Pope says nope
Two months after an open letter from 60 Catholic groups called the Church's stance on contraception "catastrophic" for the world's poor, Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed the Church's 40-year-old injunction against members using artificial birth control. He said the position is meant to protect "the beauty of conjugal love" but allowed that Catholic couples in "dire circumstances" could still employ the natural rhythm method to prevent pregnancy.
The Church first issued its encyclical against contraception in 1968 when widespread use of birth-control pills helped ignite the sexual revolution. Millions of Catholics, including many committed married couples, have ignored the ban ever since. More recently, human-rights groups have argued that the Church's stance contributes to the spread of AIDS in undeveloped countries. The Vatican dismisses such charges as propagandistic and has never wavered in its position.
Good works, bad motives
A recent article published in the journal Science contends that religious people dedicated to belief in an all-knowing moral God tend to be more helpful to others and generous than the irreligious. But there's a catch, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan, whose study relies on data collected over the past three decades. Norenzayan says improved behavior among the religious depends on two conditions: first, that the situation presents a chance to enhance the subject's reputation, and second, that the subject has received a recent subconscious reminder of God's ever-watchful eye.
Defenders of religion have long cited such concerns for reputation and divine judgment as agents for social restraint and cooperation. Some atheists argue that a working criminal justice system and widespread acceptance of a do-no-harm social contract are equally effective means of promoting good behavior. Norenzayan concedes that non-supernatural entities like police, courts, and surveillance cameras can help prevent criminal acts, but he points out that they do little to curb selfishness.
Of course, the motivations of the religious cited in the study are ultimately selfish also, focusing on reputation and eternal happiness. Only the behavior modifier of biblical grace, one left unconsidered in Norenzayan's research, can substitute God-centeredness for selfishness.
Cell phones blocked
The federal Railroad Administration on Oct. 2 banned the use of cell phones and other electronic devices by rail workers. The emergency ruling came a day after investigators said Robert Sanchez, a Metrolink commuter-train engineer, sent a text message seconds before running a red light and slamming head-on into a freight train on Sept. 12, killing 25 people.
In investigating the Chatsworth, Calif., accident, the National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence of mechanical malfunctions, or problems with the rail signal or track. Instead, preliminary evidence showed that Sanchez, who was killed, was distracted at the time of the crash. Sanchez's cell phone records showed he sent and received 57 text messages while he was on duty on Sept. 12, including one sent 22 seconds before the collision. The Railroad Administration said rail workers are increasingly using cell phones and other potentially distracting devices. Six train accidents between 2000 and 2006-four of them deadly-involved the use of cell phones.
American Airlines came under fire recently after it downplayed concerns about its new in-flight and unfiltered internet service, Gogo, which critics warn will open the door for passengers to troll for pornography while air bound. In response to complaints from passengers and flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants called on the airline to install filtering software to block inappropriate sites. The airline has acknowledged the potential for abuse but is leaving it up to flight attendants to monitor internet usage for inappropriate material. While JetBlue Airways already filters internet content in its terminals and Continental plans to do so as well, Alaska, Delta, Northwest, and Virgin are following American's lead and will soon offer unrestricted services, too.
Search teams finally located Oct. 1 the plane wreckage of missing adventurer Steve Fossett in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just days after a hiker stumbled upon Fossett's pilot's license, FAA cards, and other personal effects. The 63-year-old thrill seeker, who was the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, vanished in the single-engine plane last September while scouting a site for his next record-breaking feat. Although remains uncovered at the crash site had yet to be identified, Fossett's widow, Peggy, issued a statement saying she hopes "to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life. I prefer to think about Steve's life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments."
On Oct. 6, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) announced the conclusion of its "most successful voter registration drive in history with more than 1.3 million new voters registered in 21 states." The following day, Nevada state officials raided the group's Las Vegas office as part of an investigation into allegations of voter fraud. ACORN is accused of filing voter registration forms with false or duplicate names.
