Michael W. Hannon

Poisoned Ivies: Sex and God at Yale

Michael W. Hannon
By Michael Hannon
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September 17, 2012 (Mercatornet.com) - They say everyone is entitled to his fifteen minutes of fame. My mom had her brief moment in the spotlight a couple years back, when the New York Post called her for a comment about a new dorm policy at Columbia, where I was a sophomore at the time. As the article put it, “Columbia University students will soon be able to live in sin—on their parents’ dime. A new ‘gender-neutral’ housing policy . . . will allow boys and girls to shack up together in campus housing.”

My mom’s reaction was, I hope, the reaction most parents would have to such news. “I was shocked enough last year when we moved our son in and we saw that guys and girls shared a bathroom on the hall,” she told the Post. “If it had been our daughter, we would have turned around and walked straight out. As far as coed roommates go, that would be insane. If our child chose to do that, we would opt out.” Thankfully for my mom’s sanity, sharing a dorm room with a girl was never high on my college to-do list. But had she known what else Columbia had in store for us, I can guarantee she would have opted out anyway.

I don’t consider myself particularly puritanical. On the contrary, as I’ve indicated elsewhere, I have a very high view of human sexuality. But somehow I never found Columbia’s university-sponsored sexual culture all that sexy. Call me old-fashioned, but that giant, inflatable penis on the quad, Health Services’ guess-how-many-condoms-are-in-the-jelly-bean-jar game, and that mandatory freshman orientation skit on coping with roommate autoeroticism, just never fit my idea of sexually appealing.

Neither did Columbia’s annual Erotic Cake-Baking Contest, or the (in)famous “Sexhibition,” a university-sponsored event complete with a sex-toy show-and-tell and, wouldn’t you know it, more phallus-shaped baked goods. But not to worry: in true Columbia multiculturalist style, those genital cookies are kosher, lest anyone’s religious observance exclude him from this romping good time.

For better or worse, Columbia has been regarded as a trailblazer on issues of sexual “progressivism” since long before I entered its hallowed gates. Back in 1993, the university’s Health Promotion Program launched Go Ask Alice!—a Q&A-style website offering insight on such meaningful topics as sex with stuffed animals, breastfeeding one’s sexual partner, urine-drinking fetishes, and that annoying medical guideline about having to abstain from sex for three weeks after an abortion. The following year, Columbia became home to the nation’s first university-recognized sadomasochism club, Conversio Virium. (That’s Latin for “exchange of forces.” Glad to see those Classics majors putting their education to good use.)

Then in 2006, Columbia partnered with one of Soho’s notorious sex shops to bring its students “Sex Toys 101,” a workshop put on by the university’s own Health Services, which earned the school a glowing write-up in the New York Daily News.

You might reasonably think that it can’t get much worse than teddy bear masturbation and S&M clubs. How I wish you were right. But during my first term at the school, Columbia students found a way to one-up themselves yet again. In October of 2008, a group of my classmates released the first issue of a raunchy new (unofficial) campus publication, oh so cleverly titled C-Spot. Apparently it wasn’t enough for students to exhibit sex toys; from now on, they were going to be exhibiting themselves.

Like Playboy and similar magazines, the original C-Spot issue did feature a handful of articles, including a historical essay on the origins of the vibrator, and, for the more literary-minded student, a collection of pornographic poetry. But the bulk of the publication is devoted to more, let’s say, visual works of art.

As Fox News put it, “Columbia students trying to prove that scholarship can be sexy have launched a salacious magazine featuring strip-club reviews, Internet porn recommendations and nude pictures of students steamy enough to wilt ivy.” Now personally, I have never been able to figure out what would incline an Ivy League scholar to pose nude for C-Spot, often with other students and in all kinds of compromising sexual postures. But plenty do. And afterwards, sitting next to them in Symbolic Logic is never quite the same.

