Blessings of the Fourth

July 2nd, 2010

Hi readers, and welcome to the summer! Glad that you are all checking back – from my last post update you know that recently I have been busy assisting our Executive Director Msgr. Kevin Sullivan with his weekly radio broadcast “JustLove” on the work of the Church in the world on the Catholic Channel on Sirius/XM Radio. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve done some terrific shows on both the tragedy of the continuing oil spill in the Gulf, as well as a different kind of tragedy – a moral one – in the continued use of the practice of torture for last week’s observance of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. I’ll have more to say on both these topics in posts to come, but for now I’d like to share with you a bit about what we discussed on this week’s show which we dedicated to the observance of Independence Day. On this week’s show we had two guest – the eminent Federal Senior Circuit Judge John Noonan, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, as well as Dr. Patrick Griffin, Professor of American History at the University of Notre Dame. Judge Noonan spoke eloquently of what he referred to as “the luster of our Country” – the legacy of religious liberty that we American’s enjoy as a consequence of the First Amendment of our Federal Constitution – and Professor Griffin discussed some little known facts regarding the American Revolution – including the contribution of Catholics to the cause of American Independence.

While doing some of the background research for the show, I have to be honest and admit how astonished I was at the level of bigotry that existed against Catholics among the population of what was then the 13 colonies of the nascent United States:  at the time of the Revolutionary War, only three of the original 13 colonies allowed Catholics to vote; all New England Colonies except Rhode Island and the Carolinas prohibited Catholics from holding office; Virginia would have Catholic priests arrested for entering the colony; and Catholic schools were banned in every state save Pennsylvania. In the late 1760s and early 1770s, colonists routinely celebrated “anti-Pope days”, an anti-Catholic festival derived from the English Guy Fawkes Day (named for a Catholic who attempted to assassinate King James I and blow up the entire British Parliament – and these “festivals” included mock hangings and burnings of effigies of the Pope, as well as cartoons and orations linking the Pope to the devil and his minions. In fact, a little known action of the British Parliament in 1774 helped fuel some of this anti-Catholic sentiment and caused tremendous anxiety in the populace of the 13 colonies: in that year, the Parliament passed the Quebec Act – an enlightened law that let the Catholic Church remain the official Church of Quebec. This action on the part of Parliament appalled and terrified many American colonists, who assumed that this was a British attempt to subjugate them religiously by allowing the loathsome Catholics to expand into their colonies. In fact, no less of an American patriot then Alexander Hamilton said of this action of Parliament that “Does not your blood run cold to think that an English Parliament should pass an Act for the establishment of arbitrary power and Popery in such an extensive country?…Your loves, your property, your religion are all at stake!”

Thankfully, the great man George Washington rejected this Catholic bashing – though mostly for practical,  not philosophical, reasons: he was one of the first to recognize that a revolution based upon “liberty” would need to encompass a new approach to religious freedom. In addition, as Commander in Chief, Washington had to contend with the fact that Catholics were among the volunteers who were members of the Continental Army. Because of this fact, on September 14, 1775 Washington banned the burning of effigies of the Pope on “Pope Day”; and in fact, the practice of burning the Pope in effigies disappeared as a result of this decree. As a result of this tolerance, Catholic soldiers shed blood for the American cause: the Maryland militia was brimming with Catholics who helped thwart British raids from Virginia, and among the soldiers who had gone to aid Boston in its hour of need were Catholics from Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In considering this little known but critical part of our own Nation’s history, I thought of how funny it was that despite how much some things change, other things remain the same. Folks who may be reading this in other parts of the country may not be aware, but in the past few months there has been a lot of intense opposition to the Muslim community here in New York City building houses of worship for their members – both in the Brooklyn Diocese as well as here in the Archdiocese of New York in lower Manhattan and in Staten Island. In voicing opposition to these plans, some opponents have cited traffic concerns, but the overwhelming amount of objections have focused on more intangible and frankly volatile issues including:  fear of terrorism, a distrust of Islam generally and a linkage between these two concerns in protesters minds. The recent case of the Times Square bomber has only exacerbated the situation. In response to these situations and the concerns that they raise, Archbishop Dolan wisely wrote in his blog that there are “legitimate and understandable concerns…about security, safety, the background and history of the groups hoping to build…(but) what is not acceptable is to prejudge any group, or to let fear and bias trump the towering American (and for us Catholics, the religious) virtues of hospitality, welcome and religious freedom”.

I have to be honest that on reflecting on these situations, I have a personal history that very much effects my position on these matters. Frequent readers may recall that I have several Muslims among that great community of people that I call my friends; in fact there is a particular person in that community whom I consider one of my closest friends. I have mentioned him in a previous posting here before , and in fact – coincidentally – it was at a party on the Fourth of July I first met him. As with every human relationship be it at home in our families, at work or at play, our friendship has had its ups and downs. In fact – right at the moment – our friendship is going through a rough patch, the roots of which are – as with disagreements between friends – poorly chosen words, misunderstood actions, and hurt feelings. Added to that are some particular challenges and difficulties that come from being from two different places with different languages, cultures and customs. Still, difficult and challenging does not equal impossible. When it comes to arguments with family and friends, its always been my belief that the best thing to do is to extend to the other person “the benefit of the doubt” – for me, the relationship is almost always more valuable then the conflict that threatens it.

In a funny kind of way, this is exactly I think where some of the difficulties I discussed above have both their origin and at least some possible solution. I am almost certain that many of the people who oppose the Muslim community building a mosque in their neighborhood do so out of a place of fear and unfamiliarity, many – if not most – I’m sure do so with vivid memories of the horrors that our city endured on September 11, 2001 fresh in their minds. I share those memories as well. I also however share other memories: memories of good times shared with good friends – friends who are good people who may pray differently then I do, but who share a belief in a God who is Father to us all. I am mindful that the same prejudice that my good friends must endure today because of the unconscionable actions of 19 young men who were raised in the same faith that they were is of a kind with the prejudice that my ancestors in colonial New York may have encountered because of their faith as well. We should not forget that much of the prejudice that the non-Catholic, mostly Protestant population of the 13 colonies felt towards Catholics was born out of memories of religious persecution and wars that raged all over Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries – at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic forces. There is a reason that the Rolling Stones, in their Rock and Roll anthem “Sympathy for the Devil, put the line “I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the gods they made” in the voice of Satan; no theologians they, Mick Jagger and his band knew that God – the loving Father of the whole human race – would never countenance killing in his name.

As regards my friend and the difficulty that we recently encountered in our friendship; it is this day one of my sincerest hopes that he and I can extend to one another the “benefit of the doubt”, mend the fences that were broken, and resume to enjoy the great times, conversations and laughs that we enjoyed in the past; in a similar way, I believe it would be a wonderful thing if we collectively could  – in this season of Independence Day – follow in the footsteps of George Washington, and in the spirit of the “Father of Our Country”  extend to another community that worships God a bit differently then ourselves the “benefit of the doubt”, mindful of the wonderful spirit of religious liberty and tolerance that truly gives a “luster to our Country”.

