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News comes today from the Religion News Service that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose oversight of Priests for Life’s finances was welcomed by Father Pavone several months ago, has turned sour, leading Cardinal Dolan to express the same exasperation as several of Father Pavone’s previous bishops. From RNS:

NEW YORK (RNS) In the latest clash between the Catholic hierarchy and one of the church’s leading anti-abortion crusaders, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan accused the Rev. Frank Pavone of continuing to stonewall on financial reforms, and Dolan said he is cutting ties with his group, Priests for Life.

In a Nov. 20 letter to other U.S. bishops, Dolan said he did not know if the Vatican would now step in to take action against the New York-based priest, who for years has angered various bishops by rejecting oversight of the organization by church authorities and for refusing to sort out his group’s troubled finances.

“My requests of Father Pavone were clear and simple: one, that Priests for Life undergo a forensic audit; two, that a new, independent board be established to provide oversight and accountability,” Dolan wrote in the letter, which was first reported by Catholic World News.

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“Although Father Pavone initially assured me of his support, he did not cooperate. Frequent requests that he do so went unheeded. I finally asked him to comply by October 1st. He did not,” Dolan wrote.

Dolan, who had been asked by the Vatican to help Pavone restructure Priests for Life, said in the letter that he has informed Rome that “I am unable to fulfill their mandate, and want nothing further to do with the organization.”

The cardinal said he had “no idea” what the Vatican intends to do now.

In a statement emailed to Religion News Service on Monday (Dec. 15), the Staten Island-based Priests for Life rebuffed Dolan’s criticisms, contending that the group has had “clean” audits for 15 years and saying the dispute is, in fact, “about control.”

That last statement from PFL is regrettable, and one that I fear may signal a return to the smear campaign deployed against Bishop Zurek by several of Father Pavone’s supporters a few years ago. Is it really all about control? So far the bishop’s complaints have never progressed beyond the issue of accounting and accountability, so the charge about control really comes off as a smokescreen tactic to many faithful Catholics who are every bit as pro-life as the staff at PFL.

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In the last go-round on this issue, several supporters of Father Pavone mercilessly smeared Bishop Zurek as wanting to ruin Father Pavone, to wreck his ministry, of being a pawn of Satan. As many are not Catholic, it was easy to chalk much of that invective up to ignorance of the very nature of a bishop and his sacred office, of the respect and obedience due him from every Catholic, but especially from priests who register sacred vows of respect and obedience at their ordinations. What was appalling was the silence from PFL in the face of this merciless pillorying of Bishop Zurek.

At the time, Bishop Zurek indicated the nature of the problem, as retold by RNS:

In 2011, Zurek denounced Pavone’s “incorrigible defiance of my legitimate authority as his bishop” and suspended his ministry. It then emerged that Priests for Life had been badly mismanaged, running an unsustainable $1.4 million deficit and failing to make key tax filings or allow proper financial oversight and safeguards.

Pavone moved back to New York, saying he had the Vatican’s support and that he would not be cowed by any bishop. Then earlier this year, he and Zurek said they reached a settlement in their standoff and the problems seemed on their way to a resolution.

But that apparently wasn’t the case, and Pavone’s fate now seems to rest with Rome.

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So what will it be now? Will the narrative be that Cardinal Dolan really isn’t all that pro-life? That gay-loving prelate who welcomed a gay contingent into the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York! On a few occasions when I have thought Cardinal Dolan erred badly, I wrote about it. But I didn’t smear him. I didn’t impugn his motives. I didn’t encourage a rebellion against him. I encouraged him to look to the examples of his predecessors in office. And all of that raises what is really at issue here.

What does it mean to be a faithful son of the Church?

At its core it means fidelity to the Magisterium and to one’s bishop. This fidelity is required of laity as well as clerics and finds its scriptural roots in 1 Thessalonians 5: 11-13

Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do. We ask you, brothers, to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you,and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

In this chapter, PFL needs to strike a new tone. They need to put the “Priest” back in Priests for Life. How Catholic or priestly is it to set one’s supporters against a string of bishops? That new tone begins with respect and obedience towards one’s bishop. If the accounting is all in order, then we should get to that point. It would then become abundantly clear if “control” is at issue. That said, Bishop Zurek’s assertion three years ago bears mention again.

As Father Pavone’s Bishop, Patrick Zurek bears moral responsibility for the stewardship of PFL’s finances if there is mismanagement by one of his priests of the $10 Million annual budget, and Bishop Zurek will answer to God for whether or not he exercised his sacred office with prudence and diligence.

