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‘Supermoon’ will rise tonight, but don’t get too excited

March 19, 2011

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CNS photo / Andy Clark, Reuters

News has been circulating around the Internet in the last several days that tonight’s full moon — March 19 — will make a very close approach to earth and appear bigger and brighter than it has in 18 years. Some are dubbing it the “supermoon.”

Is it true? Or it is another false claim like last summer’s eye-roller that Mars was moving in its orbit close enough to earth to appear as big as the full moon?

This time, rest assured, the news is true. But don’t expect to see anything worth dragging your family and friends outside to see.

Tonight’s moon is at perigee — the point in its orbit when it’s closest to earth. It will be about 31,000 miles closer than when it’s at the farthest point in its elliptical orbit, called apogee. It’s a fairly rare event for the full moon to coincide with perigee.

But it really won’t look much different in the sky. Compared to last month’s full moon, it will appear just 2 percent bigger in diameter, according to Sky & Telescope magazine. Compared to a full moon at apogee, it will appear about 14 percent bigger — somewhat noticeable, but still not eye-poppingly different.

And, one rumor regarding the ‘supermoon,’ is not true: Geologists say concerns that tidal forces tonight will lead to major earthquakes and other natural disasters are unfounded.

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In light of Japan crisis, what is church’s position on nuclear energy?

March 17, 2011

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As the citizens of Japan face the ongoing threat of nuclear contamination and radiation sickness, religious leaders in other parts of the world have been speaking out about the danger of relying on nuclear power to meet energy needs.

Bishop Deogracias Iniguez, head of the public affairs committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, said the situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station confirmed why the Filipino church has opposed using nuclear energy to generate power.

“I think [government officials] should intently follow what is happening in Japan,” he was quoted as saying in a recent Catholic News Service story. “We have long been opposing it due to its possible negative effects in the country.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who speaks often about the responsibility of Christians to care for the environment, sent a message to members of the Orthodox Church saying the tragedy in Japan illustrates the danger posed by nuclear power plants.

“With all due respect to the science and technology of nuclear energy and for the sake of the survival of the human race, we counter-propose the safer green forms of energy,” the patriarch said. Those greener energy sources would include solar, wind and water-generated power.

Concerns expressed

You might think, based on these comments, that the Catholic and Orthodox churches are fundamentally opposed to the use of nuclear power. I’m not sure about the position of the Orthodox Church as a whole on this issue, but the Catholic Church seems to take an evenhanded approach, although it’s difficult to find many official, authoritative statements on the topic.

In 2009, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, at the time the Vatican’s chief representative to the United Nations, reaffirmed the Vatican’s support for the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. A CNS story also noted that he called for an agreement on the production of nuclear fuel to meet growing energy needs, with the International Atomic Energy Agency “taking a leading role to ensure safety, security and fair access for all countries.”

That same year, the bishops of Alberta, Canada, issued a pastoral reflection on nuclear energy in response to proposals to build and operate commercial nuclear reactors in the province. The bishops did not take sides, but called for deeper discussions and ethical reflections on the issue touching on these topics: stewardship of the environment; protection of human life and respect for the integrity of creation; stewardship of public resources; security; and adequate consultation of those potentially impacted.

Benefits and risks

Until other alternative sources of energy can be developed affordably and efficiently on a large scale, nuclear power offers one option for meeting energy needs while cutting down on carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to the problem of global warming — the dangers of which the Catholic Church continues to warn about.

At the same time, we must not forget the caveat that nuclear power be generated in a way that is safe and secure.

The Union of Concerned Scientists warns that an expansion of nuclear power also carries an increased risk of catastrophic events not associated with alternative energy sources. Their position paper on nuclear power and global warming notes:

“These catastrophic events include a massive release of radiation due to a power plant meltdown or terrorist attack, or the death of tens of thousands due to the detonation of a nuclear weapon made with materials obtained from a civilian — most likely non-U.S. — nuclear power system.

“Expansion of nuclear power would also produce large amounts of radioactive waste that would pose a serious hazard as long as there remain no facilities for safe long-term disposal.”

And, of course, as the situation in Japan has revealed, there is the threat posed by unprecedented natural disasters.

