longer be provided because it “may” be advancing death by a moment or two. A bishop’s legitimate jurisdiction may give him the right to rule on medical procedures performed in Catholic institutions – but it does not and cannot make him into a physician.

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