Current Comment

Atheism and the Theologians

When Michael Buckley, S.J., presented a copy of his book At the Origins of Modern Atheism to the late Pope John Paul II, the pontiff asked, And who was at the origins of modern atheism? Without hesitation, Father Buckley volunteered, the theologians. His study is an award-winning, doorstopper of a book that traces the rise of modern atheism to the natural philosophy of the 17th century. At the beginning of the period, natural philosophy embraced much of what we today would consider both science and philosophy; by the end, the two fields had become distinct disciplines. Father Buckley’s argument was that 17th-century theology had become so dependent in its ways of thinking and its arguments on the natural philosophy of the day that when the science changed, theology was left with meaningless propositions.

Catholicism has traditionally upheld the compatibility of faith and reason, the autonomy of natural reason and the usefulness of philosophy in both apologetics and theology. But too close an adherence to a particular philosophy or a particular phase of scientific development can be theology’s undoing. As believers today struggle to make sense of evolution in Christian terms, the lessons of the natural philosophers who made the world safe for atheism need to be kept in mind. Whether drawing insights from a new scientific consensus or inferences from gaps in the data, cognitive reticence is a necessary virtue. Science and philosophy serve as sources of insight for theology, sometimes even as a sort of confirmation, but never as proof for matters of faith.

Visiting Momin Prison

Children trying to stay connected with their incarcerated parents get help in California before Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day too) through Get on the Bus (gotb.net). Sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the program provides free transportation for children and caregivers (often grandparents) to distant prisons for parental visits. Almost a quarter of a million children in California have at least one parent behind bars. With an average age of 36, a majority of California’s incarcerated women had minor children at home when arrested. Hardened criminals? No. Two-thirds are serving time for nonviolent offenses, and many are victims of domestic violence. Because of the distances and travel expense, most children never see their incarcerated parents during their imprisonment.

Besides transportation, the program provides extras, like comfort bags for the caregivers and travel bags for the children. Meals are also arranged: breakfast, snacks on the buses and a special lunch at the prisons for parents, children and caregivers. On the long trip home, each child receives a Teddy bear, a letter from his or her parent and post-event counseling. Studies have shown that maintaining parent-child contact during incarceration leads to lower recidivism rates and more successful family reunification. For children, the ongoing parental contact results in lower levels of juvenile delinquency, along with better social adjustment. During the year, too, weekly bus trips take place from southern California to two prisons three hours from San Francisco, on what is called the Chowchilla Family Express. Keep those buses rolling!

Big Givers

Albert C. Brooks nearly gives away his hand in the subtitle of his new book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. The surprise, at least to the liberal readers to whom this book is directed with a wag of the finger, is that self-identified conservatives are more compassionate than liberals. Brooks finds the evidence in their individual donations to charity. Conserva-tives who attend worship once a week are the biggest charitable givers of time and money in the United States, he notes, and they live in the red states that elected George W. Bush president. The most selfish Americans (Brooks’s adjective), the people who never give a dime or an hour to others, are secular liberals from blue states.

While Brooks’s thesis has merit, his argument can be misleading. While comparing the giving of San Franciscans and South Dakotans, for example, Brooks highlights the income disparity but omits the cost-of-living gap. He uses the number of churches in a locale to gauge people’s generosity, a dubious measure since Catholic churches, while fewer, typically have much larger congregations. And Brooks leaves out the disproportionate number of very poor immigrants in New York and California, who do not earn enough to donate but support relatives back home.

When private donors in the United States are considered as a whole, Americans turn out to be markedly more generous (proportionate to average income) than Western Europeans. After adjusting for differences in standard of living and reporting methods, Brooks writes, Americans give more than twice as high a percentage of their incomes to charity as the Dutch, almost three times as much as the French, more than five times as much as the Germans, and more than ten times as much as the Italians.

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