The Good-Enough Death

April 27, 2016 at 11:44 am | Posted in Aging, Catholicism, Uncategorized | 7 Comments
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The following is a review-essay on Ann Neumann’s book, The Good Death, published  by the Marginalia Review of Books last Monday, April 25. It’s much longer than a standard blog post, so I won’t post anything else for a while to give you time to read it. Also, I haven’t got a clue how to get rid of the box around the first page. Luddites of the world, unite!

Ann Neumann, The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America, Beacon Press, 2016, 212pp., $26.95

 

At first glance, a reader might take Ann Neumann’s The Good Death for a standard critical study — an analysis of the “complicated legal, religious and ethical labyrinths that surround dying in America,” as a blurb on the back cover suggests.

And indeed, The Good Death does a fine job, in slightly more than two hundred pages, of delineating the contours of those labyrinths. Already in the first chapter Neumann begins exploring the many reasons why death is such a fraught topic (and experience) today: we no longer see death up close, as we did when plagues, infections and childhood diseases were common. Eighty percent of us die in institutions.

Then, too, in the 1970s, for the first time in history, the very definition of death changed. What was once clearly indicated by the simultaneous ending of “heartbeat, breathing and brain function” became more and more complicated. This was especially the case because innovations — respirators, defibrillators and feeding tubes, among others — made it possible to keep the heart and lungs functioning indefinitely. Scientists attempted to define death as living without brain function, but disputes about even what constitutes total loss of brain function persist.

Neumann continues to detail the obstacles to a “good death” throughout the rest of
the book. One is the long-standing Christian belief that pain is the result of sin and
that the endurance of it makes human beings better. Even today, the U.S. Catholic
bishops, in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care, state that “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding of redemptive suffering.”

In the past this principle was applied to childbirth and even dental care, but it continues to influence end-of-life practices in our time. Doctors often prescribe (and families agree to) painful treatments for patients near the end of life because they believe that extending life is what matters, no matter the cost. Linked to the sacralization of suffering is the widespread notion that to refuse to continue treatment of a family member, even if it causes them great suffering, is to betray them.

Another obstacle to the good death is the disastrous state of the U.S. health care system. In 2010 we spent over a sixth of the U.S. economy — 2.7 trillion dollars — on health care, double what was spent in 2000. And although we overspend all other developed nations by $3000 per patient per year, a 2014 study ranked the U.S. last among those nations in the quality of its health care.

Part of the reason for this dismal outcome is that half of that $2.7 trillion was spent on 5 percent of the population, those in the last year of life. And a stunning percentage of that money was invested in what biomedical ethicists call “futile treatments,” therapies, drug courses and trials that prolong but do not actually lessen illnesses. Such calculations risk sounding venal, implying that the dying simply are not worth more than a certain amount of money. But Neumann explains convincingly how much genuinely effective and often inaccessible medical care the money spent on futile end-of-life treatment would provide. She also makes clear the extent to which state laws and

the prison system collude in blocking the right to die with dignity.

Even the hospice movement, from which Neumann admits having learned a great deal as a volunteer, sometimes contributes to the difficulties of achieving a good death. The founder of the modern hospice movement, Dr. Cicely Saunders, was a staunch opponent of assisted dying, believing that pain and suffering could always be addressed. Those involved in the hospice movement today often believe that the end of life, even when it involves great suffering, presents patients with an opportunity for personal growth that aid in dying ostensibly short-circuits.

As Neumann explores the specifics of these labyrinths, she expresses fairly clearly her support for aid in dying, that is, for the right of terminally ill, mentally competent individuals, after meeting the legal requirements for such a decision, to take life-ending medication. The passage of laws allowing such aid in dying in Oregon, Washington, and Montana, interestingly enough, resulted in state residents becoming more knowledgeable about hospice and palliative care, and doctors’ increasing their referrals for hospice care significantly. Some of the most informative conversations Neumann recalls were with end-of-life activists and the staff of aid in dying organizations like Compassion & Choices.

