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Tag Archive: Catholic Church

It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future.

Posted: Saturday, January 22, 2011 (10:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 22nd, 2011:

Sociologist Peter L. Berger, concluding his 1970 book, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural:

I would like to emphasize once more that anyone who approaches religion with an interest in its possible truth, rather than in this or that aspect of its social manifestations, would do well to cultivate a measure of indifference in the matter of empirical prognoses. History brings out certain questions of truth, makes certain answers more or less accessible, constructs and disintegrates plausibility structures. But the historical  course of the question about transcendence cannot, of itself, answer the question. It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future. All too often, however, such exhilaration gives way to the sobering recognition that what looked like a mighty wave of history was only a marginal eddy in the stream of events. For the theologian, if not for the social scientist, I would therefore suggest a moratorium on the anxious query as to just who it is that has modernity by the short hair. Theology must begin and end with the question of truth.

I’m spending quite a bit of time lately pondering what went wrong in Western society during the 1960s – 1970s, especially as it relates to the breakdowns which the spirit of the age precipitated in the Catholic Church. It’s a complicated matter. Reading popular theologians of the period tends to put my stomach in knots, and Berger here captures much of the reason why: the politicization of even theology in an academic environment infatuated with modern ideas of history, in what Henri de Lubac, near the end of his Splendor of the Church, identified as “the most subversive temptation” within the Church: an anthropocentrism that loses sight of the transcendent goal of the Christian faith. Theology, indeed, must begin and end with the question of the truth, not with inquiries into fashionable notions of either “relevance,” “inevitability,” or social utility.

The smoking gun we’ve been looking for

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2011 (10:56 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, January 18th, 2011:

Priestcraft hysteria breaking out in an AP article by Shawn Pogatchnik, as published on Boston.com this evening, relating to the release today of a 1997 letter allegedly implicating the Vatican in a “cover up” of clerical sexual abuse:

Any bishops who tried to impose punishments outside the confines of canon law would face the "highly embarrassing" position of having their actions overturned on appeal in Rome, [Apostolic Nuncio Luciano Storero] wrote.

Catholic officials in Ireland and the Vatican declined AP requests to comment on the letter, which RTE said it received from an Irish bishop.

Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter demonstrates that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them.

"The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere," said Colm O’Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

Joelle Casteix, a director of U.S. advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, described the letter as "the smoking gun we’ve been looking for."

Sigh. It really is sad – pathetic even – watching this persistent group of “watchdogs” trying to nail the Catholic Church – and especially the Vatican. Casteix is right, though: a smoking gun is exactly what they’ve been looking for, and looking for… If it wouldn’t be such a cynical thought on my part, I’d have to wonder if they wouldn’t in fact be delighted to find one.

Bishops, of course, have no punishments to impose outside the confines of canon law, so I’m not sure the poor writer of this article has even the most basic grasp of the subject he is trying to enlighten the world on. But the sources he quotes (anonymously or not) should really have been given the opportunity to read the “smoking gun” letter before they embarrassed themselves with this kind of silly hyperbole – not to mention slander. I mean, I can only assume they didn’t read it, right?

Not that a mere dissociation of fact from accusation will get in the way of another round of priestcraft hysteria, mind you… But isn’t it interesting that all the publications I found promoting this story this evening printed small jpegs of the letter, instead of actually printing the contents of the letter? Hmmm… [Update: The New York Times included a full-sized, readable PDF of the letter with their article – credit to them, but they did dust off that magical “defrock” vocabulary, so I call that a wash ;-)]

The reality is that the letter advised the bishops that certain specifics of their proposed policy did not comply with existing canon law, which therefore might well produce the “highly embarrassing” result of a guilty priest having his canonical (not criminal!) punishment overturned on appeal, on account of a technicality. This is roughly the equivalent of a high court advising a legislature that a piece of draft legislation was unconstitutional and unenforceable, and therefore needed to be reworked in order to achieve its goal. Smoking gun… Oy vey!

Since left-wing tools like the AP only want to provide the public “information” that will agitate them to support the “progressive” agenda (like, discrediting the Catholic Church), the rest of us who care about life on this tender planet need to somehow pick up the slack. Here, then, is the actual text of the letter, for anyone more interested in facts than hysteria:

Dublin, 31 January 1997

Strictly Confidential

Your Excellency,

The Congregation for the Clergy has attentively studied the complex question of sexual abuse of minors by clerics and the document entitled "Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response”, published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee.

The Congregation wishes to emphasize the need for this document to conform to the canonical norms presently in force.

The text, however, contains "procedures and dispositions which appear contrary to canonical discipline and which, if applied, could invalidate the acts of the same Bishops who are attempting to put a stop to these problems. If such procedures were to be followed by the Bishops and there were cases of eventual hierarchical recourse lodged at the Holy See, the results could be highly embarrassing and detrimental to those same Diocesan authorities.