As I said, Columbia prides itself on being something of a trendsetter in the sexual arena. And there is certainly merit (or perhaps, more appropriately, demerit) to that claim. But while Columbia has indeed pushed the envelope on these issues of sexual obscenity, it is not the only groundbreaking force in the elite academic world. And if my brief highlight reel of Columbia’s exploits has come across as inappropriately scandalous, then I highly recommend steering clear of a new 300-page exposé about our Ivy League neighbors in New Haven. Don’t get me wrong—Nathan Harden’s Sex and God at Yale is a phenomenal book, and a timely and insightful addition to this conversation. But it definitely is not written for those with a weak stomach.

A recent graduate and a proud Yale Man himself, Harden writes not to slander the name of his alma mater, but to lovingly reprimand her for failing to live out her noble calling. It was the early fifties when William F. Buckley authored the now legendary God and Man at Yale, a book that similarly laments Yale’s abandonment of religion and its straying from its original academic mission. Harden sees his own Sex and God at Yale as “a continuation of the story [Buckley] began to tell” more than half a century ago. And yet, with the utmost respect for the late Mr. Buckley, Harden notes that Buckley’s complaints unfortunately “look quaint alongside the hard-core realities of today’s Yale.”

Chapter by chapter, Harden describes episodes in which these “hard-core realities” became particularly prominent in his own Yale experience. I will refrain from sharing here much of the graphic detail he supplies in the book, of which there is certainly plenty.

But in context, I actually found Harden’s illustrative descriptions effective in establishing a friendly tone, and a certain sense of ease between himself and the reader. True, Harden’s style of casual narrative makes it seem that he is speaking more to a young peer than to his elders at the university or in society writ large. But given the subject matter, this is the kind of book I would be more likely to pass along to a college friend than to my mother anyway.

Harden begins each chapter with a relevant quotation from a prominent Yale alumnus, effectively reinforcing the disconnect between the powerful noblemen Yale has formed in the past and the perverted juveniles it seems bent on producing today. My favorite quotation was the one he selected from Tom Wolfe, who received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1957, for Chapter 10, Hooking Up. Says Wolfe, “Today’s first base is kissing. . . . Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way. Home plate is learning each other’s names.” This line is obviously said a little tongue-in-cheek. But, I think, only a little.

It is presumably no secret that college is now dominated by the so-called “hook-up culture,” and that at many places anonymous or near-anonymous sexual encounters have become the norm rather than the exception on a typical Friday night. And depressingly, writes Harden, for “most college students, hooking up is the only way to carry on any kind of romantic relationship at all. Dating, in case you haven’t heard, is dead.” He goes so far as to say that actually “taking a girl to dinner is tantamount to a college marriage.” That may sound radical, but it is true to my own experience as well. Dating has become exceedingly rare among Columbia students, so much so that most students probably go all four years without ever going out on an official date.

And so, instead, college students “hook up.” Of course Yale is no different in that regard, and neither is Columbia. But at such elite institutions, and particularly at institutions as committed to the cause of women’s equality as these two are, there are special tensions that become particularly apparent. In one of the book’s more memorable passages, Harden writes,

When sex comes casually and with no relational strings attached, as it often does at Yale and on other college campuses, women are essentially commodified and objectified in the eyes of men. Here’s why: When no real relationship is involved, there is no need to treat one’s sexual partner like anything more than a functional object—a sex doll that breathes. … Under this arrangement women lose the respect they want and deserve. It’s hard to be a randy sexpot and a deobjectified feminist at the same time.

And unfortunately, as we will see, this is hardly the only respect in which the attitudes Yale fosters toward women are pathetically paradoxical.

The hook-up culture is, I’m told, fairly ubiquitous at this point, a common phenomenon nationwide. But thankfully for the rest of our country’s universities, most of the episodes in Sex and God at Yale are so over-the-top that they could only occur on a relatively few, particularly “progressed” college campuses.

Harden devotes one chapter to the tragically terrifying case of Aliza Shvarts, the Yale art major whose senior project centered around the “art” of abortion. Shvarts made national news back in 2008 for, allegedly, repeatedly artificially inseminating herself and then inducing her own abortions, as often as possible over the course of a nine-month period. She then used documentation from the process and the organic materials it produced in her final artistic display. While the media spectacle did eventually lead the university to try to distance itself from the project, up until then Shvarts had had the approval and supervision of the Yale Art Department for the entire exhibition.

