Thursday, February 21, 2013

The "Myth" of Early Christian Persecution?

The Cardinal Newman Society news feed has this item today, about Notre Dame theology professor, Dr. Candida Moss, promoting her new book, "The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom."  Here is her promotional:

Perhaps it would be an overreaction to this promotional material to express my surprise at what appears to be such a boldly revisionist project coming out of Notre Dame's theology department.  I've not read this book, and have only read about her previous book on the early martyrs; so I make no judgments about Dr. Moss's scholarship.  Certainly, I believe she would agree that there's nothing "mythic" or "invented" about the mere fact of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries.  Consider, for example, Trajan's law criminalizing Christianity "for the name;" the numerous judicial records of exactly such trials and the death, imprisonment, or exiling of actual Christians that resulted; the mid-third-century imperial laws (Decius, Valerian) against Christian clergy, possession of the Christian scriptures, and so forth; the persecution of Diocletian and his successors in the East; none of these things have ever been in doubt as what actually happened.  (The question of why Roman authorities treated Christian in such ways is a separate one.  I'd agree with her that it wasn't "merely because they refused to deny Christ."  But why does she think these facts happened?)

This historical layer of the "Church of the martyrs" certainly does, as Dr. Moss claims, underlie in a persistent way the attitudes of Christians of other times and places to all sorts of circumstances.  In this sense, one could say there is a "myth" being formed.  But that's hardly unusual; all coherent groups of every kind, not only religious, recount shared experiences to reinforce identity and commitment.  There's no implication here, generally, that "myth" in this sense means "not true," or "distorting the historical record," or "politicized," or the like.  So it's difficult to see, based only on this promotional material and the rather provocative title, why it might follow that those implications are pertinent in this case.

But the promotion of the book as such, distinct from its scholarly content, does indeed seem to me obviously ideological ("... and they're not similarly persecuted today.")  Here is an advertisement for an upcoming lecture on the same, to be given in Washington DC in March.  Note the way in which word choice is used here to create an effect, and to qualify the meaningfulness of historical facts, in the direction of the very modern agenda already revealed in the video [my comments]:

According to cherished [w/c] church tradition, early Christians were uniquely [neither historians nor the Church have held the general position that only Christians were persecuted in the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity; one has only to look at e.g. Domitian] and systematically [the imperial laws against Christians in 251, 257, and 303-10 were as systematic as things got for the time] persecuted by a brutal [w/c] Roman Empire. Vast [w/c] numbers of believers were thrown to the lions or routinely [w/c] tortured or burned alive. In spite of these horrors, so the story goes [are we now to believe that no Christians were martyred by the Roman state?], these heroes of the early church chose to die rather than renounce their faith in God [indeed so; some Christians, then as now, possessed such courage and fidelity]. Such stories form part of the teaching of the church to the present day, inspiring some to acts of like courage in the face of modern hardships [this was and is an explicit goal in remembering the acts of the martyrs, just as the imitation of holiness is an explicit goal of remembering the lives of the saints]. Yet there is also the troubling [w/c] use of this heritage to silence the voices of those who act outside the perceived orthodoxies of the day [note the implication that all orthodox teachings are merely "perceived" and "of the day"].

In this lecture, Professor Candida Moss will address the true history [never before told! hidden for hundreds of year!] of persecution in the early church, and show how this history includes exaggerations and forgeries [this too is well known; yet we are able to evaluate the historical evidence and reliably hold that some subset of the evidence* is not exaggerated, forged, or added in later centuries] that eventually became part of the rhetoric [w/c] of the church. Moss will also address the question of the legacy [what she refers to in the trailer above as "dangerous," "especially in the language of the religious and political right"] of this history; a legacy that has animated the acts of some within the religious world to exclude [w/c; the great sin of post-modernity] those who would challenge [w/c] their hegemony [w/c].

