This blog started out as a companion piece to my book, Musings from the Christian Left (excerpts of which can be found in the July 2004 link) and to support a planned radio show. Now, its simply a long term writing project from a Christian Left Libertarian perspective (meaning I often argue for liberty within the (Catholic) Church, rather than liberty because the church takes care of a conservative view of morality.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Archbishop Burke still has it wrong

Archbishop Raymond Burke was recently in Washington speaking at the InsideCatholic.com dinner. Presumably he was speaking as an American bishop rather than as Apostolic Signatura. You can find his remarks here: http://insidecatholic.com/Joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6937&Itemid=48

His main error is equating any politician's stance on Roe v. Wade with advocacy for abortion. The two are not the same thing. Indeed, because Roe was decided on constitutional grounds, politics has been taken out of the equation - at least at the state level. The opinion of most politicians on Roe v. Wade is as important to the disposition of the final issue as their opinion on National Peanut Day. This is not Europe. There is no law which permits abortion, therefore any stand on such a law is irrelevant. If a Catholic politician spoke out in disagreement with the Church on the morality of abortion, stating that it is a viable birth control option, he or she would be breaking Canon Law. Few, if any, do that (Speaker Pelosi being the exception because she misunderstood something she heard in Ethics class 40 years ago).

One can oppose reversing Roe in such a manner as to give states control of this issue without actually advocating abortion. The Fourteenth Amendment is quite clear on the fact that the federal government is the final arbiter of equal protection issues, especially with regard to who is and who is not granted legal status under the law. To say one is in favor of overturning Roe is to say that one is ignorant of both Roe and the 14th Amendment. Worse than that, many who dislike Roe on jurisdictional grounds dislike federal power on this issue generally, including on matters of race. I consider that an unconscionable position and urge anyone who is serious about life issues to consider the caliber of some of the folks they are aligning themselves with.

Using Roe as a litmus test is both polarizing and a distraction from what can be done in the national legislature to limit abortion - and to even have a debate about whether it can be eliminated in the first trimester. Of course, to have this debate, the Right to Life movement would have to deal with serious questions concerning state intrusiveness during the first trimester. Starting life at conception (which is ignorant of embryology) or even gastrulation is much different than simply regulating abortion as a medical issue - which was how it was done before Roe. Doing so would make every pregnancy a public event from when the law recognized it, requiring recordation, possibly investigation and opening up the door for a tort action any time a child is lost - which would seriously harm the practice of obstetrics during that time period. To say that these things would not occur is to live in denial.

It is troubling that Archbishop Burke, given his position as Signatura, does not appreciate the difference between advocating abortion as a birth control option, which is illicit under canon law, and having a position on Roe that the pro-life office does not agree with, mostly because they are badly advised on the constitutional and legal issues involved (in much the same way they were badly advised over how to deal with the sex abuse issue). Until a bill is introduced and advanced in the correct venue (Congress), Catholic politicians are fairly free to say what they want about Roe. Indeed, it is a shame more have not come forward to instruct the Church and the movement on its persistent misunderstanding of the issue - although it is likely because they don't want to be seen as quarreling directly with the bishops in fear of retaliation by Catholic voters.

I would suggest that the Archbishop seek out the counsel of those who disagree with him, rather than condemning them for their disagreement. There will be no progress on the issue until this is done.

Roe v. Wade is mostly about electoral politics - indeed, it is a reliable vehicle to mobilize some voters. Dealing honestly with the issue would take away that electoral power, which is waning among most American Catholic voters and will continue to do so as the generations shift. Continuing to align the movement with those who would use the issue in this way increases polarization, discredits the Church (or at least some bishops - including and especially Archbishop Burke) and postpones a solution that would lessen abortion.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Apostolic visitation to American nuns, women priests, abortion and altar girls

For those of you who don't read the Catholic press, there is currently an apostolic visitation going on among the congregations of American women. No reason has been given for this - however many regard the exercise as a witch hunt for heretics - possibly for those who support ordaining women to the priesthood. It could also have to do with making sure that congregations which cannot afford to care for their elderly members are taken care of. Let us hope it is the latter and not the former. For more information on this whole matter, see the National Catholic Reporter, which gives much ink to this issue. Here is the latest commentary: http://ncronline.org/news/us-sisters-have-served-grace-and-fidelity

