Monday, December 21, 2009

The Politics of "Charity."

Non-profit charitable organizations are granted tax-exempt status by the people of America through our elected government. The reason for granting charitable organizations tax-exempt status is so that they can use those funds to provide charitable services. To feed the hungry, cloth the naked, house the poor, heal the sick and provide for education.

When charitable institutions willfully abandon charitable activities, our government should reexamine their tax-exempt status. Taxes should be imposed on those institutions and the funds collected should, then be used to help the needy. This may be done through governmental social service agencies, or other legitimate non-profit charitable organizations. In this way, the poor, homeless, sick and needy will not be left without help. Those who are in greatest need, who have nowhere else to turn, should not be used as bargaining chips by non profit organizations. Non profit organizations which are financially subsidized (through tax-exempt status) by the people of this nation. It is an immoral offense against the needy to hold them as hostages. It constitutes a violation of the public’s trust and a sin against the God who these institutions claim to serve. Incredibly, this is what is happening in Michigan and in Washington, DC.

No religious group is required to grant religious marriage to anyone. The Catholic Church does not grant religious marriage to people who are divorced and wish to remarry (unless they are granted an annulment by the Church). Society; however, does grant anyone who has divorced the right to a new civil marriage. Likewise, no religious group will be required to grant a same sex couple a religious marriage; however, civil marriage is now granted to same sex couples by various nations and some U.S. states. It is no more the business of a religion to dictate to government what may constitute a civil marriage, than it is for a government to dictate to a religion what may constitute a religious marriage.

The late Ayatollah Khomeini called America “The Great Satan.” He accused us of this because we are the first government on earth NOT to have an established religion. The founding fathers learned, from the Thirty Years War in Europe and the religious persecutions both on the European continent and in England, the stupidity of trying to impose a religion on a nation. Sadly, religious fanatics will always attempt to do what God does not do, they attempt to force others to accept their beliefs.

This has been most recently illustrated in the immoral example of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC. Archbishop Wuerl has issued a de facto ultimatum to the government. He threatens a suspension of charitable services to the homeless unless his demands are met. His demands!? My dear Archbishop, the Papal States became extinct in 1870. You are living in the United States of America and we have elections in which the people select who will govern. Neither you, Archbishop nor your superior were elected to conduct our civil government.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A contemporary Christmas Carol

Several months ago I came home around mid-day and as I got out of my car, I saw my neighbor standing at his door looking my way. Before I could speak, he asked me “Can you help me?” I said “sure” thinking that he wanted help moving a piece of furniture. What do you need, I asked. He answered saying, “I can’t breathe and I’ve called 911, will you show them into the house for me?” Good God! Lay down on the sofa, I will watch for them. What happened?

My neighbor, it turns out, has a heart condition. He also suffers from diabetes and is a considerably overweight 50-year-old widower whose children live out of state. His breathing seemed erratic and I was afraid that the paramedics might be too late. I asked him what prescriptions and medications he had taken, knowing that he might not be conscious when the ambulance arrived and that the medical personnel would need that information. I made him as comfortable as possible and stood at the door looking for the paramedics to make sure they came to the right house. Just then, another neighbor pulled up, it was Tracy who is a nurse. I exclaimed God sent you and quickly explained what was happening.

Tracy rushed in, checked on Kevin and then, ran upstairs to collect Kevin’s considerable prescriptions from his medicine cabinet. It turned out that the four bottles of prescriptions he had downstairs were but a fraction of his total prescriptions. At that moment, the paramedics arrived and began their work. After a methodical, but rapid assessment, they began to prepare the gurney and asked Kevin to remove his shirt so they could situate him on the gurney. Tracy prepared a bag with Kevin’s prescription medications and a few toiletries and some clothing for Kevin’s stay in the hospital. Kevin began to protest and said he did not want to be taken to the hospital.