The topic of nuclear energy is a particularly poignant issue in Minnesota these days because some state legislators want to lift a moratorium, in place since 1994, on building new nuclear power plants. Minnesota currently has two plants — in Monticello and Prairie Island.

All of this leaves one wondering: Is the expansion of nuclear power an acceptable option — morally and ethically — to meet energy needs in today’s world? What do you think?

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Science to get attention at upcoming synod

March 7, 2011

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Science and technology will be among the topics addressed next year when the 2012 Synod of Bishops convenes at the Vatican.

The theme of the synod is “new evangelization” — an effort by the church to “forge new paths in responding to the changing circumstances and conditions facing the church in her call to proclaim and live the Gospel today,” according to a Catholic News Service story about the synod.

These new approaches are needed particularly in modern societies, which too often view science as having all the answers and which ignore or downplay the importance of religious faith. In the realm of science and technology, the synod outline notes:

“We are living at a moment when people still marvel at the wonders resulting from continual advances in scientific and technological research. All of us experience the benefits of this progress in our daily lives, benefits on which we are becoming increasingly dependent. As a result, science and technology are in danger of becoming today’s new idols. In a digitalized and globalized world, science can easily be considered a new religion, to which we turn with questions concerning truth and meaning, even though we know that the responses provided are only partial and not totally satisfying.”

The health and well-being of the human person depends on the ongoing search for truth by way of scientific discovery but also by way of our faith, which helps us understand the deeper realities and meanings behind the discoveries.

What do you think the bishops at the synod should talk about regarding science and technology? How can the “new evangelization” have a positive impact on this aspect of our lives?

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Global warming preach-in

February 10, 2011

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Robert Walz is passionate about addressing the problem of global warming. The coordinator of justice and outreach at Guardian Angels in Oakdale is among faith leaders — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim — around the country promoting this weekend’s National Preach-In on Global Warming.

Sponsored by Interfaith Power & Light, the preach-in Feb. 11-13 encourages faith groups to consider the challenges of climate change from a spiritual perspective and take local action to address the issue in their communities.

In other words, this Valentine’s Day weekend is a good opportunity to think about giving the earth a little extra love. And, alas, this year’s cold winter doesn’t negate the bigger warming trend we continue to see over time.

“This weekend we have several PowerPoint slides that will be shown before Mass on global warming,” Walz said. “All three presiders have received homiletic notes on the global warming preach-in and hopefully will include this topic in their respective homilies.”

Guardian Angels also plans to recruit new members in March for its Stewards of the Earth Ministry, an ongoing ministry that promotes care of God’s creation, he said. The ministry has sponsored workshops and forums on global warming and other issues. It also promotes conservation and good environmental stewardship, including the use of organic gardening methods for the parish’s food shelf garden.

Climate change is a moral issue that has negative implications for human life and the natural world. Walz says:

“Global warming is not a theory; it is a fact. The cause of global warming is the subject of debates — is it cyclical or the result of human activity? The scientific consensus is that it is because of human activity. The majority of scientists hold that it could have catastrophic consequences on climate, food, water and a differential impact on developing countries without the wealth to pay for its consequences.

“While most of this is speculative, the church teaches us that we should act prudently — that is, rather than argue the issue, we should take steps to reduce carbon emissions, otherwise there is the likelihood (not certitude) that it will have bad consequences.”

Catholics interested in learning more about the issue and the church’s views can visit the website of The Catholic Coalition on Climate Change or view this video produced a few years ago:

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Vatican astronomer to participate in live chat

January 31, 2011

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Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno (CNS photo / Father Don Doll, SJ)

The Vatican’s “meteorite man,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, will be featured on a live “cosmic chat” Wednesday, Feb. 2, at 1 p.m. central time. The conversation will focus on the church’s views regarding the latest scientific discoveries about the universe.

Participants will be able to ask Brother Guy, curator of the Vatican Observatory’s meteorite collection, questions via the chat hosted by the Arizona Daily Star newspaper.

The news comes via Catholic News Service. For more info about Brother Guy and the event, visit the CNS blog.

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Researcher sheds new light on Red Sea parting

January 22, 2011

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I’ve been a fan of old movies for as long as I can remember. Growing up, one of my favorites was “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses. It always aired during Holy Week (I think it still does) and, to this day, whenever I think about Moses, my mind conjures up images of Mr. Heston with his flowing gray hair and beard.