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What is certain from the published record is that there has been a fractious relationship between Father Pavone and several of his bishops through the years. Equally objective are the horrendous characterizations of these bishops by many of Father Pavone’s supporters. Also equally certain is the fact that no amount of anti-abortion crusading and success can justify these grotesque allegations against the bishops. Even if Bishop Zurek were a bishop who ranked pro-life ministry at the bottom of his list of priorities, this much is also certain:

Every priest serves at the pleasure of his bishop, and his bishop owes him no explanation for changing that priest’s assignment.

Who knows what other news might be in the wings? Regardless, this time around, PFL needs to change tack and get off the smear campaign. It’s a losing strategy with faithful Catholics who ask the simple question:

What would Padre Pio do?

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Ninety-eight years ago, Edgar Lee Masters penned his famous Spoon River Anthology, a towering work of poetry set in the graveyard of mythical Spoon River. It is a small town whose deceased residents speak frankly from beyond the grave about the gritty reality of what was their life on earth. The most haunting and instructive of these for me as a young college student was that of George Gray:

I HAVE studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

As they have so many times in my life, these words came back as I read this week of yet another academic group calling for infanticide’s new euphemism: Post-birth abortion.

Read the article here. This also follows an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics two years ago, giving cold rationalization for murdering newborns. And that was atop Princeton’s Peter Singer who has advocated this for years.

Every argument is being offered around the world for infanticide in the case of terminal conditions, and even genetic conditions such as Down syndrome. The arguments are the same “quality of life” arguments used to justify abortion. Realizing that infanticide could never sell, as such, the proponents now claim that a newborn is closer developmentally to a fetus than to an adult. What the proponents gloss over is the human identity of the one they seek to murder in cold blood.

Yes, being handed devastating diagnoses for one’s child is enough to make one’s blood run cold. When Regina and I were told that Joseph might well need a group home one day, my faith in myself as a father was put to the test. It was shattering to hear one of the world’s leading authorities say these words. In that moment I had only two things left to me:

The certain knowledge of Regina’s steadfastness and of God’s steadfast providence.

Today that boy stands ready to become an Eagle Scout in two months at the age of fifteen. I don’t think I could have seen that or believed it possible eleven years ago, and therein lies the great trap for so many parents facing the eventual counsel to engage in, “what’s best for the child,” as infanticide takes hold. It is nothing less than love being inverted.

A little more than a century before Masters penned his poem, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Patsy, where he advised,

Every human being must be viewed according to what it is good for. For not one of us, no, not one, is perfect. And were we to love none who had imperfection, this world would be a desert for our love.

Jefferson grasped that our love only takes root in the soil of human imperfection in others. Far from merely affirming what we find desirable and admirable in others, love complements and completes others. It is a balm for their wounds and a fortress for their weaknesses and fears. It is safe refuge, a place to safely grow.

Jefferson grasped that love, true love, is sacrificial in nature and has nothing to offer humans who might be perfect. Imagine a world that was a desert for our love.

Arid and lifeless.

That is not so much the world that might be, but the world as it is in large swaths of what was once western civilization. The intolerance of imperfection, the disillusionment of our life’s goals being suddenly derailed by the acute and chronic needs of a child or elderly parent, all run hard against our thirst for meaning, but fear of sacrifice and its cost. We are doing something wrong as a people, as a Church, for such fear to rule. In a season of hope, we need to search within for some hard answers to the question of how it is that we have come to this, and what we must do to offer hope and vision to those stumbling around in the darkness.

Could it be that alienation from God precipitates the alienation of love, true love from people’s lives? Is that it?

Masters grasped it, I think. I would only add that the meaning of which Masters speaks is wrought by Jefferson’s love:

To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

I think that somewhere in there is the way out for a civilization in free-fall.

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In our long stride toward the inevitable designer babies, the first manipulation has been the noble goal of creating babies free of the mitochondrial diseases carried by their mothers. This series will examine the issue rather thoroughly in four basic segments:

1. The basic cell biology involved.
2. The problem of defective mitochondria.
3. The technique involving three-parent embryo creation.
4. The current state of the ethics debate among governmental bodies here and in the United Kingdom.

Cell Biology

In order to understand the fullness of the debate, we need to understand some very basic facts about cells. Every human cell contains specialized compartments called Organelles (meaning, Little Organs). Just as the human body has organs for specialized function (heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, brain, liver, kidneys, etc.) so too every cell has little organs for specialized function:

Ribosomes make protein.
Nucleus houses the Chromosomal DNA.
Lysosomes do recycling of worn out parts.
Golgi Bodies modify and ship proteins to appropriate destinations
Endoplasmic Reticula make lipids and are sites of protein synthesis.

and then come the Mitochondria.

The mitochondria are frequently referred to as the powerhouse of the cell, because they take in by-products of glucose and extract large amounts of energy for use by the cell. It takes a great deal of energy for cells to function properly, and the mitochondrion is the place where that happens. That having been said, it is one of the gross oversimplifications in biological education to leave it at energy production and move on where the mitochondrion is concerned. In fact, there are two scientific journals devoted entirely to mitochondrial research that immediately come to mind: Mitochondrion, and Mitochondrial Research. Suffice it to say that the scope of the mitochondrion and its effects on human physiology are broad and complicated.