What I find most arresting in this is how blatantly partisan such an avenue of promotion is, while still holding out the promised scholarship as properly scientific history.  Because we know, of course, that rational, right-thinking progressives never make use of a religious heritage to suggest false or unhistorical connections between the past and the present:

(Any allusion to other historical persons, living, dead, or resurrected from the dead, is purely a figment of the viewer's bigoted imagination.)
Just in the promotional material, then, one seems meant to conclude that, since the Roman Empire is not really a persecutor of Christians, but made to seem so by (some) Christians intent on preserving their "hegemony," so too the modern states of the West can and should similarly exclude Christian persons and Christian ideas (the "dangerous" "religious and political right") from the public square.  One cannot suggest that such exclusion might seem to violate otherwise compelling norms of law and fundamental rights, in a manner reminiscent of the history of persecution of Christians at other times and places, because of the implication that this is not really "persecution," for the same reasons it wasn't in late antique Rome.  And it's left dangling as a further implication that such exclusion is necessary, lest Christians rebuild that same hegemony that (the now well-worn ideology continues) has been dismantled, at such heroic cost, by the forces of egalitarian Reason in the last three or four centuries.

This maneuver (again, just in the promotional material, since I haven't read the book itself), strikes me as highly damaging to the faith of believers.  It calls into serious doubt the accepted meaning of an important period of the Church's history, and therefore also the authority of the tradition (or even Tradition) which has accepted and "mythologized" (if you like) that meaning.  It challenges the use of that authority by the current leaders of the Church (in the Catholic Church, at least, the apostolic authority of the bishops) who have been increasingly outspoken against precisely that impetus of exclusion, common in the West for two generations.  And it undermines the solidarity of Christians with the victims of much worse injustices (many of them, of course, Christians themselves) by falsely dividing different forms of abuse of power according to ideological preferences. 

I hope the book itself will offer much better than this; this is certainly not exemplary of the love of truth and pietas to one's students which Notre Dame and Yale taught me.

* Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford, 1972), is an excellent example of exactly such an effort to sift true historical accounts of early Christian martyrs from later pious fictions, and is generally accepted by historians as basically accurate.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

February 19 - Mini round-up

(Archbishop Paglia; CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council on the Family, gave an address on 2/15 to an audience at the United Nations (if I'm reading the very brief news summary correctly), in which he reiterated the importance of intact, traditional families and a minimal burden of government for economic development (full text):

Particularly during times of high unemployment, the actions of government as they affect families must be examined carefully. The welfare state is characterized by family assistance programs principally intended to address situations where the family is broken, unstable or lacking in internal resources. In these cases the state attempts in effect to be a substitute for the family, or at least for some missing element of the family.

But by substituting itself for the family, the welfare state produces a kind of vicious circle where instead of strengthening family relationships, it weakens them even further, and thus creates increased need for government assistance. Increased need leads to crisis, however, because it gives rise to expectations that the government cannot hope to meet, firstly because financial resources are never unlimited, but more importantly because government cannot itself function as a family, only as an agency. It thus becomes clear how important it is for government programs not only to promote family “mainstreaming” but more importantly for the government to have a correct understanding of the family when formulating public policy and to respect subsidiarity, which should be a guiding principle in any governmental action.

(Archbishop Lori) 
Archbishop Lori of Baltimore has written an excellent and compelling letter to all the members of Congress, regarding two points in an appropriations bill relevant to the HHS Mandate (full text at link):

It can hardly be said that all these Presidents and Congresses, of both parties, had been waging a war on women. I have seen no evidence that such laws, showing respect for Americans’ conscientious beliefs, have done any harm to women or to their advancement in society. What seems to be at issue instead is a new, more grudging attitude in recent years toward citizens whose faith or moral principles are not in accord with the views of the current governing power. And while the mandate for coverage of abortion-causing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization is hailed by some as a victory for women’s freedom, it permits no free choice by a female employee to decline such coverage for herself or her minor children, even if it violates her moral and religious convictions.

It is most discouraging that this coercive element remains unchanged in the new notice of proposed rulemaking the Obama administration issued this month in response to widespread criticism of its original mandate. 

