Thursday, February 27, 2014

Two Lents, and Counting

Two Lents ago, Cardinal George wrote that, “Two Lents from now, unless something changes,” there would be no Catholic hospitals or health care institutions in Cook and Lake counties.

This was, he said, because those institutions would be forced to secularize, forced to pay exorbitant fines, sold off to non-Catholic groups, or simply closed down in the wake of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its mandates for contraceptive and abortion services.

To be completely fair to Cardinal George, dozens of lawsuits alleging violations of religious liberty still are pending against the Obama Administration, and the status of these mandates is far from settled.

But we can say at least this much today: Cardinal George was wrong, wrong, wrong that Catholic hospitals and other Catholic healthcare institutions would be gone by now. That he overstated the danger is a plain fact. But, if it has a larger meaning, what is the meaning of the Cardinal’s error?

In the first place, when the Cardinal said that the 2012 Archdiocesan Directory might make a good “souvenir” of a time when the Church was free to operate hospitals, he offered a sort of hyperbole all too typical of what American Catholics have heard from their bishops since passage of the ACA.

We see a pattern in these breathless warnings.

An argument that depends on hyperbole is an argument in trouble. Exaggeration arouses emotion, not thoughtful consideration. Overstatements are distractions, and the bishops have served up plenty of them. The question is: What is getting lost in these extravagantly overstated warnings about religious liberty?

Religious liberty is a human right, but the Catholic tradition sees rights differently than most Americans think about them. Secular political thought sees a right as something that belongs only to me. It imposes no duty on me. A right is a blank check to assert myself.

The Catholic tradition teaches that rights correspond to duties, and (in the words of Pope John XXIII), those “who claim their own rights, yet altogether forget or neglect to carry out their respective duties, are people who build with one hand and destroy with the other.”

What duties correspond to the right to religious liberty?

In a theological sense, there is duty only to truth. But these are political questions, too. They have implications that affect non-Catholics. The Second Vatican Council committed the Church to religious liberty, but Jesuit John Courtney Murray observed that “No formal document on the relations between Church and state issued from Vatican Council II.” Any political duty that corresponds to that political right remains undefined by the Church, and this present controversy is the result.

We cannot know the reasonable extent to which the Church can assert religious freedom in politics until the Church’s theology acknowledges some duties its right owes to the rest of the human community.

The beginnings of an answer already are available to us. For centuries, the Church has acknowledged the natural and necessary role of the state in human affairs. The state is a companion to the Church, and is obligated to pursue the common good. That is its purpose.

Martin Rhonheimer, a Swiss priest and a member of the conservative institute Opus Dei, has suggested that a modern constitutional state (like the U.S.) embodies the common good in its openness to all citizens, its procedural fairness, and its deference to the rule of law. That’s an interesting argument. If it’s right, it raises a next set of questions.

What does it mean when a modern constitutional state, through an open political process, imposes these contraceptive and other mandates? What if its aim is to reduce the incidence of disease, make healthcare more accessible and affordable? Public policy is not easy to make. When a broad common good is achieved, even if it poses complications for religious groups, might it not represent a compromise with the political community that they can reach?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

But there can be no exaggerating how little the right to religious liberty can be exercised in a bubble, or how much the Church’s own tradition insists that rights impose duties, too.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pope Francis Travels a New Road

Amid all of the refreshing signs that Pope Francis eschews the ordinary trappings of papal office, the renewal of his Argentinian passport ranks among the most extraordinary.

Reuters carried the story recently of how Pope Francis, who might enjoy a diplomatic passport from The Holy See as a head of state, has instead renewed his Argentinian passport and will travel the world as an Argentinian citizen.

The Lateran Treaty of 1929 settled the territorial sovereignty of the Vatican City State (known in formal diplomacy as The Holy See), and the diplomatic recognition of 180 countries around the world assures the status of The Holy See under international law. In 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice ruled that the pope is a head of state entitled to sovereign immunity from civil claims, just as a traveling head of state also enjoys diplomatic immunity wherever she or he travels.