In particular, the situation of ‘mandatory reporting’ gives rise to serious reservations of both a moral and a canonical nature".

Since the policies on sexual abuse in the English speaking world exhibit many of the same characteristics and procedures, the Congregation is involved in a global study of them. At the appropriate time, with the collaboration of the interested Episcopal Conferences and in dialogue with them, the Congregation will not be remiss in establishing some concrete directives with regard to these Policies.

For these reasons and because the above mentioned text is not an official document of the Episcopal Conference but merely a study document, I am directed to inform the individual Bishops of Ireland of the preoccupations the Congregation in its regard, underlining that in the sad cases of accusations of sexual abuse by clerics, the procedures established by the Code of Canon Law must be meticulously followed under pain of invalidity of the acts involved if the priest so punished were to make hierarchical recourse against his Bishop.

Asking you to kindly let me know of the safe receipt of this letter and with the assurance of my cordial regard, I am

Yours sincerely in Christ,

+Luciano Storero

Apostolic Nuncio

To: the Members of the Irish Episcopal Conference

The only treasure that the Church really has to offer

Posted: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 (10:19 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, January 4th. 2011:

Rev. Thomas G. Guarino, of Seton Hall University, in an article at FirstThings.com entitled The Priesthood and Justice, reflecting on the U.S. bishops’ handling of priests accused of sexual misconduct, in the wake of the dismissal from the priesthood of a 73 year-old monsignor in the Archdiocese of New York at the end of last year:

Various actions taken against accused priests suggest that current policies are straining the theology of the priesthood. This may have the short-term advantage of preventing litigants from storming the Church door. It may keep the media at bay for the moment—a media that, in any case, will always find the Church a stumbling block because of her insistence on the incomparable truth she bears. But such actions are also having the disastrous effect of eroding Catholic doctrine, the only treasure that the Church really has to offer.

This might be an unpopular stance, but it is one that needs to be taken. I know that I was rather stunned when the so called “Dallas Charter” was published in 2002, with the bishops adopting a zero-tolerance policy. I had considered draconian zero-tolerance stands – in general – to be the work of small minds seeking cheap political points in easy answers, and could hardly believe that the USCCB was falling into that trap. I understand its appeal, but as Guarino points out in this short article, it is thoroughly contrary to a Gospel ethic, and I was comforted at the time to know that such intellectual giants of the Catholic world as Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Cardinal Dulles shared the deep unease of this poor sinner.

Nonetheless, the policy has stood for almost a decade, and the treatment of offending priests continues to serve as a lightning rod issue for all kinds of anger – not much of it rational – while the Church finds itself without a teaching voice in the matter on account of its own indulgence in easy answers. It’s as if Docetism, suppressed in so ugly a manner, is finally wreaking its revenge in damaging the Church’s theology of the priesthood.

All the while, the masses fulminate with rage against the Church and those priests caught rightly or wrongly in the crosshairs, every time another old story surfaces. Not all those who fulminate hate the Church, but many of them do, and I am amazed at the consistency with which they demand the dismissal of the accused from the priesthood – “defrocking” seeming to be the almost universal term of choice in the English-speaking world, with its fricative and plosive combination ostensibly serving some cathartic end. Yet, they largely have no clue what any of it means!

Never mind that from a practical perspective, letting obviously sick and unsupervised men loose on society  by washing its hands of them is about the most irresponsible thing the Church can do – the Church is probably the best-equipped institution on the world for finding a safe and constructive place for them to live out their lives. More importantly, a Church that is ready to throw its own to the curb seems to me to have lost, in some important manner, its own sense of its identity as the sacrament of Christ in the world. And then there’s the whole matter of what Holy Orders means in the first place…

American Religion’s Dismissal of Apostolicity

Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 (7:02 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, November 24th, 2010:

Henri de Lubac, from The Splendor of the Church, translated from the 2nd French edition (1953) in 1956, and re-published by Ignatius in 1999 (p.86f):

When we recite the Credo we profess our belief in the Church; and if we believe that the Church is both a universal and a visible community, then we cannot – without betrayal of our faith – be content to grant that the universal Church is made visible and concrete to the individual by that particular community which is his, regardless of the separation of these communities one from another. This would only be another way of resolving the problem of unity by an appeal to an “invisible Church”; it would still be a case of “Platonizing” rather than listening to Christ. “From the very morrow of Christ’s death” a

Church was in existence and living, just as Christ had constituted her; the Church as she is should be in verifiable continuity with the community of the first disciples, which was in turn, and from the beginning, a clearly defined group, social in character, organized, and having its heads, its rites and – soon – its legislation. She should be united to the “root of Christian society” by a real and uninterrupted succession; the need for that cannot be got rid of by treating it as something “profane”, “mechanistic”, or “legalistic”.

… Ruminating tonight, on the eve of Thanksgiving, about the English Separatists and Puritans who spawned this great social and political experiment in North America, their religious character, and how they continue to influence this culture – and not just with turkey dinners at harvest time!