Finally, in news unrelated to archbishops, we have heavy snow in the forecast for both Thursday and Monday...
(Next Tuesday's mushing to school and work... source)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Thoughts on Friday's proposed new version of the HHS mandate - Updated 2/7

(Update, 2/7 - Here's the expected response from Cardinal Dolan and the USCCB.) 

After sitting on the egg for the past nine months or so, the HHS Dept on Friday (2/1) released a new "notice of proposed rule-making" (full PDF here) regarding the much-contested implementation of the HHS mandate.  (For those keeping score, here are a few of our posts from last year on this issue.)  I've slogged through most of the new document, and have to agree (again) with Archbishop Chaput's brief analysis.

The White House has made no concessions to the religious conscience claims of private businesses, and the whole spirit of the “compromise” is minimalist.

And here, his conclusion:

The scholar Yuval Levin has stressed that the new HHS mandate proposal, “like the versions that have preceded it, betrays a complete lack of understanding of both religious liberty and religious conscience.”  In reality, despite the appearance of compromise, “the government has forced a needless and completely avoidable confrontation and has knowingly put many religious believers in an impossible situation.”
One of the issues America’s bishops now face is how best to respond to an HHS mandate that remains unnecessary, coercive and gravely flawed.  In the weeks ahead the bishops of our country, myself included, will need both prudence and courage – the kind of courage that gives prudence spine and results in right action, whatever the cost.  Please pray that God guides our discussions. [emphasis added]

Here's some of the key language from the full document:

On the exemption:

The Departments agree that the exemption should not exclude group health plans of religious entities that would qualify for the exemption but for the fact that, for example, they provide charitable social services to people of different faiths or employ people of different faiths when running a parochial school.... Accordingly..., the Departments propose to amend the [March 2012] definition of religious employer that was adopted in the 2012 final rules by eliminated the first three prongs of the definition and clarifying the fourth.  Under this proposal, an employer that is organized and operates as a non-profit entity and referred to in section 6033(a)(3)(A)(i) or (iii) of the [Internal Revenue] Code would be considered a religious employer for purposes of the religious employer exemption. (p. 19)

St. Andrew's, Roanoke, VA
Those two articles are regarding the exemption from filing even an information return (Form 990) with the IRS for certain tax-exempt non-profits of religious character:

"(i) Churches, their integrated auxiliaries, and conventions of associations of churches;" and
"(iii) the exclusively religious activities of any religious order."

Thus, the religious exemption has not been substantially broadened at all.  It still excludes most if not all Catholic and other religious colleges, universities, health care institutions, charitable institutions like Catholic Charities, charitable fund-raising foundations, etc.  It does now clearly  include, in addition to parishes, most parish-owned institutions like schools, and possible cemeteries.

For these non-exempt religious employers, there is also very little change in the "accommodation" being offered.  Note first this rather revealing bit of rationalization about the distinctions being made:

In proposed [new rules]..., the Departments propose policies relating to the accommodation of certain group health plans and group health insurance coverage with respect to the contraceptive coverage requirement.  The Departments propose a comparable accommodation with respect to student health insurance coverage arranged by eligible organizations that are religious institutions of higher education.  The Departments believe these proposed accommodation, as opposed to the exemption that is provided to religious employers, are warranted given that participants and beneficiaries in group health plans established by eligible organizations, as well as student enrollees and their covered dependents in student health insurance coverage arranged by eligible organizations, may be less likely than participants and beneficiaries in group health plans established or maintained by religious employers to share such religious objections of the eligible organizations. (p. 21, emphasis added)

I think it's rather alarming that the HHS feels capable of asserting that the diversity of employees at one Catholic (or other religious) institution makes that institution's Catholic (or other) identity less valuable than the Catholic identity of a less diverse institution.  This is, first, a dramatic example of the "tyranny of relativism."  And second, it betrays core principles of the right to private property - the fact that the Church owns a hospital, and therefore is entitled to define the mission and scope of the hospital's policies etc. (within reasonable bounds of what is consistent with the common good, certainly), is ignored, and the assertion of a newly invented "greater good" is used to violate more than only (only!) religious freedom rights.

