The Honeymoon’s (Almost) Over

So will this be that moment when the media finally turns on Pope Francis?

In a rather fortuitous bit of timing following my post yesterday, the Pope may now find himself in a bit of a pickle, when it comes to his relationship with the media.  Today the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report not only condemning the sex abuse scandal, but going even further, insisting that the Catholic Church change its teachings on issues like contraception and abortion.  The Vatican has issued an initial, somewhat terse response, acknowledging the findings of the Committee but also its “regret to see in some points of the Concluding Observations an attempt to interfere with Catholic Church teaching on the dignity of human person and in the exercise of religious freedom.”

Putting aside the issue of the sex abuse scandal itself, one does have to ask oneself what children have to do with issues such as contraception and abortion.  Well, other than the fact that both prevent children from existing, of course.  The fact that these issues were thrown in to a final report on what was supposed to be an examination of how the Church handled the abuse crisis seems rather strange – until, that is, one looks a little more closely at who created it.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child is composed of 18 “experts” from around the world.  One of them, Ms. Amal Aldoseri, a Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee, is the foundress of Y-PEER Education in her home country of Bahrain. Y-PEER is an organization which seeks to “increase access to information, knowledge, and services on sexual and reproductive health,” i.e., teach adolescents how to put on a condom, take The Pill, or get an abortion.  Another Vice-Chairwoman of the Committee, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne of Sri Lanka, began her career as the medical officer/project director of a “family planning” clinic in her home country, i.e., “teach adults how to put on a condom, take The Pill, or get an abortion.  Therefore it should surprise no one that demands that Catholics become gnostics – or at best, Anglicans – when it comes to issues of sexual reproduction would issue from a body headed by such individuals.

What interests me most at this point is anticipating how Pope Francis himself is going to react to this report, for react he must, whether he wants to or not.  The story was the lede on virtually every news outlet today; in fact it was the first story I heard on NPR this morning, a network whose reporting bias works better than any alarm clock at getting me out of bed in a fit of yelling and indignation.  The media will be paying very close attention to what the Pope has to say about the findings and recommendations issued by the Committee, and they will hound him until he does so.

When that statement comes, the Pope will find out who his real friends are.  He may once again surprise us by finding a way to deftly avoid the diplomatic and public relations trap that has been laid for him.  However it is hard to see how he will be able to step around a direct challenge to the fundamental teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and their successors, handed down through the Catholic Church in an unbroken chain for the past 2,000 years.

Hopefully his response, when it comes, will be a clear and unequivocal statement, even if it means that the press honeymoon will come to an end, as a result.


Walking the Walk

One of the reasons why many of us engage in social media is the fact that human beings like to share their opinions with others; we enjoy debating and arguing, whether down at the local watering hole, over the back fence, in the supermarket parking lot, or in our legislatures.  Yet debate alone does not solve practical problems related to someone making the kind of fundamental change which a philosophical or religious conversion may bring.  To use a somewhat more basic turn of phrase, we need to applaud and follow the example of those who put their money where their mouth is, particularly when they identify a practical need that might not seem obvious at first.

These were my thoughts last evening watching Jon Marc Grodi interview Pro-Life activist Abby Johnson on EWTN’s “The Journey Home” program.  Jon Marc was substitute hosting – great job, guy – for his Dad on the show, as Abby described her journey from being the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas, to becoming a well-known Pro-Life advocate.   Abby details her harrowing story about the realities of the corporate abortion industry, and what happens when you try to escape its tentacles, in her best-selling book, “Unplanned”.

I had heard Abby speak previously, both in person and on television, and knew many of the details of her story. However what particularly struck me about last evening’s conversation was the example both she and Jon Marc provided about how to “walk the walk” with their respective organizations.  There are practical and often very difficult implications to making fundamental changes in one’s moral, philosophical, and religious views.

Abby Johnson for example is not someone who simply walked away from the culture of death, as laudable a decision as that was. In fact the method she has chosen of walking away is to keep on walking the walk and getting others to walk with her, through her organization And Then There Were None, which seeks to help abortion workers who want to get out of that industry.  As Abby pointed out on the program last evening, while a number of Americans may say they are Pro-Abortion [N.B. I do not use the term “Pro-Choice”, since the child has no choice in the matter], having Planned Parenthood on your resume is considered a huge negative by many potential employers, and many abortion workers who want to leave are browbeaten into staying. So far, the outreach program has helped nearly 100 people to leave the abortion mills, by providing emotional and spiritual support, access to legal counsel, and even financial assistance.

