Sunday, December 30, 2012

Conversion for All

On Nov. 12, 2012, Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a presidential address to the General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). This was shortly after the US presidential election, and was uncharacteristically humble for the cardinal. The link above is worth reading, although it takes him a little while to get to the point. When he does, you find that he talks about conversion and penance. One would not be surprised if he meant for the people who voted for Obama, an action he and his fellow bishops heartily tried to prevent. But he actually meant first and foremost for bishops themselves.

One may cynically wonder if he had a victory speech prepared with entirely different substance if Romney had won. Though we may wish he spoke more plainly about his motivations for the need for conversion and penance, I think we all know what he meant. The half-year since their last meeting had brought court convictions for Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia and Bishop Finn in St. Louis for the concealment of various forms of child sexual abuse. Along with the trials came media reminders of the failures of many, many other cardinals and bishops, including Popes.

If Dolan doesn’t know of the animosity many people feel against the Church leadership, he doesn’t deserve to be president of the USCCB. It seems this speech shows he gets it, at least in one form. Now if the words actually translate into action, we might all be a little happier. Penance is one thing, but conversion means the courage to change. Our strength is in the Lord  (cf. Psalms 118:14), and we all need to pray fervently for it.

Many people have written about the need for accountability for Catholic bishops, such as defrocking and even excommunication. But a deeper question exists: why are there so few consequences? We can’t say there are none, since in the case of the Legionaries of Christ, the leader, Marcial Maciel, was so horrendously guilty he was finally taken from his post by Pope Benedict XVI. However, even this took a long, long time after years of his accusers being ignored. But most bishops who passed pedophile priests onto unsuspecting parishes and still hide some of their identities go on with their lives and their jobs while other Catholics are excommunicated for things like promoting women priests.

Though Cardinal Dolan may have had certain things in mind when he talked about penance for bishops, he may himself not understand the deeper reasons for this inability to deal with the problem. Well, of course, we would not be wrong to say it is because of their sin. But perhaps a little more analysis would be helpful toward conversion.

Though I usually like to separate different issues to analyze them, there are some things in common with several themes here: the dismal behavior of bishops in the child abuse case; the desire of bishops to stop abortion (I generalize but believe most bishops want to stop abortion); and their rejection of women in true equality (and by true equality I mean not just nominal or “equal but different”).  The commonality is the way we think about these things, whether we listen to other persons problems and ideas, and what we do about them.

In the abortion issue, the bishops want the potentially aborting woman to consider the life within her and not reject it. This woman has her reasons for aborting, which she thinks are valid: she does not think the fetus is yet a human; she can’t afford it; she is afraid of what relatives will do if they find she is pregnant. However, none of these reasons are valid according to the bishops. They would object in some way: the fetus is a real human; help is available; the family may accept her anyway. Furthermore, they expect these potentially aborting women to listen to their answers.

However, in the case of treating women equally, they have all kinds of reasons why ordination and leadership should not be inclusive: the 12 disciples were men; Christ was a man; Christ is the bridegroom. But there are also objections to these arguments: 12 men represented the old ways of the law of the 12 tribes of Israel, and when Christ arose from the dead he showed Himself to women first and told them to proclaim his resurrection to others; Christ was human and so are women; if only men can represent Christ as the bridegroom as priests, then only women (the brides) should be in the pews.

When Cardinal Dolan asks for conversion of bishops, one hopes he refers, at the least, to the child sexual abuse crisis of the Church. It is good to see some sign of acknowledgement, but the bishops should know better than most that there must be changes in action if conversion is true. This is not just about going to the confessional and a fellow bishop telling them their sins are forgiven. If they expect to be satisfied with that, they are not converted.  They need to think about why they are doing these things and what needs to change for good.

These three issues relate to each group having their mindsets for doing things and whether they can listen to others.  There are differences in how we think about issues and how some things may be right and wrong in each group.  If bishops expect Catholic women who plan to undergo abortion to listen to them (and perhaps even influence non-Catholic women), they should think about whether they themselves accept women as equal or reject them and their ideas. They could start by reviewing their reasons why they keep women in the out-group, and evaluate if these ideas are true theology, or man-made rationalizations which sit among the genuine doctrine.