I looked at him incredulously. One of the paramedics took his heart rate again and explained that they could not leave him at home in his condition. He explained as gently, but as firmly as possible, that Kevin’s condition was life threatening and that unassisted, Kevin might die. Finally, Kevin consented and was loaded into the ambulance. In the aftermath, I asked Tracy “Why was he so adamant about not going to the hospital?” Tracy explained in one very short and devastating sentence. “He doesn’t have health care insurance and he can’t afford the ambulance and a hospital stay.”

Six weeks ago Terry, a 48 year old unemployed cinematographer died. He died from complications of swine flu and an undiagnosed condition. Terry, unknown to him, had diabetes. Since he did not have health insurance, he had not had a physical in several years and was unaware of his condition. When he came down with the flu, he simply stopped doing his freelance work and went to bed. He tried overcoming his flu with over-the-counter drugs and when he got very seriously ill, he finally went to a doctor. The doctor immediately had Terry hospitalized and put on a ventilator, but it was too late. Terry died.

Today, the headline on the Huffington Post read “Public Option: RIP.” Over the last many months, I have followed the debates and the political process regarding health care legislation. As part of that, I have been scandalized by the fact that many of our senators and members of Congress have received obscenely huge amounts of financial “contributions” from private Heath Care Insurance companies. If this happened in a third world country, many Americans would correctly call it bribery. As if we are morally superior and somehow immune to that in this country because of our political system. Jay Leno once quipped that Congress is the only whorehouse in America that does not make money. Normally that would be funny, but it is hard to laugh when you are attending funerals of people who died needlessly, so that Senator Lieberman and many of his colleagues can live in luxury. As a clarification, I would never dream of referring to Senator Joe Lieberman as “a whore.” After all, a whore actually gives you something of value for your money and there are some things that a whore would never do for money.

I have read many comments that people have posted in response to articles on the Health Care issue. One of the most offensive was a person explaining that he had health care insurance and that he did not want to lose his great policy and be put onto a public option. Aside from the fact that this person was misinformed regarding the public option, this betrays a total disregard for the suffering a vast number of uninsured (and uninsurable) people. Dickens in his famous work “A Christmas Carol” has Scrooge state of those who would die in England due to poverty “Good! Let them reduce the surplice population!” Dickens wrote his work as a searing critique of a “Christian society” that understood “morality” as something pertaining only to the use/non-use of one’s genitalia. They seemed to have forgotten that God actually expects each of us to be our brother and sister’s keeper.

As a society, we have made wealth our national god and greed our national religion. American corporations have plundered third world countries to provide “bargains” for American consumers. When I was a boy, there was a popular ad on television with a jingle that said, “Look for the Union label.” The union label meant living wages for workers. Americans forgot that and instead looked at the price tag to determine what they bought. This national blind greed has been rewarded by American corporations that have out-sourced American jobs overseas to lower product cost and increase quarterly profit margins.

American citizens are rapidly approaching a third world standard of living. The once “middle class” is rapidly shrinking leaving an ever growing unemployed and underemployed class of poor people and a very small wealthy elite. As for our elected representatives in Washington DC, well we Americans have the best government that money can buy.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Will America become a Fundamentalist "Republic?"

Why is religion so anti-gay? I was asked this question recently on the heals of Uganda passing legislation which makes homosexuality a capital offense. The short answer is that a superficial reading of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures clearly gives the impression that homosexuality is forbidden by God. This has affected the stance towards homosexual persons by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Within each of those traditions there exist literalists (who see the written word as THE law) and progressives (who look beyond the written text and seek understanding of the Divine intent.)

There is a comprehensible repulsion towards and rejection of organized religion by many LGBT people. Many LGBT people have found themselves the victims of verbal, emotional/psychological and physical abuse due to religious organizations. Heads of religious organizations have publicly condemned homosexuals as being both reprobate and representing a moral danger to society. The result of such teachings and preaching has been to create a culture of hatred towards individuals who are homosexuals.