But all of this notwithstanding, Neumann never portrays death as simple or uncomplicated.

 

I had a number of reasons for wanting to read The Good Death. Unlike Neumann, who began thinking about death only after the loss of her grandmother and father when she was in her thirties, I had been aware of it since the age of five. One day, out of the blue, my beloved grandfather suffered a heart attack and just disappeared: poof. And then in my teens, a doctor told my aunt, who in turn told me, that the dose of morphine he was giving to her husband to lessen the pain in his diabetically-infected and soon–to-be-amputated leg would probably kill him. It did.

But what really got me thinking about U.S. medical practices in the face of potentially fatal illness were two cancer surgeries I underwent in the early 1990s. With the first, I woke up in terrible pain after a hysterectomy, only to be told by the recovery room nurse that if I took painkillers too soon, I would become a drug addict. An RN friend disabused her of that notion, but not for several hours.

Then, two years later, after the removal of a malignant tumor from my colon, the surgeon sent me for a chemotherapy consult. The oncologist told me that I had a 20 percent likelihood of recurrence with the chemo and a 20 percent likelihood without it. When pushed, he said he himself would certainly not choose the chemo; it would nauseate me for a year. But when the surgeon learned of my decision, he went nuts, virtually accusing me of endangering my own life. I was thrilled when I finally escaped from his “care.”

After these experiences, nothing that Neumann writes about the national obsession with futile treatments or the need for aid in dying surprises me or seems overstated. The very possibility of death is so outrageous to some medical practitioners and some patient’s families that they cannot stop themselves from doing everything, no matter how hurtful, to avoid it.

 

One worry that I carried with me until the last few chapters of Neumann’s book concerned her treatment of Roman Catholicism. Of course, given the pivotal role the Catholic Church plays in end-of-life controversies in the United States, there is no way Neumann could avoid including the church and its teachings in her analysis. And I myself am deeply disturbed by the efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to use “religious freedom” to deny women affordable reproductive health coverage.

But as a specialist in American Catholicism, I am also aware of the anti-Catholic discourse that snakes its way through U.S. history and culture. As I read The Good Death, I worried that Neumann might be using her considerable writing talent to extend that discourse. Indeed, soon after the book’s publication, a review in the Jesuit magazine America characterized Neumann’s treatment of Catholic teaching on death as “dismissive or condescending.”

 

Already in the third chapter Neumann addresses the role of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1990 Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the family of Nancy Cruzan, who had been in a persistent vegetative state for years, to have her feeding tube removed. The USCCB’s two amicus briefs against the ruling argued that feeding tubes constitute “comfort care” and are therefore compulsory; removing them is euthanasia.

Neumann does not, interestingly enough, mention that in an earlier end-of-life case, the parents of Karen Ann Quinlan used statements by Pope Pius XII to argue for the right to have their daughter’s respirator removed. The pope had said in a 1957 address that refusing to insert an artificial respirator in a patient, even if it would result in death, did not constitute euthanasia and was therefore permitted.

That teaching notwithstanding, the bishops did oppose the right of Nancy Cruzan’s family to remove her feeding tube in 1990. But it was the Terry Schiavo case (2001-2005), according to Neumann, that really set them off. This was so, we learn, because the Schiavo decision comprised a sort of one-two punch, coming as it did after the passage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997. The justice system, the bishops finally realized, was directly challenging their authority.

Thus, after the court-permitted removal of Schiavo’s feeding tube and her subsequent death in 2005, a “small but significant minority” of Evangelicals and Catholics, with the unflagging support of the bishops, came together to fight the twin crimes of euthanasia and abortion. Neumann finds it hard to understand how some medical advancements, like the ventilator or contraceptives, can be any less “natural” than those the church approves, like metal feeding tubes inserted into a patient’s stomach. So do I.

