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Archive for April, 2011

Is It True?

Is it true? (the whole Jesus and resurrection thing) I get asked that question quite a bit. Over the years a few Jewish friends have asked that question. Some have pressed me further. How do I KNOW that Jesus was (is) God? How does a man of science put so much stock in the unseen?

I must confess that I have sometimes scoured the world of science for clues to help confirm the historical record, so the questions are fair enough. The answers have left some rather unhappy, even enraged.

Never in Israel’s history did God allow them to go for so long (2000 years) in exile, with no temple. No priests, prophets, kings.

Never.

Yet, for two thousand years there have been no priests, prophets, or kings in Israel. The priesthood is gone and the Muslims occupy the site where the sacrifice took place. If Jesus’ followers concocted a story of resurrection, as well as all of the other miracles, they were pretty fortunate in their timing. They couldn’t have known of the utter collapse of the old dispensation headed their way, or of it’s permanence.

In truth, it wasn’t a collapse, but the fulfillment of the old covenant. The Temple veil, symbol of the old covenant was rent in two from top to bottom, indicating God’s action, not man’s (who only could have torn from the bottom upward).

Jesus fulfilled in His person all three roles not seen in Israel in two thousand years:

High Priest

Prophet

King of Kings

As a scientist, I look for evidence. In Brooklyn, two thousand years is called a clue. So, yes, I have all the evidence I need. I also have the grace of the sacraments that lead to an ever-deepening life in the Holy Spirit who leads us to all truth. There is an assurance within faith that casts away all doubt and fear.

Some of those Jewish friends have since converted. Some never spoke to me again. Two thousand years in microcosm.

I know that my Redeemer liveth

Blessed Easter to you all.

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From the Holy Saturday Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings:

A reading from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow- prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: “My Lord be with you all.” And Christ in reply says to Adam: “And with your spirit.” And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

“I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

“I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

“For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

“Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

“See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

“I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

“But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.”

Prayer

Almighty, ever-living God, whose Only-begotten Son descended to the realm of the dead, and rose from there to glory, grant that your faithful people, who were buried with him in baptism, may, by his resurrection, obtain eternal life.
We make our prayer through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

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Today is Good Friday. If today could be summarized in a word, a good choice would be:

Will.

Great battles have raged in academia over that word, that idea, the degree to which humans exercise autonomous judgement and action. In psychology, Sigmund Freud theorized in his Psychoanalytic Theory that man’s behavior is shaped by subconscious forces, rooted in a past that is no longer directly accessible to memory, but can only be accessed through the interpretation of dreams and behaviors.

The father of Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner wrote his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, in which he advanced his belief that humans are driven by nothing more than stimulus and response, that there is no such thing as human freedom. Our “choices” are really nothing more than complex response patterns.

Freud and Skinner are often seen as opposing points of view; thesis and antithesis. In one sense, Freud and Skinner do represent opposing points of view. In another, they are horrifically the same. Neither posits in the individual the caphttps://m.mg.mail.yahoo.com/hg/?.intl=us#/mail/list?fid=Inboxacity for free will. Both see the individual as hopelessly driven, and never able to consciously become aware of the rationale for their behavior. As such, they both take us, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” not forward as Skinner believed, but backward to a pre-Christian, pre-civilizational animal existence.

The tension between the two opposing views would find its resolution in Cognitive Therapy, advanced by Aaron T. Beck. Cognitive Therapy sees behavior as rooted in past events which shape current behavior, but it also sees those precipitating events as accessible through therapy. Further, it seeks to help the client be able to reinterpret the event with the help of the therapist and to free the individual of the shackles that came with the original trauma.

There is no free will in either world of Freudian Psychoanalytic Theory, or Skinnerian Behaviorism. Beck’s cognitive approach has rescued psychology from two powerful schools that, in their purest form, have done great damage to Christian Anthropology. That anthropology has at its core the understanding that we are made in the image and likeness of God, being endowed with the capacity to choose freely. We make acts of will. Free will.

Yes, psychology teaches us that there are powerful forces that shape human behavior and the antecedent choices for that behavior. Freud and Skinner had it partially correct where that is concerned. We can employ Skinner’s system of rewards to reinforce desirable behaviors with humans, and we in fact do this to great effect in teaching autistic children. It’s called Applied Behavioral Analysis, and it’s a good first step in shaping behavior.

Unfortunately for Skinner, that’s where he ended. He and Freud set generations against their faith. So did renowned psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger. Many are familiar with Dr. Menninger’s famous 1973 book, Whatever Became of Sin?. That work was an act of atonement, as Dr. Meninger did much to ridicule the notion of sin in his lesser-known 1931 book, From Sin to Psychiatry.