While Pope Francis’s new passport does not surrender his sovereign immunity, his own status as a head of state, or the position of The Holy See under international law, it does signal a significant step away from the medieval legacy that gave those privileges to The Holy See in the first place.

For decades, Italian politics was bedeviled by “the Roman question,” the status of the papacy and the Vatican under Italian civil law after Italian unification in 1871. From the time of the Roman Empire until unification, the Italian peninsula had been a collection of small states dominated by the papacy. Even recently, legal scholars have struggled to account for The Holy See’s legal status as anything other than a holdover from its medieval status—an embarrassing problem in an international order begun in the aftermath of the Thirty Years' War.

It seems unlikely that Pope Francis will renounce the Vatican City-State or its status under international law. But to travel the world as an ordinary citizen and not a head of state goes a long distance toward disentangling the mixture of spiritual and political roles that has characterized the papacy and the Church since the Middle Ages. This is a major step down the road toward establishing the papacy as a spiritual ministry to the world, disestablishing it as a political force in the corridors of power.

But even that does not tell the most interesting part of the story.

The Argentinian foreign ministry has published images of the Pope’s new passport and identification card. What they say is extraordinary. In the space for a name, they say “Jorge Mario Bergoglio,” not “Francis,” “Francesco,” or “Franciscus.” Legally, Pope Francis remains Jorge Mario Bergoglio and a legal subject of the Argentinian civil authority.

This is a technical distinction, yes. Pope Francis has not given up his regnal name, and he remains a head of state even in the eyes of the Argentinian government. Still, even as a technical distinction this represents a dramatic shift in the Church’s and the papacy’s self-understanding.

The Roman Catholic Church has not accepted the legitimacy of the secular state with ease. Its consciousness of modern political arrangements was shaped by the anti-clerical French Revolution and the displacement of the Church from French civic life that followed. Throughout the decades that saw Pope Leo XIII lament the separation of church and state and Pope Pius IX condemn it, the Church clung to the idea that “the civil law [should] conform to the prescriptions of the eternal law." Only with the Second Vatican Council did the Church begin to acknowledge the legitimacy of a secular state separate from the authority of the Church. But even recently, the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty campaign has been premised on asserting the Church’s moral teachings against the healthcare law. The Church’s ability to define boundaries between church and state still requires some development.

A pope who does not clothe himself in the medieval privileges of the papacy to elevate himself above the legal authority of the civil state is a pope on the road to defining how the Church can accept the civil state’s authority.

With a new passport in hand, Pope Francis begins to travel down that road.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Myths Busted...But Undisturbed

You can follow the New York Times's extraordinary coverage of the scramble to fix the Obamacare website here.

Reading it, I was reminded of the story someone told me about how his company buys an item from a distributor for which the Defense Department pays that distributor ten times as much.  The gist of the story was, 'See how inefficient government is!'

It struck me, hearing that story, how powerfully that particular myth has taken hold--and, how ironic that the premise of that myth is the superior imagination and efficiency of private enterprise.

Think about it. the U.S. Government buys almost everything that it buys from the private sector through a bidding process.  A contract is awarded to the lowest bidder.  In such a process, how could a price be inflated by a factor of ten?  The only answer must be that vendors collude--certainly with no formal cooperation!--to make inflated bids.  The lowest bidder wins the contract, but undercuts the competition only by offering the least inflated bid.

So much for the efficiency of the private sector.  (But, three cheers for its imagination.)

The fiasco is different in some ways.  According to news reports, vendor contracts were awarded on a no-bid basis.  Still, fundamentally, the fact remains that the work on the website was private sector work, not public sector work.

This whole train of thought leads me to thinking about the U.S. Government Printing Office.  The USGPO dates to an 1813 act of Congress, who determined that the U.S. Government should "make information regarding the work of the three branches of Government available to all Americans."  The Congress of the United States in 1813 did not farm out that vital task to private vendors through a bidding process. Even today, the publications of Congress and federal agencies are produced by the United States Government, itself, through the GPO.  It works well today, and has worked well for 200 years.