This was in the days before movies like “Star Wars” took special effects to a new level. I was captivated by the visually dramatic moments in “The Ten Commandments” — when Moses sends the plagues upon Egypt’s pharaoh (my favorite is when Moses lowers his staff into the Nile and turns the water into blood) and, of course, the parting of the Red Sea as the Israelites make their escape from Egypt.

As a 10-year-old, I was on the edge of my seat by the time the Israelites reached the Red Sea with the pharaoh and his soldiers in hot pursuit. At the shore, as Moses tries to calm the crowd, he yells out: “The Lord of Hosts will do battle for us. Behold his mighty hand.” Then the waters part, and an old man tells a young child: “God opens the sea with a blast of his nostrils!”

It turns out that maybe the old man and the scriptwriters weren’t too far off.

A recent story, published in the Denver Catholic Register and carried by Catholic News Service, features the investigations of a software engineer with the National Center for Atmospheric Research who has a  theory about where and how the Red Sea parting occurred.

Scientist Carl Drews believes the event happened in the Eastern Nile Delta, in a place called the Kedua Gap. As the story explains:

“Drews and oceanographer Weiqing Han analyzed archaeological records, satellite measurements and current-day maps to estimate the water-flow and depth that could have existed 3,000 years ago. They then used an ocean computer model to simulate the impact of an overnight wind at that site.

“The results were that a wind of 63 mph, lasting for 12 hours, would have pushed back waters estimated to be 6 feet deep. That would have exposed mud flats for four hours, creating a dry passage about 2 to 2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide. As soon as the wind stopped, the waters would come rushing back.”

We Christians believe that God has worked miracles in the past and still does. Sometimes that may involve invoking the powers of nature. That doesn’t, however, make an event like the parting of the Red Sea any less miraculous, according to Drews, a member of Epiphany Anglican Fellowship in Boulder.

Drews said his research confirmed aspects of the Red Sea account in the Book of Exodus. The timing of the parting — when the Israelites needed to cross — also demonstrates the miracle, he said.

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Unbelievable news about horoscopes

January 20, 2011

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I don’t read horoscopes. But, because the topic of astrology has been in the news lately thanks to a Minnesota astronomer, I decided last Wednesday to check out the entry that day under “my sign,” Leo.

Here’s what it said: “When you need help, ask for it. When there is no one around to ask, ask anyway. Maybe you are talking to yourself, or maybe you are pleading to the invisible powers that be. You will be heard and answered.”

Well, Wednesday was press day for The Visitor, the newspaper I edit for the Diocese of St. Cloud. I awoke at 3 a.m. to read a backlog of stories that still needed to be dropped onto pages. I will admit that, at the time, I really was talking to myself and The Invisible Power, asking for a little help to get through the day. And, when I arrived at the office, I did indeed ask for help from my co-workers to move pages along so we could make our deadline.

Was the horoscope writer able to predict what my day would be like by reading some mystical information in the heavens?

Of course not.

Horoscope writers and astrologers would like us to believe they can deduce special information from the alignment of stars and planets. Their predictions are vague enough and general enough to have the feel of “truthiness” most days. One would hope, however, that science and common sense provide convincing-enough evidence that horoscopes aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.

The church is clear about its stance on astrological-based prognostications:

“All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to ‘unveil’ the future,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.”

I read my horoscope in the first place because of the stir created by Parke Kunkle, an astronomy teacher at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. He pointed out that because the earth’s axis “wobbles” slightly (a phenomenon called “precession), the zodiac signs have shifted since they were established in ancient times.

Kunkle explains it this way on the Facebook page of the Minnesota Planetarium Society:

“The Earth spins and, like a toy top, the spin axis moves around, pointing in different directions. Today, Earth’s spin axis points toward the pole star, Polaris. Around 3000 BC Earth’s spin axis pointed toward Thuban. Wait 26,000 years and the north star will again be Thuban. Astronomers call this motion of the spin axis precession. About 130 BC, Hipparchus noticed that the Earth’s spin axis had changed directions, so astronomers and astrologers have known about the Earth’s precession for over 2,000 years.