Perhaps the American political election brought the situation home to Dolan. He finally started, however tenuously, what needs to be done. The question is, how far will he and other bishops go? Because their conversion journeys will be very long and painful for them if they are to be done right.  May we all realize that true conversion is worth the pain, and may we have the courage to do it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Peace Amidst Horror

In the wakes of Super Storm Sandy and the Sandy Hook Slaughter, most writers probably feel compelled to write something about them, no matter how inadequate. My sincere prayers and hopes for recovery go to sufferers from these and other disasters, both natural and human-wrought.

Since the Newtown, Connecticut, Sandy Hook Elementary School killings on Dec. 14, there is already the usual talk about gun control. People are very upset and maybe something will change. But people were similarly shocked about the Columbine High School shootings in 1999. We’ve had the same type of occasions since then. We are still arguing about the availability of firearms.

It is human to want to manage events, and in some cases we succeed. We want to make schools and workplaces, not to mention homes, totally secure. Very few can stomach the way the young kids died in the school. We work to do our best in the physical sense so that no one has to endure that kind of end.

But there are those situations which will be beyond our control. We must also work on our attitudes, including coming to grips with the fact that there will be an end to all our lives as we know them sooner or later.

Many are concerned about the Mayan Calendar and the implied end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012, but some people didn’t even make it that long. There are those who are worried about an international economic collapse and are arming themselves, but that doesn’t guarantee survival. You can buy high-powered weapons for self-protection, as did the mother of the Sandy Hook gunman. Her son used her expensive equipment to kill her in her own home and himself in the school.

Christians believe there will be a Second Coming which will end the age as we know it. Though Christ told us not to put a date on this event, it is important to be ready for it in a spiritual sense. Many of us have heard sermons to that effect. But then we go off and seemingly forget how soon the end can come for any of us personally. Each of us should learn now how to follow our consciences and use proper spiritual discernment to determine which of our ongoing plans should be pursued and which forgotten.

The Sandy Hook Elementary School killings and other disasters have shown us that even little children need to know that there is life after death, and there is only one way to have a good one. That is through Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to save us from our sins. He asks us to believe in Him. This is the spiritual work we each must do, so that the attitude we have will help our actions fall in line with what is important. Once we have the right mindset, we are to help others find it too.

Enjoy the music in the video, by Third Day. Listen to the lyrics. And please, no matter what your circumstances, have a blessed Christmas.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Gain Application Probability

Statistics are being used in the arguments about biological origin and evolution. Advocates of Intelligent Design Theory (ID) are prominent among those attempting to link probabilities of events with mathematical proofs of biological information but they are not the only ones. This post, though dated 12/5/12, is an update (8/27/13) and a new compendium, called Biological Information: New Perspectives, was just released and can be read online here.  The book is an overview of the work being done to align biology with information theory which uses probabilities in trying to understand biological systems. Its authors are both ID and non-ID advocates. 

I have a new theory that I present here, but like all new theories, it needs some more work.  In fact, I've come back to re-write this post several times and instead of re-writing it another time, I'm going to eventually post about it again. But, if you are so-inclined, read on.  Then catch up with a newer post called GAP Theory that should appear Nov. 2013.

Mathematics can be applied to reality. Probabilities in thermodynamics and chemistry predict quantities and actions of energy and mass. They exist and behave in a certain way that can be measured.  But human judgment and mathematics are two different things. People rely on their own judgments about many subjects without being experts in probability theory.

It's pretty hard to imagine converting all of nature into strict mathematical terms.  Evaluating a pattern is done by humans and therefore has subjective elements.  Perhaps Information Theory does and will reveal certain hidden secrets about biology.  But I doubt if even chaos theory could give all the answers.

Some examples might be helpful.  A straightforward one goes like this:  someone "blindly" picks all red balls from a bag which contains equal numbers of red and black.  After about 20 times a pattern emerges that is different from the expected 1:1 ratio.  One might suspect the red and black balls have unique surface features which allow discrimination.  Maybe the red surface is more sticky.  But in another example, consider a different type of situation. For a while my husband and I went to the store and they didn’t have any fresh grapefruit. The produce people could not answer our questions of why they were not there, so I looked on the Internet to understand. I found that some of the Southern US produce had been damaged by storms, and Mexico had droughts that affected their exports. What was the probability that a grapefruit would be available by the next time we went to the store? Wouldn't even the experts in distribution have trouble being precise due to the unpredictability of long-range weather? Even though they have their formulas, in certain circumstances they still incorporate judgments.  It is of a different nature than pulling balls from a bag at a particular place and time. 