Twenty years into the Internet age, we have no U.S. Government Web Designer.  Today, I visited and found job listings for web professionals in the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Congress, and many, many others.

Now, certainly it makes a lot of sense that each of these agencies should manage their own webpages and update their own content.  In the circumstance of the new healthcare website, reflecting a massive, interagency effort, it makes sense that the individual agency web professionals could not really have been expected to construct  But the question is why the answer was to award the contract to--

  • CGI Federal
  • QSSI
  • Serco
  • Booz Allen Hamilton
  • and, perhaps, as many as forty-three others
The answer, in general, is because of a presumption at work in our culture and our government that the work of private sector vendors is better, more imaginative, more entrepreneurial, and more accountable.  But the results are not always quite so impressive.

It is not as though the potential costs of privatization are not known.  A 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service found that 
Hiring private firms to carry out government work creates great management challenges for government administrators. Should an agency fail to have well-trained personnel and effective oversight procedures in place, its utilization of private providers can result in waste, fraud, and abuse.
Privatization does not always lead to cost savings or better service.  In some instances, private firms have had significantly higher cost overruns than government agencies in the performance of services.  In other instances, private firms have performed work that has been criticized as being grossly inadequate.
As the CRS observed, there is plenty of blame for government agencies that cannot oversee the work of private vendors efficiently.  But the litany of complaints known as long ago as 2006 should make plain that the disastrous rollout of the website cannot be a complete surprise. Somehow, though, the myth of the private sector's superiority remains undisturbed. David Brooks still says things like, "Republicans win elections when Democrats overreach by asking government to do things it can't do," and we simply accept that as an accurate account of what has happened.

Let there be no mistaking me: the Obamacare rollout is an unqualified and inexcusable disaster.  But it also has been a playground for lazy, ignorant misinformation about our politics and government.  CBS News's Major Garrett has earned wide praise from the Right for his performance at the November 14 White House Press Conference.  Garrett asked the President, in part
Do you not believe, sir, the American people deserve a deeper, more transparent accountability from you as to why you said it over and over and when your own statistics, published in the Federal Register, alerted your policy staff, and I presume you, to the fact that millions of Americans would, in fact, probably fall into the very gap you are trying to administratively fix now?
What Major Garrett and none of his colleagues in the press ever answered was, if this information had so long ago appeared in the Federal Register, why had they never reported it?

Myths and stupidity everywhere.  When will we do better?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"Kind of Liberal" Reveals More Thank You Think

The headlines this week over Sarah Palin's remarks about Pope Francis have missed the most interesting thing.

Here is the quote that's got us thinking again about fmr.-Gov. Palin, from an interview she gave this week to CNN:
"Having read through media outlets, [Pope Francis] had some statements that to me sounded kind of liberal, has taken me aback, has kind of surprised me."
I've been writing over the last few years about what violence has been done to the label "conservative" by people like Sarah Palin.  You can see examples of how I've treated that subject here, here, here, and here.  No need to rehearse it all again.  Go do that reading.

It comes as no real surprise that an ordinary American--Catholic, or non-Catholic--would presume that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is a political conservative.  The American bishops have seen to that.  So, in that light, fmr.-Gov. Palin's comment is not remarkable.  What is news is how utterly, satisfyingly, and unwittingly fmr.-Gov. Palin has confirmed my diagnoses of conservatism.

See if you don't agree with me about this.  Pope Francis holds "kind of liberal" positions most probably because:

  • his view of human society sees it from the perspective of the poor--from the bottom of the economic scale up, not from the top down;
  • while not suggesting any change in the Church's teachings about sexuality, his asking, "Who am I to judge?" certainly suggests that gay people should not be treated like lepers and should have a respectable place in human society, and;
  • he has abandoned the culture wars, a quest for purity, in favor of a pastoral approach that accepts and ministers to an imperfect world filled with sinners.

Seeming "kind of liberal" because he focuses on the poor, does not regard gays as intolerable, and approaches the world with an open heart says more about Sarah Palin and those like her than it ever could say about Pope Francis.