In some respects, Neumann finds the broader influence of the Catholic Church on U.S. health care regarding end- of-life issues even more damning than its attempts to influence particular right-to-die cases. We learn that there are, according to the website of the USCCB, 629 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., serving, “one out of every six patients: that’s nineteen million, emergency room visits and more than one hundred million outpatient visits a year.”

And while those Catholic hospitals generally follow standard medical procedure, they are forbidden to do so when such procedures fall outside the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services,” a list of seventy-two guidelines issued by the USCCB. Many of these guidelines involve reproductive services, but Guideline 58 addresses the use of feeding tubes for those in persistent vegetative states. Catholics are instructed that even the belief that a patient is never likely to regain consciousness is not sufficient reason to withdraw medically assisted nutrition and rehydration. This is so even if the patient’s advance directives authorize so doing.

Furthermore, Neumann explains, employees of Catholic health care institutions are forbidden to give patients information about other institutions where their advance directives would be honored; some employees have been fired for so doing. “The hard power of the church, which retains its ability to decide the types of care millions of patients receive daily — even to decide what options people can be informed of — has combined with the soft power of public opinion and coercion” to limit end-of-life choices, Neumann argues.

Despite all of this, I decided, after finishing The Good Death, that Neumann’s critique of the Catholic Church does not constitute anti-Catholicism — or if it does, I forgive her for it. I did so despite the fact that Neumann is more critical of the Catholic Church than of any other single locus of power in the end-of-life arena of the culture wars. I did not even make the decision because Neumann herself, as it turns out, is a Catholic. Since the clergy sex-abuse scandal took center-stage in 2002, liberal Catholics, as Philip Jenkins argues persuasively, are more likely than others to engage in anti-Catholic discourse.

Rather, I decided The Good Death is not anti-Catholic because Neumann’s treatment of the subject of death is extraordinarily humane and nuanced. This is the case in large part because of the stories of her relationships with individuals, some dying, others not, that are woven throughout the book. But Neumann is not using stories to introduce or connect arguments about death in our time; her encounters with these people are, in effect, her argument. She begins with her own father’s death and how horrified she was by it. Then she goes on to visit, and revisit, the lives of other men and women — many of them people she encountered as a result of her decision after her father’s death to become a hospice volunteer.

 

And in the book’s last chapter, Neumann draws on the experiences and attitudes of fully nine of the people she’s written about previously to weave together her final reflections on the good death. Neumann’s engagement with the complexity of their positions on the end of life, shaped by her considerable affection for many of them, is far removed from the vitriolic tones of anti-Catholicism, racism, and other hateful discourses.

Consider, for example, Neumann’s relationship with the paraplegic, Bill Peace, and through him, with the wider disability rights movement. Neumann first encounters Peace when, as the blogger “Bad Cripple,” he attacks Neumann’s position on assisted dying, calling it the first step on a slippery slope toward the total devaluation of the disabled. Eventually, the two meet for lunch and a powerful if sometimes-contentious friendship ensues.

It is not that Neumann is not critical of Bill and many other disability rights advocates. She finds their claims to know better than anyone else about the best way to die, even better than the dying themselves, to be arrogant. But Neumann is also forced, because of her relationship with Bill and his fellow activists, to consider whether her ignorance or avoidance of disabled persons contributes to the institutionalization of inequality.

She is even forced, to some extent, to understand the ferocity of their opposition to her position on assisted dying. Peace’s refusal to “go gentle into that good night” shapes Neumann’s nuanced reading of the end of life as much as the successful fight of a dying truck driver to get the state of Montana to allow assisted dying does, or the decision of a retired psychiatrist and close friend, Evelyn Livingstone, to go on living as long as she can.

Neumann uses these and six other stories to trace the complexity of the very idea of hope in the face of death. Sometimes lives are marked by a “deep hope” that does not delude the one who hopes but can be based on “incremental emotional needs” like going for a walk or enjoying the day. For Neumann, this characterizes the “good enough death” that her friend Dr. Evelyn Livingstone is slowly undergoing.

