The Seal of the Confessional

December 2nd, 2012

Gillard: Common sense from Down Under

Australia was in the news last month, when Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other leading government officials pressed for a change in the law to require all adults, including members of the clergy, to report to the authorities all cases of child sex abuse that come to their attention. Gillard, one of the only (perhaps the only) non-communist national leader who openly professes non-belief in God, explicitly stated that this rule should apply with full force to information a priest receives during the Catholic sacrament of confession. “It’s not good enough for people to engage in sin of omission and not act when a child is at risk” Gillard reasoned. Senator Nick Xenophon called the seal of the confessional a “a medieval law that needs to change in the 21st century.”

The church responded with its typical intransigence, as Sydney’s Cardinal Pell insisted that a priest may never divulge anything revealed in the confessional, ever, for any reason. Canon law section 983.1 is crystal clear: “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.”
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If Italy Can Do It …

November 4th, 2012

Last month’s headlines certainly looked exciting: “Italian church to be stripped of tax exemption,” “Catholic church to lose historic property tax exemption in Italy.” Wow! If such a heavily Catholic country like Italy can start making God experts pay property taxes like everyone else, then why can’t even less-Catholic countries – like this one – do the same thing?

Unfortunately, it turns out that the headline writers were doing their job: sensationalizing a story to make suckers like me take the time to read it, misleading without being technically inaccurate. The Italian church is not losing its entire tax exemption, just part of it – a part that largely doesn’t exist here, or in most other jurisdictions. Still, progress is progress, and it’s worth understanding exactly what is going on in Italy.
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Remembering Steve Biko

October 7th, 2012

Last month marked the 35th anniversary of the murder of a remarkable humanist, whom the world has sorely missed. Steve Biko is remembered primarily as a black agitator against South African apartheid, but there was a lot more to him than that. By necessity, he dealt with profound issues of religion and political power in ways that must never be forgotten.

Apartheid was a creature of Protestant religion, through and through. Its roots lay in the Calvinism of the Dutch Reformed Church, which taught that God had chosen his elect from the beginning of time, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. When Dutch colonists founded Capetown in the 17th century, their God experts quickly leapt to the implication that God had chosen certain races as well as certain individuals, and had no doubt that God preferred them over the filthy black natives. Aside from the fact that slavery was God’s will, it made life far easier and more pleasant, and soon there were more South African slaves than whites. Read the rest of this entry »

The Greatest Loophole Ever Sold

September 2nd, 2012

After decades of misfires, I have finally figured out an infallible way to get rich, without the unpleasant side effect of having to work hard for it.

First, go where the money is. Healthcare. The biggest segment of the economy, sure to grow even faster now that the law requires health insurance coverage for all Americans.

So, I’ll start a healthcare insurance company. People will give me money, and when they get sick, I will pay their medical bills. Keep a little profit, and I’m rich.

The only hard part is that it’s tricky predicting what those bills will be. If I guess too high, my premiums will be non-competitive. If I guess too low, I might go broke. So in my company, I will pay customers’ medical bills only if I have enough money left after I’ve paid my own generous salary. I will also decline to pay bills for people if I just don’t like them anymore, especially people with the gall to disagree with me on politics or religion.

How, you ask, will I find suckers willing to give me money for something like this? That’s the easy part. I’ll just tell people that God wants them to do it. I’ve even got a handy Bible verse that says so. People spend billions of dollars every year trying to make God happy, getting absolutely nothing for it. How hard can it be to persuade them to give God a little money if they think that will cover their medical bills? Read the rest of this entry »

The Church’s Real Contraception Agenda

August 5th, 2012

Philippine Catholics march against freedom of conscience

To hear the Catholic bishops talk, you’d think today’s hot-button issue of contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans is one of “religious liberty,” where the government is denying Catholics the opportunity to practice their religion as they see fit. It’s all a question of personal freedom, they say. Of course they are not trying to take away anyone’s choices; they’re simply trying to preserve the choice for themselves to have private health insurance programs that do not offer the particular benefit of contraceptive coverage.

This is a smokescreen. The truth is that the Church would prefer to have the law ban all forms of contraception, for everyone. They know they can’t get that in 21st century America, so they try to come as close as they can, nibbling away at the edges to stamp out all the contraception they can while hoping the pendulum eventually swings back their way.

Proof of this lies across the water, in the Philippines, where the hot issue right now is the umpteenth effort to pass what is known as the “Reproductive Health” bill, which is strongly pushed by the Filipino Freethinkers organization. Yesterday, 10,000 Catholics marched in the rain against passage of a law that the Philippines’ bishops call “a major attack on authentic human values … that all of us have cherished since time immemorial.” Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon even encourages some unspecified form of “civil disobedience” if the bill passes.
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The Parade of Privilege

July 1st, 2012

We’re now enduring the “Fortnight for Freedom,” the Catholic bishops’ 14-day whine festival to “restore religious liberty.” What a joke! Religion in America today not only has all the “liberty” one could imagine, but enjoys an extraordinary array of special privileges. So as a brief counterpoint of sanity amidst the sanctimony, I offer the “Parade of Privilege”: a listing of 14 of the many ways that government props up religion, favoring God experts over the one third of Americans who are not religious. When you reach the end of the Parade, ask yourself this: how much higher would that one-third be if government provided a truly level playing field?

