Posts Tagged ‘Cardinal Dolan’

Perhaps the Bloom is Off the Rose..

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

It’s sometimes said that social media – like blogs, Facebook and the like – is a good way to share your thoughts, perspectives, feelings, shortcomings, hopes and aspirations with others, in the hopes – I suppose – that such sharing might lift your own mood. I have honestly never been one for wearing my heart on my sleeve, or broadcasting my particular moods, whatever they may be, to others… whether they be in the same room or a virtual room 6,000 miles away in cyber-space. Perhaps thats a product of my “Lace-curtain” Bronx Irish Catholic upbringing which taught me those feelings are best that are kept to oneself. Although that is still the case – and despite an almost genetic predilection to privacy – these days, I am really feeling the need to share in the hopes that my current funk will lift, so I ask that you please indulge me. Although I have always been “the glass is half full” kinda guy, at this time of year I seem always to get a little down, and I think it’s because I I suffer from a kind of condition – not diagnosed officially, but I feel it its symptoms right down to my bones just the same. Clinically, the term for this  self-diagnosed malady is know in medical circles as “Seasonal  Affective Disorder – SAD for short – and it’s mostly brought on in sufferers  by  decreasing exposure to natural sunlight as we move from the summer into the winter months – resulting often times in depression. Many years ago, I attributed an onset of this autumnal melancholy to the long, bright days of Summer giving way to the dwindling twilight of Fall (especially when I was working in a windowless human resources office in the basement of a newly opened nursing home in the South Bronx sponsored by Catholic Charities!) Today however, I am quite certain that the blues I’m currently experiencing are almost certainly not caused by too little exposure to the electromagnetic spectrum: can’t possibly be…firstly: because the Office I currently work from here at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center has two big beautiful windows that face southward into the sunlight, with wonderful views of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and second: I always keep my blinds pulled full up. No, in recent years my “sad” state has been brought on by a gloom with a much different origin altogether – and although the cause is still very much seasonal, it is not at all natural; completely manmade its effects are evident in every corner of our country, and the cure for this depression is unfortunately not as simple or plentiful as a good dose of God’s gift of sunshine.

No, the culprit that holds me hostage in my present state is the tenor of conversation – public and private – in our country, and not on any singular issue in particular, but on almost every subject. Whether religion, or politics, or government, or business, or family, or community, justice or peace, it seems to me that in recent years it has become nearly impossible for we Americans – a people who so cherish the ability to speak to (and presumptively be heard by) one another that we placed this prerogative first in the list of enumerated rights deemed essential for a free people to govern themselves, second only to the ability to worship our Creator in the manner that our conscience dictates – to have a civil conversation on just about any issue at all.  I think that much of the cause can be attributed to the noise pollution that are the cable television political talk channels and the phenomenon of shock radio, but regardless of where you want to stick the blame, the damage has already been done. Once the calendar turns and we enter the electoral season, the arrow on the “conceivability meter” on the possibility of holding civil conversations’ on civic matters switches from borderline difficult to the “red zone” of downright impossible –  bringing on much frustration;  and in my case with a side order of depression to boot. Things have gotten so bad that I have really begun to dread the advent of Labor Day – not so much because its arrival signals the un-official end of Summer – although there is that aspect too – but mostly for the conversational toxicity that its passing has come to presage.

This wasn’t always the case – with me at least. Funny enough, as a much younger man I used to relish the coming of the campaign season, even with all of the tumble and tussle of policy, personality, principle and pragmatism that our democratic electoral process guarantees. Growing up in the Northwest Bronx and later South Westchester in the 1970s and 80s,I was – like all children – influenced by my environment  potlical and otherwise,  and two of the political figures that were greatly admired in my household growing up were – paradoxically – Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. From the first of these great men I grew up understanding that part of our collective responsibility is to try and “make gentle the life of this world – especially those who are less fortunate then ourselves, and from the other, coming of age as I did when it was “morning in America”, I grew up with the optimistic belief that not only were such endeavors as making life “more gentle “possible, but that such noble deeds were part and parcel of what made us a great nation. This belief was further re-enforced when as a college and law student in the late 1980s I saw how concentrated long term, social, artistic, religious and political efforts on behalf of human rights and human dignity could – for the most part non-violently – dismantle unjust, entrenched and repressive political systems from the Philippines, to South Africa, to the entire Soviet Block.