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One of Yale’s most infamous events, and one that occupies about a hundred pages of Sex and God at Yale, is Sex Week. Held every other year, Sex Week features a ten-day series of activities, with varying levels of university involvement from one event to another. During Harden’s time, it featured such uplifting installments as: “Defiant Desires,” an S&M symposium; “Y-Couture Fetish Fashion Show,” with student models, of course; “Getting What You Really Want,” an anti-monogamy talk by a “polyamorist activist”; “Babeland’s Lip Tricks,” wherein a burlesque performer gave a 90-minute oral sex workshop to a packed auditorium of students; “Speed Dating—Give Some, Get Some!”, which is pretty pathetically self-explanatory; “Love Junkies,” a panel discussion in which a “clinical sexologist” described the group therapy he once gave to a grandfather, a grandmother, and their sex slave; “Erotic Piercings,” a section which I highly recommend skipping over in the book, as I’m still having nightmares about it; and “BDSM 101,” yet another sadomasochistic event, but this one including a demonstration in which the presenter, herself a porn star, got naked in a Yale classroom and became a human prop in the presentings. Once again, I sense some potential conflicts with the prevailing feminist ideologies of the Ivy League. Somehow, I don’t think this is quite what Gloria Steinem had in mind.

Harden’s book is incredibly graphic, and it should probably not be recommended reading for too general an audience. Nonetheless, his commentary on these obscene scenes is truly top-notch. In his discussion of the “Babeland’s Lip Tricks” event at Sex Week, Harden draws attention to the fact that many of the techniques recommended by the burlesque lecturer require latex gloves, to be performed safely. In a particularly gripping moment, he steals away from the action to offer the following gem, another of my favorites from the book:

This must be, I think to myself, the natural progression of the culture of clinical safe sex, taken to its banal extreme. It started with sex educators’ near-religious devotion to the condom—that miraculous wonder-sock that was supposed to cure AIDS, liberate women from the curse of motherhood, eliminate unwanted pregnancy, make abortion obsolete, and, above all, free mankind from so many lingering Victorian vestiges of fearful prudery. The all-powerful rubber gave us sex with no strings attached. But that wasn’t enough. Now our hands are also supposed to be covered with latex. Slowly but surely, our anonymous sex culture is becoming as devoid of physical contact as it is of emotional contact. Touchless, heartless, passionless sex is the inheritance of this porned-out, hooked-up generation.

In the fifth and final section of Sex and God at Yale, Harden ceases most of his narrative style, and in its place he offers a reflective analysis of what went wrong, of what led the ivy-covered university that produced presidents, Supreme Court justices, and movers and shakers the world over, to such a pathetic, pornified place. Squeamishness aside, this section really is worth everyone’s reading in its entirety.

Harden’s diagnosis is that Yale has lost its sense of moral and educational purpose, thereby losing any standard by which to discriminate worthy from unworthy classroom pursuits, and that the resulting relativism has inevitably given rise to the bizarre sexual dystopia one finds there today. Looking to the future, he prophesies,

Nihilism is, ultimately, where Yale is headed. Yale was built in order to nurture ideas that would elevate the soul and advance human understanding, but it now has no governing moral principle. As a result, the knowledge generated there is divorced from any larger human purpose. Apart from a kind of vague appreciation of certain concepts like tolerance and diversity, Yale is a moral vacuum. Therefore, almost anything goes.

One might wonder, given nude porn stars in the classroom, what that “almost” could still exclude.

Looking back on his expectations before moving to New Haven, Harden says, “I had thought of Yale as a modern-day equivalent of the Athenian agora; but all too often, I found myself sitting in the equivalent of an intellectual whorehouse.” And yet, he authored Sex and God at Yale not simply to draw attention to the university’s defects, but to hold Yale up to the standards that it once set for itself. In penning the present essay, I mean to do the same with regard to my own alma mater. Please do not misunderstand me; Yale and Columbia are fantastic institutions. I count myself blessed to have studied where I did, and Harden frequently conveys the same sense of gratitude to Yale throughout his book. But the greatness of these universities has come under fire, and their sexual obsession is compromising the virtues of the academy. So we write what we do, that they may be what they were. Our shared hope is that Columbia and Yale would once again flourish as the universities they were created to be—intellectual whorehouses no longer, and Athenian agoras once more.