Confessions of a Digital Immigrant

June 11th, 2010

In this post dear readers – a post that is admittedly way l-o-n-g- overdue – I am going to begin with a profound confession: to the wonderful world of media technology in which the blogosphere is only an island in a vast digital sea, I am only a very recent immigrant. You see, I was born into probably what was the last generation that could not be considered “digital natives”: when I was a kid, our family’s idea of a video game was the original Atari table-tennis (whose on-screen ball moved so slowly from the left of the screen to the right that were the white dot that it represented to be an actual ping-pong ball, it would’ve had to defy all the laws of gravity to stay afloat), and when I went to law school, the assignments I was given had to be completed on an actual typewriter (although admittedly the electric kind with the indispensable “auto-correct function” where the tape would “magically” erase your mis-strokes from the page). I was reminded recently of my “non-native” status when a good friend of mine – who at 30 is most definitely a full-fledged digital citizen – gave me an iPod Touch for my birthday because “ it really is long past the time you should have one”. Growing up in fact, the media technology that I was regularly familiar with was fairly limited: my little black & white TV, the VCR (that’s a videotape recorder for those non-historians), cassette tape player, stereo that played vinyl albums (again for those non-historians, those flat black disk shaped objects) and of course – the radio. Of all those types of media in fact, it was the radio that was ubiquitous in my life: whether in the family room on the “stereo-system”, in my hands on my “boom-box” or later in my car, the radio was a near constant companion .It was the first thing I heard upon waking up in the morning on my stereo-alarm clock, and the last voice I’d hear before falling asleep at night, and in that fact I actually find some comfort, for you see radio is a technology that actually spans the generations: it was the technology that my grandparents used to keep updated on world events as they gathered around it during Depression and is the still what my goddaughter listens to as she travels in the car with her parents today (albeit that the signal that she listens to is delivered by satellite or MP3).

With all my affection for the medium of radio, you can all imagine my delight when earlier this year I was asked to assist our Executive Director at Catholic Charities, Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, with the JustLove Radio Program that he conducts over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM Satellite Radio (Sirius channel 159, XM 117 every Wednesday at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. JustLove is a nationally broadcast one-hour weekly interactive discussion exploring the Catholic community’s impact on American society. It features interviews with social ministry leaders, thinkers and doers and investigates the ideas that shape the Catholic social mission and explores deeds that puts that mission into practice around the nation and the world! In the past few month, the conversations on JustLove have included: on-going discussion with staff of Catholic Relief Services on the ground in Haiti on the devastating earthquake that struck the island in January and its aftermath, the recent troop increases in Afghanistan and prospects of peace in Iraq, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the on-going struggle for comprehensive immigration reform, and the continuing tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf. Some of the guests we have spoken to on the show have included: Cesar Chavez’s son Paul discussing his father’s life and legacy on the Cinco de Mayo show, the Rev. Jim Wallis, author and President of Sojourner’s Magazine on the moral crisis that lies behind the current economic crisis, and Richard Barnes of the New York State Catholic Conference on effective Catholic advocacy in the public sphere. Through the wonders of modern technology you can listen to some recent podcasts of the JustLove show on the web at

As you can well imagine, preparing to produce a show of this caliber is exciting and rewarding and sometimes a challenge! Each show requires quite a bit of planning and editorial preparation to create a show that is timely and coherent and which incorporates themes and topics that can help to highlight the Church’s teachings regarding the important social issues discussed. To be honest, my recent concentration and emphasis on JustLove has caused my blogging here to lag a bit (a situation some of my more regular readers have not too gently but appropriately reminded me of), but in doing some of the production work for JustLove, it has occurred to me how very similar as forms of media blogging and radio really are: the format of each – as far as technical production goes – is not too complex, and yet for all their lack of complexity each is very versatile. I was reading recently an article online at The Economist that compared radio to blogging; it said the essential similarity between each – and the reason that each succeeds as a form of communication – is that the listener or reader respectively realizes that at the other end of the technology there is someone alive – speaking or typing, taking calls or responding to comments. The author noted that the German root for the word radio is derived from the verb “Funken” – the verb “to spark” and that it is this “spark” at the other end that both readers and listeners respond to.

As a consequence of living in the digital age that we do today, thanks to our more or less continuous connection to media be it television, radio, wifi, 3G, internet, telephone or text, all of us – to a varying degree – are perpetually multi-tasking. Some of us – generally the “digital natives” at the younger end of the spectrum– are more successful at navigating these new technologies then others, but this perpetual multi-taking can take a toll even on them. In fact, in a recent New York Times article, Dr. Gary Small – Professor of Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is quoted as saying that the process of never ending multi-tasking can lead to a syndrome where we move from multi-taking efficiently to one where we are in a state of “partial continuous attention”. As a “digital immigrant”, I particularly need to strategize more effectively to negotiate this new terrain, and in the coming summer months that is exactly what I plan to do. Those of you who have been fairly regular readers may have noticed that I tend to be fairly counter-intuitive in a lot of my thinking, so it should come as no surprise that it is exactly as we approach the summer – just when the scholastic year begins to slow down – that I plan on picking up the pace of this blog by posting not just the “traditional” items, but also the guests, topics and conversations that take place on and around the JustLove show. My intention in doing so is not only post more regularly here (although certainly that would be a welcome outcome); more importantly, it is my hope that by posting on the topics dealt with on JustLove – with links so readers can listen to the podcasts as well – we can expose even more people to the quality information and discussion on Catholic social teaching and its impact that takes place there. In addition, I hope that some of this cross-pollination could – like all good media –  “spark” responses where readers/ listeners could post their impressions of the show, as well as topics that might interest them for future shows. I am always mindful that neither Catholic radio nor Catholic blogs would exist without the Catholic community, and so I urge you – whether you are a digital native or a recent immigrant like myself – to share your ideas and thoughts with us as we endeavor to share God’s Good News for the world over the airwaves through both sight and sound.

Reflections on a Snowy Lenten Afternoon…

February 26th, 2010

Greetings readers from a very snowy/slushy Manhattan! As a survivor of this year’s Washington “snowpocalypse”, the storm that stuck our city today – while not an unmitigated disaster – was not the biggest I’ve ever experienced, but it was certainly a whopper – and enough to keep most of us wisely at home and in doors. While we are safely ensconced inside during this first full week of Lent, perhaps we can take advantage of the time indoors by contemplating Pope Benedict XVI’s message to the world for Lent 2010. The Pope’s theme this Lent is “The Justice of God Has Been Manifested Through Faith in Jesus Christ”, and his message – very fitting for a blog concerned for things of Earth as well as Heaven – is a fascinating reflection on the requirements of “justice” incumbent upon us a People of God. The Pope’s discussion of justice is not a rehash of philosophical requirements of justice that we remember from our college reading of the works of Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes and John Stewart Mill on what we are each “due”; instead the Pope’s message on justice calls us to create a “justice” that is more than that which can be guaranteed by law. To live life fully, something more intimate is necessary: the Pope’s prescription calls us to exit our illusion of self-sufficiency and to accept our own need: our need for others and God, for forgiveness, friendship and love. It’s a timely message for these troubled times, and should be read by everyone. The full text of the Pope’s message can be found here, and further resources to help us reflect on and live out God’s Justice this Lent can be found at the United State’s Bishop’s website.

