Evidence of things not seen

dolanSo The New York Times covered Archbishop Timothy Dolan's first Mass in New York. This is a good thing. Depending on when and how you accessed the article, its headline was either:

Archbishop Timothy Dolan Says First Sunday Mass in New York


A Call to Catholics to Trust What Cannot Be Seen

Our curmudgeonly copyeditor, the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc, noted to me last week: "No Mass is merely "said" ever. As the Associated Press Stylebook notes, the Mass (capital M, also per AP) is celebrated." So just for copyediting purposes -- although I have no personal problem with describing a Mass as being said -- that first headline should be revised.

The second headline indicates what I found most interesting about the story:

His first homily adhered closely to Roman Catholic doctrine -- offering only indirect signs of the activist role he has hinted he will take as an advocate of the church's agenda in the public sphere -- calling on those in his flock to build their faith on "trust in what cannot be seen," and not only "on empirical, scientific evidence."

Breaking: The new archbishop adhered to Roman Catholic doctrine.

I wonder if folks in the media know how funny and/or ridiculous such a line is. It's also funny to pit doctrine against activism in advocacy of the church's agenda in the public sphere. Advocating the church's agenda in the public sphere isn't separate from Catholic doctrine. But the really bad part comes when reporter Paul Vitello inexplicably adds a personal interpretation of the sermon:

The archbishop's first homily followed the liturgical calendar in revisiting the story of the Apostle Thomas, who doubted the resurrection of Jesus until he could see it for himself. He urged people not to be doubting Thomases, who reserve faith only for the things that can be verified, like "stock portfolios, for instance."

"Those are the things," he said, "that let us down."

He did not refer to it, but there is conflict between Catholic dogma and scientific conventions on several fronts, including the medical definition of brain death, the legal definition of the beginning of human life and the ethics of embryonic stem cell research.

I don't know what, exactly, I find funniest about this last line. I probably should note the use of the word "dogma" -- something the New York Times has written is a "dirty word." But I don't consider the word dirty!

There is certainly the silliness of pretending that Catholics define the beginning of life or the occurrence of brain death in an unscientific manner. They don't. They don't use religious definitions for these things. If anything, they're less likely to use euphemisms than some in the medical community. And science (I'm unsure what we mean by scientific conventions) is certainly on their side when it comes to the definition of brain death and the beginning of human life. That's not the controversial part of Catholic teaching on sanctity of human life. The controversial part is where the church teaches that because human life begins when it does, society shouldn't condone the use and destruction of embryos for research. That latter part isn't a scientific issue but an ethical issue -- and one that can and does yield dissenting responses. But that's not the only reason that bizarre interpretation makes me grimace.

There's also the problem that the reporter wants to force a political spin on a religious sermon about faith in Christ. Quasimodo Geniti is the first week after Easter. It's also my husband's baptismal anniversary. We read about Thomas during this week. The propers for this past Sunday are about things that are so much more important -- theologically speaking -- than simply whatever the latest political issue is.

In that sense, the idea that this Christian concept -- articulated eloquently in Hebrews 11 -- that "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" is somehow primarily a discussion not only of bioethics but, what's more, a defensive posture relating to being on the wrong side of science, is just laughable. Perhaps rather than just inserting that last paragraph above, the reporter should ask theologians, parishioners or Dolan himself what they think it means for Christians to trust in what can not be seen.

For people interested in Dolan stories, incidentally, here's an intriguing little bit from Gary Stern at The Journal News.

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