The reason many think the former is true is because many congregation members came to the defense of Father Ray Bourgois when the Vatican threatened excommunication for his participation in the ordination of women as priests by a break away sect which does that kind of thing. This probably has some basis in fact, although we many never know. Certainly there is scriptural and traditional basis for women as priests, as some women were mentioned to be Apostles by St. Paul, including the benefactor of the Roman Church, Priscilla. Indeed, she may have been the first "Bishop of Rome" before Peter arrived, since some think that Benefactor was a synonym for Bishop or Pastor. It is also related in some tradition that the Agape Meal, which was the forerunner of the Mass, was often hosted and presided over by women in the early church. Most importantly, the first apostle was Mary Magdalene, since she was the first to witness the resurrection and likely had a leading role in where ever St. John wrote his Gospel, which some say was Alexandria, Egypt. It would seem that John, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus went that way while James the son of Joseph and others stayed in Jerusalem - with that community relocating to Damascus after the fall of Jerusalem.

Many in the pro-choice movement believe that the desire to make abortion illegal has more to do with keeping women in their place, particularly among Catholic prelates. There is an easy way to dispel this perception - ordain women and give the leaders of the congregations of women the same honors as some leaders of congregations of men - consecrate them as Bishops and give them a diocese or two. Indeed, red hats (cardinalates) should not be out of the question. Indeed, the Orthodox Metropolitan of Greece has ordained women as deacons, mainly those who serve in congregations of women.

This whole controversy brings to mind the question of altar girls, which serve in my parish. When this question was being considered, I found myself attending early morning Mass at St. Mary's in Alexandria, Virginia. The pastor gave his reasoning for not having altar girls there. He based his reasoning on the fact that being an altar server was seen as a recruiting device for the priesthood, so letting girls serve in this capacity would send the wrong message. I agree that letting girls serve on the altar does send that message, which is why I, and I believe many progressive Catholics, favor the practice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

CCD, charter schools, reform in the Church, teachers unions and taxes

Today we are taking out daughter to CCD for the first time this year. She is in first grade, so if she wishes to take first Communion next year at grade level, she must go.

That part doesn't bother me. What bothers me is that I would prefer that she be able to go to Catholic school like I did full time. Back in the day, my father made more than I do with inflation, although not necessarily more than my wife and I. What is killing us is housing cost and the cost of tuition. Our local school is more of an elite school than St. Pius X in San Antonio, although not too terribly so, since the tuition is not much more than her daycare was. Still, the extra $700 a month it would take is an amount we do not have (indeed, my college tuition was cheaper in the 1980s).

If we lived in DC in certain neighborhoods, we could send my daughter to a Charter school run by the former parochial school personnel but now funded by the District government. This is a model I suggested to the Archdiocese back when I was working for Mayor Barry. Economic circumstances drove them to it when the only other choice was to close these schools and leave the children to an aging public system. The Catholic schools in Alexandria face no such economic pressure and there is no move to charter schools here, since the schools here we have are quite good. Additionally, you will find that the divide between who is in public school and who is in private school has a bit of a racial component and there seems no move to change that either.
More importantly, the Virginia Constitution has a Blaine Amendment. It is illegal to fund Catholic schools of any stripe. This amendment is an example of anti-Catholic bigotry and will likely be overturned on equal protection grounds. The perception when the amendment was enacted was that the Catholic Church was an agent of a foreign power. Given that the Pope actually controlled most of Italy at the time and that many Catholics were recent immigrants, that fear was understandable, as was the Church's medieval form of governance. Many Protestant denominations had returned by this time to biblical norms of democracy.