So, while the weather keeps you inside this weekend, why not take a moment and read the Pope’s reflections on Justice, and help to prepare yourself for the glorious feast of Easter, when by the mystery of his sacrifice Jesus fulfilled every cry for justice, now and for all time.

Putting on my Sackcloth and Ashes – only Digitally…

February 18th, 2010

Dear Readers,

As we begin Lent – a season that reminds us of the importance of repentance beginning our six week journey of preparation for the Resurrection of our Lord, after a lengthy examination of conscience I have a confession to make: I have to admit that over the past several weeks I have been a very bad blogger! Since the beginning of the year, I have been remiss in not adding one single new post to “On Earth as It is in Heaven,” and for this I am profoundly sorry! Now, some of this has had to do with time spent working on other responsibilities, which included time spent down in Washington D.C. during their recent “snowpocalypse” (more on that to come later…); but no matter, I take full responsibility for my recent bad blogging habits, and – in an attitude of appropriate repentance for Ash Wednesday – I am here to promise that this situation is going to change, and that this change begins today!

Today is the 44th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI issuance of the Constitution on Fasting and Abstinence (Poenitemini) which raised up the importance of voluntary, self-chosen penances such as works of charity for the poor to compliment traditional fasting. In contemplating this anniversary, I thought it entirely appropriate to take on as one of my Lenten observances this year – in addition to of course observing the traditional requirements of fast and abstinence – becoming a much more diligent blogger! In this regard in the coming weeks, I promise to post comments on a much more regular basis, sharing the teachings of our Church on the dignity of the human person, and all the good works – both here and abroad – that the Church undertakes on behalf of the poor and vulnerable in our midst. In making this commitment, I am following the good advice that Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI gave in his message for the 44th Annual World Communications Day (released on January 23rd) which encouraged all Catholics – but especially priests in this “Year of the Priest” – to use all the new media technologies at our disposal to reach new audiences with the message of God’s abundant love.

So please forgive the hiatus dear readers – and a Blessed Ash Wednesday to you all – will be back real soon…..

Helping Santa to do the Right Thing…

December 18th, 2009

The late autumn and early winter has always been one of my favorite times of year. Although I do miss the dwindling daylight and dread the frigid winds of the deep winter as an undiagnosed sufferer of “S.A.D.” (“Seasonal Affective Disorder” for those non-psychologists among us), the warm glow of the sparkling lights which pop up just about everywhere this time of year always serve to lift up my spirit and bring on some much needed cheer! In fact – just about the only thing I don’t like about this time of year is the proverbial “Christmas rush”. It always seems that no matter who you are talking to, people have about twice as many things to do – from shopping for presents, to visiting friends and family, to planning celebrations – then there are hours in the day. This hustle and bustle, of course, is just about the exact opposite of what the Church is encouraging us to do liturgically at this time of year: rather then the bright colors of red, white and green, the colors of Advent are a somber purple, in place of a myriad of bright lights, the Advent Wreath’s glow emanates from only four candles. Instead of mad rushes and impending deadlines, the words that Scripture speak of at this time are ones of longing and anticipation. When compared with the frenetic pace of today’s “holiday season”, in its liturgies, the Church’s wisely reminds us that these weeks before Christmas should not be “rushed” but instead should serve as a time of preparation for the coming of – not Santa Claus – but instead of the Prince of Peace.

Reminders like these are increasingly important for all of us – especially since it is so easy to get caught up in all of the seductive hoopla that surrounds the holiday; even when you work for a religious organization like Catholic Charities. In fact, when I initially sat down to write the first draft of this post, it was the Monday of the First week of Advent, but with all of the business that comes prior to Christmas Day I am only now getting around to posting it. Sadly, these days many people would not identify with the term “First Monday of Advent” as quickly as they would with another: “Cyber Monday” – a marketing term first created by the National Retail Federation to denote the Monday immediately following the more famous “Black Friday” – itself the name for the Friday that follows Thanksgiving Day in the United States, and which officially starts the Christmas “Shopping Season” when retailers see their balance sheets go from ”red” to “black”. Both of these days have little or nothing to do with spiritually preparing one’s self for the birthday of the Prince of Peace (which ironically is the reason that these two days exist in the first place); instead, they are about “helping Santa” materially fill the space under the tree with more and bigger gifts. That what was originally the season of Advent has been transmogrified into an over-marketed, commercialized, $450 billion orgy of consumption needs no further demonstration – I think – then the fact that an actual death of 34 year old at a Wal-Mart on Long Island last year was blamed directly on the fact that it was “Black Friday”: the man – Jdimytai Damour, a temporary employee of Wal-Mart – was trampled to death helping a pregnant co-worker to safety after frenzied shoppers smashed through the store’s front doors in order to buy a 50-inch flat screen television on sale for $800!

You know, it really doesn’t have to be this way, and saying no to the over-consumption that today marks the run-up to Christmas does not require a Grinch-like renunciation of any gift giving at all. That same First Week of Advent that I was preparing my first draft of posting, we in the Department of Social and Community Development here at Catholic Charities also held our Seventh Annual Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade Christmas Sale, where employees here at the Catholic Center in New York had the opportunity to come and shop responsibly and thoughtfully, using their dollars to provide the benefits of “fair trade” to producers overseas while at the same time giving their loved ones unique crafts and delicious foods! The sale is always quite popular, and every year as we approach Christmas I am continually approached by people in the hallway and on the elevator to ask me when the sale is. I’m not really surprised about that – after all, by purchasing your gifts through fair trade, you not only get to do a good thing for others by buying them great coffee, delicious chocolate and unique items, you also get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve done the right thing in really supporting the producers of those goods at the source. In place of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we here at the Catholic Center have “Solidarity Thursday” and a “Fair Trade Friday”, where our purchases respect human dignity, promote economic justice, and foster global solidarity! You know, you don’t actually have to attend an actual fair trade sale to purchase fair trade goods, through the miracle of technology you can actually obtain fairly traded coffee, teas, chocolate and great “Work of Human Hands” gift items through the Catholic Relief Services website at:

So, as Advent draws to a close, won’t you too help Santa do the right thing? Take the time to check out the fairly traded items and foodstuff at the Catholic Relief Services website, and consider helping Saint Nicholas stuff your loved one’s stockings with gifts that really make a difference! Then, slow down a little, experience Advent and prepare yourself spiritually for the coming of the Prince of Peace – after all, let’s not forget that His birthday really is the “reason for the season.”

T’is the Season for CCHD

November 13th, 2009

(In preparation for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development’s (CCHD) Annual Appeal Sunday – this year’s, this coming Sunday November 15th – I have asked my colleague Lourdes Ferrer, Community Development Coordinator for the Department of Social and Community Development, for a brief reflection on CCHD)

Ahhh! Autumn, my favorite time of the year: cool brisk air that invigorates the body and the mind; trees adorned in brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red; the excitement the onset of the holiday season brings; the angry phone calls and letters…

Oh wait, I didn’t mean to include that last item. It’s just that this can be a pretty trying time of the year for me. You see I’m the coordinator of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) for the Archdiocese of New York and each November, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the annual CCHD collection is taken in parishes across the country. The funds you donate, helps to fund the work of CCHD.