As submerged as American culture still is (comparatively) in religion and/or religious sentiment (at least outside the halls of our “influence” institutions), there are few sentiments more culturally pervasive than the indigenous distrust of what is called “organized religion.” This is pretty clearly traceable to the influential prejudices of the pilgrims, with their congregationalist, dis-organized (or even anti-organized) religion, and it’s hard not to rue the possibility lost in the process.

When you close yourself off to the body as an historical reality (e.g. by “spiritualizing” it), you close yourself off to precisely that which is redeemed in the historical Christ event of Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Thus, you close yourself off to the transcendence that belongs to the historical Church in its regeneration as the Body of Christ. Christ may remain truly Christ – how could He be otherwise? – but the community lacks the characteristic unity, sanctity, heritage, and universality that marks the Church as the living manifestation of Christ’s continued presence in the world. That’s no trivial poverty.

The Great Retreat of Pederasty

Posted: Monday, July 5, 2010 (10:22 pm), by John W Gillis


I picked up a link from Hot Air a few days ago to a disturbing but fascinating (English-language) article in Der Spiegel Online, The Sexual Revolution and Children: How the Left Took Things Too Far. The article explores the history of post-1968 views on human sexuality, specifically its role in the “liberation” politics of the left wing in the non-communist world, and how that was translated into pedagogy at the Kinderladen (nursery school) level in the more left-leaning communities in Germany. The results, it should come as no surprise, are chilling:

Does what happened in a number of the Kinderladen qualify as abuse? According to the criteria to which Catholic priests have been subjected, it clearly does, says Alexander Schuller, the sociologist. "Objectively speaking, it was abuse, but subjectively it wasn’t," says author Dannenberg. As outlandish as it seems in retrospect, the parents apparently had the welfare of the children in mind, not their own. For the adherents to the new movement, the child did not serve as a sex object to provide the adults with a means of satisfying their sexual urges. This differentiates politically motivated abuse from pedophilia.

As shocking as the idea of politically motivated child abuse might seem, I have to confess to being rather unsurprised to come across its revelation. In no small part, that is because of a short article by Mary Eberstadt I was immediately reminded of having read in the December 2009 issue of First Things, How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool (the FT archives are paid content, but are well worth the price, even if you purchase just a single-day’s pass to them – lots of gold there to mine). In it, she identifies a significant change in a trend which she had traced over the preceding several decades, and on which she had published in The Weekly Standard on a couple of different occasions: with Pedophilia Chic, Part One and Part Two in June of 1996, and again in January 2001 with ‘Pedophilia Chic’ Reconsidered, Part One and Part Two.

In essence, the Weekly Standard articles were exposes of the way in which American cultural elites, especially in literary circles and the social sciences, had been floating the cultural normalization of pederasty, that is, of sexual liaisons between adult men and teenage boys. The change she noted in the 2009 First Things article was that in the face of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis that had rocked American culture over the previous decade, American liberal elites had lost their taste for tolerating the particular pleasures of pederasty. If one was going to stake a high ground upon which to berate the Church for its pederastic sins, after all, this newfound moralism was a necessary regression in the otherwise progressive liberalization of sexual mores and moral standards, and nothing motivates liberal elites quite like excoriating the Catholic Church for some wrong.

To this end, one of the more interesting thoughts Eberstadt drew from all this was the ironic idea that the sexual abuse of boys and young men by Catholic clergy, for all its evil, might ultimately prove the be the decisive event in turning back a social movement toward the widespread acceptance of that self-same pederasty. Perhaps she could be accused of trying to paint a happy face on a dreadful situation, but its awfully hard to argue with the evidence (which she produces) of leading liberal media voices changing their views on the permissibility of pederasty after “the long Lent” of 2001. It also makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level, because the greatest threat (I say ultimately the only threat) to radicalism’s project of overturning the moral order is the Catholic Church, and pretty much everybody knows it. Whatever it costs, the Church must be defeated, or radicalism will fail. Only the naive (most of whom belong to the Church) don’t understand that.

So, as I was reading the Der Spiegel article, and thinking about Eberstadt’s, I couldn’t help being impressed by the timing of it. Why did Der Spiegel, hardly a voice of social conservatism over the sixty or so years of its publication, choose this time, after all these years, to address the issues of pedophilia in the history of Germany’s political left? Why come clean about it now, and try to bury it in the past as an historical anachronism? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the German Catholic clergy’s involvement in the pederasty of the day has finally come to light – in full fury – within the past few months? Maybe Eberstadt is on to something.

After having spent several hours over the past few days reading, re-reading, and thinking about the questions that are raised here, there is much more I would like to say, especially about the relation between pederasty and the larger homosex movement, which Eberstadt treats somewhat in the later Weekly Standard article. There are some common assumptions about that relationship which Eberstadt seems to share, and which I find increasingly troublesome. I hope to find the time in the near future to follow up on this at some length.

