Kosher Catholicism

The acrimonious exchange that erupted on January 20, 2012 between the Roman Catholic Bishops of the United States and the Obama administration with its Health and Human Services department directives has made me wonder just how far out of touch with the bulk of humanity that Roman Catholic Church is willing to get.  In fact, even before one of the US bishops compared himself to a Jewish owner of a Kosher restaurant being forced to serve pork, it struck me that it is not hard to see something of a parallel between all the Catholic rules regarding sex and reproduction and Jewish and even Islamic rules regarding what one may legitimately eat.

       In both these other religions, the rules concerning what is “kosher” (kashrut in Hebrew, meaning “pure” or “clean”) or rules governing what Muslims call halal  or “lawful”, function largely to — besides giving them something to argue about — keep these religions and their faithful followers distinct from the rest of the human race. So too, it seems at least for Catholics, when it comes to sex and reproduction.

       True, to some extent the Roman Catholic rules of Lenten fasting and Friday abstinence from meat, as well as strict adherence to the requirement to attend Mass on certain “Holy Days of Obligation” had much the same effect. In these observances, Catholics were visibly “different.” However, as these practices began to be modified in the mid 1960s — especially after the Second Vatican Council began to liberalize the Church, it seems that strict adherence to the Church’s rules against using contraceptives, especially after “the pill” had received FDA approval in 1960, soon became the defining mark of who among the “faithful” was truly an obedient Catholic or not.  And much as is the case with many Jews regarding their dietary laws — as is undoubtedly the case with many Muslims — there is a large number of Catholics who still loosely identify with their inherited religion, yet fail to observe all its rules in when it comes to contraceptives and the rest.

       However, the bishops chose to up the stakes by claiming it was more than just about sex. It was, according to them, about human life itself, because the bishops chose to make the claim that among the FDA approved drugs that the HHS was insisting should be covered for the sake of women’s health, some are “abortion-inducing drugs.”  We should note that was not the HHS that used this phrase, but the bishops, who are aware that even among Catholics who probably have felt little guilt over using the pill or even becoming sterilized, most might still react strongly to the use of the “A-word”.  And indeed they have.  Numerous emails, internet blogs, and alarms were quickly posted accusing Obama of promoting abortion and waging a war against the Catholic Church. 

       In the face of all this it seems hopeless to try to point out that the contraceptive services that the HHS sought to guarantee to all women are probably the biggest single step that the HHS could take to reduce the actual number of abortions, which in the USA currently average around 22 abortions vs. 100 pregnancies. I say this despite the fact that the US abortion rate is not all that much greater than that seen in some European countries that offer contraceptive services as part of comprehensive government health-care insurance programs.  Yet there are some interesting exceptions.  For example, a strong, even if only nominally Catholic family ethic plays a part, as for example in Belgium, where the 2007 there was an average of 13 abortions per 100 pregnancies  On the other hand, in Canada, where a battle raged back in the early 1970s over the legalization of abortion under the federal tax-funded but province administrated single-payer health-care system, the annual abortion rate is lower (about 13.7 per 1000 women of child-bearing age) as against US average of 19.5 abortions among the same number of women.  (See http://www.johnstonsarchive.org )

       That poverty levels have a significant role to play can be seen even in my own state of Michigan can be seen where overall there is an average of 197.8 abortions compared to 1000 live births, but in Wayne County (which includes poverty-stricken Detroit) the 2007 figure was 324 abortions vs. 1000 live births.  Nation wide, it is estimated that the abortion rate among blacks is three times higher than among whites, and double the white abortion rate among Hispanics. On the other hand, in Rhode Island, where Catholics are said to be 51% of the population, or in Quebec, where they are about 45%, abortions average over 300 vs. 1000 live births, this despite the latter’s rather generous family allowance system designed to encourage the birth and raising of children.  Yet none of these figures, no matter how alarming, come anywhere close to Russia’s where in 2007 there were 918 abortions compared to every 1000 live births — this despite the government’s on-going campaign to encourage Russians to have more children. What is going on there seems to be something of a backlash against the long period when abortion was totally outlawed during the Stalinist regime and contraceptives were either impossible to find or said to be notoriously unreliable. All this is happening also despite efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church to outlaw most abortions even while maintaining an attitude toward contraception that is very similar to that taken by the Roman Catholic Church.