You’re probably thinking, “That sounds like a good thing. So what’s the problem?”

Unfortunately, opposition to CCHD is as seasonal as candy corn and pumpkin pie. But let me start by giving those of you unfamiliar with CCHD, a little background about the program: CCHD is the domestic anti-poverty, social justice program founded by the U.S. Catholic Bishops in 1970. Its mission is to address the root causes of poverty in America through promotion and support of community-controlled, self-help organizations and through transformative education. CCHD awards grant funds in two areas: community organizing and economic development. Community organizing grants are awarded to groups that demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of the human person by bringing diverse people together to address the root causes of poverty in their communities, removing institutional barriers that keep historically marginalized and low-income people from reaching their full God-given potential. Economic development grants support initiatives that significantly include the voice of the poor and marginalized, developing new businesses that offer good jobs, and/or develop assets that will be owned and enjoyed by local communities.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “So where do the angry phone calls and letters come in?”

Since it’s inception, CCHD has faced opposition from a minority of people that think that CCHD is – in their words – not a “Biblical organization”; they are equally afraid that the money distributed is being used for – again, their words – “non-Catholic activity.” These opponents have long called for the disbandment of CCHD and have been very vocal about their beliefs. They write articles and blogs, send letters, and make phone call of which I (along with CCHD directors/coordinators across the country) am the recipients.

To make matter worse, last year, we learned that the staff leadership of ACORN, a CCHD funded organization, had covered up information regarding the embezzlement of funds from their organization. In addition, concerns arose regarding reports of ACORN’s involvement in alleged voter registration fraud and political partisanship. This motivated CCHD opponents, across the country, to strike with greater fervor then ever before, even after CCHD had stopped funding ACORN.

I don’t want to mislead you, it’s not like I get bags of mail or my telephone is ringing off the hook (Sadly, I’m not that popular.) The truth is I usually get three to four complaints a year. Most of the complaints are harmless. For example, I once had a women call to tell me she wouldn’t be donating to CCHD because she didn’t like the website of one of our funded groups; and another time a male caller informed me I was to blame for the economic crisis. I can’t say I really understood his logic, but apparently my funding community groups triggered that whole Wall Street scandal (Oh, to have such power!)

But then there is a second group of people whose anger towards CCHD is so great, that it makes communication impossible. I’m sure you can relate to my frustration. We’ve all experienced people that don’t listen and just yell, never letting you get a word in edgewise. You can always tell, by their tone, that they’ve already made up their mind that they’re right, and they don’t want to give you the opportunity to say anything that might dissuade them from their viewpoint. And although I respect that everyone is entitled to their opinion and I understand that not everyone will change their minds about CCHD simply because I, or any other CCHD supporter, tells them that it’s a great program that touches the lives of thousands of low- and moderate- income people across our country, and that it inspires change not only in individual lives, but in the health and well-being of communities as a whole, it still would be nice to be part of a discussion where information can be exchanged and the possibility of greater understanding is possible. Maybe then CCHD won’t be judged on the handful of grants, made over its thirty-nine year history, that might be considered bad judgment calls, and instead be judged by the hundreds of successful projects that have been funded.

Maybe then, I’d have the chance to tell them about The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Port Chester, New York, who established a workers center to assist in facilitating the connection between employers and day labors while also providing an opportunity for skill development for the workers; or maybe I could answer questions about the great work being done by Movimiento por Justicia del Barrio (Movement for Justice in El Barrio) in East Harlem, a project initially established by St. Celia’s Church after receiving countless complaints from low-income parishioners suffering under hazardous and illegal living conditions, and today is a four hundred member strong organization, whose membership continues to work for improvement to their living conditions and their community; or better yet, maybe we could come together to share a meal at COLORS Restaurant, an economic development project initiated by the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY), and I could tell them how the idea for this amazing cooperatively owed eatery was born from the ashes of destruction of September 11th. And maybe I’d get the chance to tell them about the individual members of these organizations and how their lives have changed, for the better, because parishioners cared enough to drop a couple of bills into the second collection basket on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. And at the end of our conversation, if they were still unconvinced that a greater good has been served through CCHD’s funding of these community based organizations, maybe they could, at least, acknowledge that the program has made a difference in the lives of people across our country, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

After giving it a lot of thought I decided, since the dialoging for greater understanding thing hasn’t yet happened, I would take it upon myself to come up with a solution that would satisfy both sides (What can I tell you? I’m a Libra. I need harmony.)

After much prayer and discernment, I’ve come up with the following plan:

  • First, we get everyone to agree “that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society.”
  • Secondly, everyone agrees that “the person is not only sacred but also social” and that “how we organize our society – in economic and politics, in law and policy – directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community.”
  • Thirdly, we need to remember that “every person has a fundamental right to life and a right to those things required for human decency” and that “corresponding to these rights are duties and responsibilities to one another, to our families, and to the larger society.”
  • Then, we acknowledge that “a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring” and that “in a society marred by deepening divisions between rich and poor, our Catholic tradition…instructs us to put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first.”
  • We then need to remember that “work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation” and that “if the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative.”
  • Then, we’ll show our “respect for our creator by our stewardship of creation.” We need to remember “we are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith in relationship with all of God’s creation.”
  • And last, but certainly not least, we’ll come into full realization that we are one human family called to stand in solidarity with on another. We will remember that we are “our brother’s and sister’s keepers, wherever they may be,” and that “loving our neighbor has global dimensions in a shrinking world,” and that “at the core of the virtue of solidarity is the pursuit of justice and peace.”
  • Now, all we need to do is get everyone to live by these seven…what should we call them…I don’t know, maybe principles. If we could just get everyone to agree to live by these Seven Principles, then every person would have the opportunity to live life in the fullness that they deserve as children of God. And if everyone is living their lives in the fullness they deserve, then there would be no need for community groups; which means there would be no groups seeking CCHD funding; which means we won’t have to take up the CCHD collection; which means no one would have to worry that funds are being misused; which will eliminate anyone’s need to complain.

    TA-DA! It’s a great plan, don’t you think?

    Hmm? What’s that? You think you’ve heard of these Seven Principles before?

    GOOD! I was hoping you had. For as much as I’d like to take credit for them, these principles have long been at the heart of our Church’s social teachings. If you’d like to learn more about the social teachings of the Church, I recommend you visit or

    Just this week, as I rode the uptown W train, on my way to the Catholic Center, I spied a Subtalk ad that caught my attention. For those of you that don’t have the pleasure of riding the NYC subway, the MTA has a series of ads that are meant to stimulate your mind as you ride the rails. This particular ad is part of their “Train of Thought” series and it contained the following quote: “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

    As I contemplated these words, thoughts of CCHD and the many phone calls, letter, and emails I’d received during my ten year tenure as CCHD coordinator, flooded my mind and I realized: After all these years, people know so little about CCHD. And I decided to make the following plea:

    Please don’t limit your vision of CCHD to only the small bits of negative information that’s making such a loud impress these days, but rather be open to hearing the entire CCHD story. Check out the CCHD website (, read the funding criteria, review the funding process, read about the funded groups and visit their websites. Don’t be shy about asking questions. There are CCHD directors/coordinators, in every diocese and we’re more then happy to answer your questions. All I ask is that you hear us out. I can’t guarantee that our answers will be exactly what you want to hear, but I promise they will always be the truth.