Divine Manifestation and Humility: Pentecostalism and Eucharistic Hope

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2010 (12:21 am), by John W Gillis


monstrance_sm I was wondering, a while back, what kind of difference it might have made in my life to have encountered a perpetual Eucharistic Adoration chapel when I was a young man seeking some sort of religious grounding for my spiritual life. I’m wondering about it again as I sit before the Blessed Sacrament on another Sunday late-night. Specifically, I’m thinking about that year or so I spent huddled in my apartment, trying to piece together the shards of my shattered life in the wake of the disaster that was my twenties, and seeking a path to actualize my nascent faith in God.

Sitting in the Adoration Chapel each week, I see young people coming in and going out, some acting out elaborate and affected pieties, others more reserved and seemingly more recollected. I was drawn, at a similar age, toward a pentecostalism that promised to substitute an engaging and spiritually charged enthusiasm for the indulgent sensuality and attendant emotional crises I had been embroiled in, and was seeking to escape. I knew that I needed more than a prayer life, that I needed Christian community, that I needed to belong to something that was more than an idea – or worse, a projection of my own interior life.

But I was put off by the worldliness that seemed to underpin the life I witnessed in what I suppose I would have called organized religion. I was a thoroughly beaten young man at that point, an poor as dirt, and all but ready to embrace apocalypticism as the last station call for optimism. Pentecostalism in particular seemed constructed to marginalize me from the very community of the marginalized I felt spiritually bound to. On the surface, with its focus on the breaking-in to the world of the Spirit in charismata, it seems to exemplify the “in the world, but not of the world” ethos of the gospel. But in reality, it seeks the manifestation of God’s blessing in very concrete and even material forms. That’s why “the gifts” tend not toward a deep, quiet, and subtle prudence, but a public form that approaches spectacle. And that is also why the health and wealth gospel is so at home in pentecostalism. If the manifestation of God’s blessing is not actually the end of pentecostal faith, it is at least taken as evidence of the reality of grace in the life of the believer.

As a fragile, immature believer with nothing to show for my relationship with God but a deep sense of sorrow and repentance, pentecostalism was both intriguing for its promise of an affirming manifestation, and foreboding for its unspoken but unmistakable contempt for spiritual poverty and unapologetic humility. What is taken as being “not of the world” in pentecostalism is actually very worldly, insofar as it is public manifestation of blessing itself which is taken as the revelation “in the world.” In the end, I felt out of place in my poverty – not because I lacked manifestations like the glossolalia (which I had, even some fifteen years earlier, learned not to overvalue), but because I so thoroughly lacked the worldly successes that are taken to be signs of the blessing.

The sacramental economy stands in stark contrast to all that. The revelation of God is made manifest in the world in the simplest and humblest manner: a small piece of bread, water, a touching hand, a few softly spoken words. True, the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration is often enthroned within an elaborate gold monstrance; the places of worship themselves, where the sacraments are celebrated and dispensed, are often grand in form and rich in substance. Yet these displays of the wealth of the world are not understood as the blessings God gives to his people, but the blessings God’s people bring to Him in reverence. This is wealth that is “wasted” on God, as Judas had it, while God, in His manifestation, remains the bread of sacrifice: His depiction by the faithful being that of a Man crucified.

The sacraments, far from being evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer in blessing, are evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church, which the believer approaches in utter poverty and humility. Christ Himself, then, is manifest in humility, and the believer approaches in humility (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”) to be joined in a sacramental communion of humility (“whosoever would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”), in which the eschatological manifestation of God’s self-revelation in humanity (“by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”) is pregnant as a Spiritual first fruits of Eternal life (“the guarantee of our inheritance”).

What has become abundantly clear to me is that the extraordinary charismata of pentecostalism and related religious movements have emerged as some kind of substitute for the sacraments: one more compatible with the modernist spirit of the age. I find it no coincidence that the historical context for this reemergence of the charismatic gifts aligns with the powerful rise of Modernism as a broad philosophy of culture, as well as the emergence of phenomenology as an epistemological method. Epistemologically, Modernism is basically phenomological: able to perceive knowledge only in that which is experienced, which in reality reduces ‘truth’ to, at best, factualism, or, at worst, subjectivism. One could make the argument that objectivism and subjectivism are instead polar opposites which I am here conflating, but they share a common ground in the observing self, and in a difficulty (if not inability) to overcome a consequent self-centered rationalism in order to perceive the transcendent. Pentecostalism, of course, seeks the transcendent, but it seeks it in the experience of the self; in phenomena.

