Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Year Later

   Where were you when Pope Francis was elected a year ago today?  This is an easy one for me.  Our parish holds a bread and soup luncheon with a short spiritual ferverino on the Wednesdays of Lent following our noon Mass.  As part of the Year of Faith, I was offering reflections on the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council.  Being a plugged-in sort of priest armed with the Pope Alarm and Conclave apps, I had my iPad on the podium streaming EWTN's live feed of the Sistine Chapel chimney, as we were expecting the next smoke signal around 1 pm.  I had just finished my presentation and we were preparing to leave when the smoke started coming out of the chimney.  It looked black at first, and I said, "Oh, there's the smoke... it's black... no pope today."  Then it started billowing out white.  "No!  Wait.  It's white.  We have a pope!"  Some people stayed in the parish hall to watch, others asked how long it would be before the new Holy Father made his appearance on the balcony.  I told them it would be about forty-five minutes - enough time to drive home and watch in the comfort of their living room if they wished.

   In the months after Pope Francis' election, people often asked me my impressions of our new Holy Father.  I'll repeat here: I like him.  It's as if a parish priest was elected pope, and I think it's what the Church needed at this moment in history.  While there have been awkward moments, misunderstood interviews, and biased interpretations of the things Pope Francis has said and done over the last year, on the whole I see a man with a pastoral heart, a clear mind, and a firm backbone who refuses to be pigeon-holed by anyone's expectations or stereotypes. 

   Pope Emeritus Benedict is also a great and humble man, and I think what he gave the Church in his papacy has been under-appreciated by many.  It was a tremendously sad day for me as I watched every minute of the news coverage of Pope Benedict leaving the Vatican for Castel Gandolfo, and then the moment when the Swiss Guard withdrew as the hour of his resignation took effect.  Yet this too was a gift from Pope Benedict to the Church.  I believe he saw the need for reform, but that this process would require someone with greater strength, vigor, and force of personality to achieve it.  Enter Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  I've been pleased by the evident warm relationship between Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict.  They're making this unique situation work to the good of the Church, and it probably wouldn't be going so well if they were not both such holy, generous, and humble men.

   Pope Francis clearly believes in leading by example.  Reform in the Church must, at heart, come about in the way it always has, by being renewed in the proclamation of the Gospel.  Don't just preach it... live it in a joyful, faith-filled way.  Then all will know whose disciples you are.

   One of the things I have appreciated most about Pope Francis is his message to the clergy.  I can't think of a great reforming period in the Church which did not significantly involve the renewal of her ordained ministers.  I speak from my own perspective as a priest, but I am tremendously encouraged by Pope Francis' words and example for the clergy.  Reform is tough but necessary; we should certainly be able to grasp this during a season such as Lent.

   Over the last few months, I've been pondering in my mind and heart the state of the priesthood, particularly as I've experienced it in my own life over these last twelve years or so.  It's too much for this post, however, so I look forward to sharing some of those thoughts in a few days' time.  Until then, let us continue praying for Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict.  We know and can feel how much they're praying for us!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Duck Dodging

   I have never seen an episode of Duck Dynasty, but I have many parishioners who do.  I'm as aware of the show, its characters, and its premise, as I am about most things that have become pop culture phenomena.  I understand the reason why people like the show and the Robertson family members, which leads me to a few thoughts on the whole Phil Robertson controversy over his comments in an interview with GQ condemning homosexual acts.

   I think Phil Robertson gave a forthright, honest answer to a direct question about homosexuality.  I comprehend why A&E network has a concern over the public image of the star of its highest-rated program.  A&E - a network that first shot to prominence with the series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy - doesn't want to be mixed up with a guy who has made comments about homosexuality with which many in the country disagree.

   Here's what I don't understand:  Does A&E not know why Duck Dynasty is popular, and who its audience is?  Are they truly surprised to discover that the star of their reality TV show is a real person and not just a character, and that person has actual views on controversial issues?  Seriously, what did they think Phil Robertson would say in answer to that GQ question other than what he said?