    Give CCHD a chance, you may be surprised by what you discover.

    Of Politics and Principles…

    November 4th, 2009

    As some of you who have read my previous postings may be aware, since June of this year – with the infamous mandatory switch to DTV – I have been living without a television (link). As a real news junkie, this required some behavioral modification on my part: time that was once spent watching news program after news program could now be devoted to other pursuits – reading, exercising, more formal meditation and prayer, catching up with friends, or just some nice quiet time to myself. All in all, I have to say that I really haven’t missed television that much. Still – old habits die hard, and every evening before I retire it is my practice to go on-line and check the websites of the local newspapers to see what the most recent headlines are; then, in the morning, I always wake up to the breaking news reported on the local radio station Ten-Ten WINS: as they request, I give them their 22 minutes and they “give me the world” – or at least what’s going on in it! In this manner, I am seldom surprised when I wake up and listen to the radio and hear what’s going on, because I already have an inkling of what the next day’s news will be. Surprises still happen however – and the most recent one was just about a month ago when I awoke to the newscaster’s voice telling me that President Obama was about to comment on his reception of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. I immediately straightened up – “did I hear that right?” I thought. “Surely” I thought further “they meant that the President was going to make comments and congratulate whoever the recipient of this year’s Peace Prize was”, and so I listened again and discovered that no, what I first heard was correct: that President Barack Obama had been awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee for his vision to strengthen the role of dialogue, negotiation and multilateral diplomacy in resolving international crises, for his goal of and work toward a world without nuclear weapons, and ultimately for capturing the world’s attention and giving people hope for a better future (link).

    As I got ready for work, that news began to sink in a little more, and I have to admit that my initial reaction was one of surprise. As a person whose work is in the field of “Justice and Peace”, I have always noted with interest the accomplishments of past Nobel Peace Prize Laureates (one of my favorite T-shirts has the ironic comment “I’d kill for a Nobel Peace Prize” emblazoned across the chest!) Generally, people who win the Nobel Peace Prize do so for accomplishing some extraordinary societal change (Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela), living a life of altruism and extraordinary virtue (Mother Teresa), or some combination thereof. I admit that all of the things that the Nobel Prize Committee cited in their announcement of President Obama’s winning of this year’s prize are very good and very humane, yet arguably except for capturing the world’s attention and generating a feeling of hope in people by his election, the remainder of the reasons that the Nobel Committee gave for its selection are more the President’s aspirations, vision and goals then his concrete accomplishments at this point. President Obama seemed to realize this when he called his reception of the prize a “call to action” (link). Reaction to the President’s reception of the Nobel was pretty much mixed and predictable, based upon a person’s location along the political spectrum. One of the most astute observations, I thought, was from dissident playwright turned President Vaclav Havel, who twenty years ago this month led the people of then-communist Czechoslovakia through their “Velvet Revolution”, helping to transform their society from totalitarianism to democracy (link). The one time President of the Czech Republic, when told that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, asked rhetorically if it were true that President Obama had refused to meet the Dalai Lama (himself a Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1989) in order to curry favor with the Chinese government. When told that the President had indeed done so as part of the Administration’s new policy of “strategic reassurance” – softening criticism of China’s human rights violations to calm the fears of the nation that is bankrolling the United State’s debt – Havel, no stranger himself to the interplay of politics and principle, commented that “it is only a minor compromise. But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.” (link) Our President – a masterful politician and consensus builder who has yet to make a concrete decision as Commander-in-Chief regarding our continued military involvement in the theater of Afghanistan that he inherited – would do well to consider Mr. Havel’s sage advice as he undertakes his considerable international and domestic responsibilities.

    I thought of this interplay – between politics and principle, compromise and real problems – as I read Archbishop Dolan’s October 26th blog post (link) regarding Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s comment in an interview that the Catholic Bishops of the United States were fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by stating their intent to vigorously oppose a final bill on healthcare reform unless it specifically includes longstanding federal protections restricting abortion funding and mandates, protecting the conscience rights of healthcare providers, and providing adequate access to heath care for immigrants and the poor – concerns that Kennedy termed “a red herring”. Kennedy’s comments came on the heals of other comments in the mainstream media accusing the Church of an “inconsistent approach” to health care reform that has created confusion and led to a breakdown in understanding regarding the Church’s primary concerns (link).

    If some people in Congress, the media or even the general public are confused about the Church’s stance on the healthcare debate, they really shouldn’t be if they had been paying attention. While the U.S Catholic Bishops have for decades been at the forefront of the campaign for healthcare reform, their concerns in that debate have always remained constant: as Archbishop Dolan’s blog succinctly states, “The Catholic community in the United States hardly needs to be lectured to about just healthcare. We’ve been energetically into it for centuries. And we bishops have been advocating for universal healthcare for a long, long time. All we ask is that it be just that – universal – meaning that it includes the helpless baby in the womb, the immigrant, and grandma in a hospice, and that it protects a healthcare provider’s right to follow his/her own conscience.” What some people might have become confused over may be in reading the politics of the healthcare debate – the arena where “minor compromise” is possible; regarding the principles that should animate those compromises – specifically here for the Church: health care reform that’s universal, respects human life and dignity, is accessible for all (especially the poor and immigrants) and protects freedom of conscience – there can be no compromise without risking the much bigger dangers that Havel mentions. The Church could no more compromise on these core matters – matters that run to the very purpose of providing healthcare in the first place – then Havel could’ve compromised on the principle of totalitarian rule as he pursued the goal of freedom for his people during the Velvet Revolution of 1989. So seriously, in fact, do the Bishops take these core principles that they have taken the step of asking Catholics from around the country to contact their Senators and Congressional Representatives as they put together final bills on healthcare reform for consideration in the Congress and urge them to oppose any bills under consideration that are deficient on issues of abortion and conscience, and that do not provide adequate access to healthcare for immigrants and the poor. You can send an instant message to your Congressional representatives to that effect by clicking here:

    In the weeks to come, our Congressional representatives will be drafting and debating policies in health care reform that will – for good or ill – have an impact on just about every family for years to come. As they exercise this Constitutional responsibility, each of us has a corollary moral responsibility to learn about the bills under consideration and to remind our representatives that in undertaking those minor compromises that all political negotiation entail, that they keep their eyes on the prize of healthcare that is universal, accessible, and protects life and conscience, and that in pursuit of these goals they don’t – figuratively or literally – throw the baby out with the bathwater!

    Courtesy to Strangers: Lessons Learned and Now Forgotten?