What are the characteristics of a conservatism that sees Pope Francis as "kind of liberal?"  They are as psychologically fascinating as they are politically destructive.  Their common denominator must be a sort of confident narcissism.  We might formulate those characteristics this way:

  • People can get ahead with hard work.  If people are poor, it must be their fault and no one else's.  Certainly, not mine!
  • Homosexuality is outside the mainstream.  If people want to be tolerated, they should avoid things that take them outside the mainstream like I do.  Just stop being gay!
  • I'm right.  People just like me are right.  The world should be just the way I want it to be!

I don't think I'm being unfair here.  Mitt Romney's presidential campaign was built on the first one.  Suggesting that being gay is optional hardly is something new: variations on that second characteristic can be found inside the Catholic world and outside it.  The third one expresses the culture war worldview of too many Catholic and conservative leaders as clearly as it can be formulated: there are no legitimate differences of opinion.

The question is whether this definition of conservatism is necessary.  Must conservatism be intolerant?  Must it be so self-satisfyingly narcissistic?  Is conservatism nothing other than a small clique--a sort of club of cultural Mean Girls maintaining the social boundaries of what's acceptably popular and what's not?

We should thank fmr.-Gov. Palin for putting these questions in front of us so squarely and honestly.  Now, from conservatives inside and outside the Church, we await some answers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bi-Partisanship? Are you stupid?

I'm heartened that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's re-election signals the voters' desire to see political leaders reach across the aisle and compromise as Christie, to his credit, has done.  At the same time, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'll add that I don't like Christie at all and doubt very much he has the temperament to be a governor, let alone President of the United States.  Being politically moderate does not mean he is a moderate person.

But there another point that seems worth making this morning.  Here is what Chris Christie said last night:
If we can [work across the aisle] in Trenton, New Jersey, maybe the folks in Washington, DC should tune in on their TVs right now, see how it’s done!
This sounds awfully good.  But the problem is that we've heard that before.  Take a look at Mitt RomneyBarack Obama, or--best of all--this guy.

My point is that we all should know better by now.  Washington politics is not state politics, and promises to work across the partisan divide will founder on that reality.  Hitting a minor league fastball well is not like facing a major league pitcher, and state-level bi-partisanship is simple when we compare it to the hot glare of life in the nation's capital.

When 2016 comes, vote for the man or woman.  Don't vote for the same, stale promise that this time it will be different.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Of Websites and Wiretaps

(Forgive the sloppy photoediting.  But the point I'm trying to make has little to do with graphic design.)

Two stories dominate the headlines this week and, together, they reveal something essential and true about American government and politics.

One story is quite satisfying to the group of conservatives we generally call Tea Partiers.  These are the people for whom anything that suggests incompetence in the federal government will satisfy their certainty that the government can't do anything right.  Indeed, they are all the more satisfied that the Obamacare website is broken, humiliating as it is for this president and his signature legislative accomplishment.

The other group of conservatives who are happy this week must be the neoconservatives. Maybe 'happy' isn't quite the right word. But they're certainly not upset that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on 35 world leaders. Among the neocons, someone like Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) is confident enough in American intelligence-gathering to say that, "The president should stop apologizing, stop being defensive," and if Europeans knew the benefits of this surveillance, "They would be applauding and popping champagne corks." Rep. Peter King (R-NY) agreed to add that, "We're not doing this for the fun of it. This is to gather valuable intelligence which helps not just us but also helps the Europeans."

On one side of our front pages this week is the story of American technological mastery that grants us access even to the German Chancellor's personal cell phone.  On the other side of the same front pages is the story of a federal government so technologically inept it cannot launch a high-profile website.

What can explain the difference between these two stories, the way the same federal government can at once be so masterfully competent and also so supremely inept?

Maybe something like this chart explains the difference.

We like to say that government budgets are useful because they reflect our choices and priorities.  Here are ours.  If some question remains about why it should be possible that we can so easily monitor limitless communications around the globe and yet fail to launch a healthcare website, continue to stare at the chart above until it becomes clear.

For some sense of proportion and comparison, look at the expenditures made in large economies by nations with values supposedly similar to our own:

Now, it seems perfectly reasonable to be outraged that the Obamacare website isn't working properly.  It should work.  It's inexcusable that it doesn't.