Likewise, it can hardly be a coincidence that the charismatic movement in Catholicism emerged in the decade of the modernizations following Vatican II, when a deep sacramental understanding seemed to evade much of Catholic culture: pizza was known to be offered as Eucharistic sacrifice in one of the more bizarre incongruities to emerge from the era; greater symbolism came to be sought in baptismal rites through the reintroduction of baptismal baths (such emphasis on symbolism exposing a growing vacuum of meaning born of a declining sacramental sensibility); lines were blurred between lay and priestly roles; confession fell into disuse; and marriage fell prey to contraception, divorce, and other – even worse – sacrileges.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Modernism sowed the seeds of a wasting dissolution in the liberal denominations that had held to a semblance of sacramental theology after the Reformation, made possible because their sacramentalism was in reality only formal or religious, not essential. From Luther’s denunciations of indulgences in the 16th century, to John Smyth (re)baptizing himself near the beginning of the 17th century, to Napoleon crowning himself Emperor in front of Pope Pius VII two hundred years later, the history of the West from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of Modernism is one of accommodating a religiously Christian society to a repudiation of the authority of the Church – a repudiation not only of authority as power or religious superiority, but of authority as an ontological reality, a sacramental gift: of the knowledge of the Church as the authentic and authoritative continuing presence of Christ in the world.

The repudiation of an authoritative Church by both by Protestant Christianity and early-Modern or Liberal skepticism did less to correct ecclesiastical abuses than it did to provide religious cover for skepticism, which carried on its own program of pseudo-orthodoxy in the guise of “science,” moving steadily toward Modernism’s atheistic naturalism, even removing God from the cosmos (never mind the curriculum), by first removing the presence of God among men in the form of the miraculous, including the sacraments, but more importantly in the form of authority in the Church – more important because religious anti-papists could happily hitch their wagons to the same “progressive” worldview, unaware of and unprepared for anti-clericalism’s final destination in godless totalitarianism. And now, majorities in these denominations cozy up to abortionists, and cluck their tongues at the sight of “conservatives” who are so unenlightened as to fail to embrace the new homosex norms…

Reacting against Modernism, however, were Fundamentalism proper and the main thrust of contemporary conservative Evangelicalism. They rejected the wholesale naturalistic skepticism of the miraculous, to say nothing of atheism, but they retained a skepticism of the miraculous nature of the Church, and formed (often after initial denominational schisms) an astoundingly fragmentary collection of staunchly anti-sacramental faith communities. Furthermore, despite fundamentalist hostility toward Modernism, it is widely perceived that fundamentalism and naturalism share a common set of (modern) assumptions about the relation of facts to reality, as is evidenced in fundamentalism’s insistence on facticity in its understanding of Biblical inerrancy. What  seems less often observed is that pentecostalism, which emerged at about the same time as a sister movement, sharing similar concerns but eschewing the fundamentalism’s focus on dogmatic Biblicism for a more personal (and miraculous) religion of encounter with God, taps into the same mindset of believing exactly what is seen: experienced-based belief.

But experience is peripheral to sacramental faith, and experiential religion turns out to be a poor substitute for the sacramental life. The point of contact between sacramental manifestation and the believing community is faith in the power of God’s promise that He is indeed present, even despite appearances, if necessary. The point of contact, in other words, is not experience, not “what is seen,” but hope. Being rooted in hope, sacramental worship seeks no signs, but looks behind symbols to the realities they re-present, being open to the transformative movement of grace through the sacraments in ways that are often subtle – even humble. Not phenomena, but a still, small voice.

Despite my mildly Catholic upbringing in the 1960s, I think I would have been shocked, in the 1980s, to encounter God present under the form of bread, even sitting on an altar in a gold monstrance. I think I would have realized that, despite the trappings, God was, in all His glory, even more impoverished than me. I think that may have led me to see how profoundly true it is that for God, all things are possible, and that the meanness of my condition was not an alienating factor that kept me from full communion, but a vector for God to embrace me through the agency of His continued manifestation among men. I think I may have discovered the restorative and integrating power of genuine Christian community. I truly praise God for the Eucharistic faith of these young people; I hope they appreciate someday what a gift they have.

Idealism Unencumbered by Reality: Obamacare, pt.2 (Universality & Reality)

Posted: Saturday, January 16, 2010 (2:39 pm), by John W Gillis


obamagig_thumb21In the on-going debate over how to improve the American healthcare and healthcare delivery systems, the professed intent of most of the players has been to increase “access” or “coverage,” by extending benefits to people who currently do not have such access. Ostensibly, this is because “access” and/or “coverage” is priced out of reach for these folks, on account of some combination of raw poverty, and unavailability of employer-provided/subsidized health insurance, which is the vehicle through which most non-elderly Americans access the healthcare system. I spent almost a decade of my life numbered among those without medical insurance, and I’m familiar with the significant limitations of the current model, from the distortions introduced by the prevalence of employer-sourced benefits, to the reluctance – especially among the young – to view healthcare costs as a necessary out-of-pocket expense, similar to food, clothing, or shelter.

In any policy debate, a central component of the debate is the question: Who benefits? Apart from identifying precisely what the need is, and how it might be met, we need to have an understanding both of who should benefit, as well as who actually would benefit under any given proposal. Perceiving that adequate healthcare, whatever its precise definition (which must be defined in order to make rational policy decisions), is a universal necessity for living a fully flourishing life, many public voices have taken to calling for the recognition of a universal right to healthcare, and, not infrequently, of identifying the various “reform” packages proposed by Democratic leadership with such a universal mission.