       Given this unyielding opposition to abortion by Christianity’s more conservative churches, even while most the more “mainstream” churches have become more liberal in their approach, one might not be surprised to learn that a similar situation exists within Judaism and Islam. Yet here we find one major difference, and that is that within both these other two related faiths, while abortion has always been considered a serious matter, the prevailing view has been that in the initial stages (the first several months) of pregnancy, it is not judged as being nearly as serious a sin as it would later during the final months before birth.  Yet even given this relatively liberal attitude toward abortion, the percentage of abortions as compared to pregnancies within the state of Israel is barely over half (11.9%) that of the USA (21.9%). And while most predominantly Muslim nations do not publish abortion totals or rates — except Turkey, which admitted a 17% rate in 2008 vs. a 10.2% rate in 2003 — it is noteworthy that within Islam the practice of various contraception methods has been tolerated for many centuries, and even sometimes encouraged as a means of exercising responsibility within family life. So one might ask how is it that while within these three “Abrahamic” faiths, it only seems to be Christianity that has maintained such strong strictures against abortion, and even, at least within the two largest conservative churches such a suspicion of contraception?

       It is here where I see a very interesting parallel between the extent to which Roman Catholic reasoning has been pushed on this subject of life — particularly embryonic life — as not being entirely different, in fact quite similar in some ways, to Jewish and Islamic views as to what are or are not pure or lawful foods, especially when it comes to eating meat. To understand this comparison, one has to remember that in the minds of the ancient Hebrews, blood was the equivalent of life, or perhaps, in a later stage in the evolution of their thinking, at least was the place in which the Spirit of God, the source of all life, especially resided. In fact, it should be especially noted that the Hebrew language had no word for “soul” property speaking. (Scripture scholars tell us that the Hebrew word nephesh which is usually translated as “soul” in English language bibles, really means “a living being” or even simply one’s “self” as as distinguished from the bashar  seen merely as flesh, especially when dead.) So to eat meat that still had any blood in it was not just an ordinary sin, but a kind of sacrilege — hence the strict rules as to how animals had to be slaughtered under the supervision of a specially trained rabbi.  Much the same remains the case under Islam.

       Now shift gears to the struggle that took place among the first Christians between those who been brought up as observant Jews following these ancient ritual rules associated with the idea of a bloody location of the source of life, and those “gentile” converts from paganism who saw these rules as being based more on old superstitions than on God’s will. Gradually, Christianity became more and more dominated by gentile converts — especially after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the failure of the Bar-Kochba revolt against the Romans in 135.  This new, almost entirely gentile, Christianity for the most part adopted the ancient pagan idea, greatly refined by the philosopher Plato, of the immaterial or spiritual, and therefore naturally immortal “soul”.  In this regard, a similar shift in thinking was even taking place within Judaism, as evidenced by the book known as “The Wisdom of Solomon” (or simply as “The Book of Wisdom” in Catholic bibles) a work which was written in Greek by a Jew — probably in Alexandria around the time that Jesus lived — and which speaks eloquently of the fate of the psyche (“soul”) after death, and even seems to hint (in Chap. 8:20) of its pre-existence even before a child is conceived!  The same idea of the soul’s pre-existence was toyed with by Origen, the third century Christian theologian, but rejected by the Church at large.  Nevertheless, so strongly had the focus shifted to the existence and importance of the soul that  from this point of view, an unborn child was not seen as something fully  or truly human until it was animated or “ensouled” by this spiritual entity.  And it was likewise decreed (by the Council of Vienne in 12 ** that this “ensoulment” took place not as a product of the sexual union of the parents, but rather was believed to be the result of a direct and special act of God.

       When was this seen as taking place?  Some, just as now, thought this must happen at the moment of conception.  Yet even St. Augustine, who admitted that his conversion was largely made possible through his attraction to the Neo-Platonic philosophy of Plotinus, nevertheless seems to have held a view that to some extent anticipated those of later theologians, who like St. Thomas Aquinas, revamped Catholic theology along the lines of Aristotle’s philosophy.  Aristotle thought of the soul as that which gave “form” to the bodily “matter”. Accordingly, Aquinas thought that the distinctly human soul was present only at that point at which the body of the unborn child evidenced its distinctly human characteristics, which he, along with most physicians of his time deemed to be somewhere between 40 (for boys) and 80 days (for girls) after conception. Before those stages of gestation, much as Aristotle reasoned, the “soul” was seen as being as first “vegetative” then “animative”, that is, as giving form what is first merely vegetable then animal levels of life.  Islamic and Jewish scholars (also keen advocates of Aristotle’s views) had, for the most part, begun to think much the same.  So while all three of these religions have always considered abortion as a serious sin, the idea that it was always tantamount to “murder” at any stage of embryonic development would have been, and still largely is, considered to be rather extreme.