It is important here to pause and recall that the pink triangle, which has become a symbol for LGBT people, was in fact assigned to us in order to target us for abuse and genocide. The Nazis were not an organized religion, but a secular political party. Under Joseph Stalin in the former Soviet Union, an officially atheist state, homosexuals were also targeted for abuse, imprisonment and death. We fared little better under Chairman Mao and his officially atheist regime. The point here is that we are a minority and have been, like other minorities, always held as “suspect” by the ruling elite.

It is therefore an error of logic to deduce that the problem is “religion.” The problem is the desire of social and political elites to control others through homogeneity. The great contribution and arguably the genius of Western Civilization has been the concept of limiting the power of government. Magna Carta, the establishment of representative governance and the elimination autocracy were hard fought battles to establish protection of individuals and their rights. All of these represent a movement towards limiting the power and control of the state (elite) over individuals in society. Toleration, pluralism, and in short greater respect for individual rights and human dignity are the legacy offered us by those who have thrown off the yoke of tyranny.

Although these human rights are innate and self-evident, sadly they are not guaranteed. There have always been and will always be individuals and groups who will seek to seize political control and reshape society/culture to create their utopian ideal. If individuals and their rights are trampled in the process, so be it. Homogeneity of thought, behavior and of society (the world?) were the dreams of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Taliban and Christian fundamentalists (both Protestant and Catholic). LGBT people, like people possessing recessive genetic traits, will always constitute a numerical minority within any society. We simply don’t “fit in.” The Japanese have a saying “The nail that juts up must be pounded flush.”

LGBT people have been targeted in Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and most recently in Atheist societies. In fundamentalist thought, we represent an exception and therefore a threat to homogeneity. We are the “nail” that juts up, we constitute a living challenge to a “one size fits all” social order and to those who would control that social order. We should not be surprised to see this clip from the Rachel Maddow Show.

We should however be angry and appalled, because this republic was established precisely in opposition to such social tyranny. We should be alarmed because infectious and cancerous ideologies have arisen countless times in human history. These attempts at utopia have inflicted incalculable human suffering and cost innumerable innocent human lives. At the beginning of the 21st century religious fundamentalism has imposed itself in various nations. We need to WAKE-UP and realize that we are not merely fighting for our civil rights we are fighting for our lives. We need to understand that anti-LGBT language of Rick Warren, Cardinal Barragan, and the signatories of the "Manhattan Declaration" does not merely end with the denial of the right to civil marriage for same sex couples. Its logical conclusion are draconian laws like those passed in Uganda.

What can you do?

1) Write a personal letter to your senator, congressional representative and to the President. Ask them to impose diplomatic sanctions and an economic embargo on Uganda until these genocidal laws are repealed. Ask three of your friends to do the same.

2) Write to the Secretary of State and to the Department of Justice and ask them to investigate American citizens who have encouraged Ugandan officials to enact these genocidal laws.

3) If you have investments, divest from any company doing business with Uganda. Ask three of your friends to do the same.

4) If you are clergy, prepare a sermon in which you explain what is happening in Uganda. Ask your congregants to execute the three points listed above.

5) Father Tony has asked me to include the following link. If you are Catholic this provides you with yet an additional thing which you may do to fight the forces of bigotry.

6) Visit the website Church Outing and expose those who publicly attack LGBT civil rights from the pulpit.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The question of outing priests.

Regardless of what position you personally may hold in the question of “outing” priests, I think it laudable that there is a considered and lively discussion within the LGBT community, of both the ethical concerns owed to individuals and the demands of justice. I am grateful to all of you who took the time to write comments on my posts. Some of those comments were supportive of concerns which I voiced and some were challenging of those comments. However, all comments were both helpful and valued.

This is a matter which will affect many people both personally and profoundly, so it needs to be treated very carefully. At the same time, LGBT people have struggled for decades and many have actually lost their lives, in an attempt to simply be able to be. To be able to live free from socially imposed shame. Free to live without fear of verbal, emotional, physical abuse and discrimination at the work place and in housing. As I write these words I am painfully cognizant that there are those in this society, and internationally, who would very much like to see us exterminated, or at least made to live invisible and fear filled lives.