   If A&E was so concerned about the network's image and that of Phil Robertson, they ought to have had their PR people oversee the interview and vet the questions.  I don't even watch the show, and I could have told you with a great deal of accuracy how someone like Phil Robertson would respond to a question about homosexuality.  I think A&E looks foolish to get their knickers in a twist and punish the man for an outcome they ought to have foreseen themselves.  The hypocrisy of A&E is astonishing; with one hand they rake in money by promoting a show that appeals to a socially conservative audience, while with the other hand they punish the star of the show for holding and voicing a socially conservative opinion.  So much for reality television.

   Moreover, Phil Robertson got it right in his response to both the question and the controversy that followed.  He wasn't "hating" on anyone, but condemning homosexual acts (the act, not the person, mind you).  In so doing, he's entirely in line with Scriptural teaching and natural law.  In his own rather rustic, simple parlance he was expressing the teaching of the Theology of the Body.  Of course there are people who disagree vehemently with Robertson's stance, just as they disagree with orthodox Christian views on sexuality.  In the Hollywood playbook, popular cultural icons like Phil Robertson need to be buried and deprived of any platform or attention.  We wouldn't want average Americans thinking that it's OK to express conservative Christian views about sexuality and get away with it.  That's how the gay rights agenda has progressed so far so rapidly; they succeeded in creating the illusion that no common-sense person could possibly oppose gay sexual relationships or same-sex marriage.  And then... gasp! .... someone respected for their down-to-earth, common-sense approach to life comes out unequivocally against homosexual activity.  Off with his head!  Set an example that expressing this opinion will be punished!

Sigh.  I remember when A&E did fine arts programming most people found boring.  I miss that.

Friday, December 13, 2013

As Good As It Gets

   When I heard that Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray had managed to hammer out a federal budget framework for the next two years, I felt like stepping out on the balcony and announcing, "Habemus placitum!"  ("We have an agreement!")  Except I don't have a balcony and nothing in the budget agreement is really anything to get excited about in itself.  Even if I had a balcony, I'd probably only see a few startled students look up as they hustled to take their final exams this week.

   It's perhaps a good sign that nobody in Congress is happy about the Ryan-Murray budget agreement.  Conservatives are grumbling that it doesn't do enough to reduce spending immediately, and liberals are bemoaning the fact that there isn't more spending.  This is nothing new.  The two parties view the question of the federal budget from different ideological stances; there would be something extremely suspect about anyone in Congress being able to say, "I'm perfectly satisfied with this budget and I get everything I want."  Looking at the framework, I would say it's a grown-up compromise.  There are no big wins or big losses in the bill.

   The budget agreement as a framework for the actual budget to be written, if all passes, will do something very important, and I hope the Tea Party enthusiasts will take note:  at long last, after years of continuing resolutions that pretty much let the executive branch spend at will, the budget decisions will return where they constitutionally ought to be, in the Congress.  That is something to shout about.  The Ryan-Murray plan is the first crucial step back toward fiscal sanity and the federal budget working the way it's supposed to.  That's nothing to sneeze at in Washington these days.

   I greatly sympathize with Tea Party aims, but we also need to be realistic.  I liked Paul Ryan's budget in 2011, and I liked his budget in 2012.  They were fiscally conservative and sensible.  But they went nowhere in a Democratically controlled Senate.  If we want to avoid the specter of periodic shutdowns and budget battles that end in continuing resolutions, Congress needs to accept the fact of divided government and compromise so as to fulfill its responsibilities to the American people.  Going over the cliff with ideological flags flying is just plain stupid.  If fiscal conservatives want to see a fiscally conservative budget, they will first have to demonstrate that they can govern responsibly and without tantrums.  That's how you give people the assurance to vote for you, and that's how you get a future budget that achieves more of your aims.  With the Affordable Care Act casting Mordor-like clouds of doom over Democrats in the mid-term elections next year, don't give voters a reason to think that Republicans would be just as incapable of governing sensibly if they had the majority.