But hope can also be a blind faith, a hope against hope, that results in death being much, much worse for some people, or even drives others to try to make legally obligatory the practices fundamental to hope at all costs in the face of death.

Ultimately, Neumann argues that that there is no good death, just a “good enough death,” one made possible only by looking death straight in the eye and acknowledging its inevitability. Such a good enough death is strikingly different from the kind of death undergirded by denial, the profit motive, and the glorification of suffering.

As a result, Neumann is also forced to acknowledge that there are no quick solutions or easy answers to the questions she has raised. In the end, what we do is engage in the work of grief, and that itself is sometimes a form of vanity. We talk about the dead as if they are ours, clinging to “fragmentary stones,” remembrances by which they become part of us.

And we go on. After her friend Evelyn Livingstone dies, Neumann assures us, she will visit Marvin, Evelyn’s widower, who is statistically unlikely to outlive his wife by very long. And when Marvin dies, Neumann will mourn him too.

 

Further Thoughts on the Church and the “Obamacare” Contraceptives Mandate

November 26, 2012 at 12:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of things about the behavior of the US Catholic Bishops during the recent presidential campaign scandalized me, to use an old-fashioned word. But nothing equalled my horror at the bishops’ decision to stage their “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign in protest against the Affordable Care Act’s mandate of free contraceptive coverage four months before the presidential election. The following is a slight revision of an article I published last spring in EqualwRites, the Philadelphia Catholic feminist newsletter for which I’ve been writing for nearly twenty years. I think some of what I discuss there is worth reviewing as we move toward implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in a second Obama administration.

 

The re-election of Barack Obama would seem to have settled the question of the Affordable Care Act, which the Republican candidate promised to eviscerate on his first day in office. But the conflict between the US Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over the act’s mandated provision of contraceptives is unlikely to end any time soon, alas. The bishops, as you will recall, rejected the administration’s proposed compromise that insurance companies, not employers, cover the costs of contraceptives under the ACA. The bishops even claimed that individual employers be exempted from providing such coverage if it violated their “freedom of religion.” I imagine Cardinal Dolan and Co. are planning new forms of protest even as I write.

As we anticipate the next stage in the bishops’ war to control women’s reproductive functions,  there are, I believe, two aspects of the previous round of controversy that deserve attention.  The first is the failure of a wide range of journalists and commentators, including white male liberal Catholic commentators, to so much as hint that the question of contraceptive coverage has anything to do with women.

Before I examine what these commentators said, let’s clarify a few points. Not only do 98% of US Catholic women report having used contraceptives at some time, a significant majority of Catholic women—62%—supported the Affordable Care mandate that Catholic and other religious hospitals and universities provide free contraception coverage as part of their insurance coverage. Indeed, a majority of US Catholics across the board support that mandate.

But the commentators, even Catholic commentators, rarely addressed this reality in the months leading up to the election. Early on there was Michael Sean Winters’s article, “J’accuse,” in the National Catholic Reporter.  Let’s set aside Winters’s outrageous comparison of the contraceptives mandate with the first in a series of anti-semitic events, the Dreyfus affair, that culminated in the Holocaust. (“J’Accuse” is the title of a famous newspaper article by the French writer Emile Zola accusing the French government of antisemitism for convicting Captain Dreyfus of  treason.) Only once in the entire article does Winters use the word “woman,” and that in reference to Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Health Association, presumably one of the 2% of Catholic women who has never used, or needed, contraception (and who at that point agreed with him). Instead he states, in typically Catholic binary language, that “It is a mistake of analysis to see this as a decision about contraception. The issue here is conscience.” No reference is made to the National Institutes of Medicine ruling that contraception coverage is an essential part of preventive health care for women, never mind to the millions of actual US Catholic women whose health, and sometimes lives, depend on such care.