For purposes of understanding three-parent embryo creation it helps to know the following. It is thought in evolutionary biology that at one time the mitochondrion was a free-standing, free-living cell that became incorporated into larger cells, with the result being a marriage that worked for both. It’s called the Endosymbiont Theory. Mitochondria replicate themselves within cells, so when cells divide, each new cell gets an appropriate number of mitochondria. In this way, the mitochondria act somewhat as independent organisms would. Along the way, most of the mitochondrion’s 3,000 genes ended up being transferred to the cell nucleus. The following description comes from the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation website. I have found them to be an excellent clearinghouse of information with writing that is very easy for the scientific layperson to follow:

The conventional teaching in biology and medicine is that mitochondria function only as “energy factories” for the cell. This over-simplification is a mistake which has slowed our progress toward understanding the biology underlying mitochondrial disease. It takes about 3000 genes to make a mitochondrion. Mitochondrial DNA encodes just 37 of these genes; the remaining genes are encoded in the cell nucleus and the resultant proteins are transported to the mitochondria. Only about 3% of the genes necessary to make a mitochondrion (100 of the 3000) are allocated for making ATP. More than 95% (2900 of 3000) are involved with other functions tied to the specialized duties of the differentiated cell in which it resides. These duties change as we develop from embryo to adult, and our tissues grow, mature, and adapt to the postnatal environment. These other, non-ATP-related functions are intimately involved with most of the major metabolic pathways used by a cell to build, break down, and recycle its molecular building blocks. Cells cannot even make the RNA and DNA they need to grow and function without mitochondria. The building blocks of RNA and DNA are purines and pyrimidines. Mitochondria contain the rate-limiting enzymes for pyrimidine biosynthesis (dihydroorotate dehydrogenase) and heme synthesis (d-amino levulinic acid synthetase) required to make hemoglobin [Note by G.N.: This is the molecule that binds oxygen in every red blood cell]. In the liver, mitochondria are specialized to detoxify ammonia in the urea cycle. Mitochondria are also required for cholesterol metabolism, for estrogen and testosterone synthesis, for neurotransmitter metabolism, and for free radical production and detoxification. They do all this in addition to breaking down (oxidizing) the fat, protein, and carbohydrates we eat and drink.

Do visit their website for specific information on the range of mitochondrial diseases.

Now, without frightening off the non-scientist or non-medical person, the above quote cracks the door ajar ever so slightly to allow a glimpse of the complexities involved at the biological level. Adding further, there needs to be coordination between the genes encoded on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the mitochondrial genes encoded on the DNA in the nucleus of the cell (nDNA). To date, there are still too many unknowns in the cell biology and the pathophysiology at the cellular level (That’s why the journals devoted to mitochondrial research are going strong, and will be for years to come.). We don’t know all of the coordinated function between mtDNA and nDNA within a given individual, and what other factors there may be (as yet unknown) that govern such function. In other words, are all mitochondrial defects solely attributable to mitochondrial genes (mt DNA and nDNA), or are there other genetic/biochemical defects in the individual at play here? It matters when someone wishes to take the mitochondria from an egg cell, leaving the nDNA intact, and introducing mitochondria from another individual. It matters because the issues are not always so simple as mutations in genes.

Indeed there are other factors around the major genetic factors, and these are known as epigenetic factors. Epigenetics looks at factors involved in the regulation of genes, and when they get turned on and off. Adding still further to the complexity, there may be epigenetic factors in the nDNA that are unknown and alter the epigenetics of the mtDNA., and all of these factors in one kind of cell may well influence mitochondrial function in distant types of cells within the body.

Confused and bewildered yet?

That’s the point. We don’t know what we don’t know, and in mitochondrial disease there is quite a bit that we don’t know. It will be fertile ground for research for decades to come, and that points toward the abomination of three-parent embryo creation in human beings as a vast and unregulated medical experiment. In the next post (Nov. 20, 2014), we’ll look at several mitochondrial diseases and consider what we do know of their etiology, and what we suspect we don’t yet know. Then in the third post we’ll consider the technique involving three-parent embryo creation and consider the ethical dimensions involved.
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Photo Credit: Photo Via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2838705/Three-parent-babies-unsafe-warns-scientist-Adviser-issue-says-unresolved-safety-concerns-years-testing-required.html

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This will be a long post to wade through, but the issue warrants the length. Our feckless leadership in the war against Ebola can best be understood through history, and a different kind of president.