But what does “universal” mean when used in the current political context? Does it truly mean universal, or does it merely say universal while meaning something else? And if it says one thing while meaning another, what are the implications typically associated with the term that cannot be legitimately claimed under these current circumstances, given the reality of what is actually meant when the term is being used? In short: How can this idea be invoked honestly, and – hence – profitably?

Consistent with decades of Catholic social thought, the Catholic Church, at least in the form of the USCCB, has thrown its moral weight behind the idea of a program of universal access to healthcare (whatever that particular term might mean), but there certainly has not been a single proposal put on the table during this debate that would come close to meeting a catholic understanding of the term “universal.” However, I’ve seen no evidence of anyone in the American hierarchy pointing out that disconnect, with the exception of the particular incongruity confronted in the abortion problem.

To a Catholic, it is a breathtakingly cruel mockery to invoke the character of universality on a healthcare plan that not only excludes a subset of the human race from the scope of said care, but positively persecutes them to a violent death at the hands of those they love the most. Yet, to the progressives behind the current program, abortion is part and parcel of the initiating agenda. It is quite beyond me how the bishops think they can lie down with the whore of misanthropic progressivism, in a foolish attempt to sire a bastard offspring that will manage to obsolete charity through benevolent state power, yet avoid the stink that naturally arises (the public funding of abortion) when they do. The bishops, I trust, will continue to refuse to support any program that is remotely pro-abortion – I would not suggest otherwise – but until the architecture of reform is rooted in a philosophical and political view of the world that is not wedded to the legalized murder of innocents, it strikes me as myopic to think that there could be room for a legitimate cooperation, devoid of complicity in evil. I don’t get their willingness to be strung along.

Nonetheless, other problems remain at the gate. For example, it would be politically impossible to include health care coverage for illegal aliens in our policy implementation, but Catholic social doctrine in no way distinguishes among persons on the basis of citizenry. The Church’s legitimate voice in the argument must speak to the implications of the dignity each human person possesses as a creature formed in the imago dei. Not only does such a perspective transcend the status of citizenry, it by definition also transcends national boundaries altogether.

The truth of the matter is that if the issue is to be framed as one of universal social justice from a Catholic perspective, every right to healthcare ascribed to a “poor” citizen of Anytown, USA, must also be ascribed to non-citizens within our borders, as well as “the least among us” in the far-flung corners of the earth. I’m not proposing this as an ad absurdum argument against healthcare reform. To the contrary, I believe it is in fact entirely true that local illegals and the remote destitute have the same claims as the rest of us to anything that can be construed as a human right, including healthcare. Political rights can be circumscribed by politics, but not human rights.

Nor am I trying to make the perfect the enemy of the good – suggesting that the Church cannot or should not support a plan that partially solves a problem without solving the whole thing. Provided that a plan does actually show promise of making progress toward a legitimate goal (in my opinion, a dubious assertion in this case), it would certainly be appropriate to propose its provisional value. But invoking the symbolism of absolute terms like “universal” upon what is at best contingent is misleading, a situation particularly deleterious when it involves spiritual leaders entrusted with the task of distinguishing the contingent from the absolute. It not only lulls the gullible into a false sense of sanctity, but as in this case of Obamacare, it obfuscates the absurdity inherent in the project of reducing human brotherhood to a political program.

Of course, if the American people had to consider the possibility of tax-payer funding of a system of healthcare (whatever that means) that would serve the whole word, it would be (rightly) laughed down as a cruel hoax that was utterly impossible to fund, staff, administer, or police. But even if we proscribe the vast majority of the world’s needy, and limit participation to Americans, these practical absurdities, so readily evident when we consider the prospect of a genuinely universal scope, are hardly resolved, and common folk know that – as is evident from the steadily growing disapproval of Obama’s project among the American citizenry.

Nevertheless, supposing we get beyond the Catholic bishops’ amalgamation of the Church’s social doctrine regarding the universal dignity of man onto what is (of necessity) a much less ambitious undertaking – that of the forcible redistribution of particular resources among a recognizable elite (e.g. U. S. citizens and documented aliens) – we’re still faced with the hard reality that the finite inputs available to any such system will be far exceeded by the output demands that are implied in the expectations of pro-“reform” arguments calling for the expansion of “coverage” to some many thousands of people who are presently not covered.

Not only does this program threaten to bankrupt the country by redirecting huge sums of money from other needs and uses into the already financially bloated healthcare market, it is counting on the availability of services that often do not exist, both of which influences will only serve to increase the cost of healthcare, defeating the very purpose that the program allegedly seeks to serve. This is pretty basic arithmetic. We do not presently have a meaningful surplus of “health care,” and it will not be possible, within a rational universe, to provide additional goods and services without either increasing their supply, or reducing their availability in some other quarter.