But against this backdrop of facts, it is implausible to claim that the federal government is incompetent.  Tell Angela Merkel.  Tell the other 34 world leaders whose phones we've tapped that the U.S. Government can't get its act together.

And, before you decide that the broken website means that the federal government is too incompetent to get into the business of healthcare, consider the comparison to Britain, Canada, German, and France.  Consider that we American taxpayers have, effectively, asked the U.S. Government to launch Obamacare with one hand tied behind its back.

To sum up--until we have decided that treating sick Americans and keeping them healthy is more in our national interest than listening in on every phone call around the globe, we really should not expect a much different set of headlines.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Pope in Dialogue

I want to try to get this blogged before the refrain from the traditionalists starts, because I can hear them warming up.

Already we've heard that some bishops are disappointed with Pope Francis.  In other quarters, the fear is that "comments by Francis do not challenge but instead reinforce America’s dominant ideological frame."  But now, I suspect the boil is about to be lanced fully and conservative opposition to this papacy will soon become even more overt.  Here is why:
Your Holiness, is there is a single vision of the Good? And who decides what it is?
"Each of us has a vision of good and of evil. We have to encourage people to move towards what they think is Good."
Your Holiness you wrote that in your letter to me. The conscience is autonomous, you said, and everyone must obey his conscience. I think that's one of the most courageous steps taken by a Pope.
"And I repeat it here. Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them. That would be enough to make the world a better place."
This latest papal interview in the Itallian newspaper La Repubblica is extraordinary.  It is the most direct insight we've gotten yet into the mind of a pope who wants a different sort of Church to preach the same Gospel.  But it's not hard to imagine how it will drive traditionalists to apoplexy.

We won't need to work hard to find places in which Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI affirmed in their public ministries that there is one Good, one Truth that is universally binding on everyone.  Neither will Bishop Tobin nor the writers at First Things.  This is dynamite.  The headlines are full of Pope Francis's references to "how the Church will change," but the real story is in this passage.

But the story is only in part the division I think it will cement with traditionalists.  The other part of the story is far more important.

The pope's interviewer, La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari, is a well-known atheist who engaged in a published exchange of letters with Pope Francis last month about faith and non-belief.  Italian readers know who is interviewing the Pope, and so does Francis.  Notice this earlier passage in this newest interview:
The Pope smiles and says:
"Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me." 
It's a joke I tell him. My friends think it is you want to convert me. He smiles again and replies:
"Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good."
What is the Pope describing here?  Nothing other than dialogue, the sort of dialogue a believer must have with a non-believer.  Each party in dialogue must take the other party's perspective seriously, at face value.

It does no good to preach to a non-believer that there is only one Good, one Truth, and he'd better get with the program.  It does no good, that is, if your goal actually is to make Catholic faith attractive to him or if you intend for his conscience to find its way to Good and Truth on its own.  For this sort of dialogue (as, really, with any sort of dialogue), you must adjust the way things are said to suit the hearer you are addressing.  Dialogue demands that we take the other party seriously as a human person who possesses reason.  In other word, we address the non-believer differently from how we address the believer.  We choose our argument differently.

Do we really suppose that Pope Francis does not believe in one Good, one Truth that has its source in God?  Do we suppose that the Pope is promoting indifferentism or some sort of irenicism?  I suspect we'll hear over the next few days (hours?) that people are concerned about that.  

But that will be only the final self-affirmation from a group of people too much listened to, too influential across the last several decades, that they fail, fail, fail to understand how to reach out to the modern world at all. 

Thank God we have a Pope who does.


"More from the Disastrous New Pope"  (10/1/2013; 3:12pm E.D.T.)

"Baptist Leader Says Pope Soft on Sin" (!!!) (10/1/2013; 3:14pm E.D.T.)

"The Ever-Astonishing Pope Francis" (10/1/2013; 3:14pm E.D.T.)

Comments!  "Pope Francis Gives New Interview" (10/1/2013; 3:15pm E.D.T.)