In the early days of the US Civil War, President Lincoln needed to raise an army, and fast. He could look out of his window and see General Robert E. Lee’s house atop a hill just across the Potomac River in Arlington, VA. To his north, Maryland also wished to secede, and was kept from doing so by force. The nation’s capital was surrounded by forces determined to destroy the union. An army was needed to defend the capital and then preserve the union. Enter, General McClellan.

General McClellan was a dashing figure, filled with bravado, and a damned fine West Point graduate and engineer. He built and outfitted the Grand Army of the Potomac in record time. He wooed the ladies at the homes of the leadership with his assurances of how quickly he would dispatch the rebels and restore the union. But little Mac wouldn’t go out to fight. At the sound, or even the thought of a canon’s roar, he persuaded himself that Lee had him outnumbered at least three to one. The little general’s biggest battles were with Lincoln and the War Department, constantly calling for ever-greater numbers of troops and supplies.

At wits end with a feckless general, Lincoln relieved McClellan with these words:

My dear McClellan: If you don’t want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a while. Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.

And so it is today that we have at the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a feckless bureaucrat in Dr. Tom Friedan. He may well have been a good peacetime administrator, a good little builder as McClellan was, but in the war on Ebola he simply won’t come out to fight. In some respects, he is worse than McClellan. Little Mac was loved by his troops because he had their best interests at heart. He was concerned about casualties in the ranks of those who did the actual fighting, who bore the horrors of war. When McClellan played the blame game, he went after his superiors.

This week a nurse who cared for Eric Duncan in Dallas was herself diagnosed with this dread disease, whose mortality rate has risen to 70%. Reflexively, Dr. Frieden blamed the nurse for “Breach of protocol.” This, despite the fact that CDC’s protocols are so shamefully inadequate as to be be of little value at all. If for no other reason than throwing this nurse under the bus, Dr. Frieden has forever branded himself a coward and compromised his ability to lead others in battle. But there is so much more to Frieden’s appalling ineptitude.

When voices have called for a travel ban on all people coming from the endemic regions in Africa, Frieden scoffed at the idea. He claims that restricting air travel would actually make matters worse by not allowing aid into the country. When repeatedly challenged on that assertion with the counter of having chartered flights for relief supplies and personnel, Frieden just dismisses the idea with the back of his hand. Watch the video interview below before reading on:

To be clear, we need to contrast the levels of protection promoted by Frieden here with what third world doctors are doing in the endemic regions. Consider this typical level of suiting up in Africa:

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Note the use of a buddy system where the outer layers are first sprayed with bleach in order to destroy any virus that may be contaminating the surface. Note how there are layers of protective gear, and that no part of the body is exposed. Now watch the video produced by CNN medical correspondent Dr. Gupta as he demonstrates the frightening inadequacy of a protocol approved by Dr. Frieden.

The juxtaposition of these two levels of protection cannot be overstated, as CNN notes the casualty count among health care workers in Africa who are using the greater level of protection:

There are so many caregivers who’ve become patients. At least 416 health care workers have contracted Ebola, and at least 233 have died, the World Health Organization reports. In Liberia, the worst-affected country, the virus has killed more than 100 medical workers.

And we see that the CDC level of “protection” has gained us two infected nurses from one patient, and who knows how many more cases incubating. At a ratio of two infected healthcare workers per patient, it would be only a matter of months before we lost most of our physicians and nurses in a major outbreak.

And Frieden had the temerity to blame the nurse.

Then there are Frieden’s claims that one cannot contract ebola from sitting next to an infected individual on a bus. This while the airplane traveled on by the second nurse to contract the virus from Duncan (and cleared by CDC to travel with a fever!) is about to undergo its FOURTH cleaning! Yet CDC maintains the fiction that ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with infected bodily fluids, while not acknowledging that surfaces contaminated by those fluids can maintain viable virus for hours to days, depending on temperature and humidity.

It goes without saying that to the extent Ebola is contained in the cloud of nasal spray in people sneezing on that bus (or anywhere), the virus is indeed airborne in that vicinity, and contaminates whatever surface the droplets land on.

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Meanwhile, teams have been dispatched to clean and decontaminate the apartments of Duncan and nurse Pham. An airliner has been quarantined, and the passengers who flew on the next five flights in that plane have been added to a watch list that has risen to hundreds.

All from the index case of Eric Duncan, who lied to get here.

That historical fact must not be allowed to become historical footnote, as self-reporting at airports is the furthest Dr. Frieden is willing to go in order to reduce the viral load entering the United States. Of course any exposed Liberian or other African who desperately seeks entry to the US for treatment will be entirely honest about their exposure status and voluntarily elect to stay home to die.

Just ask Duncan.

Patients can take high doses of tylenol and motrin to knock down a fever, and even if they are asymptomatic, a 21 day incubation means that potentially thousands of infected individuals will come here and spread the disease.