This is precisely the prospect being faced by the elderly dependent upon Medicare, which is expected to lose half a trillion dollars in funding in order to make subsidy dollars available elsewhere. This funding shift can only exacerbate the problems providers like the Mayo Clinic already face with Medicare, and will surely accelerate the current movement by these providers out of the Medicare system. This is a pending elderly healthcare disaster being facilitated by the Democrats, even while the President himself is singing the praises of the very providers finding themselves forced to get out from under the abysmal government system. Incredible.

A knave, at this point, might be tempted to accuse me of thinking that those presently going untreated “don’t deserve” treatment, or some such hogwash, but that is not the case at all. I am merely pointing out what should be an obvious fact: that health care, like all goods and services, operates in a complex economy in which price and availability are strongly influenced by the levers of supply and demand. This influence is not a capitalist invention imposed upon hapless society by mean-spirited businessmen; it is an explanation of how economies really work. You can’t reduce costs by imposing a tax structure that reduces supply, increases demand, and depresses cash flow in the general private sector. And price-controlling healthcare services would ultimately have the same effect on healthcare as rent controls invariably have on housing: it’s a disaster for the poor, and for society on the whole.

I have yet to hear a proponent of progressivist “solutions” admit that this economic reality might possibly pose a difficulty to the healthcare socialization project. In their determination to believe the rightness of their cause, they seem to have convinced themselves that there is no real cost to any of this, that the problem of inequitable distribution is simply one of “unfairness” in which scarcity plays no role, and that they can even achieve better than market-optimal results while actively sabotaging market incentives, such as lowering the payments made to doctors under Medicare. Sheer delusion.

I live in a populous area, just outside of Boston, which is also one of the world’s premier hotspots for health care technology. I suspect the supply-to-demand ratio for health care around here is about as high as it is anywhere, and it’s already not easy getting timely appointments, at least if you are not already a patient. Knowing what we know about the notoriously long waiting periods afflicting patients in Canada and other countries that have socialized their systems, how can we think we are seriously addressing any kind of lack-of-healthcare problem when we’re not attempting to find a way to increase the availability of healthcare itself? Trying to frame the healthcare access problem as one simply of inability-to-pay on the part of a victim class is both wrong-headed and counter-productive – unless your goal has less to do with caring for people than it does with establishing state control of healthcare. Clever slogans might be politically expedient, but they tend to be economic time-bombs.

The Democratic proposals put forth by each Congressional house would significantly raise healthcare costs across the board, fail to provide healthcare consumers with any needed new options outside of government controlled exchanges, destroy market incentives for both third-parties and healthcare providers, discourage providers from serving the elderly and other less affluent segments of society, discourage entry into the healthcare field at both institutional and personal levels, encourage artificial demand for unnecessary services by frontloading costs into taxes and premiums, create the typical government feeding trough and corruption that doling out tax dollars invariably creates, facilitate the continuation of enormous wastes of time, money, and resources as a consequence of medical malpractice law abuse, and, of course, exclude the most vulnerable members of the human race from even the most fundamental of protections. To call these plans “universal” in any sense at all – even provisionally – is an utter farce.

So who benefits? Beyond the advocates for unlimited state control of human society, I don’t see how anyone benefits. Sure, there will be rent seekers of various stripes who line their pockets – it’s impossible to spend $2.5 Trillion without making somebody rich – but the net result to the healthcare system- and the people it serves, will be a certain loss.

Catholic Education & Sotomayor

Posted: Thursday, June 4, 2009 (10:36 pm), by John W Gillis


sotomayor&obama I don’t agree very often with what Michael Paulson says over at the Articles of Faith blog at Boston.com – he doesn’t even ask the right questions, as a rule – but I had to concur with something he said the other day about President Obama’s address introducing Sonia Sotomayor as his nominee for Justice Souter’s Supreme Court seat: he said he was struck by “the language he used to describe the role of Catholic schools in offering children a path out of poverty.” Here is the quote from the President’s remarks:

“But Sonia’s mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood, sent her children to a Catholic school called Cardinal Spellman out of the belief that with a good education here in America all things are possible.”

You won’t get any argument out of me by suggesting that the way to get your children a good education here in America is to send them to Catholic schools, but I have to wonder what the President’s good friends and supporters in the public school teachers’ unions (never mind management) thought about that remark.

Meanwhile, at about the same time this remark was made, the papers reported that the last Catholic parochial school in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston would be closing next year, due primarily to declining enrollment. And as true as it is that the academic performance is superior, and as important as a sound academic foundation is to the life of the intellect, you can believe me when I say that academics is about the least of the good reasons I send my children to Catholic schools.

It wasn’t very long ago that Catholic families were strongly encouraged by the faith community to utilize the parochial schools as an important element of providing their children a good Catholic upbringing. As the parochial school systems sags and slowly collapses under the weight of indifference, it strikes me that such encouragement is almost wholly lacking these days in parish life. Local sponsorship of the responsibility for Catholic education seems limited to bulletin notices of area open houses, and an occasional fair to provide schools tables from which to hand out marketing literature normally reserved in magazine racks in the back of the church.