“But this means that if the sun was ‘in’ a certain constellation on a particular date, it is in a different constellation on that date today. For example, the sun was in Pisces on March 1, 2000 BC but it is in Aquarius on March 1, 2011 AD.”

The news (although the information it conveyed really wasn’t new), originally reported in the Minneapolis StarTribune, went viral. Media organizations from CNN to Fox News picked up the story that sent astrology buffs reeling. “The Daily Show” even did a comedy bit about it.

So when the sun is supposed to be in Leo for my Aug. 2 birthday, today it’s really in Cancer. Oh, and we should add another sign to the current 12, Ophiuchus, which was discarded by the ancient Babylonians.

So much for that Wednesday horoscope, I guess.

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Galileo, the nonbeliever: Don’t believe it

December 31, 2010

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Was Galileo a closet atheist?

That’s the conclusion of David Wootton, a professor of history at the University of York, in his new book “Galileo: Watcher of the Skies.”

It’s a premise, however, that at least one reviewer is troubled by. Writing in a recent issue of America magazine, John Haught, senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, rejects the idea that Galileo espoused anti-Christian sentiments.

Haught, a Catholic theologian with a special interest in science, takes issue with Wootton’s supposition that since Galileo advanced a Copernican view of the universe — one which doesn’t place the earth or us humans at the center of the heavens — he surely would have rejected the idea of an all-powerful and personal God who views humankind as special. It was a belief Galileo had to hide from others to stay out of trouble.

Haught disagrees and offers his own response. Here’s a bit of what he has to say:

“Suffice it to say that [Wootton’s] major premise is false, since Christianity has never formally taught that the universe was created ultimately for ‘man,’ but for the glory of God instead. It is our acknowledgment of God’s glory that glorifies us. Authentic Christian faith has always entailed the de-centralizing of our egos, and for that very reason the modern scientific disclosure of an endlessly expansive Copernican universe provides more reason than ever for glorifying the Creator.”

And Haught adds:

“More important, however, no indisputable evidence exists that Galileo’s inner life was at any point bereft of theologically orthodox sentiments. In fact, early on Galileo explicitly gave ‘thanks to God’ for allowing him to be the revealer of ‘marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.’ To suppose with Wootton that Galileo did not really mean to give thanks for God’s ‘kindness’ is condescending at best.”

In light of the conflict that evolved between Galileo and the church, Wootton would like us to think of the scientist as an early version of today’s high profile skeptics and atheists. But if there’s something we should be skeptical about, Haught reminds us, it’s Wootton’s thoughts about the famed astronomer’s inner life.

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Christmas: More than a day; it’s a season

December 23, 2010

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The Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus — are depicted in a painting titled "The Presentation in the Temple" by Canadian Catholic artist Michael D. O'Brien. (CNS photo / courtesy of Michael D. O'Brien)

The secular lead up to Christmas drags on seemingly forever, starting with post-Halloween holiday displays and progressing through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, before finally ending with last-minute shopping errands at overcrowded stores and malls.

The actual celebration of the feast is pretty brief for a lot of folks, amounting to a few hours on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day itself. Then it’s time to think about taking down the Christmas tree and putting the decorations back in their boxes.

After all, Christmas is over on Dec. 26, right?

Wrong!

The church celebrates Christmas as an entire season, not just one day. In addition to Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, individuals and families can celebrate a number of special days within the Christmas season, which runs until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, this year on Jan. 9.

Here’s a rundown of the days and suggestions for how to celebrate them:

Dec. 26: The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Ask your pastor or another priest to pray a blessing over your family. Participate in an activity as a family today.

Dec. 27: Feast of St. John, apostle, evangelist.

John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” He was a prolific writer, composing three letters, the Gospel according to John and the Book of Revelation. Write a letter to a friend or family member telling them how they have made a positive difference in your life. Offer it as another Christmas gift.

Dec. 28: Feast of the Holy Innocents, martyrs.

Read the story about how King Herod ordered the killing of all the boys in Bethlehem 2 years old and under in Matthew 2:13-18. Discuss the importance of protecting human life, including lives of the unborn. Pray for an end to abortion. Consider donating or volunteering time at a pro-life pregnancy center.