Indeed, with the exception of Beck, these men did much to corrode the idea of sin, which has the misuse of free will at it’s core. In attempting to construct their brave new world, they simply neglected a great deal by dismissing opposing views with the back of their hands. They neglected the overriding power of grace. They neglected the overriding power of forgiveness. They neglected these things because they rejected God. They rejected God because they believed their hypotheses to contain within them the fullness of truth regarding human nature.

Today as we meditate on Jesus’ sacrificial death, the very nature of His sacrifice stands as a rebuke to those who would deny humanity’s free will. Were our behavior merely the result of unknowable antecedents and not freely chosen, then there would only be a need for therapy, but not redemption.

Today, we recall the beauty of forgiveness, which is redemption. In the garden, Jesus prayed to the Father an earnest prayer:

“Let this cup pass me by, yet not as I will, but as you will.”

He knew what was coming His way, and though He was God, His human nature gripped Him with ice cold fear. From Mary’s, “Be it done to me according to your word,” to Joseph’s obedience to a vision when he wanted to put Mary away quietly, to Jesus in the garden, we see the triumphal and transforming power of submission to God’s Will.

It requires sacrifice, and the first thing to be sacrificed is our pride. That’s not an accident, as pride is what leads us into sin every time.

In his pride, Karl Menninger rejected the notion of sin.

In his pride, Skinner rejected the notion of sin, as he rejected the concepts of freedom and will.

In his pride, Freud rejected will and rejected God.

They were powerful shapers of twentieth century thought and played a significant role in shaping the atrocities of the last century which arose from the “God is Dead,” movement in which they participated. Only Menninger saw clearly the effects of rejecting the concept of sin and all that goes into such rejection. If it’s true that he lived to regret where he led people, it’s doubly true that he spent the rest of his life trying to lead people back.

An act of obedient will.

An act of redemption.

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Good Friday

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The issue of embryo adoption, having leftover embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen thawed and implanted in an adoptive mother’s womb, is a thorny subject in Catholic moral theology and ethics circles. I’ve wrestled with this idea for years, and I think we need to continue attending to it in a serious and substantive way. In order to keep the conversation localized, may I ask FB folks to post their comments directly here, and then copy them to FB?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued Dignitas Personae (DP), which tackles the morality of IVF and addresses the issue of embryo adoption. It’s a short document and an easy read. I recommend it highly.

Disclaimer: From the outset, I do not presume to know more than the bishops who have contributed to the promulgation of the document. However, the Church collaborates with physicians and scientists when investigating these matters and pays close attention to the insights coming from science. So I offer these insights as a lay Catholic, educated deeply in the faith, as well as a molecular biologist.

DP does a great job of staking out all of the moral land mines in the field of in vitro fertilization (IVF) technology. It isn’t the last word on the subject, either. From the outset, the document lays out its two fundamental principles:

“The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (n. 4).

“The origin of human life has its authentic context in marriage and in the family, where it is generated through an act which expresses the reciprocal love between a man and a woman. Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage” (n. 6).

DP goes on to address, specifically, the dilemma of frozen embryos left over after IVF:

With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them? All the answers that have been proposed (use the embryos for research or for the treatment of disease; thaw them without reactivating them and use them for research, as if they were normal cadavers; put them at the disposal of infertile couples as a “treatment for infertility”; allow a form of “prenatal adoption”) present real problems of various kinds. It needs to be recognized “that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved. Therefore, John Paul II made an “appeal to the conscience of the world’s scientific authorities and in particular to doctors, that the production of human embryos be halted, taking into account that there seems to be no morally licit solution regarding the human destiny of the thousands and thousands of ‘frozen’ embryos which are and remain the subjects of essential rights and should therefore be protected by law as human persons” (n. 19).

It other words, we have a mess on our hands. Many respected leaders in the Catholic bioethics community such as Dr. John Haas and Father Tad Pacholczyk (who also has a Ph.D. in molecular biology) have come down against embryo adoption, as it is a participation in the broader realm of IVF. To read the case against embryo adoption by Father Tad, click here. These are great minds whose words are not to be taken lightly.

However, there seems to be another dimension that has been overlooked, and that is the issue of procreation itself and God’s role in it.

IVF is intrinsically evil. It takes procreation out of the marital embrace and relegates spouses to mere tissue donors and sideline spectators as the technicians do the actual work of bringing sperm and egg into union. However evil this technology is, there is a more delicate question that I have regarding God’s role in all of this.

