Not how but why

Peter Steinfels’s June 1 article “Contraception & Honesty” is an excellent presentation of the dilemma facing the church and the Synod on the Family on the issue of contraception. There is, however, one vital point that has not been made.

When a couple using so-called natural family planning have employed every modern scientific technique to ensure that the wife’s ovum is not present, to assert that sexual intercourse in this case is open to conception is a pernicious falsehood. This is why the late Fr. Bernard Häring, undoubtedly the most outstanding moral theologian of the twentieth century, wrote that contraception is not immoral because it is artificial; contraception is immoral when the motivation is selfish, regardless of the method. Precisely. If this were recognized, the church would have the choice of either banning natural family planning or modifying the teaching of Humanae vitae and placing the morality of contraception exactly where it belongs: on the motivation of the couple. That would be a challenge to every couple, but one that would be understood and acceptable.

John Frazier
Fukushima, Japan


Origin story

In his May 15 article “A Continent Adrift,” James Sheehan discusses the two most important crises facing Europe: Ukraine and Greece. Yet, his assessment of origins of the Ukraine crisis is seriously mistaken. Sheehan claims that the expansion of NATO in 1999 occurred without taking account of Russian security interests and amounted to an extension of Western power into what had traditionally been Russia’s sphere of influence. He is wrong on three levels. First, in the 1990s, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, Russia itself was embarked on a path of democracy and a market economy. There was no perceived contradiction between an evolving democratic Russia and the presence of Western power next door. Second, Yeltsin gave official and public “permission” to President Lech Walesa for Poland to join NATO—his acceptance of the natural evolution of Eastern European countries after the reunification of Germany. Third, like the notions of slavery and arranged marriage, the idea of “spheres of influence,” in which Stalin and Roosevelt gave some countries dictatorial power of life and death over neighboring countries has been consigned to the garbage heap of history. Its revival by Putin is no excuse for Western intellectuals to invoke it.

In addition, Sheehan characterizes the conflict in Ukraine as a civil war. This conflict is carried out by a combination of regular Russian troops with heavy weapons and “little green people,” Russian Special Forces pretending to be separatists. As a matter of fact, there were demonstrations against the Russians by Russian separatists in Donetsk this June. It is more clearly a foreign invasion than even a manufactured civil war.

The author speculates about the permanent shift in attitudes as a result of these crises but shies away from predictions. I would venture that one permanent change is the shift to anti-Russian enmity among Ukrainians where none existed before. Another is the permanent mistrust of Russia in the West after decades of bending over backward to integrate Russia into Western political and economic institutions. The majority of voters in Sweden want to join NATO; they did not want to do it during the Cold War. Russian behavior is unacceptable to any civilized person.

Lucja Cannon
New York, N.Y.


The author replies

My thanks to Lucja Cannon for her thoughtful response to my essay. My point about the expansion of NATO (which I favored at the time and still do) is that we must try to understand how it looks to Putin and to a significant number of his fellow countrymen.

Understanding does not mean approval or acquiescence, but it is the foundation for all sound policy. Russia is an important power and little is gained by demonizing it.

Of course the trouble in Ukraine is caused by Russian interference, but that does not mean there are not pro-Russian elements in the East. We can argue about the relative importance of the two, but it seems clear both are present. Finally, I am not as confident as Cannon seems to be that “spheres of influence” have disappeared from the historical stage, although I do agree that the concept is often used (and not only by the Russians) as an excuse for interfering in the affairs of others.

James Sheehan

Working on the railroad

Regarding your June 12 editorial “Signal Failure”: While I agree with your basic premises that we are not spending enough on transportation safety, it’s not quite as simple as you make it seem.

There are moneys available, or were available in the various fuel taxes, fees, etc. They were supposed to be used for various highway and other transportation improvements. In fact those funds have been used for various social issues. Whether or not this is a just thing for a society to do is the subject of another editorial. Some European and Asian countries can afford such transportation spending because they do not have to pay for a large social underclass; although the EU is getting there. Also, they have been quite content to shelter under the military umbrella of the United States, which brings down their per capita defense costs. That leaves money for other neat stuff.

Comparing the success of other countries to the United States is apples to oranges. France is roughly the size of New York and Pennsylvania put together. The rest of the United States is just a tad larger. This is one of Amtrak’s big problems. The various coastal corridors are fairly busy and profitable. The cross-country runs, which Amtrak must maintain by order of Congress, are a complete drain. Outlays that could be spent upgrading where it makes sense are squandered elsewhere. What’s more, it’s not as though high-speed rail is easily built. It requires new right-of-way agreements for new tracks—in other words, it would mean building a whole new railroad. In countries such as China, where the government owns basically everything and people can be displaced (and those pesky environmental-impact statements can be ignored), it is much easier to build new railroads. That is what they are doing; they’re not upgrading existing rail lines. I dare say that if America wanted to build a high-speed line from New York City to Buffalo it could do it.

As for improving safety, that could be done virtually overnight by bringing back the locomotive fireman as another set of eyes in the cab. Not a perfect solution—both could fall asleep—but much quicker than installing thousands of miles of new signals and hundreds of locomotive rebuilds to handle the necessary equipment. I do agree that this should happen, but it will not come overnight.

This country must begin to look at a long-term solution to our transportation problems, and eschew knee-jerk responses.

As a good Protestant I much enjoy your magazine; please keep up the good work.

David A. Hornung
Buffalo, N.Y.
The writer is a retired city engineer.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.