    October 16th, 2009

    Last month was definitely not the high water mark for civility in American public culture: coming hot on the heals of cool summer that was punctuated with red hot political rhetoric at the Congressional Town Hall meetings on healthcare reform, September of 2009 may well be remembered as the month that the American public as a whole became aware many figures in the popular culture were in desperate need of a tutorial from Miss Manners. Whether it was Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift to publicly disrespect her during her reception of an MTV music award, to Serena Williams’ very public – and vulgar – dressing down of a referee at the U.S. Open; it seemed that everyone from entertainers to athletes forgot the most basic lessons of civility and sportsmanship that our parents teach us at home and our teachers re-enforce in Kindergarten. It was the actions of South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson however – who with a very angry and audible outburst of “You lie!” interrupted a speech President Obama was giving to Congress back on September 9th – that unacceptable behavior by public figures hit a surprising low: given the position that Congressman Wilson holds, the venue and timing of his outburst in the Congressional Chamber, and the intended recipient of his insult (the President) – you would think that a Congressman should know better!

    Later on, when I learned that the supposed provocation of Congressman Wilson’s outburst was President Obama’s statement that the new healthcare legislation proposed in Congress would not cover illegal immigrants, I must admit that my initial shock at the Congressman’s comments was replaced by both a profound sadness and an utter lack of surprise that the issue of immigration was the catalyst that launched his outburst. This emotional response on my part is born of the fact that – as regards intolerance and issues of immigration – I have unfortunately been witness to some the more uncharitable exchanges that pass for public discourse these days. What was the cause of this? Well, several months ago a number of pastors asked our Department developed a series of bulletin announcements that call attention to the vulnerable position our immigrant brothers and sisters occupy in society, as well as the profound concern the Church has for them. The entire text of each and every one of these bulletin announcements – which have been running monthly since July of this year – is taken straight out of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s documents: “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope”, published as a pastoral response to the issues of migration back in 2003 (link). The feedback that we have received in response to these bulletin announcements (my telephone number and e-mail are listed for those seeking more information) have been varied: many of the comments are supportive – some who contact us are immigrants who are either seeking assistance or are grateful that the Church stands with them in their struggles, and others are individuals concerned with the plight of immigrants and their families living within their parish communities. Our Department however has also been the recipient of some responses that are the exact opposite of supportive: calling the content of the announcements things such as “ambiguous nonsense”, more then a few of these responses go on to slander today’s immigrants in terms so hurtful and uncharitable they don’t bear repeating here. I have to admit, in all my years of working for the Church and advocating on behalf of Her positions on some very controversial issues, the vitriol I have read and heard expressed in response to these bulletin announcements is astonishing; and the fact that these writers and callers are presumably responding as result of their attendance at Church just adds to my profound sadness at this situation.

    Whenever we receive a response to our bulletin announcements our Department always responds back: to those seeking assistance, we try to connect them with the right people here at Catholic Charities who can help them; to those who complain, we try to point out that we are only promulgating the teachings of our Bishops and our Church (you would be surprised how many of those who complain refer to the content of the bulletin announcements as “my” statements!) Because the content of some of these statements are so outrageous I can’t help but believe that they are made more out of ignorance then experience. Instead of just responding back in writing, what I would really love to do for these folks is to have them accompany me to places like St. Mary’s Parish on the Lower East Side, where on September 14th I attended an interfaith prayer service in support of our immigrant brothers and sisters called “One Family Under God”. If those people accompanied me there, they would encounter a multi-hued and multi-lingual community of people standing together as brothers and sisters united in the family of a merciful God; they would hear the testimonies of individuals and families struggling to live in, work for and contribute to a community not of their birth but still grateful for the opportunities that have been afforded them here (See some video of the Prayer Service here). The stories I heard there at that Church reminded me so very much of the stories that I heard growing up about my own family, the struggles my ancestors endured to prosper in a country not of their birth, and the tremendous gratefulness that there was to a nation that welcomed them in and gave them opportunity where before there was none. In fact, one of the testimonies that I heard at St. Mary’s – from a woman extremely proud of her own heritage but additionally grateful to be a resident of this country which has allowed her and her family so much opportunity – reminded me of a story that my mother has told about when she was growing up in St. Nicholas of Tolentine Parish on University Avenue and Fordham Road in the Fordham section of the Bronx. The child of immigrant parents from Ireland like almost everyone else in that neighborhood at that time, my mother was very proud of her Irish heritage, but even prouder to be an American – the country that had welcomed her parents when their own could no longer support them. So proud was my Mom that when she took her first job at Dollar Savings Bank on the Grand Concourse and they asked her what ethnicity she was (you could do that in those days), she replied with the now politically incorrect term, “American Indian”. Well, you could just imagine the ribbing she took when my Grandmother came to visit her one day at work: when she approached the bank manager to asked for my mother, he smiled, went to go find my Mom and told her that her mother was there to see her, and “that for an American Indian, she had a lovely Irish brogue” (to use another now politically incorrect term).

    Of course, just about every American family whose ancestors are not Native American could undoubtedly tell the same or a similar story. It doesn’t escape me that I am writing this posting the week of Columbus Day – a holiday that should remind us all that – except for the Native Americans, all of us who call this wonderful continent of North America home are all descended from people from other places. My ancestors arrived here in New York by boat – on my Mom’s side it was by steamship – on my Dad’s (whose family has been here much longer) it was by sailing ship. When they came, they were welcomed by some, and disparaged by others. Often today, when we remember our immigrant ancestors, we sometimes romanticize what they encountered upon their arrival; we sometimes think that those coming today “are just different” from our ancestors. From my own perspective of course, any cursory glance at a description of the Five-Points Slum in lower Manhattan at the times of mass Irish immigration demonstrates that anti-immigrant sentiments and prejudices (link) are not unique to today, but instead sadly have belonged to every period of American history.

    Immigration as an issue is about many things, but boiled down – the way I see it – in this nation of immigrants it should really be about primarily three: assimilation, memory and encounter. For the immigrant, the experience is primarily about assimilation and how difficult it is to assimilate into a new culture without loosing your own. For the native born descendent of immigrants, it’s primarily about memory, and remembering that we too are decedents of immigrants who undoubtedly had difficultly assimilating to a culture different then their own – a difficulty that was often exacerbated by prejudice of the then native born against those different from themselves, a memory that should all but eliminate any prejudice to the newcomers among us today. For all of us – immigrants and native born – our experience of one another should be one of encounter – like the one I had at St. Mary’s Parish – where we all treat one another as precious members of the single family of God.


    September 11th, 2009

    Of all of the many things that I have come to love about living in the midst of the hustle and bustle that is the island of Manhattan, perhaps my favorite is the opportunity to meet people from just about every corner of the globe. Of course, in today’s ever shrinking “globalized” world, this possibility is no longer confined to just the big cities, but still living in New York – because of its stature as a “capital” of world finance, media, art and fashion – allows a person to make these diverse connections with relative ease. My time living here has let me meet and mingle with people of many different backgrounds from just about every continent save Antarctica: from almost every part of Europe to South America, Asia and the Middle East, the fact that I can now count as friends such a diverse mosaic of people has immeasurably enriched my life, and has helped me to develop what I hope to be a much broader perspective.