Frieden’s repeated assertion that keeping ebola cases in Africa will not stop the spread (you read that right), while allowing for travel will not increase our risk here (you read that right as well) shows that he is not the doctor for this job. Consider him in his own words:

“The only way we’re going to get to zero risk is by stopping the outbreak at the source… Even if we tried to close the border, it wouldn’t work. People have a right to return. People transiting through could come in. And it would backfire, because by isolating these countries, it’ll make it harder to help them, it will spread more there and we’d be more likely to be exposed here.

So, paying no heed to increasing the viral load here (through unrestricted migration) is the best way to end the problem there.

Not exactly.

And then there is the threat posed by our very porous southern border… A topic for another day.

This nation is witnessing the unpreparedness we have for treating and containing ebola cases here. Our hospitals have been doing a miserable job at containing nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections in general, and antibiotic resistant pathogens in particular. In one study, it was estimated that the 2002 incidence of nosocomial infections was 1.7 million in US hospitals. In the medical literature, physicians and nurses are repeatedly identified as being weak when it comes to hand washing between patients.

When the fundamentals are not habitual, it strains credulity to hear the CDC director repeatedly claim that any US hospital is fully qualified to handle ebola patients. In Texas, the amount of medical waste from Duncan alone piled up with uncertainty and confusion about proper protocol for disposal. Not all hospitals have large autoclaves for the sterilization of the bulk waste generated from the care of even one patient.

It is a sad and scary spectacle to see the CDC Director being taken to task by journalists with a firmer grasp of the threat and how to minimize it than the nation’s top administrator in charge of infectious disease prevention. It is bewildering to consider why the Acting Surgeon General has not weighed in as the chief public health officer of the nation.

In fact, the only medical society to weigh in with the truth has been the Nurses union in Dallas, decrying the lack of protection, protocol, and training. Leave it to the nurses. They’re usually the ones to get the ball rolling on patient advocacy, and this loops us back to General McClellan and the need for us to get rid of the McClellans among us.

We don’t really need a mediagenic CDC Director. We need a fighter. We need someone who may have bumps and warts in their background, but can recognize and speak truth as a matter of habit, who can invite in the nurses union from Dallas and work collegially and rapidly to get a handle on this mess.

Lincoln would go through several incompetent commanders before he found Grant, who was the opposite of pretty boy McClellan. He was rough, and unkempt, a drinker, but he fought tenaciously. When one of McClellan’s sympathizers sniffed that Grant imbibed too much whiskey, Lincoln’s classic response was to find out what whiskey it was so that he might send a barrel to all of his commanders.

Lincoln was a wise man, and was willing to overlook the personal foibles of the commander, so long as the results were favorable in the fight for the life of the nation. It’s time for this nation and this president to get serious and follow that admirable example.

The events of the past three weeks have confirmed for us that we cannot get caught up in dithering over the rights of people to enter this nation while potentially harboring ebola. We need the following immediately:

A ban on all immigration from anyone who has been in the endemic regions for the last three months.

The immediate deployment (to the endemic regions) of 20,000 US troops to build enough ebola treatment and quarantine centers to accommodate by the end of November the case load projected for the end of December (Get ahead before it’s too late to catch up).

A series of quarantine stations offshore for a thirty day stay before American troops and aid workers can be physically repatriated here at home.

Three state of the art isolation and treatment centers here in the US designed and modified to handle treating ebola patients, incinerating waste, and decontamination suites and facilities that are second to none.

A cooperative arrangement between the Gates Foundation and other foundations willing to fund such facilities.

Extensive training in ebola protocols for Emergency Department workers at American hospitals, and the training of three crack treatment teams of physicians and nurses at the proposed specialized treatment centers.

Protocols for the rapid transfer of ebola cases from around the nation to the specialized treatment centers.

Quarantine stations here at home for those who have been potentially exposed to the virus.

Unfortunately for Dr. Frieden, he has thrown his credibility away. We need a new CDC Director, a real physician or scientist and not a bloodless bureaucrat, who can lead the way. We also need a president and congressional leaders who are willing to put aside politics for the sake of the life of this nation.

Without overstating the case, in light of WHO’s assertion that we have until December 1st in Africa before this spirals entirely out of control with 10,000 new cases per week, we may be looking at our last chance to get this right.

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The nation has become gripped with fear, a healthy fear, of the Ebola virus and how easily it might spread out of control in our crowded urban centers. The fear has not yet turned to panic, and one can feel the struggle of our public health personnel as they try mightily to prevent panic and still do what must be done to prevent a full blown outbreak here at home. Naturally, people wonder if the government is telling us the truth about the minimal danger it claims Ebola poses.

So, are we being told the truth about Ebola? Is the government lying to us simply in order to prevent a panic?