These earth-shattering and nearly miraculous changes edified my belief in the real possibility of non-violent political change, and animated my career choices for years to come. Certainly, my career here at the Archdiocese of New York was motivated by and benefited from such hopeful belief: having coordinated what is now going on 16 annual Public Policy Forums up in Albany – not to mention countless Faithful Citizenship presentations in parishes, schools and other forums – the belief in the possibility of change in support of human life and human dignity is almost a bone-fide occupational qualification for my job!

And while I still believe in the possibility of political change supportive of the vulnerable and suffering and remain overall a hopeful person by nature, I have to admit that my confidence that we are on the right path in support of such an agenda has wavered as of late. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose…as you can read, I have admittedly been at this a long time – and the recent years have harsh ones, with domestic terror attacks, two of the longest wars this country has ever fought and is still fighting, and the worst economy we have had in decades.  I am afraid that there may be something more amiss then just these things though, things which I made a brief mention of earlier. Sadly, today it has to my estimation, become significantly harder to speak of ourselves – in any meaningful sense – as a “we” – an essential requirement for a self-governing people as the first three words of our country’s foundational document indicates. Instead we are broken up into sub-groups whose zero-sum competitions are never ending: whether we are one of the so-called 99%, or the 1%, or the 47%, the 15% or the 8%…it seems to matter less where you fall in one or several of these sub-groups (many of us – or our family members – fall into several) as much as that your inclusion in that sub-group puts you on one-side of an insurmountable chasm between you and your opposite. In recent years, these political divisions have begun to infiltrate the body of the Church itself – as is evidenced this year by the unending sound byte competition between motor-coach riding Religious and members of the Ayn Rand Society at prayer – and the results of all this separating of people has been, in my view, tragic.

Election Day is just under two weeks away. On that day, votes will be cast and we Americans will decide on the leadership of our nation for next four years – and at the end of that day (unless the Electoral College goes all loopy on us….) the winners of the contests for the Presidency and Congress will become the leaders of not just 1% of us, nor 8% of us, not 15%, nor 47%, not just bus riding nuns, nor libertarian lay people – not even just 99% of us alone, but they will instead need to lead and govern 100% of “We the People”- all of us….Tough job…..it always has been, but I’m afraid it is only getting tougher. All the division that we are creating is turning us not surprisingly into a very fragmented nation. To move forward on a path together will take smarts and skill – which I know both Presidential candidates have – but it will also take a plan. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I know the best path out of this mess that we have gotten ourselves into, but there is a plan that I recently heard of that I think could be helpful to this task. Its an older plan – eighty plus years at least – but its inspiration goes back millennia. I first heard of this plan last Friday when I was reading Cardinal Dolan’s remarks at this past Thursday’s Al Smith Dinner held here in Manhattan at the Waldof-Astoria is support of various charitable efforts of the Church here in New York. In his remarks, the Cardinal spoke of some of the public policy concerns of the man for whom the prestigious charity function is named: Alfred E. Smith, the 42nd Governor of New York State and first Roman Catholic nominated for the Presidency in 1928; Smith – the Cardinal went on to explain – was a man who believed that government had a responsibility to be on the side of the “un’s” : “the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the unborn, the undocumented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the unfed and the undereducated”.  This is in a sense less a “plan” as much as it is an approach to governing – a posture to be taken which recognizes all of the “un-planned” for calamities that can befall individuals, families and entire communities. Some may say that this approach is too simplistic and lacks policy detail, but to me if put into practice it would quite literally lift all boats.

And speaking of postures, there is to my thinking another posture that we all – the Presidential Candidates, other candidates, our leaders, “We the People”…all of us – need to adopt to move forward together: not a posture of dominance or one of submissiveness, of subservience or superiority, but instead a posture of reverence – the bowed head and open hands of prayer – because it is only from that posture, and that posture alone, that we can ever hope to open one another’s hearts.