Jan. 1: Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God.

Go to Mass, even though this year the feast is not a holy day of obligation. Honor your own mother with a special meal or gift today. Pray the rosary.

Jan. 2: Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord.

Read the story of the Magi from Matthew 2:1-12 in front of your Nativity scene. This is the traditional day for the blessing of homes, which typically incorporates above the main doorway the inscription of the initials of the Magi (Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar) between the current year: 20+C+M+B+11.

Today, the church in Minnesota also celebrates Immigration Sunday, a time to pray and learn more about newcomers to our state. To find out more about the commemoration, visit the Minnesota Catholic Conference’s Immigration Sunday website.

Jan. 9: Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.

Ask your parents to tell you what they remember from the day you were baptized.

Don’t let the secular observance of the holidays short-circuit your celebration. Have a Merry Christmas … season!

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Did astronomer’s faith cost him a job?

December 19, 2010

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Can a person be a good scientist while believing that God ultimately created the universe and had a hand in the creation of life on earth?

I along with plenty of other people believe this. Certainly a good number of scientists who profess a religious faith believe this. But some academic officials at the University of Kentucky seem to think otherwise.

When they found out an astronomer at the University of Nebraska who was applying for an observatory job at their school was an evangelical Christian, they decided to hire someone else.

Some are rightly characterizing this as an incident of religious discrimination. I think it’s also a case that smacks of bigotry, and it’s no surprise that the decision is being challenged in court.

Here’s the story, according to a Dec. 18 report in The New York Times:

Dr. C. Martin Gaskell was invited to the University of Kentucky to interview for a job running an observatory. Toward the end of the meeting, the chair of the physics and astronomy department asked him about his religious views. The chairman, according to Gaskell, felt Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern.”

Another member of the department staff, Sally Shafer, had conducted Internet research on Gaskell and came across his notes for a lecture about how the Bible and modern astronomy relate to each other. Shafer wrote this to the chairman and another colleague:

“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with, but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”

That Gaskell being “potentially evangelical” would pose a problem exposes a bigotry that should have no place at a university. Yes, there are some evangelicals that adhere to a brand of creationism that denies modern scientific views about how the universe began and how life and humans evolved on earth. But not all evangelicals believe the same thing, and Gaskell shouldn’t be labeled unfairly. He told The New York Times, for example, that he was not a creationist and did not deny the theory of evolution.

I read the online handout for his Bible and astronomy lecture. After a short introduction, he lists quotes about science and religion from famous scientists and philosophers. He goes on to outline different interpretations of the Book of Genesis, and then he examines Genesis in light of modern astronomy.

At times, I think he reaches too far in trying to make connections and correlations between the findings of contemporary science and what Genesis says. But he does offer some food for thought and — within the context of this presentation — I think he keeps clear what science does and does not support.

It’s difficult to find one passage that sums up Gaskell’s views, but this one offers some key insights:

“The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). ‘Creationists’ attack the science of ‘evolutionists.’ I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The ‘scientific’ explanations offered by ‘creationists’ are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that ‘creationists’ should really be attacking . . .”

This doesn’t strike me as an extreme view, much less one that should be excluded at a university. Most people would agree that creationism is guilty of “poor science.” Evolutionary theory is good science, but it doesn’t answer every question out there, and when it denies the possibility of God, it oversteps the bounds of science entirely.

Gaskell notes there are other views that fall on a spectrum between these “two extremes.” We Catholics, for example, would fall somewhere along the spectrum: While modern astronomy and evolutionary theory help explain the origins and workings of the natural world, we believe that God had — and continues to have — a working role in our lives and the life of the universe. Science helps us understand the former, while our faith instructs us about the latter. (One wonders if the staffers who had trouble with Gaskell would have trouble with someone who is “potentially Catholic.”)

Gaskell appears interested in encouraging the dialogue between faith and science — an important effort at a time when religion is often falsely perceived as being anti-science and aggressive atheism is gaining a foothold. This is the kind of dialogue that should be encouraged on a university campus as long as it keeps the boundaries clear about what science can and cannot tell us, and likewise what religion can and cannot tell us.

Unfortunately, for now, Gaskell’s perspective is getting more airing in a lawsuit instead of its proper place in an academic setting.

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