This past week alone, the parliament of Uganda considered legislation which would make being a homosexual in that country punishable by life imprisonment and/or death. Cardinal Barragan announced that “homosexuals and transgendered will not go to heaven.” The cardinal’s statement is presumptuous assuming only God can judge individuals; however, such statements engender and encourage both bigotry and hate crimes here on Earth. Many Catholics commenting on the cardinal’s statement have stated that the cardinal does not represent the “official” teachings of the Church on this matter. This is technically accurate. However, if he had stated that “contraception is morally permissible for good Catholics” he would have been instantly reprimanded by Benedict XVI or his representative.

The cardinal would have been forced to make a public retraction of his statement along with a public apology. Please note that the Pope has not reacted to the cardinal’s theologically inaccurate and inflammatory statement. The silence and inaction of the Pope regarding the cardinal therefore, must be interpreted as the cardinal speaking in place of the Pope. This is a way in which Benedict XVI can effect change without actually personally declaring a change of policy. This taken in conjunction with many prominent Roman Catholic bishops signing the Manhattan Declaration, without any correction from the Vatican, clearly denotes a new much more aggressive stance against LGBT minorities by Benedict XVI. It also reveals an intention on the part of Benedict XVI to try and dictate civil law in America and elsewhere.

The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church has changed its position on the question of homosexual people. It has done so twice in the last 39 years. In 1975, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Church’s watchdog for orthodoxy) produced a document entitled: “Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics.” In this document, they made the most remarkable statement. They stated that there are “homosexuals who are such because of some kind of innate instinct.” That statement was made towards the end of the Papacy of Paul VI and it reflected new insights gained from the science of psychology. Theologians informed by the human science and pastoral experience came to the realization that St. Paul’s statements regarding homosexuality where the product of scientific errors and social prejudices of his time. St. Paul’s statements regarding homosexuality were not revealed truths, but rather the product of the human limitations of an inspired author of Scripture.

This radical change in the understanding of homosexuality in the Scriptures opened the way to a new sensitivity towards homosexual persons which sought to offer them pastoral support to assist them in creating and sustaining life affirming relationships. These new theological insights were made possible both by the advances in human science and by the Second Vatican Council which was for the Roman Catholic Church a “second Pentecost.”

All of this began to change under the papacy of John Paul II in 1978. One of the changes mandated by the Second Vatican was the creation of a new code of Canon [Church] law. The new code was promulgated in the mid 1980’s. John Paul II personally edited the new code’s law on marriage. As originally written, the law was gender neutral leaving the very real possibility that it could be applied to same sex couples. John Paul II personally altered the language to read so that it could only be applied to opposite sex couples.

As John Paul’s papacy continued he used the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), as an enforcer to crack down on bishops who offered pastoral support to homosexual people. Most notable the Hunthausen intervention in Seattle, in which Donald Wuerl was used as an instrument of Ratzinger to force the Archbishop of Seattle to abandon his pastoral services to LGBT people. The same heavy handed approach forced Archbishop Quinn of San Francisco into a nervous breakdown and an early retirement. Quinn was replaced by William Levada who greatly limited and/or dismantled LGBT ministries in San Francisco. This earned Levada a promotion to cardinal and a new job as head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Beginning with the papacy of John Paul II and continuing with the papacy of Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church has effected a reversal of the papacy of Paul VI. This reversal is an about-face on several issues. Some of these include an aperture to the ordination of women, the autonomy of Catholic Universities from hierarchical control (John Paul II dictated that the discussion of the ordination of women, even by university professors with their students was forbidden), the question of mandatory celibacy for priestly ordination, the pastoral care of homosexual Catholics and of the ecclesiological changes initiated at the Second Vatican Council. The Council had envisioned a collaborative governing relationship between individual bishops and the pope. The reality created by John Paul II and Benedict XVI is a highly centralized monarchical system in which individual bishops are little more than subordinate branch managers.