There and Back Again

Monday, March 26th, 2012

As many long time readers of this blog may recall, the late winter and early spring is a very busy time for those who work in the social ministry of the Church; Liturgically – of course – this time of year corresponds on the Church’s calendar to the season of Lent during which Christians across the world are called to undertake corporal and spiritual disciplines in order to prepare for the commemoration of Our Lord Jesus’ Passion and Death during Holy Week which culminates with the celebration of his Resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. But its not only the preparation for these most profound events on the Christian Calendar that is cause for the frenetic activity of late January, February and early March around here, instead much more mundane – and yet still important – pursuits than those ultimate ones require attending to as well. Roughly speaking – the season of Lent almost always corresponds to the legislative “budget season” for national, state and local government, and so for those of us who’s job it is to work for the protection and promotion of human life and dignity, this season means that we then set about to do those things necessary to bring the concerns of our Church to those in positions of power in Washington and Albany. The actual work attendant to advocacy efforts such as these involve everything from the exhilarating – actually meeting with United States Senators and Congress People, State Senators and Assembly Members and their staffs and discussing the impact of policies on the poor and vulnerable – to the hum-drum: ensuring that meetings are set up, and that every person has a “seat on the bus” and makes it not only to their destination, but – equally important – back home again. In fact, it has occurred to me that some of the workaday elements of the preparations for our advocacy efforts are a very good thing for me spiritually at this time of year if only in the sense that I can then “multi-task” some of the more tedious but still essential “chores” I do over to the Lenten sacrifices portion of the ledger. And more than this, it has also occurred to me that the “there and back again” nature of this kind of work actually corresponds roughly to the nature of advocacy work in democracy itself; especially for those who have been at these efforts for a long time like me. I have come to see that almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and as such it is truly the work – and indeed Christian duty – of every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for the promotion of human dignity and the flourishing of the human person, and so to, to equally combat that which is contemptible and stands against this dignity and flourishing. As such, the work of securing and promoting human dignity is both constant, and yet always new – and certainly never ever boring!

 

Of course, February’s hot ticket here in the Archdiocese of New York was for the trip to Rome to share with His Eminence Cardinal Dolan his elevation to the position of Prince of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI; the event itself was covered by just about every media outlet and was so thorough that you almost didn’t need to make the actual journey yourself to still feel part of Cardinal Dolan’s special honor. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make the cut for that trip, but instead traveled first down to Washington D.C. with about 500 other Catholic social ministry professionals in year’s Social Ministry Gathering, and then later on in early March I traveled up to Albany with over 1,000 Catholics from around New York State for the annual “Catholics at the Capitol” Public Policy Forum Day. Both events were generally successful this year thank goodness, and although I wasn’t as fortunate as those who were able to accompany His Eminence to Rome (if only to enjoy the beautiful of Vatican City and partake in some of the delicious food), I have to say that this year’s advocacy trips – especially the one to Washington D.C. – were a little more momentous then those in years gone by. Some of this could have to do with the level of media attention that the meetings had this year, which – in contrast to years gone by where the attention paid by the media in general was zero if you discounted the coverage of the event in the Catholic press – was everywhere; wherever you turned the print, television and radio media at this year’s meeting were there. I’d like to think that some of this was because the reporters and their news editors had recently discovered some of the good work that the Church does in the social ministry field of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, ministering to the imprisoned and welcoming the stranger and were eager to cover this work….but my hunch is that the actual level of media coverage had a little something more to do with a set of regulations promulgated earlier this year in January by the Obama Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requiring that almost every employer – except for houses of worship specifically, but including religiously sponsored social welfare organizations – had to offer their employees health insurance coverage that includes sterilization, contraception and abortifacient drugs. In case some of you readers have been on a recent trip to Mars, these regulations have been the cause of quite a bit of controversy as of late, so much so that discussion of these regulations has filtered into the Republican Presidential debates, and triggered a response on the President’s part when he offered what he termed an “accommodation” for religious employers under the HHS rules, whereby the responsibility for covering contraceptive services for the employees of the religious organizations was shifted from the organizations themselves over to their insurers.(Funny enough, the press conference where the President announced these accommodations to the HHS rules took place while I was actually on the Amtrak on my way down to Washington D.C. for the Social Ministry Gathering; when my father called my cell phone to tell me of the President’s offer at the press conference, I responded the timing of the announcement was because the White House knew that the “Catholics were coming” – a bit tongue in cheek perhaps – but who knows!) While this compromise on the part of the President was a good first step, there remains some significant concerns on the part of the Church, particularly the fact that the definition of who the HHS deems a “religious employer” remains exceedingly narrow: covering only organizations who hire and serve primarily those of their own faith, and will also still involve the government in deciding exactly what is and is not effectively a “Catholic ministry”. In response to these accommodations, the Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on March 14th issued a statement on Religious Liberty that invited the Executive Branch to continued dialogue in an effort to secure broader exemptions from the law that would not involve the Federal government forcing Church institutions to act against Church teaching, and urged Catholics everywhere to pray for religious liberty – at home and abroad.