While strong control of the appointment of bishops is necessary when national governments would do so instead (like in Russia or China under the Communists), it is no longer necessary when the underlying society has full democratic rights. Indeed, much of the lingering resentment at (and indeed within) the Church has to do with the fact that most Bishops look to Rome rather than to their own flocks for their authority. In ancient times, God was seen to speak through the entire people of God - which means the collected laity rather than the collected bishops. It does not help that the property held by the Church is in the Bishop's name and controlled by him. In an era when it is quite easy to set up a foundation to own and control that property and the underlying institutions, personal episcopal control is no longer required. Indeed, the office of deacon is meant to be a stewardship office, so that the bishops and priests are not distracted by such worldly matters as a new roof or the hiring of teachers. Recognizing and negotiating with a teachers union is a lot easier if you are a deacon in service to the community than it is if you are a bishop jealously guarding your authority, as most due in such negotiations.

Indeed, much of the resistance to funding Catholic schools is no longer from the right wing - it comes from the teachers unions. That is easily resolved by conditioning acceptance of these funds on allowing collective bargaining with an independent board. Most of the faithful would think this reasonable, especially those of us who cannot afford Catholic schools currently. Oddly enough, most of us were also the Obama voters in the Church.

The final issue is funding. The answer is not to simply take money from current public school systems to fund Catholic charter schools. Rather, there must be an increase in funds, since current Catholic school students would also benefit. This means taxes must increase. Because these students often come from a higher economic class, this tax should hit that class more heavily and fully fund the additional cost. This means either shifting away from property taxes to income tax funding of education (leaving property taxes to take care of transportation and public safety) or in setting a surtax on higher value residential property (including rental), if not both. Of course, because the tax increase would be more broad based than simply taxing current Catholic school parents, the added burden on each taxpayer would still be less while the benefits for current parents would be more substantial.

The benefits for current kids in CCD would be inestimable, however, since they would receive an education in an entirely different atmosphere than the public schools - from discipline to Christ centeredness. Such benefits are inestimable and I want that for my daughter five days a week, rather than 90 minutes a week.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Health care update: the Catholic Alliance(s), truth versus slander

Today's update is about two organizations, both called the Catholic Alliance. The first is the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. They are promoting health care reform and are in unity with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have come out for health care reform - and who agree with the President about making sure the reform bill is abortion neutral. You can find their web page at http://www.catholicsinalliance.org/. If you want the truth about health care, go to this site.

Then there is the Catholic Alliance, who are associated with Priests for Life. There site is here: http://www.priestsforlife.org/government/cathalliance.htm They are a bit more rabid on the abortion issue, even though, as frequent readers know, the connection between any individual taxpayer and any publicly funded abortion is no greater when it is directly subsidized than when it is indirectly subsidized through the tax treatment of private insurance for employers. Some would call them more partisan than Catholic - indeed, First Things has reported that they are an offshoot of the Christian Coalition.

For more details, see the Leadership University web page here: http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9602/articles/editorial.html. What is more troubling is their behavior this past weekend at the Tea Party March on DC. Rachel Maddow reports that they produced signs that said: "Bury Obama Care with Kennedy." You can view the segment here: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/ You can see a sample of the sign here, along with other troubling signs, on the Washington Independent page: http://washingtonindependent.com/58779/scenes-from-the-912-dc-tea-party-protest-part-i

I can only react one way to that: SHAME ON THEM! In the Catholic Church, we pray for our dead. We do not mock them.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Joe Wilson's War on Immigrants

There are two ethical issues in play regarding Congressman Joe Wilson's regretable outburst last night, where he shouted "You lie!" at the President of the United States.

First is the outburst, which violates decorum and custom. This is a violation of social ethics, but not moral ethics. It is pitiful enough and he has apologized for it.

The second issue is the violation of the ethic of hospitality that is ancient and fairly universal, although it is explict in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Molesting the alien (and what are the Militia's doing if they are not doing that) was considered sinful in ancient Israel and a reason for several exiles as punishment. Jesus also said, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." The whole anti-immigrant meme in the Republican Party (which Congressman Wilson said he still believes in) is in violation of scripture and will cost them at the ballot box as reasonable people recoil at it and as immigrants gain status and then citizenship. This is before the Lord deals with such as these in the hereafter.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

School is starting today, so which Alexandria high school is more pro-life?