The Church does not maintain that we all existed as disembodied spirits before our conception. We are created (soul) when we are conceived (body). That’s why the procreation of children in marriage is such a grace-filled moment for spouses, because God is there, freely creating the soul as the parents unite themselves. But what happens when a woman is raped, or two individuals fornicate, or IVF is employed? What are the degrees of freedom on God’s part?

Is God bound by His own paradigm for human procreation? Is He dragged kicking and screaming into the evil means by which sperm and egg find one another? Does He not create freely, though perhaps reluctantly under such circumstances?

The fact remains that God creates a human soul when sperm and egg unite.

That fact is my dilemma.

God is there in the IVF clinic, creating a new human soul (dozens at a time, actually). He is participating in a procreative act that is occurring outside of His divine plan, and which in its human dimensions is intrinsically evil; but He is there, and He is creating.

Now we return to the first of the two guiding principles in DP. The first right of the IVF baby is the right to be respected as and treated as a person. That right means facilitating the unmolested development of that individual. If implantation in the womb is to be forbidden in all circumstances, then I fail to see the point of the Congregation mentioning this first principle.

What we see a great deal of is the condemnation of the technique, which is truly abhorrent. However, I think there is a great distinction to be made between the technology leading up to the creation of a new human being, and the technology employed to sustain those new human beings. The former is always gravely and intrinsically evil. I’m not so certain about the latter.

The great distinction is that life has been made, both by man and by God. The act of procreation is done, and a child exists in its most nascent form. From here we have a battle of principles, and again, Father Pacholczyk’s points are well made. However, I see a certain chilly aloofness in standing by and saying of so many thousands of baby’s, “Gee it stinks to be you.” Catholic moral theology demands greater than that from us if we truly believe that the human embryo is a human being endowed with a soul of God’s making.

The second principle in DP is where we run into trouble:

“Procreation which is truly responsible vis-à-vis the child to be born must be the fruit of marriage”

I don’t disagree at all with the imperative in that statement. The problem is that it does not account for the child conceived outside of that principle. What then?

Jesus admonished the Pharisees when they took exception to His disciples picking grain and eating it on the Sabbath. He also admonished them about the lawfulness of saving life on the Sabbath, even if it meant breaking the law to do so. “Who among you would not pull his sheep out of a hole to save it on the Sabbath?”

We are dealing with much more than sheep here.

If God freely creates the soul in the midst of such human evil, do we not have an imperative to honor that creative act by facilitating the child’s development through implantation and adoption?

It isn’t perfect, but I think we do.

Thoughts?

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My article in today’s Headline Bistro.

As soon as scientists begin discussing the differences between embryonic stem cells, adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and altered nuclear transfer, most non-scientists become overwhelmed by the technicalities and quickly lose their moorings in the ethical and funding debates. This is needless and easily cleared up with a simple analogy.

Imagine one is dining in a family restaurant and there are three different families, each with five children. Family A has children who are engaged in a food fight, screaming, and jumping about.

Family B has children who are generally very well behaved, but are given to bouts of restlessness and need to be spoken to by their parents.

Family C has children who are models of decorum, and who on their own have even taken it upon themselves to quietly clean up some of the mess left by other patrons.

That’s the stem cell war in a nutshell. Family A are the embryonic stem cells, wild and untamed, wreaking havoc everywhere they are introduced. They are beyond the ability of scientists to control, and have created tumors in animals during that phase of testing. There is one clinical trial underway in humans we shall return to in Part II.

Electron Micrograph of Early Embryo on the Head of a Pin

Family B are the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These are normal body cells such as cheek cells and skin cells that have undergone full adult development and then have been chemically treated to return to a state where they can be redirected to become other types of body cells. The problem with these cells is that they have shown some degree of instability, with a propensity to return to their fully differentiated adult state. More on that in a moment.

Family C are the adult stem cells. These are cells that have undergone a great degree of development from the early embryonic stage of development and have the ability to become certain types of tissue. They are remarkably stable when used, and have repeatedly proven themselves remarkably adaptable in clinical trials and therapeutic application. There are over one hundred therapies using these cells.

Now, back to our analogy. Imagine a reporter from an international news agency such as Reuters comes to the restaurant looking to do a story on children’s manners in restaurants and actually spends 90% of her time interviewing the father of Family A, who makes not one mention of his children’s recklessness and destructiveness, not one mention of the exemplary behavior of the children in Family C, but holds forth on the dire future of the children in Family B whose behavior is merely in need of periodic tweaking.

If that sounds unbalanced and bizarre, that’s the essential structure and trajectory of a recent Reuters article by Julie Steenhuysen, entitled, ANALYSIS-Imperfections Mar Hopes for Reprogrammed Stem Cells. The article may be read here.

