Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

April 30, 2008

Enough of the faithful are still abuzz over the pope’s recent U.S. visit that this columnist put his ear back to the ground and what he heard was something more like a Bronx cheer.

It began with a Washington Post op-ed piece by Robert Novak, a conservative Catholic convert and journalist whose vitae includes such distinguished efforts as the outing of a CIA operative in what came to be known as the Valerie Plame Affair. This time Mr. Novak was less interested in jeopardizing national security to please Karl Rove and far more in securing the boundaries of the Roman Catholic Church in order to please Pope Benedict.

The cause of Novak’s religious outrage was the pious practice of five co-Catholics who had the gall to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion at two of the masses where the pope was present. Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, Senators John Kerry, Ted Kennedy and Christopher Dodd, all determined pro-choice politicians, all received the holy bread that Catholics claim is the body of Christ at the mass/mass in Nationals Park in Washington. What makes this seemingly innocent act so scandalous in the mind of Novak is the current pope’s proscription against it. Novak remembers the pre-papacy days of Benedict XVI when, as Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope-in-waiting announced that Democratic presidential nominee Kerry should not be allowed to receive Holy Communion because of his pro-choice stand. Similarly, Novak reasoned, neither should Pelosi, Dodd or Kennedy.

The fifth culprit was Republican Rudy Giuliani who not only has confessed to pro-choice proclivities but also failed to have his second marriage annulled by the church before launching into his third. Novak was incensed at Rudy’s gall in large part because the ex-mayor of New York is not particularly religious when it comes to his own less than regular religious practice.

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York’s Archdiocese followed up Novak’s column with an announcement of his own that sought to distance himself from the priestly faux pas at the St. Patrick Cathedral mass where Rudy messed up: “I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the papal visit here in New York,” the cardinal wrote on the archdioceses’ website this past Monday.

Within some limiting legalities, every club should be free to pick and choose their own members but it does seem somewhat odd that an organization based on the teachings of someone who “ate with sinners” should be so reluctant to do the same.

This crisis of communion etiquette reminds me of a true story I have shared before concerning a friend who spent several weeks caring for a Catholic buddy as he lay dying. When the passing time finally arrived, my friend called the local parish priest in order that his friend might receive the last rites. That completed, the priest proceeded to describe the departed’s funeral. During his description, the priest turned to the man who had sacrificed considerable time and energy to care for the dying friend and told him, somewhat officiously, he would not be allowed to receive the holy bread and wine at the funeral because he was not a Catholic. My friend obeyed the injunction but I’ve wondered ever since if the one who was forbidden to receive the presence of Christ in the sacrament was a more powerful symbol of Christ’s presence than the bread or the wine.

Again, any club should be able to make its own rules but that doesn’t prevent some of us from continuing to be mystified by a practice that prohibits politicians who favor reproductive rights on the grounds that they participate in the murder of innocents and yet welcomes with open arms politicians who advocate bearing arms against millions of other innocents.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

April 24, 2008

John Paulson earned $3,700,000,000 last year. That is 3.7 billion dollars. Mr. Paulson is the founder of the hedge fund Paulson and Company and, presumably, a very happy man. Now it just may be my own distorted sense of reality but earning something around $10,136,986.30 a day seems like a really, really lot of money for one guy to be making. It is probably fair to assume that a fellow who makes this kind of dough is working long hours, let’s say 12 hours most days, so he’s pulling it just about $844,748.86 every sixty minutes he’s in the office. That is $844,742.31 more than the hourly minimum wage.

Want another way of looking at it? If Paulson’s respiratory rate is anywhere near normal, every time he took a breath in 2007 he was $586.63 richer. Think about that. OK, you can breathe again.

We, of course, rejoice over Mr. Paulson’s extraordinary ability to build a nice little nest egg for his retirement years but we are also concerned by the fact that generating that kind of capital every single day can become a burden for any well-intentioned advocate of the free market system. After all, just how does one lone capitalist manage to put back into the economy even a small portion of his daily cash allotment? OK, so you build another 50,000 square foot mansion in the mountains on Monday and buy an island or two for the kids on Tuesday but even then you’ve still got to unload some 50 mil come the weekend. Even with the price of gasoline nowadays it’s still got to be a tough job. And then on Monday it all starts again!

Now we are all aware that the government lays fair claim to a hunk of Paulson’s pot of gold but unless he’s planning to run for public office and publicly disclose his 2007 1040EZ, Mr. P probably knows enough tax loop holes to drive a few thousand Brinks’ trucks through.

Still, the effort involved in reinvesting the kind of dough Mr. Paulson is making is surely exhausting. So in a spirit of compassion, we offer some ways to ease his ever accumulating burden.

First, as everyone who has ever watched a late-late-night infomercial can tell you, you pay yourself. Put a little something aside with every paycheck and soon, the gurus tell us, we will never have to worry about money again. So, Mr. P., let’s pop, say, a cool million in savings each day. Now, what to do with the other 9?

Mr. Paulson may have noticed en route to the bank that this great democratic country of ours has sunk some $500 billion into a war that most experts agree has no chance of achieving any kind of victory once foolishly envisioned by our war-hungry president. The cost of this fiasco has meant many worthy American projects have suffered. A neat nine million properly placed each day would go far in making up for the lack of interest this administration has had over some serious problems here at home.