In a theology of Liberation, Gustavo Gutierrez and Leonardo Boff speak of systemic injustice. Essentially what he means by the term is that a particular institution/system so stacks the deck against justice that it itself must be radically changed for justice to stand any chance at being realized. Boff continues to be a controversial figure in the Catholic Church, primarily for his sharp criticism of the church's hierarchy, which he sees as "fundamentalist" ("A cardinal like J. Ratzinger, who publishes an official paper stating that the only true Church is the Catholic Church, and the others aren't even churches, that the only legitimate religion is Catholicism and the others don't even possess a faith, being just beliefs, perpetrates religious terrorism, besides being a grave theological error".) It appears that under Ratzinger (the Roman Catholic Church has reached that point. Many within the Church wait for the next Conclave [election of a new pope] with the hope that another John XXIII will be sent to us by the Holy Spirit. That the errors of Ratzinger will be revisited and corrected. That the work begun at the Second Vatican Council will be taken up again and brought to completion.

Henri Belloc wrote that “hope is a light diet, but very sustaining.” That is an inspiring and noble sentiment; however, St. Augustine said “Pray as if all depends on God, but act as if all depends on you.” This brings us to the question of “priest outing” as a tool for forcing change not merely “in” the Church; but rather, “of” the Church. If forced outing of a large percentage of priests were to occur it would shake the Church to its very core. It would be covered by the news media and therefore, in the consciousness of lay Catholics. It would expose not the tortured lives of individual priests; but rather, the hypocrisy of the hierarchy who are not merely complicit in these myriad of double-lives but, are part of a system which benefits (in wealth and power) from such a monstrous arrangement.

Outing anyone is a touchy issue. Being forced out against one’s will, even when done with the most selfless and pure motives, even when it is done out of love for the one being forced out, is suspect. As I considered this issue I suddenly remembered my first day of school. I was a small child and I vividly remember that morning. After breakfast Mom bundled me up and gave me my cigar box with my school supplies. She then kissed me, opened the front door of the house and gently forced me out. I was crying terribly, I didn’t want to leave home. I thought Mom was being cruel. There I stood on the front porch with my cigar box and then, I started to walk up the hill towards school. I made new friends, I learned wonderful things and I got to use my crayons and color outside the lines. Mom knew that I’d be safe. She knew that this would help me grow and be happy. Are these the motives of people who out someone else?

I had the opportunity to have an extended telephone conversation with the founder of www.churchouting.org I was very relieved and encouraged both by his warmth and genuine concern for individual priests. I believe that his motives towards priests is wholesome. If what he is attempting succeeds, I believe it will be a liberation both for many priests and for the greater Church. May God grant him the wisdom of Solomon and the charity of St. Francis, he’ll need both. In speaking with a former priest two days ago, he suggested the formation of spiritual support groups for priests and perhaps even a program to help those leaving active ministry to transition into secular society and jobs. All of these are good thoughts, hopefully they will materialize into helpful realities. I would invite Catholic legislators to seriously look at exemptions which have been given to the institutional Church. While many of these exemptions were granted out of charity towards the Church, many of them are in fact tyrannies imposed on individual priests. For example, laws which permit bishops to strip a priest of a pension, should he leave active ministry after decades of service. Laws which exempt priests from the protection of labor laws.

Public outings of priests in various dioceses would force the hierarchy to reconsider many of their public statements and policies. It would cause the general public to view statements by the hierarchy on sexual morality with greater scrutiny. It would undermine the ability of bishops to usurp the role of politicians by dictating how they are to vote. A bishop’s place is in the sanctuary not the halls of government.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Roman Culture of Death

Last evening I watched the following segment of the Rachel Maddow Show with horror.


The three fundamentalists who lobbied the government of Uganda to write laws, which target homosexual people for death, are reminiscent of the 1937 Nuremberg laws of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Laws are the codified mores of a people. If you want to know what a society’s values are, read their law codes. Like Hitler’s Nuremberg laws, they effectively disenfranchise and dehumanize a minority within society. They send an unmistakable signal that it is permissible to discriminate against, insult, assault, and even murder a despised group.