And Winters isn’t the only one. The NCR, in its February 9th editorial, echoes Winters’s claim that “conscience, not contraception, is the essential issue,” while not using the word “women” once. And on the PBS News Hour, Mark Shields and David Brooks likewise managed to reject the HHS mandate two weeks in a row without uttering the word “women.” On Weekend Edition, NPR’s Scott Simon, apparently oblivious to the statistics on US Catholic women’s support of the mandate, opined that just because Catholic women use contraceptives doesn’t mean that they support the denial of religious freedom to their church. And in their February 24 editorial, the more moderate Commonweal also rejected the mandate on the basis of religious freedom, though it does at least nod in women’s direction in the last paragraph.

A few Catholic women—Gail Collins in the New York Times, and moral theologian Lisa Fullam on the Commonweal blog page—did indeed speak out. By and large, however, the most recent phase of the contraceptives controversy was a phallic struggle between white Catholic men, bishops and lay journalists, on one side, and the Obama administration. The majority of US Catholics and even larger majorities of Catholic women, people of color, and Millenials, support the mandate. This struggle may be about conscience, but it’s even more about anyone daring to tell old white guys what to do.

The other dismaying aspect of the current  “(some) Catholics against the HHS mandate” brouhaha is that it feeds into a growing Right Wing effort to undermine access to contraceptives in the US and around the world. As Mark Oppenheimer explains in a January 20th New York Times op-ed piece, after decades of supporting the use of contraceptives, increasing numbers of US Evangelicals are now joining Catholic conservatives in their opposition to them. One aspect of this is the “Quiverfull” movement, which advocates large families, as exemplified by the Duggar family, the enthusiastic Rick Santorum supporters featured on the reality show, “19 Kids and Counting.”

All these kids jumping around can seem rather jolly, but there’s scary stuff underneath these developments. One is the increasing support for the argument—also advanced by the institutional Church—that most contraceptives are abortifacients. This is argued because oral contraceptives and others that contain hormones make the endometrium less receptive to embryonic implantation. But the embryo, opponents of contraception argue, is a person from the moment of conception. Or, as the American Association of Pro-Life ObGyns puts it, “There is an unarguable logic connecting the contraceptive act and the abortive act.

But as Jamie Manson argues convincingly on her NCR blogpage,* even Catholic Health Association ethicists have acknowledged that neither the IUD nor Plan B work by preventing implantation; instead, they prevent fertilization. At first, the argument against Ella seems more compelling, since its “chemical structure is similar to that of RU-486,” an acknowledged abortifacient not covered under ACA. But Ella comprises a much smaller dose of the chemical similar to the one in RU-486 and functions to delay or prevent ovulation. As an article from the British medical journal the Lancet indicates, only if Ella is given in a dose far beyond that provided under the ACA can implantation be impaired.”

Scientific evidence does not deter those determined to deprive women of reproductive health care, however. Thus far, attempts to enforce this belief by getting the “personhood” amendment added to state constitutions have failed, but the “personhood” movement continues its efforts. Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs committee voted eleven times in October of 2011 to block funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provides reproductive services to women, men, and young people in 150 countries around the world.

Surely Michael Sean Winters, Mark Shields, the NCR, and the rest, in their opposition to the ACA-mandated contraceptives coverage by Catholic universities and hospitals, do not intend to support the drive to make contraceptives illegal. I fear that by eliding women, and especially Catholic women, from the conversation, they have done so despite their good intentions

Catholic Sex Teaching is No Laughing Matter

June 25, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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It happens a lot these days. I get together with some other post-Vatican II Catholics and we start joking about the stupid things the Vatican or the bishops have done lately. For a while, my favorite contribution was the title of Andrew Rosenthal’s New York Times blog piece, “First Nuns and Girl Scouts, Next Dora the Explorer.” Now I’ve added Archbishop Sean O’Malley’s observation at the recent meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that the group may need some help with public relations. Ya think???

Trouble is, this stuff really isn’t funny. In point of fact, a number of official Catholic statements on sexuality—it’s invariably sexuality and gender they’re riled up about—are downright dangerous.