   I hope the Ryan-Murray plan passes the Senate, as it has with enormous support in the House.  It's not perfect, it is playing small ball.  But it will give us the first proper federal budget we've had in years, and returns to Congress the constitutional responsibility it ought to be fulfilling.  It may be as good as it gets for now, but I'll settle for that over a government in perpetual crisis.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Celebrating St. Nicholas Day

   As I mentioned in my last blog post concerning Advent, the celebration of St. Nicholas Day on December 6 was always a big part of my childhood.  Indeed, my family still celebrates it, even though we're all grown.  Growing up in heavily Catholic northeastern Wisconsin with its north European immigrant roots, St. Nicholas' feast day was almost universally observed.  When we moved to another state, I was shocked to discover that there were people who didn't celebrate the day.  I still delight each year in telling children that people who tell them Santa Claus doesn't exist don't know what they're talking about.  One year I even whipped out the Roman missal at the Christmas vigil Mass to show the kids the propers for St. Nicholas' feast day.

   For anyone who doesn't know the whole story of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, I highly recommend Bill Bennett's book, The True St. Nicholas, and Why He Matters to Christmas.  It's tremendously helpful not only in understanding why the veneration of this saint is something to cultivate, but it also aids in navigating the thorny issue of Santa Claus' proper relationship to the celebration of Christ's birth.  The secular cult of the Claus needs some competition from the true St. Nicholas, a holy bishop renowned for his charity, concern for the welfare of children, and also for sticking up for Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.  (OK, so it's true that he struck the heretic Arius, but I'm not going to judge him too harshly.  Arius had it coming.)

   A Happy St. Nicholas Day to everyone!  Fill a stocking or shoe with candy, fruit and nuts, be kind to children, and pray your Nicene Creed.  But it might be best not to punch any heretics.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Advent as Advent

   I have to begin this post with a little apology in advance - I'm always rather irritable right after Thanksgiving.  I love the Advent season but I hate the way most people observe, or should I say don't observe it.  In the midst of the complete secularization of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, it has somehow become appropriate to put up the tree and hoist the holly at the end of November rather than the end of December.  The month of December is dedicated to an end-of-year feasting that is more appropriate to the Twelve Days of Christmas, which I hardly need note come after the 25th, not before.  Together with the manic frenzy of shopping and parties, all these things are number one on the list of things that really grind my gears.

   Perhaps I feel this way because I loved the anticipation that built up in the month of December as a child.  Growing up, we always went to a Christmas tree plantation to cut down our tree on the Saturday before the Third Sunday of Advent, but it remained undecorated in the living room.  Santa Claus always decorated the tree, and we awoke early on Christmas morning to behold it in its splendor.  Sometime in mid-December we would begin setting up the Nativity scene and other decorations, but it was always closer to the actual holiday of Christmas.  Nothing ever came down before January 6.  Thanksgiving Day was just Thanksgiving Day, and we had no idea of ever going shopping in the days following it.  That weekend was dedicated to cookie production and assembly lines, although we were not allowed to eat any until Christmas Eve.  Everything about the month of December was suffused with a longing and yearning for Christmas Day and the holidays which followed.

   As an adult (and I suppose especially as a priest), I like to keep Advent as Advent, even though I've adapted many of the customs.  I still refuse to put up any decorations, including the tree, until the Third Sunday of Advent - Gaudete Sunday.  I decorate the tree on Christmas Eve morning, listening to the live broadcast of Lessons and Carols from Cambridge, tearing up every year as I hear the quavering voice of a young chorister begin the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City."

   Advent is replete with customs and traditions that make it a special season in its own right.  St. Nicholas and St. Lucy have their feast days, there are Advent calendars and Jesse Trees, and dozens of other things we can do that are a more appropriate way of building anticipation for the feast of Christmas.  Show some restraint and don't cave to the secular culture around you.  Instead of Christmas arriving with a fizzle and a pop at the end of premature celebration, let it dawn with all the wonder, excitement, and awe God means it to inspire.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Affordable Care Act and Economics 101

   Last week our business manager and I attended a diocesan workshop on parish compliance with the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).  The presentation was excellent, and honestly it's not that hard to understand what we will have to do to be in compliance with the ACA and avoid penalties.  There is a regulatory burden we'll have to deal with, and there are portions of the law that are utterly unworkable.  The thing that most disturbs me, though, is what the ACA is going to mean for the future of health care in the U.S., because there is simply no way this legislation will accomplish its primary aims: greater access and lower cost.