Such allegations are nothing new for the massive organization, which works to encourage and enable voting in low-income communities, often among predominately minority populations. Several former ACORN workers have faced indictments for fraud in past voter registration drives. A 2004 investigation into irregularities at an Ohio-based ACORN affiliate revealed fraudulent registrations of underage voters, dead voters, and even fictional voters with names like Mary Poppins, Dick Tracy, and Jive Turkey.
In the current election cycle, the Republican National Committee and the campaign of GOP presidential nominee John McCain have accused ACORN of flooding election officials with sloppy, last-minute registrations in an effort to push unqualified voters onto the rolls. The McCain camp has pointed to past ties between ACORN and Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama as evidence that the organization's questionable practices are politically motivated. ACORN officials deny any partisan agenda.
Former Vice President Al Gore is behaving like a cornered cat. At the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in New York last month, the global-warming crusader admitted that his vision for dramatic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions is failing. "This is a rout," he said. "We are losing badly." Gore's solution: Lash out. "If you're a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration."
That call for law-breaking encourages an extreme sentiment already at work in some quarters of the environmental movement. Just two weeks prior to Gore's statement, a British jury acquitted six Greenpeace activists charged with vandalizing a coal plant. NASA scientist James Hansen, a prominent voice in the anti-global-warming movement, testified on behalf of the defense that such property damage had a "lawful excuse" due to the impending dangers of a planetary climate crisis.
Hansen and Gore view coal energy as villainous, even though it provides an affordable source for 40 percent of the world's electricity needs. Gore mocks the notion of new "clean coal" technology, calling it a misnomer on par with "healthy smoking." He opposes the construction of any new coal plants that lack expensive carbon sequestration systems, even plants that would replace older, less efficient ones. That opposition has helped shut down 60 new coal plant projects in the last year. Meanwhile, plans to construct hundreds of new coal plants in China have moved ahead unimpeded.
Off the hook
Since July, former White House counsel Harriet Miers has been on the hook to testify before the House Judiciary Committee in an investigation of the firings of nine federal prosecutors in 2006. But a federal appeals court on Oct. 6 blocked that lower-court order and also exempted current Bush chief of staff Josh Bolten from having to turn over documents to Congress. Democrats claim the prosecutor firings were politically motivated, while the Bush administration has said the terminations were in the normal scope of presidential prerogative. In reversing the lower court, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals said the case will likely become moot before it can be resolved. The 110th Congress will in January "cease to exist as a legal entity, and the subpoenas it has issued will expire. . . . If the case becomes moot, we would be wasting the time of the court and the parties."
"Brides" and "grooms" are returning to California. State health officials announced they have revised marriage license applications, reinstating the time-honored terms due to popular demand. The terms disappeared from the applications after the California Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in June, replaced by the gender-neutral language "Party A" and "Party B." The new paperwork will feature blank spaces for applicants' names and personal information, with boxes for checking "bride" or "groom." Since the boxes appear next to both names, the form will work for all comers-including two brides or two grooms. City clerks will begin using the new forms in November.
The theologically conservative Pittsburgh diocese voted overwhelmingly on Oct. 4 to split from the American Episcopal Church. The 210 clergy and 70 parishes of the Pittsburgh diocese make up by far the largest single group so far to break away from the liberal Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Peter Frank, a spokesman for the diocese, said a "small number" of parishes will likely stay in the Episcopal Church, and that the national Episcopal Church will likely claim that they are the true diocese. The point is more than academic since in the Episcopal Church it is generally the diocese, not local congregations, that owns real estate. According to Frank, "They will attempt to undo this decision. But we think our legal position is strong. Besides, we didn't make this decision based on legal risks. This was a decision of conscience."
The Pittsburgh diocese will temporarily be under the authority of the Province of the Southern Cone of Africa, and all clergy and church members will thereby remain members in good standing of the worldwide Anglican Communion.