For purposes of these proposed rules only, the Departments propose to define an eligible organization as an organization that meets all of the following criteria:
  • The organization opposes providing coverage for some or all of the contraceptive services required to be covered [under ACA] on account of religious objections;
  • The organization is organized and operates as a non-profit entity;
  • The organization holds itself out as a religious organization;
  • the organization self-certifies that it satisfies the first three criteria...
This proposed definition is intended to allow health coverage established or maintained or arranged by non-profit religious organizations... to qualify for an accommodation. (p. 22)

The actual "accommodation" is thus largely unchanged from its original proposal last February.  The health insurance provider assumes the obligation, directly or indirectly, to provide the coverage to which the religious organization which is contracting with the provider objects morally:

...these proposed rules would provide that, in the case of an insured group health plan established or maintained by an eligible organization, the health insurance issuer providing group coverage in connection with the plan would assume sole responsibility, independent of the eligible organization and its plan, for providing contraceptive coverage without cost sharing, premium, fees, or other charge to plan participants and beneficiaries. (p. 24)

The proposed rules would direct the issuer receiving the copy of the self-certification [fourth point of eligibility, above] to ensure that the coverage for those contraceptive services identified [as objectionable] in the self-certificate is not included in the group policy, certificate, or contract of insurance; that such coverage is not reflected in the group health insurance premium; and that no fee or other charge in connection with such coverage is imposed on the eligible organization or its plan.

The huge question, of course, is how to guarantee this?  On the surface, it seems impossible that the insurance provider would not include the costs of this additional coverage in its normal business expenses, and assign cost-values to all its plans and customers accordingly.

The proposed rules would further direct the issuer... to provide contraceptive coverage under individual policies, certificates, or contracts of insurance... for plan participants and beneficiaries without cost sharing, premium, fee, or other charge.  The coverage would not be offered through a group health plan... The issuer would automatically enroll plan participants in a separate individual health insurance policy that covers recommended contraceptive services... The eligible organization would have no role in contracting, arranging, paying for, or referring for this separate contraceptive service. (p. 24-25)

Two huge questions here.  First, if this individual plan is to be offered to all those enrolled in a given group health plan, how is it more than a merely conceptual difference to call it an "individual" plan?  Second, if all this could be solved by the issuing of individual plans, why is the entire mandate needed at all - why not simply have the HHS provide such individual plans directly, levy a clear tax for it, and avoid the whole First Amendment morass entirely?  And note, furthermore, the "automatic" enrollment.  Apparently even those employees who do, somehow, share the religious employer's religious objections are not permitted to act on their principles, either.

The Departments believe that, in the case of insured group health plans, this proposed arrangement would alleviate the need for eligible organizations to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for contraceptive coverage while providing contraceptive coverage while providing contraceptive coverage to plan participants and beneficiaries at no cost.  Actuaries, economists, and insurers estimate that providing contraceptive coverage is at least cost neutral, and may result in cost savings when taking into account all costs and benefits for the insurer. (fn 12)  (p. 26)

But there are huge problems with this assertion: First, the claim itself is contestable, and fact that the paper linked above in footnote 12 was written by an HHS staff researcher doesn't inspire confidence in its accuracy.  Second, in the same paragraph, there is this admission that the costs of these individual plans are simply not separable from the employer's costs of contracting for health insurance: "The Departments believe that issuers generally would find that providing such contraceptive coverage is cost-neutral because they would be insuring the same set of individuals under both policies..." (p. 26, emphasis added)  And third, the document later admits that cost-neutrality is indeed an illusion, offering to off-set those costs with equal rebates to the fees associated with participating in the soon-to-be-imposed "Federally Facilitated Exchanges." (see pp. 27, 28, 33, 34, etc.)

Almost as an afterthought, the same approach is proposed for self-insured plans, with the same reimbursement of expenses from off-set FFE fees.  The "third party administrator" of the self-insured plan will assume the responsibility, with other details remaining again unchanged.  Again, there is no examination of any effective, practical separation of costs associated with the individual plans, merely the assertion that this saves the religious employer from complicity.

We are still waiting from official word from the leadership of the USCCB in response to this proposal.