Continue reading on Religion Dispatches

The Elizabeth Johnson Affair

June 20, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As you may know, in April, the committee on doctrine of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a wide-ranging condemnation of the book Quest for the Living God by the highly regarded US Catholic theologian, Elizabeth A. Johnson. Johnson, a long-time member of Fordham University’s theology faculty, and a Sister of St. Joseph of Brentwood, New York, was also president of the Catholic Theological Society of America from 1995-1996. In particular, according to the bishops, Johnson’s treatment of the Trinity in this book completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel.”  This is quite an accusation.

I once met with Johnson, in the early 1990s, to see if I might study with her in the Ph.D. program at Fordham. I can’t remember what I said–probably that I wanted to use feminist literary and poststructuralist theory to interpret the Catholic tradition. Johnson said to me, “You need to understand that as a Ph.D. student you will have absolutely nothing to say until you have mastered Aquinas and Rahner.” “Well,” I thought, “I’ll l be dead by then.” (I was 43 years old at the time.) Johnson’s rejoinder was not encouraging, but I was grateful for her candor; choosing the wrong advisor can be fatal in a doctoral program.

This is who the US Catholic bishops have gone after, this “Aquinas and Rahner are mandatory” professor. On June 6, Johnson issued a twenty-seven page response to the bishops’ statement. The rebuttal is based, almost without exception, in orthodox Catholic teaching. If someone else had written it, I might have (cynically) considered their doing so a strategic move– beating the bishops at their own game. With Johnson, this really is the theological world in which she moves.

In my opinion, Elizabeth Johnson is not a particularly original thinker. She is an able synthesizer, with a talent for identifying the right moment for introducing fairly recent theological ideas to the Catholic community.  In point of fact, although Catholic feminists–Mary Daly, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza–did ground-breaking work in the early years of feminist theology, in succeeding generations, Protestant women have done all the cutting edge work. The contributions of Catholic feminists like Johnson have been second rate at best. (I do have some hope  for younger Catholic feminists just beginning their careers, women such as  Susan Abraham, Karen Trimble Alliaume, Jeanine Hill Fletcher, and Elena Procario-Foley–but that’s a subject for another blog).

So why are the bishops beating up on this orthodox, and not terribly original, Catholic feminist theologian? One thought is that they’re mad at her precisely because her work is so accessible. Although she says that Quest for the Living God isn’t designed for college classes, I can well imagine its being used there, to introduce Catholic students to the Christian theological insights of recent decades, for example, the idea that God suffers along with human beings, or that if we’re going to save the planet from destruction (a particular concern of Benedict XVI) we need ways of understanding God’s connection with creation. Or maybe it’s just another instance of the director of the bishops’ office on doctrine, Thomas Weinandy, being a theological bully, as he was in the area of Jewish-Catholic relations last year, and the bishops lacking the courage to rein him in.

Or maybe it’s the very idea of a Catholic Sister being successful and influencing the Catholic theological conversation here in the US that infuriates the bishops. The Vatican has already investigated a number of women’s religious orders, and an investigation of the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the governance organization of the vast majority of US Catholic Sisters, is underway. And we remember Sister Carol Keehan, the head of the Catholic Hospital Association, who had the gall to influence the US health care debate last year. Maybe condemning Elizabeth Johnson’s book is one more way to get these women back into their convents where they belong.

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The Church of Anti-Football?

January 27, 2011 at 11:47 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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In the past few years, my church’s fixation on abortion seems not to have receded very much. Most recently, we have the spectacle of Sister of Mercy Margaret McBride being excommunicated for chairing an ethics committee that decided that the death of a fetus alone is better than the mother of the fetus dying along with it. Before that we observed the US Catholic bishops opposing the extension of health care to millions of Americans on the off-chance that the bill providing the coverage might increase abortions, though experts assured us that this was not the case. And before that a number of those same bishops, including the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops,  Cardinal George of Chicago, denounced the University of Notre Dame for inviting the first African-American president in the history of the country to be its commencement speaker exclusively because of his position on abortion. As George Dennis O’Brien argues in his new book, Roman Catholicism is becoming the “Religion of Anti-Abortion.”