Privilege No. 1: Property Tax

Let’s start with money, always a favorite subject. Big money – billions with a “B” type money. Twenty-six billion dollars a year – every year. That’s the conservative estimate of authors Ryan Cragun, Stephanie Yeager, and Desmond Vega for the loss to state and local governments from the property tax exemption for churches.

President Obama is certainly correct when he points out that private sector employment is growing, albeit slowly, but that overall economic growth is being creamed by the sharp decline in public sector jobs. What if there were a program that guaranteed $26 billion a year, every year, to our state and local governments to get their budgets back on track? Without costing the federal government or the average taxpayer a nickel? There is: just repeal the property tax exemption for churches.

“But,” the bishops would say, “churches do a great deal of good.” Well, some do, and some don’t. Just like plenty of other organizations that do good in their communities as well. Take grocery stores – there are lots of communities, urban and rural, that are seriously underserved by grocery stores, causing major hardship on a daily basis. A property tax exemption for grocery stores could solve that problem, lickety-split. As any legislator can tell you, though, if you do that for grocery stores, then the hardware stores, the shoe stores, and the drug stores will form a line outside the door, demanding the same treatment. They all do good things for their communities, and are a lot more essential to living a pleasant life than any church will ever be.
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Taming the Nuns

June 3rd, 2012

The trouble with God experts is that they squabble among themselves so much. Why is the signal God broadcasts so faint that different humans who tune in to it receive such contradictory information? Can’t God just speak a little louder into the mike?

The latest brouhaha is between the Vatican and America’s nuns, organized into the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious.” Back in 2009, Rome announced an “apostolic visitation” to some 400 women’s religious institutes in America, to be conducted by the heavies at the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” – the organization known until two centuries ago as “The Inquisition.” The result was a scathing report issued this spring, accusing the group of promoting “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Worse yet, nuns are spending too much energy on “social justice” matters like helping the sick and the poor, and not nearly enough on combating the real evils of society, like contraception. Read the rest of this entry »

Against Democracy

May 6th, 2012

Gen. Kenan Evren: No Atatürk

Turkey was in the news last month, for putting on trial the two surviving generals who helped lead a successful coup against a popularly-elected government in 1980. Terrible thing, isn’t it, for unelected generals to undermine democracy like that? Or is there more to the story than meets the eye?

The story begins at the dawn of the twentieth century, when Turkish army officers, then the most well-educated, forward-looking people in the Ottoman Empire, overthrew centuries of rule by Muslim sultans. There isn’t space to talk about that in detail here, but you can sneak a peek at a chapter from my forthcoming book to get the full story. Ultimately the military, led by the extraordinary Kemal Mustafa Atatürk, established a secular republic, in a revolution more sweeping (and less bloody) than anything that occurred in America, France, Russia, or China. Not without intense resistance, though, from the Muslim God experts displaced from power, who forced Atatürk to put down a number of armed revolts. When his successor allowed free elections in 1950, a party dominated by imams took power, and promptly began whittling away at the provisions of Atatürk’s secular constitution for their own benefit. Read the rest of this entry »

The Pope and the Cristeros

April 1st, 2012

The most meaningful stop on the Pope’s Latin American swing last week was not Cuba, as the press would have it, but Guanajuato, Mexico, the symbolic heart of Catholic violence in the Americas. His presence there honored the Cristeros, who slaughtered 50,000 Mexicans early in the 20th century in order to promote the rule of “Christ the King” – a struggle the pope evidently intends to renew.

For hundreds of years after the Spanish conquest of Hernán Cortés, Mexico was ruled by a coterie of priests and soldiers, who sucked as much wealth as they could out of the land for the benefit of the other priests and soldiers who ruled mother Spain. That ended when independence arrived in 1821. The new republican government systematically began returning the land and wealth the church had expropriated to the Mexican people, and regulating the exorbitant fees the church charged the peasants for services like baptism and burial. Naturally, the church opposed all this, and collaborated joyously in the brief restoration of foreign monarchy under the Emperor Maximilian in 1862. But the Mexican people, most of whom seem to be only nominally Catholic, quickly reinstalled a secular government under Benito Juarez, one of the most outstanding leaders any nation ever had. Read the rest of this entry »

The Amish Angle

March 3rd, 2012

Over the years, I’ve written pieces offending Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, and Scientologists. Leaving no toe unstepped on, today I turn to the Amish. We just observed the 30th anniversary of a major Supreme Court case involving preferential treatment for the Amish, and we now see them being cited as an example in the ongoing debate over preferential treatment for Catholics in the new healthcare law. So now is as good a time as there will ever be to talk about all the Amish legal privileges unavailable to the rest of us.

One of the few sensible points being made by the Catholic hierarchy in its effort to win special treatment under the new healthcare law is that the law gives other religious groups, like the Amish, special treatment. Therefore, it is discriminatory not to give special treatment to Catholics, who don’t want to provide contraception in their healthcare plans. As Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put it:

The government allows other religions to live out their beliefs. The Amish and Christian Scientists have a conscientious objection to health insurance, and so the law exempts them from buying it. The government acknowledges the right of these religious groups to live out their religious convictions in US society. Why are beliefs of Catholics and others dismissed?

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