School is starting again today in Alexandria, Virginia. In Alexandria, we have two high schools, the Catholic Bishop Ireton and public T.C. Williams High School.

Bishop Ireton High School busses students to the annual March for Life and has a supportive pregnancy policy. In addition, it requires counseling for both parents, both when there is a pregnancy and when it is suspected that a pregnancy has been ended through voluntary abortion (and if spiritual direction is refused, the child is no longer welcome).

T.C. Williams has no policy on abortion. However, it does provide services to student mothers, including in-school day care through Alexandria's Campagna Center. Bishop Ireton doesn't do that. Catholic Colleges don't do that either.

Sometimes pastoral support is not enough. Even accommodating a pregnancy is not enough. Accommodating motherhood is what is required. T.C. Willilams does that, while Ireton does not. It is perhaps time to abandon the whole adoption meme in the Church (which serves the purposes of the providing kids to childless couples, which is a profitable sideline) and instead make sure that every pregnant student at the high school and college levels are enabled to continue their educations with full support (and free tuition - as well as living expenses). Going to that level would actually decrease the number of abortions. That would be walking the walk. Until this happens, is it any wonder that the Church's pronouncements at election time about a culture of life tend to ring hollow?

For more information on Bishop Ireton, see http://www.bishopireton.org/Document.Doc?id=69
For more information on the Campagna Center, see http://www.campagnacenter.org/

Monday, September 07, 2009

DC Examiner Blog

I've got a new blogging gig on the DC Examiner newspaper. Please check it out. Click on the title or right there-> for to my Labor Day post. I am also now crossposting, so here it is:

Happy Labor Day! This is the day traditionally set aside to honor workers, particularly those who are part of organized labor. Like most years, current events intrude on our Labor Day, which is apt, since like Martin Luther King Day, it is not just a holiday for rest or barbeques. Rather, it is a holiday to assess where we are falling short as a society in providing a decent and just workplace. This is especially necessary in a time of economic recession. In such times, employers, though stressed, still have the upper hand, particularly in absence of a Union.

For Catholics, this is a particularly important holiday. One of our most important saints, St. Joseph, is the patron of workers. On this day, we should also recall a history of Catholic Social teaching which has encouraged the union movement, from Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum to the recent encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which continues the tradition of honoring organized labor.

Caritas in Veritate not only extols labor as part of the solution domestically, but also encourages the labor movement to consider other stake holders, particularly in the developing world. The Holy Father hits the nail on the head here, since standing for workers rights worldwide, particularly in the context of international trade, benefits both workers in the developing world and American workers, since it removes the incentive to offshore jobs to escape restrictions on working conditions and fair pay.

As Catholics, we need to look at how we treat our own employees. As individual employers or stock holders, do we speak out for good pay for workers or do we want management to maximize profit. Caritas in Veritate is very clear that profit cannot be our only focus - sometimes the truth hurts.

Archbishop Martino recently resigned due to fatigue, brought about largely by Resistance to school and parish closings that were likely quite necessary given the financial state of his See as well as his Resistance to the unionization of teachers in this Diocese. His responsibility as a financial steward clashed with his responsibilities toward the workers. For whatever reasons (either personal politics or the demands of stewardship) he opted for Resistance to labor.
Even though I am thoroughly in favor of the rights of workers to organize, I can still sympathize with the Archbishop on this issue. He must compete with a publicly funded school system which can afford a unionized workforce because of their reliance on taxpayer funding rather than on tuition and contributions. Likewise, Catholic employers and stockholders must content with competition that is not bound by Catholic Social Teaching in paying its workers.

This is why Labor Day is and should be a political holiday, particularly for Catholics.

In many states, the Blaine Amendments prohibit public funding of Catholic Schools. Indeed, they were enacted in an anti-Catholic environment, where nativists feared large immigrant populations with allegiance to a Pope who was also, at the time, the autocrat of much of Italy. Today, the Pope has no political power, yet in some quarters, Resistance to funding Catholic education still exists. Oddly, it is now the conservatives who are more in favor of funding Catholic education while the teachers union is against it.