Education, for instance. While we whittle away our national treasures, both in money and man and womanpower, in Iraq, our literacy rate here in the U.S. continues to shrink. The statistics are daunting. According to the Dec.5, 2007 edition of the Washington Post: “The scores from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. 15-year-olds trailed their peers from many industrialized countries. The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries…The U.S. students were further behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.” $9,000,000 carefully parceled out to deserving school districts each day for a few weeks might bring some of our kids back into competition.

How do you feel about space travel, Mr. Paulson? In just 61 short days, you could fund the entire shortfall in NASA’s budget for the coming year. Think of it! Two months without some walking around money down here could allow for some real walking around up there.

Then there are the poor. You probably don’t get too many opportunities to spend time among them, Mr. P, but you should know that according to former Colorado Senator Gary Hart in his book “Restoration of the Republic”, "The US child poverty rate is the highest in the developed world, 50 percent higher than the next country" Now no one expects you to bear the full burden of resolving this one, Mr. Paulson, but just imagine what some efficiently placed daily doses of cash could accomplish among the most vulnerable in our society.

And if you’d like to spread your largess beyond our nation’s borders, then please know that the entire budget for the UN’s World Food Program is $2.9 billion this year. With that not insignificant amount, the WFP manages to feed 73 million people in 78 countries, although it is less than a 10th of the total number of the world's undernourished. Sobering statistics to be sure and even more so when one considers that with rising commodity and fuel prices, the WFP’s effectiveness will be drastically reduced. Forgive the presumption but feeding the world’s hungry might bring a pretty big bang for your buck, Mr. Paulson, and even if you funded the entire project, you’d still have some $800 million left over which, according to the statistics I have, would provide for an officially upper-class American lifestyle for you and 1,499 of your closest friends.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Practicing Progressive


I had hoped the Pope and I might have met earlier this week while both of us were visiting Washington D.C. but as luck would have it our schedules just didn’t mesh.

Had I the opportunity to present a question to His Eminence as the 70 journalists traveling with him had (although all of their questions had to be written down days before and only four were deemed worthy to be answered by Benedict), I would have inquired as to the well-being of Cardinal Bernard Law, the ex-priest-in-charge of the Diocese of Boston who skipped out of town before the law could catch up to him. Seems he managed to get a cushy job right there in Rome where diplomatic immunity prevents his ever being held responsible for the high-crimes perpetrated by too many pedophilic Boston priests. It was Benedict’s papal predecessor who offered the pleasant little post complete with a fresco-filled palatial home and a reputed $12,000 dollars per month salary. It is no wonder Benedict’s apology on the first day of his visit was deemed way too little and much too late for many who were the victims of Law’s unlawfulness.

One cannot help but wonder what was going on in the Vatican when they opened their back door to this ecclesiastical do-badder and actually rewarded his malfeasance. Of course, similar confusions arise among some of us non-Catholic Christians when we read of other strange decisions emanating from the offices next to St. Peter’s basilica. For instance, there was that curious little papal dispensation last July that allows for this irritating inclusion in the Latin mass for Good Friday: "For the conversion of the Jews. Let us pray also for the Jews that the Lord our God may take the veil from their hearts and that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, You do not refuse Your mercy even to the Jews; hear the prayers which we offer for the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of Your truth, which is Christ, and be delivered from their darkness." As one can imagine, this particular heavenly entreaty didn’t do much for Jewish-Christian relations.

A similar setback came when this pope happened to muse aloud during a university lecture regarding perceived violent tendencies in Islam. The uproar around that faux pas still hasn’t entirely settled down.

Frankly, I’ve been more than a little surprised that there have been so few calamities since Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. In his earlier days, Cardinal Ratzinger was well-known as the Vatican’s hit-man, searching out heresies among his own flock and building walls to keep us other flocks out. When I was in seminary at an ecumenical institution that included Roman Catholic and Protestant students, we would often console one another when we got discouraged at the slow pace of Christian unity with this blessed thought: “At least Ratzinger isn’t pope.”

As the retired pastor of a humble mountain church of semi-humble Lutherans, I certainly have little business telling the leader of 1.1 billion Catholics how to do his job but I can’t help but point out that the average age of priests in America is somewhere around 97 and so it might make some sense to begin considering allowing members of the world’s gender majority to become part of the priesthood. It is simply amazing to me that one element of the rationale for an all-male clergy is that Jesus was a man. Take that a few more logical steps and the only fellows who could be Fathers would be Palestinian Jews who know how to handle a hammer and saw.

I do appreciate this pope’s consistency. When he declares he is “pro-life” he isn’t just talking about his views on abortion and although I may not agree with him on that matter I certainly acknowledge that you can’t logically be pro-life and pro-capital punishment or pro-life and pro-unjust war. I know that will come as a shock to our less than logical president but maybe the pope explained all that at their meeting on Wednesday where he also must have explained why he wasn’t coming to the White House dinner in his honor, which, come to think of it, is neither logical nor even very courteous.

Oh well, one of the benefits of being pope is you can pretty much do as you please even if what you do doesn’t much please me.