 

Since then of course, the whole controversy itself has been sucked up into the vortex that is the “culture wars” in our society, where vitriol serves as oxygen that feeds a fire of misunderstanding and miscommunication that generates intense heat but very little light. So outrageous has the public discourse on this matter become that on the one side, you had a nationally prominent radio commentator speculating on the number of intimate encounters a graduate student who gave testimony before a Congressional Sub-committee in favor of the contraceptive mandate had on a monthly basis, and on the other, there was a mean-spirited and ignorant full page ad in the New York Times that called Catholic women “enablers” of the Catholic Bishops’ “war against women” urging them to “vote with their feet” and “exit – en Mass” in a tawdry attempt at double entendre. The whole situation is incredibly sad, and has obfuscated the entire issue of the religious liberty concerns of the Church, as often happens in our sensationalistic, media driven society when issues of sexuality and human reproduction are added into the mix.

 

Like most people, I have my own personal responses to the situation, and they correspond – like most personal reflections do – to my life’s experiences. While I do not practice law per se, as a graduate of law school I am very concerned about the erosion – both in the present situation and others – of institutional conscience protection. While the mainstream media often concentrates on violations of individual rights and freedoms, institutional freedoms often suffer a lack of public sympathy; this frankly is much to our determinant, because as anyone who has ever tried to bring about any kind of social change comes to realize, individuals effect social change collectively through the institutions of civil society – institutions such as the Churches and their social welfare agencies. The importance of this insight was brought home to me when – soon after my graduation from Law School – I had the opportunity to travel to several republics of the former Soviet-controlled Eastern Block soon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s. I actually had traveled there with members of a group that was sponsored by the New York Times called “The Center for Independent Journalism”; the goal of this organization was to teach journalists, and the newspaper editorial boards that employed them, the ins and outs of how a “free press” operated – so long had the papers been under government control and oversight they had forgotten the habits they needed to make their now “free press” run. Being in those countries, at that time, with a group dedicated to teaching the principles of a free press made me very proud of our country and its freedoms – Americans are rightly very proud of our Constitution, and particularly our First Amendment, which guarantees for us freedom of speech, and of the press. But what we should not forget is the other essential freedoms that great First Amendment guarantees to us just as precious as our freedoms of speech and press. I think this is summed up best a famous First Amendment scholar and United States Court of Appeals Judge for the 9th Circuit John T. Noonan Jr. when he wrote, “an unregulated, unregistered press is important to our democracy. So are unregulated, unregistered Churches. Churches have played an important – no, an essential – part in the democratic life of the United States….In a secular age, Freedom of Speech is more talismanic than Freedom of Religion. But the latter is the first freedom in our Bill of Rights”.

 

As someone who as part of his job is asked to help Catholic Charities staff identify the “Catholic identity” of our work, I am equally concerned with the overly narrow definition of what constitutes our ministry. Whenever I am approached and asked why it is that Catholic Charities does the things that it does, I always find it instructive to turn to the 25th Chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel and ask the questioner to read the admonitions of Jesus as to what is required of us to live a righteous Christian life: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the ill and visiting the imprisoned – it reads almost like our annual report! And of course, in our care for the least of our brothers and sisters, we try as best as we can to do so in a way that – in a phrase made famous by the Hard Rock Café  – “Loves All and Serves All” – regardless of their race or gender, beliefs or religious practice. How is it that the drafters of the HHS regulations were unaware – or at least tone deaf – to this fact and the impact this could have on our good work? There are those who see malevolent intent in this action, perhaps this is true – or perhaps it was just naiveté – or maybe we weren’t telling our story long enough, and loud enough to enough people.

 

And so, I conclude this post right back where I began – “there and back again”: almost no issue is ever won or lost completely and forever, and it is the work of Christians and other people of good will in every generation to be defenders of that which is laudable and essential for all our human flourishing. It appears now that – at least for the short term – one of those good and laudable essentials that require renewed appreciation and defending – in addition to all those other things required to live lives of Human Dignity – includes our cherished right to religious liberty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has an excellent page on their website that can help concerned citizens refamiliarize themselves with this foundational principle and steps needed to secure this essential liberty for themselves, for the Church and for all who cherish freedom of conscience.