Michael W. Hannon is a first-year law student at New York University and a graduate of Columbia University, where he triple-majored in Philosophy, Religion, and Medieval and Renaissance Studies. This article first appeared at Mercatornet.com and is reprinted under a Creative Commons License.

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Vatican’s doctrine chief: ‘Absolutely anti-Catholic’ to let bishops conferences decide doctrine or discipline

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By John-Henry Westen

VATICAN, March 26, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) - Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has rejected outright the idea floated by Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx that various bishops’ conferences around the world would decide for themselves on points of discipline or doctrine. 

“This is an absolutely anti-Catholic idea that does not respect the catholicity of the Church,” Cardinal Müller told France’s Famille Chrétienne in an interview published today

The question was raised because Cardinal Marx, the head of the German Catholic bishops’ conference and a member of Pope Francis’ advisory Council of Nine, told reporters that the German bishops would chart their own course on the question of allowing Communion for those in “irregular” sexual unions.

“We are not a subsidiary of Rome,” he said in February. “The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we should do in Germany.”

Vatican Cardinal Müller remarked that while episcopal conferences may have authority over certain issues they are not a parallel magisterium apart from the pope or outside communion with the bishops united to him.

Asked specifically about Cardinal Marx saying that the Church in Germany is “not a subsidiary of Rome,” the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said pointedly “the president of an Episcopal Conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and as such has no special teaching authority.”  He added moreover, that the dioceses in a particular country “are not subsidiaries of the secretariat of an Episcopal conference or diocese whose Bishop presides over the Episcopal Conference.”

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The CDF head warned that “this attitude makes the risk of waking some polarization between the local churches and the universal Church.” He did not however believe that there was the will for Episcopal conferences to separate from Rome.

The important interview also saw Cardinal Müller contest the notion that the pastoral practice or discipline could change while retaining the same doctrine. “We can not affirm the doctrine and initiate a practice that is contrary to the doctrine,” he said.

He added that not even the papal Magisterium is free to change doctrine. “Every word of God is entrusted to the Church, but it is not superior to the Word,” he said. “The Magisterium is not superior to the word of God. The reverse is true.”

Cardinal Müller rejected the notion that we would have to modify Christ’s unflinching words totally forbidding divorce and remarriage.  We cannot “say that our ministry should be more cautious than Jesus Christ Himself!”  Nor could we, he added, say that Christ’s teaching is out of date or that “we need to correct or refine Jesus Christ because He lived in an idealistic world.” 

Rather, the cardinal said, bishops must be ready for martyrdom.  Quoting Jesus he said, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and if we speak all kinds of evil against you because of me.”

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‘Groundbreaking’: Kansas may become first state to ban dismemberment abortions

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TOPEKA, KS, March 26, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Kansas will become the first state in the country to ban a procedure in which unborn children are dismembered in the womb, if Gov. Sam Brownback signs a bill that recently passed the state legislature.

The state House passed a ban on dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortions, called dismemberment abortions in common parlance, by 98-26 on Wednesday.

The Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, which had already passed the state Senate in February 31-9, now heads to Gov. Brownback's desk.

Brownback, a staunch defender of life, is expected to sign the act into law.

"Because of the Kansas legislature's strong pro-life convictions, unborn children in the state will be protected from brutal dismemberment abortions," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, which has made banning dismemberment abortions a national legislative focus.

The procedure, in which an abortionist separates the unborn child's limbs from his body one at a time, accounts for 600 abortions statewide every year.

Nationally, it is “the most prevalent method of second-trimester pregnancy termination in the USA, accounting for 96 percent of all second trimester abortions,” according to the National Abortion Federation Abortion Training Textbook.

“It’s just unconscionable that something happens to children that we wouldn’t tolerate being done to pets,” Katie Ostrowski, the legislative director of Kansans for Life, told The Wichita Eagle.

Leading pro-life advocacy groups have made shifting the debate to dismemberment a national priority, with similar legislation being considered in Missouri and Oklahoma. Mary Spaulding Balch, J.D., who is NRLC's director of state legislation, called the bill's passage in Topeka “groundbreaking.”