Laws are not passed overnight. It takes time to alter values such as “Thou shall not kill.” It took the Nazis four years to move the German people to embrace and support the Nuremberg laws. In 1938 when Germany annexed Austria, Hitler was delighted that the Austrian people took only weeks to embrace the Nuremberg laws enthusiastically. After the invasion and occupation of France in 1940, Hitler was upset that the French were more anti-Semitic than the Germans.

The comparably rapid embrace of hatred of Jews by Austrians and the French was possible, not because these people were morally defective; but rather, because they had been desensitized and socially pre-conditioned by a stream of hateful propaganda against Jews. While the Nazis amplified and promoted much of this, much of it was already present in European culture. What created and fed those cultural prejudices? The late Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people on behalf of the Church. He apologized for the Church’s role of inculcating and nurturing this anti-Semitism through hateful references to “the Jews” in Catholic Holy Week services, religious plays, etc.

There was considerable controversy a few years ago with the release of the film “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson. The script was a slavishly literal use of the passion narrative taken verbatim from the Gospel. Such a literalist reading of the Scriptures fails to explain the nuances that would be known to anyone doing a serious exegesis of those passages. Contemporary filmgoers, unfamiliar with intricate historical, political, theological and scriptural commentaries; were presented with graphic depictions of physical abuse and violence visited upon Jesus. The audience was left to draw the conclusion that this evil was done “by the Jews!” It was precisely this sort of depiction, which promotes and inflames hatred, for which the late Pope John Paul II apologized to the Jewish people.

Religion forms culture. If you want to understand the culture of the Middle East, Israel, Tibet, or Europe /the Americas, you must first understand Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, or Christianity. Hitler and his Nazi Party simply cashed in on European culture. The Nazis were the product of ignorance, fear, myths, stereotypes, and hatred created by popular Christianity. Hitler simply proceeded to the logical conclusion that this despicable group must be cleansed from society and thereby society would be “saved.” Of course, an angry mob with pitchforks and torches requires some one to direct its actions. The place of the Nazi Party was secured as the guardians of society and the arbitrators of purity. Their “pay-off” was power, wealth and control. The cost? The suffering and death of countless innocent human beings.

The last several years have seen a decided up turn in the amount and virulence of anti-LGBT language and political action coming from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have quietly orchestrated the stripping from same sex couples of the civil right of marriage. They have done this in California by backing Proposition 8 and in Maine by backing Question 1. Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington DC, has threatened to suspend services to the poor and homeless if the District of Columbia extended same sex couples the legal right to a civil marriage. Several prominent US Catholic bishops have signed the “Manhattan Declaration” in which they threaten to disobey American civil laws that grant same sex couples civil marriage. The papal spokesperson Dr. JoaquĆ­n Navarro-Valls encouraged Spanish citizens to disobey civil laws in that nation, after the Spanish parliament granted same sex couples the right to civil marriage. Most recently, Cardinal Barragan announced that homosexuals and transgender people would not go to heaven.

What are the practical effects of all of these statements and actions by the hierarchy? Recall the young gay man who was murdered in Puerto Rico, simply for being gay. His murderer burned, decapitated and severed all four limbs from his victim’s lifeless body. I asked a psychologist “Why would someone do that to another human being?” The psychologist looked at me and said, “The answer may be found in your question, he wanted to de-humanize the gay victim.” The detective investigating the murder commented, “These [homosexual] people ask for this when they go out onto the street.” Where did the murder and the detective get the idea that it is acceptable to speak of and act towards gay people in such an inhuman manner?

Religion forms culture and Puerto Rico is a predominantly Roman Catholic country. Most of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and the current pope has targeted LGBT people with a coordinated international campaign to strip them of civil rights and the protection of anti-discriminatory laws. They are using their privileged social and historic position to create what in their very narrow viewpoint is a “purer” Church and society. Perhaps Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) learned this repulsive lesson during his time spent as a member of the Hitler Youth.