It all depends on how one defines terms such as truth and lying. There is the unvarnished truth, therapeutic doses of truth (which contains lying by omission), etc. We do well to stop and consider the full dimensionality of the moment we are in, and consider the historical lessons from the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. Critiques offered here are not political, and indeed there is plenty of bipartisan criticism to go around. We are not in a political moment. We are in an American moment, facing an indiscriminate killer. Sound public policy will require rising above petty politics and sniping, while seriously evaluating current and historic national policies that will drive this crisis one way or the other. We must leave politics behind, as we are at the water’s edge.

Currently we have an administration in Washington that sees no need to restrict air travel from the endemic areas in Africa, has committed 3,000 troops to fight the epidemic in Africa (with no detailed articulation of what that mission might be), and has no articulated plan for how to bring them all back safely.

At this writing, we have in Dallas a Liberian who lied on his immigration papers regarding contact with an infected person at home. He reported to a hospital in Dallas when he felt ill, was misdiagnosed, and sent home with antibiotics. As his illness progressed he called an ambulance, vomited in the parking lot of his complex, and has exposed at least 100 people who are now under surveillance, and many under quarantine. Further, many parents are keeping their children home from school, as some of the exposed are children.

There are no quarantine stations to which people are being sent to wait out the 21 days it can take Ebola to manifest itself. Indeed, some of the people being monitored have attempted to leave their homes. These policies and lapses have the makings of an outbreak of unprecedented magnitude. They can also generate a panic which could cripple the national economy if people begin to lock themselves up at home. So, what to do?

First, we do well to remember some history from the AIDS pandemic. In the early days of the pandemic, we were told that this virus could only be contracted through transmission of bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions, and blood. All true, but incomplete. We were told that there was no evidence that HIV could be transmitted by oral sex, and that was an early, deadly error. Many lesser authorities would extrapolate from this that stomach acid would kill any virus swallowed during oral sex.

“No evidence,” in science does not translate into, “Impossible.” It simply means that there is not a study establishing the behavior as a risk factor. It turns out that the lining of the esophagus contains a great many cells that are a part of the mucosal immune system. They transport viruses and bacteria across to waiting immune system cells, the very cells HIV attacks. So in those early days, in the absence of definitive proscriptions on sexual behavior, and before condoms and dental dams were recommended for use during oral sex, many may well have contracted the virus through that transmission vector.

Then there was the disparity between what the CDC was saying and what the AIDS activist (read homosexual) community was advocating with condom use. This is a key piece of history that shows what happens when political and ideological issues run up hard against scientific truth, and the blind spots in the extant data that well-informed scientific and medical judgement can fill in. The following is from a series I wrote five years ago dealing with the condom issue as it related at the time to AIDS activists excoriating Cardinal O’Connor for not giving church approval for their use in combating HIV. What is striking is the very different posture assumed by the NIH and CDC. From the article:

Certainly Cardinal O’Connor and the Bishops knew all too well the rise in promiscuity following widespread access to the pill in 1968. They knew the CDC data linked here which show the steady rise in STD rates. (Click on “all slides”). Fast-forwarding to today for a moment, Research out of Harvard agrees with the Church that Condoms can make HIV worse in Africa, among other places.

In the mid-80’s, the New York Times, the self-styled ‘paper of record’ carried several articles which cast a long shadow over the absolutist claims of condom safety by AIDS activists.

On August 24, 1987 the Times reported “20% of Condom Batches Fail”.

On May 12, 1988 the Times reported that 33 million condoms had been recalled in 1987 with a failure rate of 4/1000. The paper failed to reconcile those numbers with the 20% failure rate reported in August of the previous year. The paper did report that the 4/1000 was an improvement over the 4.8/1000 rate in 1986. These rates for domestic condoms were better than the 6.5/1000 in 1987 and 7.3/1000 in 1986 for imported condoms.

On August 18, 1987 the Times ran a major article entitled “Condoms: Experts Fear False Sense Of Security”. From the Article:

“MANY health officials have begun to voice concern that the campaign to encourage condom use to curb the spread of AIDS may be misunderstood, creating a false sense of security in people whose behavior continues to put them in danger.

“Experts say condoms should minimize the spread of the AIDS virus among the heterosexual population, especially when used with spermicides containing nonoxynol-9, which has been found to kill the virus in test tubes. The experts say this justifies recent campaigns promoting the devices.

“But they stress that it is unknown just how much protection condoms offer. The officials note that condoms have been widely rejected as a method of birth control because they frequently fail, and say the devices may be no better – in fact, may be worse – at curtailing AIDS. They warn that sexually active men and women should not assume that they are protected simply because they use prophylactics.”

The article is filled with notable quotes from experts, all expressing doubts.

