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Archive for February 2016

Feb/16

13

Two “Brothers”: Pope Francis and the Chekist

pope-francis-patriarch-kirillCross-posted on the Corner.

The Pope’s decision to meet his “brother”, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in, delightfully, Havana (you can find some details here of the way that the persecution of Christians has spiked since last year’s Francis-brokered deal between the Cuban dictatorship and the US) says quite a bit about Francis’ equivocal (I’ll be kind) attitude to individual liberty.

As for Kirill, well, here’s David Satter writing in Forbes back in 2009:

The installation of Kirill I as the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church last month will not end the subordination of the church to the Putin regime. On the contrary, the church is likely to emerge as an even stronger supporter of dictatorship and anti-Western ideology. Kirill, who was the Metropolitan of Smolensk, succeeds Alexei II who died in December after 18 years as head of the Russian Church. According to material from the Soviet archives, Kirill was a KGB agent (as was Alexei). This means he was more than just an informer, of whom there were millions in the Soviet Union. He was an active officer of the organization. Neither Kirill nor Alexei ever acknowledged or apologized for their ties with the security agencies…

On the day after his accession to the Patriarchy, Kirill elaborated on his ideas for “harmoniously” combining the demands of the state and human rights. He said that he wanted to base church-state relations on the Byzantine concept of “symphonia,” in which a distinction is drawn between the imperial authority and the priesthood, with the former concerned with human affairs and the latter with matters divine. The two are regarded as closely interdependent, and neither is subordinated to the other. Church scholars have pointed out that there is no example of symphonia successfully defining church-state relations in our times, and the recent history of the Russian Orthodox church indicates that, faced with the power of the Kremlin, it has no interest in becoming a moral force.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the church received official privileges including the right to import duty-free alcohol and tobacco. In 1995, the Nikolo-Ugreshky Monastery, which is directly subordinated to the patriarchate, earned $350 million from the sale of alcohol. The patriarchate’s department of foreign church relations, which Kirill ran, earned $75 million from the sale of tobacco. But the patriarchate reported an annual budget in 1995-1996 of only $2 million. Kirill’s personal wealth was estimated by the Moscow News in 2006 to be $4 billion.

Thus the affair of the disappearing watch. Disappearing watch?  The BBC explains:

The Russian Orthodox Church has apologised for showing a photo of its leader Patriarch Kirill that was doctored to airbrush out a luxury watch he was wearing. The gold Breguet watch is estimated to be worth more than $30,000 (£19,000) and was spotted by Russian bloggers.

The watch’s reflection could be seen in the 2009 photo on the church’s website.

Clearly—to borrow Francis’ term—a ‘church of the poor’.

Meanwhile, writing in The Catholic Herald last year, Geraldine Fagan explains how the Kirill’s (superficially spiritual) vision of a “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir, a term also used by Putin) that spreads beyond Russia’s current orders has given support to the Kremlin’s adventures in the ‘near abroad’, adventures that have not been good news for religious minorities:

Although ostensibly upholding religious freedom, the Donetsk People’s Republic [a ‘state’ in occupied Ukraine] retains the right to “protect the population from the activity of religious sects”. These “sects” are not defined by the territory’s constitution – but you only have to watch Russian state television to work out who they are. A popular talk show broadcast on the day of Crimea’s annexation focused on “false religions that have destroyed the Ukrainian nation and soul”, including Baptists, charismatic Protestants and Eastern Rite Catholics. Catholics and Protestants are already reporting difficulties in the pro-Moscow areas.

Protestant communities are particularly strong in south-east Ukraine, following a 19th-century spiritual revival among German settlers originally invited there by Catherine the Great. In the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, Protestants report confiscations of their churches as well as the Donetsk Christian University, previously among the largest Protestant institutions of higher education in the former USSR.

In one particularly grave incident in June 2014, four Pentecostal men known for their active mission work were kidnapped by separatists in Slavyansk and later found shot dead, their bodies showing signs of severe beatings. A small Catholic convent founded 18 years ago in the Crimean city of Simferopol was forced to close in late 2014, according to Forum 18 News Service. The convent’s three Franciscan nuns – citizens of Poland and Ukraine – were denied extensions to their residency permits. Six of the peninsula’s 12 Roman Catholic priests had similarly been forced out by the end of last year. Forum 18 also reports that only one of Crimea’s five Eastern Rite Catholic parishes currently has a priest. Being citizens of Ukraine, their seven priests may spend only 90 days at a time on Russian territory before leaving the country for a further 90 days.

Doubtless they will have been delighted by the spectacle in Havana.

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Feb/16

9

Pope Francis, (Partly) Explained

FrancisHayek:

But the near-universal acceptance of a belief does not prove that it is valid or even meaningful any more than the general belief in witches or ghosts proved the validity of these concepts. What we have to deal with in the case of “social justice” is simply a quasi-religious superstition of the kind which we should respectfully leave in peace so long as it merely makes those happy who hold it, but which we must fight when it becomes the pretext of coercing other men. And the prevailing belief in “social justice” is at present probably the gravest threat to most other values of a free civilization.