Included in human judgment is the sense that the extreme complexity of  biology is improbable and not random. (Some would argue here that neo-Darwinian evolution is not random due to “natural selection of the fittest,” but nature needs something worth-while to select first, which is claimed to come from random mutation.)   And yet there exist many things with very low probability, including every hand you get in a card game.  This is where critics come in and say low probability doesn't prove design. Design advocates then refer to "specificity," meaning that specific molecules are needed to perform biological tasks and that the exact combinations of these molecules are extremely improbable.

Specificity implies different values placed on equally probable outcomes. As in the grapefruit example above, I don't think we can always know exact probabilities.  And yet the concept of probabilities still might give us some insight to whether nature itself could have come up with biological function and complexity. In some cases, an evaluation of probability can affect how a person judges an event.  I'd like to talk about putting value on similar probability outcomes.  I'll call it “Gain Application Probability” (GAP).

If you have only one second to toss a coin and it takes 1 second to toss it, you will either get heads or tails (no edge landings or double half-second flips allowed). Each outcome has a probability of one half, and one of the possibilities will occur. In this example, nothing is special about either unless one outcome is assigned to a prize. If a football team calls heads and the coin lands heads, they get to choose whether they receive the ball now or later. If I say I’ll give you a hundred dollars if it lands heads, you will perceive the difference in the outcome.

Now we move on to a dice. You have only one second and it takes one second to throw. I’ll give you a prize (say, 100 dollars) if you get a 1, but not on any other number. Each outcome has one chance in six, but there is still a difference in what happens if the number 1 comes up as compared to the others. The award or denial of the prize is in a related way a measure of the outcome.

Then we take a full deck of cards. We shuffle them fairly and put them face-down on a table. You have only one second and it takes a second to draw the top card. I tell you I’ll give you a prize if the top card that you draw is an Ace of Diamonds. But now you only have one chance in 52 that the card will be the Ace of Diamonds. Is this different than tossing a coin and getting a prize if you get heads? Which would you pick to take your chances?

While we’re talking of cards, it is true that each combination in a game hand has the same probability.  But with a good grouping according to the rules of the game you are playing, you can win the hand. You might win money if there is a pot. You therefore gain with the good combination (if you play it well) more than with the bad.

Amino Acids are molecules that make up the various proteins. They have 20 different forms in our bodies and their various properties make their different combinations unique. The chances for one amino acid combination to occur might be the same as another, but if only one in 10^70 will help to break down a food molecule to produce biological energy while the others in that number don't do anything biologically active, then to me that one protein is different from the rest. If there is function for the few molecules among so many, I would apply a value of gain to those which can carry out biological tasks.

These examples demonstrate, in my term given above, Gain Application Probability. To say there is no difference between certain low probability events is to ignore the possible results. We can deliberately attach an extra benefit to an outcome or we may observe a benefit which comes naturally. We can evaluate events of low probabilities in relation to the gains they bring.

I think we can reasonably say that some improbable outcomes have more value than others. And the lower the probability and the more we gain, the greater the value. One might also be able to apply loss and neutrality to probabilities (LAP and NAP). After all, there is a losing side to a football coin toss, and many improbable events have no appreciable effect. And I suppose that zero times GAP is ZAP.

You might say Gain Application Probability is as subjective as other biological information theories (if you are a critic of these theories).  But I’m not claiming to entirely eliminate chance. I don’t even want to quantify the values of gain and loss. I think there is worth in acknowledging that values can be applied differently for different probabilistic events even when they have similar probabilities. And some outcomes are so valuable that our human judgment can take over to tell us they did not happen by chance.  So it is with functional biological materials made from combinations of molecules.

The value put upon the probability outcomes is a dimension above the science of nature.  When you have faith, you can still be scientific and yet not get bogged down by needing all-encompassing mathematical and scientific proofs.  Faith is given to us as a gift (Ephesians 2, NABRE Bible).  This is a mystery which transcends our understanding.