It was an interesting time. Because the spermicide nonoxynol-9 was found to have killed HIV at high concentrations in test tubes, it was added as a lubricant and fail-safe against condom tearing or slipping. In recent years we have learned two devastating truths.

1. Nonoxynol-9 in the low concentration on condoms is ineffective against HIV.

2. Nonoxynol-9 in the low concentration on condoms causes ulcerations in the vaginas of women who use them frequently, such as sex workers. This means that N-9 does not kill the virus when condoms tear, and facilitates infection by compromising the vaginal and rectal epithelia.

Finally, a week after the desecration of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral by ACT-UP (reported in Part I), the Times reported that The National Women’s Health Network requested the FDA to remove approval for two new condoms:

“A public-interest health group said today that it had petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to withdraw marketing clearance for two new types of condoms because neither had been tested for effectiveness in preventing pregnancy or protecting against disease.

“The National Women’s Health Network, a nonprofit group based in Washington, charged that the Federal agency had erred in approving the devices under a legal provision that waives testing requirements if a new device is substantially like one already approved.”

It was an interesting time. Anti-retroviral medications were being hastened to market. New condoms were being hastened to market all in a desperate attempt to throw the entire arsenal at this virus. But desperate measures can have unintended consequences.

In time, what will be most remembered is the stubborn insistence of so many to having sex outside of a life’s commitment to mutual monogamy with ONE individual in the face of a disease that is so devastating.

Where were the AIDS activists when these reports were being published by the Times?

A candid and sober reflection on those early missteps in assessing HIV and its spread, what we thought was safe, and how wrong many of those assurances were should temper and guide our steps with an overabundance of caution with a far deadlier virus that threatens to erupt into a full-blown pandemic.

In part II we’ll consider the missteps being made with Ebola, and how to correct them while there is still time.

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He was a pro-life champion.

He was a great supporter of EWTN and Mother Angelica.

He was a huge booster for Franciscan University.

He was a tireless therapist/spiritual director/advocate for priests in trouble.

He was a lighthouse for fidelity and truth in the faith during the tumultuous 60’s and 70’s.

He was co-founder of Good Counsel Homes.

He was an early and active participant in the Charismatic Renewal.

He was a celebrated author with dozens and dozens of books, tapes, and DVD’s.

He was a co-founder of a reform religious community.

He was a Columbia University educated psychologist.

He was a seminary professor for over 40 years.

He was a spiritual director and sage who was very good to women’s communities.

He was an advisor to bishops from all over the world.

He was an international lecturer.

He was a retreat master without equal.

He walked with Saints John Paul II and Theresa of Calcutta.

He was a television host who boosted countless ministries on his show.

But for all of that, if he could have chosen to be remembered for anything, if any group could lay claim to this man of such broad appeal, he would want to be remembered for this above all things…

He was a good friend to and mighty advocate for the poor and the least among us.

He was a true son of Francis, a true son of the Church.

Father Benedict Groeschel was my professor when I was in the seminary in the late 1980’s. He taught us ascetical theology and gave us spiritual direction on retreat. His classes were in themselves mini-retreats, whose content I have spent a lifetime unpacking. When I left the seminary and told him that I was pursuing biomedical research, and that Columbia University’s post-baccalaureate pre-medical studies was my first step toward the Ph.D. he was delighted that I would be attending his alma mater. I continued to see him every now and then when I hit bumps in the road in the spiritual life. Several years later, when I finished the Ph.D., I drove up to Trinity Retreat House to have lunch with Fr. Benedict and talk about the uncertainties ahead, as well as our son Joseph’s newly diagnosed autism and my deep, deep fears around that whole issue. I was a burnt out mess.

Fr. Benedict came across the room to me with outstretched arms and congratulated me. He then shared that when he finished his doctorate he breathed a sigh of relief because he never had to write another paper again. When he said this I pulled back with an incredulous look, to which he inquired why. I said, “You’re kidding, right?” And he said, “No, why?” I responded that he went on to author 5,000 books! Fr. Benedict just smiled with the knowing twinkle in his eyes. We went in to lunch, and then I spent two hours pouring out my fears for Joseph, my doubts about my capabilities, and how utterly alone I felt, sensing the absence of God.

My old mentor took me through whence I had come spiritually, and then led me through the Dark Night of the Soul. When I was leaving, we exited his room, which opened into his secretary’s office. Fr. Benedict has shelves filled with the books he authored. It was the stock room, in a sense, for the books people purchased online and via mail order. He grabbed a copy of Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones, as well as Spiritual Passages and handed them to me. When I said, “Thanks, but I have them at home,” he said in reply, “Take two more!”

He was truly one of a kind. A session with Fr. Benedict could range from side-splitting laughter to dealing with being on the edge of the abyss. Whenever I saw him, he always asked for Regina, and then each of the children by name. He was gracious, and holy. His brilliance and incisiveness could easily be overpowering, had he not tempered them with his quick wit and self-deprecating humor.