       However, especially in the Christian world, all this changed when in the early days of the scientific revolution, especially with the invention of the microscope. In their enthusiasm, some researchers believed that they had even detected tiny human beings (homuncula ) in the seminal fluid of human males, and even though such “discoveries” were hotly discussed and sometimes almost as quickly discarded, they had their effect, even on the Church’s moral theology.  Then of course, along came Darwin, whose speculations on the origin of species could not help but through new light on what had already been observed in the various stages of the development of the human embryo. Thus, as every biology student soon learns, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”, meaning that every embryo, including the human embryo, passes, even if briefly, through most of the stages that characterized the evolution from single-celled organism, to more complex but still primitive life forms, before it emerges with a distinctly human (or in the case of other species their specific) form. 

       The development of the science of genetics, and the discovery of its DNA code (“What Darwin Didn’t Know”) really changes nothing in regard to this now fundamental science. Although there is some argument as to what extent our DNA differs from that of chimpanzees, a surprising amount of it is not all that different from that of the lowly earthworm.  At the same time the DNA found in a strand of our hair, a drop of our blood, or even our saliva, is no different than that found in our brain cells or in a muscle in our heart.  If there is any major difference in our physical nature from the fish, birds, and beasts, it is probably only in the so-called epigenetics, that is the “switches” or distinctive timing that turns on or off  what are, for the most part, the very same genes to produce quite different effects (like the relative hairlessness of humans as compared to apes).  So all in all, it looks like Aristotle, despite his crude scientific observations, may have been basically correct in his view of the “soul” as the morphos  or “form” that shapes hylos or “matter”.  And from all the evidence so far, it seems that it is not an additional “thing” or entity, but a program or sequential operation of some sort.  

       So where does this leave us? Even Pope John Paul II, in his 1996 encyclical letter Evangelium vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) admitted that neither sacred scripture nor philosophical reasoning can tell us exactly when an embryo or fetus becomes “ensouled”.  Certainly the same might be said for science. Instead, the pope, while insisting that evolutionary science must be taken seriously, nevertheless signed off on a play-it-safe policy which, as the official 1997 edition of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2270) tells its faithful:

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his [sic] existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” 

While I have no objection to the injunction to respect and protect such beginnings of human life, I think there is a serious problem with calling this being  or entity a “person” (which Webster’s defines as “an individual human being”) at least at the stage that the so-called morning-after-pills (which I take is what the bishops are condemning as “abortion-inducing drugs”) would at all be effective.  Even after that stage, when an embryo or “pre-embryo” as medical researchers term it begins cell division or multiplication after implantation, it can still turn into the beginning of identical twins or what begins as two pre-embryos (fraternal twins) even turn into a “chimera” — a single organism possessing two different sets of DNA.  So in such cases, do we have one “person” becoming two, or two becoming one?  In view of this conundrum the whole idea that there is an “ensoulment” that constitutes personhood and which takes place at the moment of conception ends up as problematic, if not outright unintelligible.

       It seems to me then, that having pushed their views this far, the US bishops have, in a sense painted themselves into a corner from which they seem to sense already that their only escape is to plead “freedom of religion” or the inviolability of their conscience (even if mistakenly informed) to justify their refusal to go along with what is already the rule in a majority of states in the USA.  In their initial determination not to comply, they reminded me of the story of the seven martyred Jewish brothers in the seventh chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees (also not found in the KJV) who we are told suffered horrible deaths rather than give in to the demand they eat or even taste a single piece of pork. 

       Meanwhile, the bishops have been offered a compromise by the White House, which consists of requiring the insurance providers themselves to fund the contraceptive services for those women employees who request them, giving the bishops the illusion that they have not contaminated their hands by handing over money that just might finance the contraceptives that their employees request.  At the same time, the insurance companies could profit because even giving away contraceptives saves more money compared to paying for the services of an obstetrician or even more, to correct (abort) a pregnancy that has seriously gone wrong. Truly, it is a solution worthy of any Talmudic or even Islamic scholar of who has wrestled the tricky problems as to how make sure everything remains legally kashrut  or conforms to the sharia rules of halal.  Unfortunately it now seems that the bishops are refusing even this face-saving gesture. Meanwhile most of the Jews and millions of Catholics and perhaps even many Muslims have moved on to more pressing and weighty concerns, like trying feed and house the billions of people that have been already born.

R W Kropf   2/11/2012  (updated 2/22/2012)                                                                      Kosher Catholicism 4.doc/kosher.html