Similarly, though obviously on a different topic altogether, there is the question of what to do with the religious convert who swims the Tiber but just so happens to be a minister in another faith or denomination. “The Journey Home” is a show produced by The Coming Home Network, an organization founded by Jon Marc’s father Marcus Grodi to aid and encourage converts coming into the Catholic Church.  While it helps all kinds of people with many types of resources, it is particularly well-placed on a practical level for those who are going to be leaving religious ministry in order to become Catholic.  How will a religious minister support himself and his family, once he is no longer receiving a salary for leading a congregation?  The Coming Home Network attempts to help support those seeking to answer this question.

Both of these organizations are terrific examples of thinking about the needs of others, and realizing that if someone is going to make a fundamental change in their way of life, there will be practical, often difficult and painful, implications arising from that choice.  These two groups fill a gap not being met by anyone else, because they understand that human beings are not completely intellectual or spiritual creatures; people have real, temporal needs that need to be addressed.  That perceptiveness is something which more of us ought to try to take as an example, whether by coming up with ways to provide such support ourselves, or by attaching ourselves to those who already do, and offering them our own assistance.  This is how a culture of life, in all its iterations, can be built up in our society, as we all walk together to try to be better brethren to one another.

Detail of "An Easter Procession" by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1893) Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg

Detail of “An Easter Procession” by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1893)
Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg

The Shock of the Newborn

British contemporary artist Damien Hirst, he of the sheep or sharks displayed in tanks filled with formaldehyde, is certainly no stranger to controversy.  The type of public outcry normally associated with Hirst, such as the infamous “Sensation” exhibition, often causes those of us with a more traditional set of sensibilities to recoil in horror.  However with his latest effort, Hirst may find himself being embraced by those with conservative values, placing himself at least temporarily in danger of alienating many of those who fell all over themselves to praise him in the first place.

Hirst’s newest work, an installation entitled “The Miraculous Journey”, consists of 14 large bronze sculptures of a child, portrayed at various stages of development from conception to birth.  It was commissioned by the Qatar Museums Authority, and placed outside of the Sidra Medical and Research Center in Doha, the capital of Qatar.  The largest single sculpture, that of the newly born child himself, stands 45 feet tall.

Tellingly, in reporting on this massive work of art, the New York Times fails to explore the inescapable pro-life message which it sends.  Being the Times, the article focuses instead on the portrayal of sex and nudity in the Muslim world, reminding the reader – as if the reader was so stupid not to already be aware of it –  that women in Qatar live in a very conservative, traditional Islamic environment.  The piece spends far more time celebrating the fact that a woman commissioned the sculpture, and talking about Hirst’s checkerboard career to date, than it does examining the message of the art itself.

For example, the article quotes Mr. Hirst as explaining that once he himself became a father, be became interested in the miracle of childbirth.  “Everyone talks about our life’s journey,” he commented to the Times, “but we have a whole journey before you’re born.”  A more reputable publication would have pressed the artist on this point, since the obvious implication of this statement is a perhaps unexplored belief in the personhood of the unborn child.  Instead, the Times simply lets the quote, without any further exploration.

We can all imagine what would have happened if, rather than in the Middle East, Mr. Hirst had been asked to create this work for a hospital in a major American city.  In this country, where one may advertise for all sorts of contraceptives on television, but discussions of the realities of abortion and its aftermath are relegated almost exclusively to religious programming outlets, such a daring art installation would almost certainly be questioned and criticized openly by the media.  It is interesting to reflect on the fact that this piece was created for a country whose culture is supposedly possessed of far less freedom of expression that that which we enjoy, yet no hospital in America would dare to install a massive piece of life-affirming art on its front lawn.

Whatever his personal intentions here may have been, or for that matter whatever he himself may think of policies such as abortion on demand, Mr. Hirst has shown us the power, and indeed the danger, of art which seeks to portray the truth.  Here is a depiction of human life from its very beginnings which is not a simple illustration, but rather something absolutely monumental in scale, weighing well over 200 tons.  The potential danger here, to those who do not want us to view human life as such in all of its stages, is what the impact of this art may be.  And here we must consider not only those who are on the fence about the issue, but those who thought they understood what an individual human being’s development looks like.  A reasonable viewer of this piece may very well find themselves asking, at what stage in a child’s development they would feel comfortable in bringing about its death.

This not-so-little person portrayed in bronze is clearly designed to make us think, not only about anatomy and science, two subjects which have fascinated Mr. Hirst throughout his career to date, but about even more fundamental issues of life and death.  The size itself ought to tell us how large the stakes are, particularly when the person portrayed is shown as being as large as an automobile, rather than something which could be easily hidden away within the pages of a book, cropped out of a photograph, or buried within a blog post such as this.  For many therefore, this new installation must be a very disturbing work of art, indeed.


Part of “The Miraculous Journey” by Damien Hirst (2013)
Sidra Medical and Research Center, Doha, Qatar