   The reason is basic economics - the law of supply and demand.  Obviously there is a demand for quality health care at a price people can afford.  Common sense tells you that the way to improve access and lower cost is to increase supply.  What we need are more doctors, more nurses, more medical professionals, more facilities and equipment.  Concentrate on increasing supply to meet demand, and more people will receive decent care at lower cost.  

   But the ACA does none of these things.  Its whole premise is to insure everyone, but insurance is not actual care.  How is the creation of more bureaucracy going to encourage people to pursue careers in the medical field?  How is a tax on medical devices going to increase the amount of equipment and techonological advancement?  The whole law is designed to increase demand on an already strained system of available health care, while doing nothing to address the supply-side problems.

   There were legitimate problems in health care and insurance that the ACA aimed to fix.  But the law is fundamentally flawed in its grasp of basic economics, and it is doomed to fail.  The Obama administration is attempting to make the insurance companies the scapegoat for people losing their coverage or seeing premiums skyrocket, but the individual mandate was itself an unholy alliance between government and insurers.  If we want to improve health care in our country, we need to grow supply faster than demand, but the ACA does exactly the opposite.  It's the law now, so God help us.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Perils of Politics

   Some people follow politics closely, some not at all.  I confess to being the former.  I've developed a keen interest in what happens in the political and economic sphere, largely because I'm fascinated by the way in which ideas and philosophies are manifested in the flesh of policy and action.  I'm intrigued by the why and wherefore of laws and the reasoning of the people behind them.  I do firmly believe in American exceptionalism - not of the U-S-A!  U-S-A! variety, because we are far from perfect, but in the sense that we are unusual and special.  There's something about the American experiment that is marvelous, even with its misfires.

   The government shutdown makes most of us roll our eyes in disgust.  We expect our elected officials to put the good of the country before ideological purity; namely, to compromise when necessary to avoid a greater evil, and a government shutdown is not, by any measure, a good thing.  I'm not going to weigh the merits of each party's arguments, but I do have a few observations about what has happened and why.  As so often happens, the truth is hidden not in what politicians do say, but what they don't.

   Republicans complain about the intransigence of Democrats, including the President, who refuse to compromise on any aspect of the Affordable Care Act in order to pass a budget bill.  Republicans point out the inequity of letting corporations, trade unions, special interests and even Congressional and White House staff off the hook when every other individual in the country must comply with the insurance mandate.  But let's face it, part of the reason for the House offering up one compromise bill after another is that they want Senate Democrats to cast a vote on these controversial and unpopular provisions so that they can use their record against them in future elections.  Senate Democrats and President Obama are standing firm and refusing to compromise because deep down they know the ACA is a giant bureaucratic mess and they own it.  The only hope they have is that the ACA will, in time, prove to be successful and more popular than it is at present.  However, that hope fades if they can't squeeze every cent possible from the provisions of the law in order to fund it.  That's why the Senate and President have said no to every compromise offered by the House, because practically everything the House has suggested would, in some fashion, affect the revenue meant to be generated by the law.

   In the end, there has to be some sort of compromise, because that's the way politics work.  The Republicans have leverage in the upcoming debt ceiling battle.  It should be possible to give President Obama something he wants - perhaps a strife-less hike of the debt ceiling - in exchange for something like a one-year delay of the individual mandate or repeal of the medical device tax.  Not negotiating is a recipe for failure, and it's everyday Americans who will pay the price.  One-party rule tends to be a bad thing in our national politics.  Nobody gets to call all the shots.  Politics is the art of the deal, and no one gets everything they would want according to their ideal.  Our political representatives should know the difference between hard and fast principles that must not be broken, and the many practical things where it is possible to bend.  Let's hope the folks in D.C. grasp this difference sometime soon.