The Long View 2006-11-10: The Morning of the Day Before

I hadn’t known [or had forgotten] that John J. Reilly was among the Catholics who find the logic of Humane Vitae less than airtight. He was also among the much smaller group who thinks the doctrine is correct, it just needs to be explained a bit better.


The Morning of the Day Before

Peggy Noonan has the sanest response to Tuesday's midterm elections:

We are in a 30-year war. It is no good for it to be led by, identified with, one party. It is no good for half the nation to feel estranged from its government's decisions. It's no good for us to be broken up more than a nation normally would be. And straight down the middle is a bad break, the kind that snaps.... One day in the future either New York or Washington or both will be hit again, hard. It will be more deadly than 9/11. And on that day, those who experience it, who see the flash or hear the alarms, will try to help each other....Make believe it's already happened.

Possibly no other election in history has elicited so many acknowledgements by the losers that it was not a bad thing for their side to lose.

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The only connection with UK nonprofits I have ever had is the Simplified Spelling Society, of which I have the honor to be a member. Something that always mystified me about the Society, however, was that it did not function as a not-for-profit: it has to pay taxes on its modest endowment and even on its fees. I was told that the problem was that the Society had done a bit of lobbying in the 1950s, which had branded it as a political group for all time. I thought that strange, since in America charitable tax-exemptions are not hard to obtain. Now I see that the situation in the UK is about to get worse:

Next week, the new Charities' Bill will finish its passage through Parliament. It should become law before the end of the year. In spite of being billed as "the biggest review of charity legislation in the past 400 years", it has generated very little comment. This is surprising, because the Bill will vastly increase the power of the Charities' Commission to dissolve charities, confiscate their endowments and assets, and give them to what the Commission considers a more genuinely "charitable" cause.

That threat is alarming and real. It used to be taken for granted that organisations devoted to education, to religion, or to the relief of poverty, were automatically providing a "public benefit". The new legislation dissolves that assumption. Even more worryingly, it also leaves it up to the Charities Commission to decide what constitutes a "public benefit". There is no guidance in the legislation on how that slippery notion should be defined. Ministers and members of the Commission have referred to "case law", but there is almost none, precisely because, for the last 400 years, there has been so firm a consensus that education, religion and the relief of poverty constitute public benefits.

...The motive behind redefining that notion seems to have been the desire to ensure that charities benefit all the public, not just some small section of it. That is why, for instance, schools and hospitals that charge fees are being threatened with the withdrawal of their charitable status: they are said only to benefit people who can afford to pay, and not the whole of the British public. In fact, every charity benefits a portion of the population rather than all of it

One could argue that the American nonprofit sector is too big and too irresponsible, but perhaps we should prefer it to the alternative.

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Here is one of the ways the Iraq War differs from the Vietnam War, as revealed by the election on Tuesday:

Forget the war in Iraq. The political war in America this year proved to be a bloodbath for the "fighting Dems," who might more aptly be called the "fallen Dems" after Tuesday's election.

After Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, a Democrat, nearly scored a special-election upset in Ohio's strongly Republican 2nd District last summer, bloggers and other Democrats began touting war veterans as candidates for 2006. They touted dozens of such candidates as the antidote for the Democratic Party's long-running electoral ailments on the defense and security fronts.

But if Democrats have the same low tolerance for political casualties as they have shown for battlefield casualties in Iraq, their push to recruit and elect to Congress military veterans who run as Democrats will be short-lived.

Actually, it would be a poor notion to "forget the war in Iraq," which is still ongoing. As I have remarked before, no outcome of that conflict will be acknowledged to be a victory. The opponents of the Bush Administration might accept a pretty good result, however, provided the Administration does not get credit for it. Current thinking seems to run along the lines of the plan put forward by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware in The National Interest (a publication which continues to get a little more disconcerting every time I see it). The plan is of the variety that leans heavily on the division of Iraq into federal cantons, based on negotiations with the Sunnis of the northwest. It is not clear to me that this is terribly different from what the Bush Administration has been trying to do. It is also not clear to me that peace is in the gift of the interlocutors that Senator Biden's plan contemplates.