The core of the article is built around the father of Family A, Dr. George Daley of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. This quote from Dr. Daley sums up the art of the dodge by proponents of embryonic stem cell research:

“It has not ever been a scientifically driven argument that iPS cells are a worthy and complete substitute for embryonic stem cells,” Daley said. “Those arguments were always made based on political and religious opposition to embryonic stem cells.”

Yes and no.

It’s true that there are people who find it an abhorrent practice to juice women up with dangerous levels of hormones in order to harvest a clutch of eggs from her, fertilize them in a lab, create new human beings and then tear them apart in their embryonic stages of development for the purpose of benefiting other human beings. So, yes there are those who object on political, religious and ethical grounds to such barbarism.

Dr. Daley makes no mention at all of Family C, the adult stem cells which have over one hundred therapeutic applications. In so doing, he fails to grasp the essential reason why induced pluripotent stem cells were sought after. It’s because biologically, embryonic stem cells are wild and untamable, while adult stem cells have gone through the process of cellular maturation naturally and are remarkably stable. They are also expensive to isolate, which is an economic limitation to their widespread use. Also, as embryonic stem cells come from another person, there is the issue of tissue rejection by the recipient.

iPS cells were developed to take advantage of the stability that comes with being a mature cell, and both the abundance of such cells (i.e. skin cells) and their ease of isolation. The thought has been that a few tweaks could get the cells to revert to an earlier developmental stage, as every cell has an identical set of genetic switches. By resetting the switches in the DNA, we have been able to get these cells to revert to an earlier, embryonic stage of malleability, yet retaining much of their adult stability. Also, as the cells come from the patient, there is no issue of tissue rejection.

It seems that some of these cells have a propensity to revert to their adult form. This instability differs from the instability of the embryonic stem cells in one key respect. When an iPS cell reverts to adult form, therapy fails and the cell dies. The difficulty with embryonic cells is that they tend to form tumors, which adds a whole new disease state to the patient.

As the state of the research exists, it is far easier to tweak the behavior of the iPS cell than it is to bring any semblance of order out of the primordial chaos of embryonic stem cells. The difference?

As the human body develops, cells mature under the influence of immediately neighboring and distant cells in the body. We know a small degree of how this happens, and embryonic stem cell research allows us to attempt this in the Petri dish. It is a daunting task to take a few early cells from a young embryo and replicate blindly the phenomenally complex processes of maturation that occur in the context of an integrated organism.

Tweaking the iPS cell is the easier and morally superior approach.

In Part II, where each technology stands in its development and what therapeutic trials and applications each has underway.

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Scouting Update

Just back from a big camping weekend with Joseph and his troop in the mountains of western New Jersey.

It. Was. A. Riot.

Fifteen new boys were with us who crossed over from Cub Scouts last month. The boys were made aware that there are plenty of black bear in the neighborhood just coming out of hibernation, and they are grumpy and hungry. So we pitched tents 100 yards from where each patrol set up their kitchen area, and the boys were told to keep ALL food there. No snacks in the tents, unless one would like a visit.

Fifteen new boys barely {bearly?? ;-) } slept a wink all weekend. There were bears lurking behind every rock and tree, waiting to devour them.

I continue to be impressed by this generation of boys, how they make the allowances for Joseph and the few other boys in the troop on the autism spectrum. For those not aware of how scouting works, it was set up by Lord Robert Baden Powell of England over 100 years ago using what is known as the “patrol method”. In this model, the boys are broken into self-sufficient units called patrols, usually with 7-8 members per patrol. The entire troop is run by the boys, for the boys, at every level.

Adults are there to guide, supervise, and ensure that the scouting program is being properly implemented by the boys. The actual running of the program is all done by the boys.

That’s what makes things so much more remarkable. Nobody tells the boys how they must treat this or that member. They have their twelve point scout law that they live by, and the adults remind them periodically of how they can better exemplify that law. For those who don’t know, the Scout Law is as follows:

A Scout is:

Trustworthy,
Loyal,
Helpful,
Friendly,
Courteous,
Kind,
Obedient,
Cheerful,
Thrifty,
Brave,
Clean,
and Reverent.

They don’t always get it right, but they organize all they do around this law.

As we try to hang on to civilization and stop the slide into the culture of death, we should encourage our parishes, our family and friends to do all they can to start, or support, or participate in scouting. These young boys and young men have it all together in ways my generation never did. They exemplify their Scout Law in how they deal with the weakest and most vulnerable among them, making the allowances for limitations, but helping them achieve and advance in rank.

I’m humbled by their goodness.

I’m also smiling at the thought of fifteen new boys who are getting the best night’s sleep of their young lives as I write this.

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