Like many dilemmas, this one is not insoluble. Catholic Schools, if given public funds, could afford to unionize. Unionized Catholic Schools would also no longer attract Resistance from the teachers unions. Of course, some autocratic bishops are against dealing with a union under any circumstances, which is an artifact of Church governance. Perhaps it is time for the clergy to cede control of schools and social services to the laity. Indeed, this might be the first step in drafting a compromise to make sure Catholic schools are adequately funded. When the Pope ceded the Papal States to a united Italy, he was more able to exercise moral leadership. This is a lesson that should not be lost on the Bishops.

The dilemma faced by Catholic business owners is also solvable and the solution also required public action. The market, on its own, does not predispose firms to paying a living wage. Indeed, in high tech firms, where the state of the art changes quickly, it is easier to fire a highly paid worker who, though more productive, likely has family obligations and expects a higher wage, in favor of hiring two workers fresh out of school. If payment for longevity were accomplished through stock ownership and the payment for dependents were separated from salary and transferred to an expansion of the federal Child Tax Credit, with matching credits at the state level in high cost areas, the incentive to fire older workers goes away. Such a tax reform would also allow Catholic employers, indeed all employers, to pay a just and living wage (since Catholics do not have a monopoly on social justice).

There is currently an opportunity to bring the subject of tax reform up. Part of the health care reform bill includes an employer mandate, with an 8.5% payroll tax required of firms who do not provide health insurance in order to fund tax supported health insurance. This is a rather large pill to swallow and when this comes to light, I have no doubt there will be some Resistance. This Resistance will provide an opening to discuss comprehensive tax reform, which I believe is necessary to get health reform passed. If tax reform is undertaken, as Catholics, we need to demand that it include provisions for expanding the Child Tax Credit. More than making sure that any health care bill is "abortion neutral," providing an adequate family wage through expanding the Child Tax Credit is a life issue. Indeed, such a reform would do more for the Culture of Life than anything else we could do as Catholics.

I hope everyone has a happy and thoughtful Labor Day, as Congress returns this week and there is much to be done.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Health care reform and the end of abortion

Got your attention? Good. There are two ways to consider this topic, both of which are equally possible. The first is the nightmare scenario for the pro-choice movement. In the nightmare scenario, Catholic hospitals expand in many parts of the country and, armed with a conscience clause, provide health care but not abortion services. In addition, these hospitals form an HMO system to compete with other carriers - without offering abortion services. If they grow large enough and get cheap enough, abortion won't be covered under any insurance plan. Combined with a government option which also excludes abortion services, the trend could get pretty bad for abortion providers. This is a reasonable approach, but it is quite heavy handed and, on its own, would simply herald the return of the back alley and self-induced abortion.

There is another way to consider this topic and it has to do with tax reform. Currently, the Congress is desperately trying to find a way to fund health care without breaking the bank. Pressure is building to exclude Medicare as a funding source (even if doing so would not impact health care at all). Eventually, some type of tax reform will be necessary. There are enough fiscally conservative Democrats in the Senate to prevent hitting the rich too hard over this - which is probably a good thing, since broad based health care reform should come from a broad based tax, saving tax increases on the rich for paying down the debt - which will be vital as the baby boomers age.

The kind of broad based tax I am talking about here is similar to a payroll tax, but not exactly a payroll tax. Len Burman, the former head of the Brookings/Urban Tax Policy Center proposed a Value Added Tax, along with the conversion of income taxes at the 15% rate (with a 25% rate for rich people) into what basically amounts to a payroll tax with automatic filing and the automatic paying of subsidies to the poor. (wealthier people would still file). He believes that people will accept a VAT if they no longer have to file taxes and if the VAT covers health care reform. Of course, his reform also removes the deductibility of insurance for businesses and channels all health care spending through the VAT based system. Michael Graetz of Yale Law School also proposes a VAT, with prebates being distributed as a refund against payroll taxes and a $50,000 floor for individuals and $100,000 floor for families for the personal income tax - with the retention of certain popular deductions for this tax, which would be set between 20% and 25% of high income.