But Anti-Abortion is not the only kind of religion. As Ben McGrath puts it in his provocative article in this week’s New Yorker, the United States has a secular religion–football. Such a notion is hard to dispute at any time, but just now, as many millions of American families are gathering around football’s flat screen altar for the greatest liturgy of the year, it’s a no-brainer. And if McGrath is correct, the Religion of the Anti-Abortion is not the only one facing serious conflicts; the secular religion of football is confronting a few as well.

These conflicts circulate around what McGrath’s characterizes as “the concussion crisis,” and particularly around the growing awareness of a condition called CTE–chronic traumatic encephalopathy.  CTE is “a condition that is believed to result from major collisions—or from the accumulation of subconcussions that are nowhere near as noticeable, including those incurred in practice.”

The public was introduced to this condition in a series of articles by New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz. In the early part of the 2000s, Schwarz began learning of increasing numbers of former NFL players who seemed to be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Some had become homeless after losing their capacities. Others had committed suicide.  Journalist colleagues began to call Schwarz the “Alan Brockovich” of football for this heroic (and unpopular) work. Mothers of young football players were some of his most avid readers. McGrath’s narration of Schwarz’s work is such a terrific read, it would be worth your attention even if there were nothing more to it.

But of course there’s a lot more to it. As McGrath indicates, football players are being harmed at all age levels. In Spirng Hill Kansas an honors student dropped dead from a subdural hematoma after making an interception at his high school’s homecoming game. Another high school player dropped dead of a “heart stoppage,” and a third committed suicide after sustaining a season-ending concussion. And these are just the anecdotes; wait till somebody starts collecting the statistics.

Some will argue that high school students, as minors, deserve protection, whereas professional football players have a perfect right to render themselves brain-dead if they want to. But as McGrath also points out, “two-thirds of N.F.L. players are African-American, and the white players do not typically come from New Canaan. The sport has long had a heavy underclass or, at least, working-class strain.” So the people getting their brains smashed may not be aware that they have very many other options.

I could end this right here, but I’d like to return for a moment to the matter of my church being the Religion of the Anti-Abortion. The fact is, Roman Catholicism is also intimately involved in the American secular religion of football. Catholic high schools and colleges all over the US field football teams. But the US bishops don’t seem too concerned about the serious harm that these young men risk by playing this sport. Unless I missed something, the US bishops have not as yet attacked the University of Notre Dame for endangering the lives, or perhaps I should say, the Life of their players.

I can only speculate on the reasons for this. Perhaps the bishops think they have no right to intervene in a matter which, unlike abortion, is personal. Perhaps, although they feel perfectly free to tell women what they should and should not do with their bodies, they don’t feel entitled to issue such orders to men. Or perhaps the financial implications for Catholic high schools and colleges are just too massive. In the last year for which there are figures, the University of Notre Dame earned $59.8 million from its football program, though that is down from previous years. And a lot of other Catholic schools are in financial difficulty as well.

Maybe a bishop will write back and fill us in.

US Catholic Bishops in the Culture Wars

November 19, 2010 at 10:25 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Well, this week the United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) elected the Archbishop of New York, Timothy Dolan, to be their president, passing over the previous vice-president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. It’s virtually unheard of for the sitting vice-president not to move up to the presidency. I reflect on Archbishop Dolan and the meaning of this development in an article on Religion Dispatches, “US Catholic Bishops Elect a Culture Warrior.”

I am somewhat emabarrassed to add that WordPress, which hosts my blogpage, has recently changed the mechanism whereby one inserts a link to another webpage into a post. Until I locate someone under thirty to teach me how to work the new mechanism, I’m afraid I just have to paste the link to the Religion Dispatches  article below. Hoping things on my end will improve soon!

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