Friedrich Hayek, The Mirage of Social Justice (1976)

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Feb/16

4

“Three Parent” Babies? No, More Like 2.001 (If That)…

ThreeParentBabiesBioethicists are, for the most part, a pretty presumptuous bunch: who on earth do they think they are?

In this case, however, highlighted by the Washington Post, they have got things right:

An elite panel of scientists and bioethicists offered guarded approval Wednesday of a novel form of genetic engineering that could prevent congenital diseases but would result in babies with genetic material from three parents.

The committee, which was convened last year at the request of the Food and Drug Administration, concluded that it is ethically permissible to “go forward, but with caution” with mitochondrial replacement techniques (MRT), said chairman Jeffrey Kahn, a bioethicist at Johns Hopkins University.

No, I’m not sure why it is up to them to decide what is or is not “ethically permissible”, but still…

But the advisory panel’s conclusions have slammed into a congressional ban: The omnibus fiscal year 2016 budget bill passed by Congress late last year contained language prohibiting the government from using any funds to handle applications for experiments that genetically alter human embryos.

Thus the green light from the scientists and ethicists won’t translate anytime soon into clinical applications that could potentially help families that want healthy babies, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a pioneer of the new technique at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Ore.

“It seems like the FDA is disabled in this case by Congress,” Mitalipov said. “At this point we’re still not clear how to proceed.”

Congress should get out of the way.

The FDA released a statement Wednesday saying it will carefully review the report from the advisory committee, but added that the congressional ban prohibits the agency from reviewing applications “in which a human embryo is intentionally created or modified to include a heritable genetic modification. As such, human subject research utilizing genetic modification of embryos for the prevention of transmission of mitochondrial disease cannot be performed in the United States in FY 2016.”

The new clinical procedures should be used rarely, with extreme care and with abundant government oversight, and they initially should be applied only to male embryos, the advisory panel said. The group delivered its report at a morning news conference at the National Academy of Sciences headquarters in Washington.

The report comes at a time of dazzling advances in genetic engineering and a commensurate struggle to understand the ethics of “playing God,” a phrase uttered twice Wednesday by committee member R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Then again, as it’s most unlikely that God played God…

The FDA last year asked the Institute of Medicine, now part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, to review the ethical implications of MRT since this other method of genetic engineering would result in what has been loosely referred to as “three-parent babies.” British officials have already approved investigatory experiments involving the technique.

Certain serious congenital diseases can be passed from a mother to child via the tiny amount of genetic material contained in the mitochondria, which are small organs within a cell that are often described as the cell’s energy factories or power plants. New experimental techniques involving in vitro fertilization make it possible to replace mutated and potentially disease-associated mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) with non-pathogenic mtDNA donated from another woman.

Mitochondrial DNA contains 37 genes and is distinct from nuclear DNA (nDNA), which in humans has upwards of 20,000 genes. The mitochondrial DNA is not found in sperm, only in eggs, and thus is passed only from mother to child. That’s why the panel recommended limiting the experimental procedures at first to male embryos.

The males-only guideline is intended to prevent the introduction of unwanted, irreversible genetic changes to the human species. Any genetic changes associated with this kind of engineering will meet a dead end in males.

“If there are adverse events, they would not be reverberating down the generations,” Charo said.

The procedure should be extended to female embryos only after the long-term effects of such novel genetic engineering are better understood, the committee concluded.

Nuclear DNA is by far the more significant form of genetic material for determining most human characteristics. As the committee put it, “[W]hile mtDNA plays a central role in genetic ancestry, traits that are carried in nDNA are those that in the public understanding constitute the core of genetic relatedness in terms of physical and behavioral characteristics as well as most forms of disease.”

As a result, the modification of mitochondrial DNA “is meaningfully different.”

But panel members said that they took the philosophical issues seriously, noting that someone with genetic material from two different maternal bloodlines would potentially have to wrestle with questions about identity, kinship and ancestry.

Not really.  The babies who benefit from this technology will have about 0.1 percent of their DNA attributable to a third party. It’s a (very) crude way of looking this, but think how many great, great-grandparents away it would take to account for 0.1% of someone’s ancestry….

To describe the donor as a third “parent” is, to put it mildly, a stretch.

And, as a reminder of what this is about:

The donor provides only their mitochondria. Often called the “power plants” of the cell, the mitochondria converts energy from food into energy that can power a cell. When someone’s mitochondria don’t function properly, it’s bad news indeed…

As one ‘ethicist’ notes:

It is not part of what makes us genetically who we are.It doesn’t affect height, eye color, intelligence, musicality. It simply allows the batteries to work properly…

And as to what’s at stake;

Mitochondrial diseases can cause a whole host of life threatening problems, and it’s estimated that as many as 4,000 children are born with such conditions in the United States each year.

Again, politicians should get out of the way.

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