I could live with both of these plans, but I think I have a better one. This plan has a feature which would make it easier for business to deal with, more closely matches spending with financing and is useful in actually reducing the abortion rate by about 75%. Still with me?

What I propose is an expansion of the Business Income Tax to all business types, including sole proprietorships and partnerships and the separate filing of high income personal income taxes, with floors of $75,000 for individuals and $150,000 for families. This tax would replace the corporate income (or profits) tax, payroll taxes and all taxes collected at the 15% and 25% income tax rates, as well as the lower 25% of all of the higher rates. In order to make the rate seem lower, there would be a Value Added Tax, which would be paid directly by consumers and would cover discretionary military and civilian spending (not inclusive of military retirement).

The business income tax would cover entitlements now funded under military retirement, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, TANF, Food Stamps, Housing Assistance, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Making Work Pay Credit, the personal exemptions, the Child Tax Credit, Education Credits, the home mortgage deduction, the property tax deduction and Health Insurance Deductions and Credits. Most of the subsidies for the poor, as well as the various tax credits for families now paid through income taxes would be transformed into an expanded refundable tax child tax credit of at least $500 per child or dependent per month. This is easily funded by eliminating the home mortgage and property tax deductions and the personal exemption. In order to assure that low wage workers aren't paid entirely from tax credits, the minimum wage would be raised to $12 per hour (which removes the need for exemptions for working people and the making work pay credit). TANF recipients would be required to attend school, either for vocational training, college or for basic literacy. Instead of receiving food stamps and other entitlements, they would get the same child tax credit and provider sponsored health care as everyone else. Note that states would also shift to a similar system and would also have a child tax credit large enough to bridge the gap between the federal credit and the cost of living in their state. Some states would have a very low credit, while others, like the DC/MD/VA area, would have a higher credit.

This scheme has a few advantages. For one, most of the tax collected would be immediately distributed to the employees, rather than to the government (which would be smaller, since most social services for the working poor would come through the Child Tax Credit). The second advantage is that housing tax subsidies for the poor and lower middle class would be shifted from the mortgage credit, which is used predominantly by the more well off (who don't really need it buy that expensive home) to the less well off. This will actually lead to a larger housing sector and a more well balanced one. Finally, given the fact that one's income is more closely tied to one's fecundity, it will lead to less abortion. Students with children will no longer have to make the choice between having kids and pursuing their educations. Families will welcome one more child because the tax benefits of that child will match the expense, especially the expense of more housing. With such a decline in the demand for abortion services, they will become harder to come by, making them less available as a birth control option. Why is this, because businesses demand a certain throughput. With a much lower volume, the number of providers will decrease and in some areas go away altogether. People will also no longer feel they have to wait to marry and have kids, since they will be able to afford to do so without first becoming established in their carriers. Indeed, the way to a bigger house is to have more kids.

How would this system work in a downturn, like the one we are now experiencing (which is also experiencing a boom in abortion)? In a downturn, the government would increase the child tax credit, putting more money into people's pockets and increasing spending. The first tax credit employers would take would be the child credit (before any depreciation credits, research credits, etc) and firms that have child credits larger than their tax burden would pay a lower VAT payment. Note that no specific VAT "prebate" will be necessary, since the Child Credit and the increase of the minium wage will make paying the VAT only a minor annoyance.

Our final loose end is the high income surtax. This would fund overseas and naval military operations, net interest and paying down the debt - especially the debt held by the Social Security Trust Fund. This surtax would also be applied to any inherited cash or inkind income paid during the year, so that no taxes would be paid on the estate until it was received - and then only at a rate between 6% and 15% to 20% at the top end of the spectrum. Rates might even be increased more, as the rich will soon realize that it is better for them to pay more now to pay less interest later. After the debt is payed and military forces are withdrawn from the world stage, the surtax would sunset until needed again for military emergencies.

What does this tax plan yield? A way to fund children, thus stopping abortion, while giving everyone health care, enough exposure to the cost of discretionary government spending to demand less of it (especially pork barrell projects), and a mechanism to pay down the debt with incentives to end military deployments (or at least pay for them). Not bad, eh?