In any case, domestic morale in the US is not as great a constraint on policy as the recent election may have led us to believe:

The US Army exceeded most of its recruiting and retention goals for October, the service said, even as it launched a new television and radio ad campaign dubbed "Army Strong." ...Re-enlistments in October far surpassed the goals for the active army (30 percent), the reserve (14 percent) and the national guard (43 percent).

Note that these figures coincide with an unemployment rate well under 5%. This is not 1974; Any party that works on the assumption that today is like then will get its head handed to it.

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Meanwhile, here's a bit of preemptive disinformation about events in the Catholic Church:

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH laid down a tough, absolute law in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: no condoms, no abortion, no contraceptives. Never. Now the condom part of that rule is being reviewed, and if it is changed, expect new challenges to the entire contraception doctrine, to the doctrine of papal infallibility and even to the church's abortion rules....Pope Benedict XVI has ordered a Vatican staff report on whether condoms can be approved for situations in which there is potential for HIV infection. That report is imminent, according to Vatican rumors, and it is likely that Benedict will act quickly on it given that it was undertaken on his initiative...And yet Humanae Vitae is not, in its reasoning, as absolute as one might think. Paul wrote: "A right conscience is the true interpreter … of the objective moral order which was established by God." Thus he left a sort of conscientious-objector status for those Catholics who could not believe in the evil of contraception.

The actual text of Humanae Vitae does leave quite a bit of interpretive room for maneuver, though not in the way this editorial suggests. Humanae Vitae does, for instance, distinguish contraceptive intent from mere contraceptive effect (and it is not all clear the logic of the encyclical has any application outside marriage at all). The use of condoms for epidemiological purposes would not constitute an abandonment of the basic doctrine.

Like many people, I have never found the logic of Humanae Vitae altogether compelling. Like many exercises in natural-law reasoning, it is rhetorically persuasive without ever really locking into place with a rigorous proof. The irony is that, as sociology, the encyclical is the key to understanding the demographic and cultural evolution of the developed world over the past quarter century. The logic could use an upgrade, but to change the doctrine at this point would be wildly anachronistic.

I have my own notions of a class of argument to supplement natural law for civil purposes, but I don't particularly commend it to the Vatican.

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Markus Wolf has died, the head of East German espionage for many years, and perhaps the most successful (though hardly the best known) spy in history. He died on November 9, an already overstuffed date in German history. I have a long review of Leslie Colitt's biography of Wolf, Spymaster.

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Will it never end? Massachusetts continues to pursue the Darwin Award:

BOSTON, Nov. 9 — Lawmakers in Massachusetts, the only state where same-sex marriage is legal, dealt what appeared to be a fatal blow Thursday to a proposed constitutional amendment to ban it.

In a flurry of strategic maneuvering, supporters of same-sex marriage managed to persuade enough legislators to vote to recess a constitutional convention until the afternoon of Jan. 2, the last day of the legislative session.

On that day, lawmakers and advocates on both sides said, it appeared likely that the legislature would adjourn without voting on the measure, killing it.

“For all intents and purposes, the debate has ended,” said Representative Byron Rushing, a Boston Democrat and the assistant majority leader. “What members are expecting is that the majority of constituents are going to say, ‘Thank you, we’re glad it’s over, we think it has been discussed enough.’ ”

You could write a blog, you could run a news service, dedicated to nothing but stories about how this sort of issue has been settled once and for all, followed by accounts of the mass movements that spring up to insist that the matter has by no means been settled. You cannot settle the matter of abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia by judicial ukase; not even if, as happened here, you are in a position to sabotage the legislative process that might reverse it. More than a generation of experience shows that the strategy just does not work. Anyone who thinks otherwise in 2006 is ineducable.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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