When I began doing pro-life work in earnest, Fr. Benedict was there with wisdom beyond description. He mapped out all of the spiritual pitfalls I faced, and helped me avoid them all.

I could tell a number of other stories about Fr. Benedict, and what he did for elderly priests who needed the guidance and support to take them the rest of the way home, of how he was never too busy, never said no. But we’ll let those stories rest with all of those good men who found their way with Fr. Benedict’s guidance.

What will endure, more than anything, was the one great constant in all of our conversations: Fr. Benedict’s love for the poor and the least, his admonition to me that I never forget them and their needs, that they are the living face of Jesus.

A priest who met popes, walked with saints, advised the bishops and cardinals of the Church, and yet craved time with the lowliest in society, because that’s where he felt closest to his God.

I should feel some sorrow at his passing from us, but I can’t. Though I’ll miss him, I’m overjoyed that he now sees face-to-face the God he could only see tangentially as he walked among us.

Yes, I believe that Fr. Benedict went to Purgatory (as he insisted he would), but only to collect a few souls along the way home.

Thank you, Fr. Benedict Joseph, and please pray for us.

EPierrot-BenY

Wrongful Birth.

It is a legal term rooted in deep narcissism and dressed in the clothing of contract law. Translated, it means some parent didn’t get what they hoped for, or paid for when their child was born. Somebody screwed up and the wrong product was delivered. It’s a form of business and/or medical malpractice.

Wrongful Birth.

The very words reveal the ugly side of human nature, the neurotic side of the human psyche where human fear meets with human failure, and growth becomes a forced issue, and someone has to pay a price for it.

Consider the white lesbian couple in Ohio who ordered sperm from a sperm bank, expecting sperm from a donor with a certain genetic (Caucasian) and personal profile. What they were sent was sperm from a black man, and what resulted was a mixed race baby. Read the story here.

It’s a truly tragic story, and heartbreaking that a child should be born into such poverty of spirit, especially to a lesbian mother who should have learned a thing or two about oppression and survival. Consider the following quotes from the story in Mail Online.

Jennifer Cramblett, 36, claims the mistake has caused her stress and anguish because her family is racist and she lives in a small, all-white Uniontown in northeast Ohio…

Ms Cramblett [sic] she has ‘limited cultural competency relative to African-Americans’ and worries that her daughter Payton will not be accepted in her hometown of Uniontown.

‘Jennifer lives each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future,’ according to the lawsuit.

Is it understandable that a woman coming from a family she labels “racist” would also claim to have “limited cultural competency” to raise a mixed race child?

No, it isn’t.

In labeling her family as racist, Ms. Cramblett identifies herself as somehow above it all. That is the necessary precondition for self-education in gaining cultural competence in the raising of her mixed race child. But that, too, begs the question. Why does this child need to be singled out as something other? How, exactly, should she be raised compared to potential future siblings who are white? Is that not itself racist? And then there is the matter of living, “each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future.”

Do these lesbians see the world so categorically that they actually think that living, “each day with fears, anxieties and uncertainty about her future and Payton’s future,” is not something every single parent on the planet experiences?

There’s more:

Even simple tasks have become more complicated because Payton is mixed-race, the lawsuit says.

‘Payton has hair typical of an African American girl. To get a decent cut, Jennifer must travel to a black neighborhood, far from where she lives, where she is obviously different in appearance, and not overtly welcome,’ according to the lawsuit.

Again, note the objectification of blacks by this mother. What does it take beyond a universal smile and common courtesy for people of different ethnicities to develop warm and cordial relationships? So what is this woman getting at?

On the one hand, she doesn’t feel culturally competent, then castigates an entire community of color when she brings the child to a hairdresser who can do the child’s hair some justice. And as for traveling out of one’s way? Heterosexuals do it all the time for their children. It comes with being a parent. God forbid she should turn it into a quality mommy-daughter day out.

The article ends with the mother saying that in a few years when her daughter begins school, she may be the only black child in her class in her small, rural town, and this worries her. An indictment of the entire community. But how small-minded can the community be if she and her lesbian partner live there?

For a mother so ostensibly concerned with her daughter being picked on by racist family, tortured by racist classmates and neighbors, failed culturally by her mother, she has chosen to label the little girl a mistake, a wrongful birth, a human who never should have been. All because of a little extra melanin and some different hair.

For all their talk of tolerance, and openness, and inclusivity, and compassion, it isn’t unreasonable to expect gays and lesbians to put their money where their collective mouth is. One would expect a lesbian couple, of all people, to abhor the notion of “wrongful birth,” claiming a genetic etiology for their own orientation as they do.

Pity the child born to such poverty and bigotry.

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