    Encountering such diversity was not always part and parcel of my daily experience however: as a young man, I spent a significant amount of my adolescence living in a beautiful little town located right over the New York City Line from the Bronx in the southern most corner of Westchester County. This particular village, where my parents still live, was a wonderful community within which to grow up – my family had its own home with a backyard, we lived within walking distance of our local parish and parish school, and were surrounded by wonderful neighbors who quickly became friends. At that time, most of these neighbors – except for a few of the long time residents – were also from families very much like my own; they were for the most part families of white ethnic Catholic professionals just recently moved from apartments in the boroughs to the suburbs in search of their piece of the “American Dream”. As far as diversity was concerned, at that time quite frankly the most exotic that any of our neighbors got were those from France, Finland and yes – Canada – who were employed by their respective countries’ embassies, and who lived in our town for its proximity to the United Nations by train. As I grew, unlike a lot of my contemporaries whom after graduating college moved away, I remained living “in town”– at first in my parents’ home, then later in my own apartment: as the oldest in a family of significantly younger siblings, I wanted to remain close by so as not to miss any of my brothers’ “growing up years”. For this reason, it wasn’t until my late thirties that I actually moved out of Westchester County and into the city. In all that time, of course, the town I grew up in itself had changed considerably – as had the world. In fact, my move into Manhattan from the suburbs came in the years when significant numbers were making the exact opposite journey, many as a result of the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

    Today, of course, marks eight years since that terrible moment in our history, and like most New Yorkers who were in Manhattan at the time I carry with me vivid memories of the experiences of that day. I remember the crystal clear blue sky broken by the dual columns of grey-black smoke; I remember the terrible confusion of the morning commute replaced by noontime with grim realization; I remember accompanying co-workers downstairs in our Chancery Building to pray together in the Chapel on the first floor and going outside to witness the multitude of people walking slowly up First Avenue in a stunned and hushed silence from lower Manhattan – some barefoot, and many still covered in white ash; I remember scrambling to find everyone a way home off an island now cut off from the rest of the world; and once home I remember anxiously waiting to hear the key in the door that signaled the return home of a loved one and anguished phone calls that continued well into the night, bringing with them word of those found and of those still missing.

    In the days and weeks that followed, other things stand out in my memory: armored humvees and tanks now patrolling the streets on my walk to work as fighter jets flew patrols overhead, stories of the heroism of fellow New Yorkers who risked – and in too many cases, gave – their lives to assist others, and most heart-breakingly, I remember the posters of those still missing hanging everywhere – their faces and their names asking and begging passers by for recognition. This year, as has happened every year on the anniversary of the attacks in 2001, the names of the 2,752 men, women and children who lost their lives at the site of the World Trade Center that day will be read aloud at a ceremony at Ground Zero; these names will likewise eventually be inscribed upon bronze parapets surrounding twin memorial pools at the National September 11th Memorial being built at that site, serving fittingly as the very heart of the Memorial (link).

    And of course, throughout that whole period I remember the fear.

    Fear at that time was understandable – we were a city that had just experienced unimaginable loss, attacked as it were by a group of men who came from a part of the world many of us had no experience with and who were members of a terrorist organization based in one of the remotest regions on earth. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from a country and culture substantially different then our own, with which most of us had only a cursory knowledge and the slightest familiarity. In weeks and months that followed that dreadful Tuesday in early September, amid attending memorial services I also remember voraciously reading anything I could get my hands on about the crisis in the Middle East and the countries and culture that these men came from, in order to try to get a grasp in some sense on what had happened. Much of the analysis that I read at that time seemed to serve as vindication of political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s controversial theory know as the “Clash of Civilizations” (link): specifically here, Huntington’s claim that in a post-Cold War world the “age of ideology” had ended and that the 21st Century would witness a bloody “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world. Thus the events of September 11th, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed them, were not anomalies in the relations between people from various states but somehow were instead acts we could’ve and should’ve anticipated, following some terrible logic of history.

    At that time, wounded from attack and in an overwhelming environment of fear, such a pessimistic view of human relations is understandable, but as Christians we are called to be a people of hope. Indeed, no less an authority then Pope John Paul II – no stranger to war and violence he – also had developed a “theory” on relations between peoples, cultures and “civilizations”, one that he first spoke of at the United Nations in October of 1995, and later reiterated in his World Day of Peace Message in 2004 (link). Not based on the concept of “clash”, the essential element of the Pope’s analysis was a different human capacity – namely, that of love. The Holy Father reminded us that, “Christians know that love is the reason for God’s entering into relationship with man. And it is love which He awaits as man’s response. Consequently, love is also the loftiest and most noble form of relationship possible between human beings. Love must thus enliven every sector of human life and extend to the international order. Only a humanity in which there reigns the “Civilization of Love” will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace….I wish to repeat to women and men of every language, religion and culture the ancient maxim: Love conquers all!”

    In the intervening years since that fateful day in September 2001 I have learned a great deal more about that part of the world once so remote and unfamiliar to me, as much from personal experience as from the written word. I now count as friends many people from the Middle East, and in fact one of my dearest friends was born and grew up in the same country as the majority of those who carried out those terrible acts on that dreadful day. Since I first met my friend, he and I have spent considerable time together: he has been to my home, met my family and friends, and shared meals with us; I in turn have been to his home, met his family members when they came to visit, and have shared meals with them. I have witnessed how important his religion is too him and come to admire his attentiveness to his prayer life, as he likewise respects my faith and its place in my life. When he became engaged to his fiancé while back home in Saudi Arabia, I was one of the first people he called to tell (and at a very early hour of the morning here mind you!) I have met his loved ones, seen their faces and know their names, and he has met and knows the names and faces of mine. No matter what any theoretician’s “logic of history” dictates, it would be impossible for me to imagine a circumstance where he could either wish or do me or those I love any harm, and I am certain that he feels the same. My relationship with my friend, his friends and family helped me to learn that – as important as theories and knowledge can be- it is truly only through living out a “civilization of love” in friendship that we individually can help to change the world. I realize here that I am moving from the very specific to the general, and yet I still see the wisdom of Pope John Paul II’s approach: if our aim – as it should be – is to prevent another event like the one we commemorate this day from ever happening again, there can be no more important goal to undertake. Learning about others who are different from us makes a “clash of civilizations” less likely; but becoming their friend makes it impossible.

    A Commodity?…like No Other!

