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Our readersDecember 11, 2014

Not A Choice

The Loneliest Choice” (12/1), by the Rev. Rhonda Mawhood Lee, disappointed me greatly. While pastoral reflection on suicide remains a crucial topic, the article seems to hark back to pre-Enlightenment days, when there was little understanding of grave mental illness. For example, if a documented kleptomaniac steals, he certainly commits a crime; but does he sin if his mental illness compelled him to do it? Has not the church always taught that for sin to happen the actor must freely choose to break the fundamental option to remain with God? The Rev. Lee quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “When someone takes his/her own life, however, ‘grave psychological disturbances’ or other mitigating factors ‘can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.’” Can grave mental illness not only diminish responsibility but even extinguish it altogether?

If we believe in a God who holds us accountable for things we cannot stop doing, do we really write about a merciful God?

(Rev.) Robert Vitaglione
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Climate Control

Re “Renew This World,” by Gary Gardner (12/1): Surely the environmental crisis is a reason for re-examining the church’s stand on artificial birth control, on which participants of the Second Vatican Council were divided, as is well known. The prohibition of birth control extends and deepens poverty, threatens the earth’s carrying capacity and puts stress on marriages. “Natural Family Planning” not only fails frequently but also strains marriages, while large numbers of Catholics, following their consciences, find themselves alienated from the church. I pray that this uncompleted task of Vatican II will be addressed with open and generous minds at next year’s Synod on the Family.

Mary Catherine Bateson
Online Comment

Climate Commitment

The Catholic Climate Covenant is trying to help make a difference in many of the areas mentioned in Gary Gardner’s excellent piece. I agree that it was astounding how the top minds from science and social science made a plea to the church to help shape minds and hearts and generate a new vision for our covenant on the earth. We must learn to be a part of God’s gift of creation, not apart from it. Readers can take the St. Francis Pledge and commit to prayer, education, assessment, action and advocacy at catholicclimatecovenant.org.

Daniel Misleh
Online Comment
The writer is the executive director of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change.

Knowing Nuns

In “Living on the Edge” (12/1), a review of five books on the past, present and future of women religious, Carol K. Coburn states, “Whether the Vatican acknowledges it or not, women religious are leading the church into the future.”This strikes me as wishful thinking. Few American Catholics have any contact with women religious.

Nuns taught me long ago in elementary school. Since then, though I went to Catholic high school and college and have belonged to a local parish wherever I’ve lived, I haven’t even spoken with a nun. My grown children have never met a nun. Is this unusual, or is it the common experience of today’s Catholics? I think the latter. I would like to know whether the situation is substantially different in other countries.

Thomas Farrelly
Online Comment

Stevens’s Shift

Democracy in Danger” (11/17), Daniel J. Morrissey’s review of Six Amendments, by Justice John Paul Stevens, implies that other than on the death penalty, it was the court that moved from 1975 to 2011, not Justice Stevens. But this is clearly false. In the most iconic affirmative action case in court history, the 1978 Bakke decision regarding California medical school admissions, in which Justice Lewis F. Powell “split the baby” by introducing “diversity” to the legal lexicon, Justice Stevens actually wrote the opinion for the four-justice block that wanted a clean “quotas are unconstitutional, period” decision against the California Regents. And yet 25 years later, in the Grutter v. Bollinger decision involving the University of Michigan Law School, he had long since abandoned his original position. Justice Stevens is better understood as a legal contrarian, swimming the opposite way of the zeitgeist. This is not a good or bad thing per se, but it is the only accurate way to understand him.

Paul Conlin
Lake Zurich, Ill.

Taxing Charity

A Sister in the Spotlight” (10/10), Hank Stuever’s review of Sister Simone Campbell’s book, A Nun on the Bus, leaves out a couple of important facts. Sister Campell is the executive director of two nonprofit organizations, NETWORK and the Network Education Program. If Sister Campbell wants to protect vital federal programs from budget cuts, then why doesn’t she help pay for them by surrendering both of her organizations’ tax-exempt status? 

Contrary to popular belief, tax-exemption isn’t just for houses of worship and charities. Many entities, like most colleges and universities (including those with generous endowments and lucrative sports programs), labor unions, activist organizations on the right and left, lobbying organizations and even periodicals like America also enjoy tax-exempt status. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are over 1.4 million nonprofits registered in the United States today, with total assets of nearly $5 trillion.

If we want the federal, state, county and local governments to spend their way to social justice and solve all sorts of problems from education to the environment without turning the United States into a bankrupt and socially chaotic country like Greece, then we will need to find new sources of revenue. In my view, there is something hypocritical and extremely self-righteous about entities, religious or non-religious, that are exempt from paying their “fair share of taxes” calling for increased government spending and, in effect, higher taxes for everyone else.

Dimitri Cavalli
Bronx, N.Y.

Israel In Context

We are a group of Santa Clara University faculty and staff who were dismayed to read the distortions of history in “Building an ‘Ethnocracy’” (9/29), by Drew Christiansen, S.J., a review of Jo Roberts’s book, Contested Land: Contested Memory.

Father Christiansen claims, “Israelis have no sympathy for Palestinian suffering,” though his own article then goes on to quote several of the many Israelis who completely contradict his statement. What about all the Israeli groups that, visibly and loudly, oppose the current government policies? What about the articles and letters to the editor in the Israeli press that indicate support for the Arabs in the West Bank?

Father Christiansen’s own sympathy seems distinctly lacking. After stating that the creation of Israel was “not the outcome of the Holocaust,” he goes on to dismiss the actual historical roots of Zionism in Europe’s longstanding, virulent anti-Semitism. Father Christiansen sums up the latter with a cavalier line: “Assimilation in European society had proved a failure for Jews.” In the absence of historical knowledge, one might almost wonder whether the Jews just didn’t try hard enough. Similarly, Father Christiansen focuses on the discrimination faced by Mizrahi Jews in Israel, certainly a dark chapter in Israeli history. But perhaps he should compare that to the experiences of minorities in the Arab countries where the Mizrahi Jews came from.

It is that lack of context and proportion that makes Father Christiansen’s review so egregious. We object to the false, distorted image of Israel portrayed in this article and its underlying questioning of Israel’s right to exist.

Peter Minowitz, Steven Nahmias, Irina Raicu and Hersh Shefrin
Santa Clara, Calif.

Status Update

Readers respond to “The Loneliest Choice: Puzzling Through Suicide’s Sorrowful Mystery,” by the Rev. Rhonda Mawhood Lee (12/1).

There is a great need for education in this area. As a parish secretary, I am on the front line, receiving the call to help plan funerals for suicides. I am often the first one to speak to the family, the first one to greet them at the church, the first one to try in some small way to offer comfort and solace to the shipwrecked families and friends. Some families (still!) don’t know that their loved ones may have a funeral Mass and Christian burial. It is comforting to be able to reassure them, first, that suicide is not a choice. No one would give up the most precious gift they have and hurt their loved ones so deeply if they were in their right mind. I also remind them that the divine mercy of Jesus, as the Rev. Mawhood Lee has suggested, extends far beyond the human imagination.

Heidi Thibodeau

The author’s mother must have been incredibly depressed and in horrible pain. One of the things we can do as Christians to reduce suicide and the despair it causes is to stop the stigma associated with mental illness and its treatments. And we should be there to listen and pray with people suffering from mental illness. So many people with chronic depression and other problems are terrified of losing their jobs or loved ones, and therefore don’t seek or continue treatment. We must be more understanding of each other and stop being so judgmental about it.

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