"When the national debate focuses only on the mother, it is forgetting someone," she said.

The abortion lobby has made clear that it is uncomfortable engaging in a public relations tussle on this ground.

Elizabeth Nash, the senior state issues associate of the Guttmacher Institute, said that dismemberment is “not medical language, so it’s a little bit difficult to figure out what the language would do.”

On the state Senate floor, Democrats tried to alter the bill's language on the floor by replacing the term “unborn child” with fetus. “I know some of you don’t believe in science. But it’s not an unborn child, it’s called a fetus,” said state Senator David Haley, D-Kansas City.

If the bill becomes law, the abortion industry has vowed to fight on.

Julie Burkhart, a former associate of late-term abortionist George Tiller, said the motion's only intention is “to intimidate, threaten and criminalize doctors.”

“Policymakers should be ashamed,” she said, adding, “if passed, we will challenge it in court.”

Gov. Brownback has previously signed conscience rights protections and sweeping pro-life protections into law.

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How NOT to move beyond the abortion wars

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By Anne Hendershott

March 26, 2015 (CrisisMagazine.com) -- A few years ago, when an undergraduate student research assistant of mine—a recent convert to Catholicism—told me that he was planning to meet with a well-known dissenting Catholic theology professor who was then ensconced in an endowed chair at a major metropolitan Catholic university, I told him: “Be careful, you might end up liking him too much.” I jokingly told my student not to make eye contact with the theologian because he might begin to find himself agreeing with him that Catholic teachings “really allow” for women’s ordination and full reproductive rights—including access to abortion.

I was reminded of that conversation this week when I began reading a new book by yet another engaging Catholic theology professor at a major metropolitan university who also claims (pg 6) that the argument he puts forward in his book, Beyond the Abortion Wars, is “consistent with defined Catholic doctrine.” Written by Charles Camosy, associate professor of theology at Fordham University, the new book purports to be in line with Catholic teachings and promises “a way forward for a new generation.” But, Camosy delivers yet another argument for a woman’s right to choose abortion when confronted with an unborn child that he has described—in the past—as an “innocent aggressor.”

Indeed, Camosy has spent much of his career trying to convince us that he knows Catholic teachings better than the bishops. Criticizing Bishop Olmsted for his intervention and excommunication of a hospital administrator for her role in the direct abortion at a Phoenix Catholic hospital, Camosy suggested in 2013 that “the infamous Phoenix abortion case set us back in this regard.” Implying that Bishop Olmsted was not smart enough to understand the moral theology involved in the case, Camosy claimed that “The moral theology in the case was complex—which makes the decision to declare publicly that Sr. McBride had excommunicated herself even more inexplicable. The Church can do better.” For Camosy, “Catholics must be ready to help shape our new discussion on abortion. And we must do so in a way that draws people into the conversation—not only with respectful listening, but speaking in a way that is both coherent and sensitive.”

This new book is likely Camosy’s attempt to “draw people into the conversation.” But, there is little in his book that is either coherent or sensitive. Claiming to want to move “beyond” the abortion wars, Camosy creates an argument that seems designed to offend the pro-life side, while giving great respect to those who want to make sure abortion remains legal.

Especially offensive for pro-life readers will be Camosy’s description of the abortifacient, RU-486 as a form of “indirect abortion.” The reality is that RU-486, commonly known as the “abortion pill,” effectively ends an early pregnancy (up to 8 weeks) by turning off the pregnancy hormone (progesterone). Progesterone is necessary to maintain the pregnancy and when it is made inoperative, the fetus is aborted. For Camosy, who claims that his book is “consistent with settled Catholic doctrine,” this is not a “direct” abortion. To illustrate this, Camosy enlists philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson’s 1971 “Defense of Abortion”—the hypothetical story of the young woman who is kidnapped and wakes up in a hospital bed to find that her healthy circulatory system has been hooked up to a famous unconscious violinist who has a fatal kidney ailment. The woman’s body is being used to keep the violinist alive until a “cure” for the violinist can be found. Camosy makes the case—as hundreds of thousands of pro-choice proponents have made in the past four decades—that one cannot be guilty of directly killing the violinist if one simply disconnects oneself from him. Likewise, for Camosy, simply taking the drug RU 486 is not “directly” killing the fetus. He writes:

The drugs present in RU 486 do not by their very nature appear to attack the fetus. Instead, the drug cuts off the pregnancy hormone and the fetus is detached from the woman’s body…. Using RU 486 is like removing yourself from [Judith Jarvis Thompson’s] violinist once you are attached. You don’t aim at his death, but instead remove yourself because you don’t think you have the duty to support his life with your body…. Some abortions are indirect and better understood as refusals to aid (pp 82-83).

Perhaps there are some readers who will find Camosy’s argument convincing, but I am not sure that many faithful Catholic readers will agree that it is consistent with settled Catholic doctrine.

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As one who is hardly a bystander in the abortion wars, I wanted to like this book. As an incrementalist who celebrates every small step in creating policy to protect the unborn, I had high hopes that this book would at last begin to bridge the divide. A decade ago, in my own book, The Politics of Abortion, I joined the argument begun by writers like Marvin Olasky in his Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, that it is more effective to attempt to change the hearts and minds of people than to create divisive public policy at the federal level. I share Charles Camosy’s desire to end the abortion wars—but this war cannot end until the real war on the unborn ends. This does not mean that the two sides cannot work together—battling it out at the state level—where there is the opportunity for the greatest success. But, complex philosophical arguments on whether RU 486 is a direct or indirect form of abortion are not helpful to these conversations.

Camosy must know that we can never really “end” the abortion wars as long as unborn children are still viewed as “aggressors” or “invaders” and can still be legally aborted. Faithful Catholics know that there is no middle ground on this—the pro-life side has to prevail in any war on the unborn. It can be done incrementally but ground has to be gained—not ceded—for the pro-life side. Besides, Camosy seems a bit late to the battlefield to begin with. In many ways, he seems to have missed the fact that the pro-life side is already winning many of the battles through waiting periods, ultrasound and parental notification requirements, and restrictions on late term abortion at the state level. More than 300 policies to protect the unborn have been passed at the state level just in the past few years. The number of abortions each year has fallen to pre-Roe era levels—the lowest in more than four decade.   Much of these gains are due to the selfless efforts of the pro-life community and their religious leaders. Yet, just as victory appears possible in many more states, Camosy seems to want to surrender by resurrecting the tired rhetoric—and the unconscious violinists—of forty years ago.

While it is disappointing, it is not unexpected considering Camosy’s last book lauded the contributions of Princeton’s most notorious professor, Peter Singer—the proponent of abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. Claiming that Singer is “motivated by an admirable desire to respond to the suffering of human and non-human animals,” Camosy’s 2012 book, Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, argues that, “Though Singer is pro-choice for infanticide, on all the numerous and complicated issues related to abortion but one, Singer sounds an awful lot like Pope John Paul II.”  In a post at New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a progressive organization led by Rev. Richard Cizik (a former lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals who was removed from his position because of his public support for same sex unions, and his softening stance on abortion) Camosy wrote that he found Singer to be “friendly and compassionate.”  Camosy currently serves on the Advisory Board of Cizik’s New Evangelical Partnership—where he has posted Peter Singer-like articles including: “Why Christians Should Support Rationing Health Care.”

One cannot know the motivations of another—we can never know what is in another’s heart so it is difficult to know why Charles Camosy wrote this book. It must be difficult to be a pro-life professor at Fordham University—a school known for dissenting theologians like Elizabeth Johnson. But, if one truly wants to advance a culture of life in which all children are welcomed into the world, it would seem that inviting Peter Singer to be an honored speaker to students at Fordham in 2012 is not the way to do it, nor would claiming that RU-486 “may not aim at death by intention.” Perhaps it is unwise to continue to critically review Camosy’s work from a Catholic perspective because it gives such statements credibility—and notoriety. But, as long as Camosy continues to claim that his writings and policy suggestions—including his newly proposed “Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act”—are “consistent with defined Catholic doctrine,” faithful Catholics will have to continue to denounce them.

Reprinted with permission from Crisis Magazine. 

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