    September 1st, 2009


    Late summer is usually the time of year that is most dreaded by children – with the shorter cooler days and waning hours of sunlight that are the herald of the coming of the school year. When I was a child though, I was unusual – as if readers of this blog don’t already know that – in that I looked forward to the end of the summer: not so much for the impending beginning of the school year per se, but instead for the start of the “new season” on network television! For you see, I was truly a television child from a television family – I looked forward with baited breath for the beginning of the fall season to learn about the latest exploits of the “Brady Bunch” or the “Partridge Family” and too see what was happening to the “Banana Splits”, “H.R. Puffnstuff” and in the “Land of the Lost” on Saturday morning television. As I grew, I have to admit that this childhood obsession of mine had waned somewhat, but still television – now in the form of evening news programs, investigative journalism and shows on the public broadcasting network – remained an important part in my daily routine.
    All of this now has changed drastically for me, and has changed just this summer: as all of you are aware, back on June 12th, all full-power U.S. television stations switched their broadcast over-the-air signals from analog to digital only, effectively ending all traditional – not to mention cost free – antena-only reception. Known as the “DTV Transition”, this conversion was originally mandated by Congress for the express purpose of freeing up parts of the valuable broadcast spectrum for important public safety communications (such as police, fire departments, and rescue squads), as well as allowing some of the spectrum to be auctioned to companies to be able to provide consumers with more advanced wireless services. The result: now that the DTV Transition is completed, all analog TV sets – like the one that I own – need additional equipment in order to receive over-the-air broadcast signals. Specifically, TV sets having only analog tuners need to obtain separate digital-to-analog converter boxes to watch over-the-air TV. In an effort to defray costs for consummers who may be unable to afford to buy a new television or subscription to cable, the government offered households a $40 coupon in order to off-set some – but not all – of the cost of the digital transition for analog TV set owners. If one were to analyse this DTV Transition from the perspective of our Catholic social teachings, it seems apparent that Congress in mandating the switch from analog to digital TV acted within its legitimate authority to foster the Common Good (here the allocation of the limited spectrum of the airwaves for important public safety and communications services) all the while exercising an equally necessary option for the poor vulnerable (by providing a coupon to offset the cost of conversion for those less able to bear those costs). Despite these good intentions however, the basic upshot of Congress’s action has been that for some folks – myself included – a basic commodity that was once universally available has now been premanently changed and made available only to those who have both the time and disposable income to afford the technology necessary to adapt to these changes.
    As someone who has been adversely affected by these changes, I must say that I was less then pleased when the transition took effect and my once perfectly good television set went fuzzy forever, and yet, of course, I know that I still here have a choice: while my television veiwing was once a nightly occupation, I have to admit that I really probably have been making better use of my time in the evening that used to be consumed by television watching, and of course, to remedy my situation, all I need do is walk down to Radio Shack and buy a converter or break down and buy a subscription for basic cable.
    Without television this summer I have been missing what is perhaps some of the best reality-based T.V. of the season – namely, the “Town Hall” meetings on healthcare reform taking place all over the country, complete with their colorful casts of citizen protestors and combative congresspeople unprepared to respond to the anger and allegations that they hear. In fact, as I read more about these Town Hall Meetings, the concerns people raised and Congress’s proposed changes to our nation’s health care system, I reflected upon some similarities between Congress’s actions in this instance and the transition to DTV. In making this comparison, its not lost on me that I’m really comparing apples and oranges: while a case – and a good one – can be made that making a change in the broadcast spectrum that will close off a sizable – and mostly lower income – minority of the population from a media source could be detrimental to the formation of an informed population in a democracy, television is not a commodity that is essential to life. Health care, on the other hand, is a commodity like no other. Although the current reform initiatives underway see healthcare as an element of our Nation’s economic recovery program – as a commodity that should be subject to market forces where competion drives innovation and delivery and where the patient is treated as a “consumer” – as Catholics we know that because health care touches upon the very life and dignity of the human person, it can’t be considered just an “economic commodity”, but instead is a fundemental human good – a necessary aspect of the overall Common Good. Because of this, both civil society (that’s you and me – individually and collectively – in Catholic social teaching “talk”) and the state have an obligation to protect everyones’ right to health care, as well as the means to take advantage of that right.
    We are blessed as Americans that our county offers some of the best technologically advanced private health care treatment in the world. This treatment however, because of it’s quality, tends to be extremely expensive. In a way this makes sense, because health care is after all the human activity that cares for the most precious of subjects – the human person, him and herself. The way that the majority of Americans enjoy access to this vital but expensive system is through insurance, which is key to understanding how our health care system works today. In gaining this understanding, please remember – private insurance is a business: as such its driven by a legitimate profit motive. The way insurance companies turn a profit is simple: they attempt to pay as few claims as possible on the premiums they collect, and seek to avoid covering people who are likely to need care in the pool of insured that they cover.Most Americans are currently covered by health insurance in one of two ways: for those under 65, the majority receive their insurance coverage privately through their employers, those over 65 enjoy health coverage provided directly by the government in a program known as Medicare. Polls have consistently shown that a majority of Americans are reasonably satisfied with the health insurance that they currently receive, this despite the fact that the insurance industry seeks to profit off of their care. How can this be? The answer rests specifically on past action by the government protective of the Common Good: for the elderly – in 1965 Congress enacted Medicare which offered universal coverage to those 65 and older and broke the link between aging and poverty; for those working with chronic health conditions – Congress passed a law prohibiting discrimination in coverage for those with pre-existing medical conditions in any employer provided health insurance plan; for the very poor Congress enacted the Medicaid – a system of state programs that provides low-income children and some adults with coverage for necessary care. Falling between the seams in this uneven safety net of employer-sponsored coverage, Medicare and Medicaid are approximately 46 million other Americans – almost all from working families – who live without health insurance coverage often in fear of getting sick because of the financial ruin it could bring their lives, and in these harsh financial times there are many others who are simply one layoff away from the same situation.
    It is because the burden in these gaps in coverage falls most heavily upon “the poor and the vulnerable” – those in lower income jobs in a shaky economy – that the United States Catholic Bishops Conference has for a long time advocated for genuine national health care reform – with coverage that universally protects all from conception until natural death – as a moral imperative. However, because legislation if not carefully crafted can be a pretty blunt instrument to fix nuanced societal inequities, as we pursue genuine health care reform Catholics have to be sure that in addressing the needs of the poor and the vulnerable our society does not literally “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and violate any fundemental principles regarding the life and dignity of the human person. Specifically, here this means that for Catholics its essential that any of the health care reform proposals put forward maintain existing federal laws resticting abortion, as well as incorperating current federal protections against abortion funding and mandates, and provisions for the protection of conscience rights of health care providers and religious institutions. Over the summer, the health care debate reached a critical level, and it is essential that the Catholic community speak clearly and strongly this autumn as Congress makes important decisions about the specific policies included in the legislation. There is much that is complicated about the health care debate in this country: there are several Congressional bills in progress, multiple Congressional committees involved and much information and misinformation being communicated. In an effort to help Catholics better understand the issues, the USCCB has developed a special website: that can help Catholics better understand the Church’s principles and priorities in the current health care debate as well as fundemental problems in the current bills. It is hoped that with the help of this resource, the Catholic community will be able to speak with one unified voice on what is likely the most important domestic reform legislation in a generation.
    Advances in technology and the delivery of services, and the sometimes unwanted changes that accompany them, can be unsettling to the consummers of any commodity – especially one as central and fundemental to the preservation of human life as healthcare, but if in implementing these changes we are careful to do so utilizing principles as tried and true as the Gospels themselves, the negative reactions may only be prelude to an enhanced system that better protects the life and dignity of all.