This seems to be part of a trend among much of the laity of abandoning anything distinctively Catholic. People just want to fit in – and I don’t understand why the priests seem so disinterested in resisting the trend. Maybe they try harder than I give them credit for, but there is simply insufficient depth to the soil of parish life in the form of supportive and receptive laity – I don’t know. It just seems to me that if so many Catholics want to blend in seamlessly to the larger, secular, culture – without being willing at the same time to abandon their Catholic name, then they can’t possibly discern a necessary difference between Catholicism and the spirit of the age.

Regarding the schools, it is as if people view the parochial schools as nothing more than public schools with incrementally better academics, and unwanted tuition bills. Actually, the parochial schools offer an environment relatively free of the fashionable academic conceit of godlessness, as well as a moral seriousness that not only doesn’t nurture the narcissistic insolence prevalent among too many youth today, but refuses to tolerate it very far. I won’t even mention the sexual mores.

You can’t put a price tag on that, and if Catholics, on the whole, could get their act together around this, there is no good reason why the tuition bill for parochial education couldn’t be at least cut to a nominal stipend, if not avoided altogether. It is widely said that the parochial schools do their superior work while spending less per child than the public schools do. Whether it be through vouchers or some other method, it would only take political will to allow Catholics (or anyone: non-Catholics are at least a significant minority in most parochial schools) to choose to send their children to Church-operated schools instead of government-operated schools, without paying twice.

The easy answer to the acculturation puzzle is to make a distinction between “real” Catholics and nominal Catholics, and to expect the nominal Catholics to find the exits, but I think that attitude does a disservice to those we might call spiritually poor. From the bishops on down, we try too hard to get along, and, in consequence, we fail to make the case to the many that Catholicism has something radical to offer; that being a Catholic is different than anything else. The loss of interest in the schools is just an obvious example of the loss of Catholic meaning through the withering of Catholic culture – although, for all it’s worth, I have little confidence that Justice Sotomayor, if she is confirmed, will demonstrate how a Catholic education can help shape the moral character with Catholic meaning… I hope I’m wrong.

More on Richard John Neuhaus

Posted: Saturday, January 10, 2009 (9:02 pm), by John W Gillis


I don’t often post just to provide links to content elsewhere on the web, but I’ll make an exception for this. The good folks over at First Things yesterday reposted a remarkable personal essay Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had published in the April 2002 edition of the magazine, on the matter of his conversion to Catholicism. It’s a powerful piece made all the more poignant by his recent passing – in fact, the hovering presence of his death really hammers home just how sound his thinking was. I had all I could do yesterday to resist spamming all my friends with links to the essay – and I do that even less frequently than I post pass-along links on my blog. The essay is that good.

RJN: R.I.P.

Posted: Thursday, January 8, 2009 (8:32 pm), by John W Gillis


RJN1 The Catholic Church in America lost another of her intellectual giants today. The Rev. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus died this morning, at age 72. Of course, I never met the man, and I’m not sure I would have known what to say to him had I met him, but I feel as if I have lost a friend. An old acquaintance from my adolescence was buried this morning, and perhaps that makes me think a bit about mortality, yet this priest and writer whom I never met dies, and I feel a piece of me torn away.

Surely, it is vain of me to cultivate these feelings – who am I to lay some sort of claim to this man’s memory? But I have been deeply influenced by Fr. Neuhaus since I began to read him. In a sense – even though he never so much as knew that I existed – I knew RJN better than I know many people I encounter each day. Such is the power of the word to make our humanity present to each other.

I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of Fr. Neuhaus – it wasn’t very long ago, unfortunately. My earliest copy of First Things is the August/September issue from 2002. What an excitement it’s been every month, to delve into the great conversation taking place on those pages. I can’t say if I first read him in FT, or if I began reading FT after encountering him elsewhere. But I can say that I used to disagree with him a lot more than I do now. He has grown on me, and likely refined my thinking significantly. Other writers have changed my thinking more quickly, but few have sunk in as thoroughly, it seems.

His death represents the second loss of a major thinker in the American Catholic church within the past month, following the death of Avery Cardinal Dulles on December 12th. Converts, both of them, and very different in the ways they contributed to the intellectual life of the Church. It really seems we can’t afford such losses right about now, but it is the Lord’s work they’ve performed, after all. And contrary to published reports, God is not dead. I guess the rest of us somehow need to step it up a bit, though I trust the Lord will raise up others with genuine capacity to fill the void.

It seems only fitting that, even in his death, RJN would get the last word in, and so it is: here.

Rest in peace, you familiar stranger, you cantankerous wizard, you deft debunker of twaddle. Thank you for everything. Your wit, your intelligence, and your passion for truth will be sorely missed.