Republican Catholic Bishops

August 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

It sounds as if Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the big, jolly face of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), has for the moment dodged accusations of sheer Republican favoritism by agreeing to give the closing prayer at the Democratic National Convention next week as well as at the Republican gathering this week. He is even taking criticism from some to his right about having invited the “pro-abortion” Obama to the New York archdiocesan fundraiser  to take place on October 19.

I am not massively relieved by all of this. Paul Ryan, that distinguished Ayn Rand Catholic nominated by the Republicans last night for the vice-presidency, is still personal friends with Dolan from his days in Wisconsin.  And don’t let Dolan’s scheduled appearance at the DNC obscure the unvarnished attack by the USCCB he leads on the signature  achievement of Obama’s presidency, the Affordable Care Act, which provides health coverage for 40 million uninsured Americans.

I must confess that I continue to find this attack by the US bishops, in an election year, on the Democratic candidate for president, genuinely stunning. Now as I detailed in an earlier blog-post, I am an Irish-American Catholic of a certain sort. My father told my brother and me that if we ever voted Republican, we would go to hell. I was in college before I realized that there was such a thing as a Republican Catholic. Franklin Roosevelt modeled the New Deal on the services the New York (Irish) Democratic machine had provided its constituents for decades. How could our bishops now be supporting candidates who want to abolish the social safety net and go back to the laissez-faire economics that  caused a million of my ancestors to starve to death?

I asked one of my very smart Irish-American reform Catholic friends in Philadelphia why she thought the bishops were doing this. “They’re Republicans,” she responded. I still couldn’t believe it.

I couldn’t believe it, that is, until I had a conversation with a priest-friend from another part of the country. His bishop, my friend reported, had told him that he had a moral obligation to vote for the Republican candidate for president because of Obama’s support for abortion. My friend, who is nearing retirement and doesn’t have a lot to lose, told the bishop that since this is America, he has the right to follow his conscience and vote for whomever he chooses. So now it has come to me: the US Catholic bishops, whose predecessors were the shepherds of huge numbers of poor, suffering white-ethnic immigrants, and who are presently the shepherds of millions of struggling Hispanic, Haitian, African and Asian Catholic immigrants, have transferred to the every-tub-on-its own bottom party. Why? Because they oppose the government mandate of free contraception for American women, as a result of which a significant number of said women may well avoid having abortions.

As I argued back in 2010, for the bishops, only sex matters, and in this election year, even more so.


What Paul Ryan Forgets

August 20, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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A number of commentators, myself included, have been opinionating of late about whether Paul Ryan has a “Catholic problem.”

Another dimension of Ryan’s public profile worth considering is his Irishness. Ryan apparently gets a lot of mileage out of claiming to be a rags-to-riches Irishman:  descended from Famine Irish, as they’re called, but now wealthy thanks to his financially successful parents and grandparents.

Trouble is, that story leaves out a few details. For example, the fact that a million Irish, the vast majority of them Catholic, starved to death during that same Potato Famine of 1845 to 1850 that Ryan claims so proudly. And that the British government contributed massively to this starvation by deciding that it would be bad for the Irish character if the government gave hand-outs to the starvees. And that said government was immovably committed to the belief that if they just let the market take care of problems like this, everything would straighten itself out. This economic ideology, which resulted not only in the deaths of a million Irish but in the forced emigration of two million more, is called “laissez-faire capitalism” or “neoliberalism.”  And it’s the economic theory that underpins Ryan’s much-touted budget.

I was thinking of writing about this–about how our Irish-Catholic ancestors, Paul’s and mine, are basically turning over in their graves because of the cuts he’s proposing–when an historian named John Kelly saved me the trouble. (If you want to become a successful blogger, you have to write about things the moment you think of them and not spend the weekend up the Hudson at a fabulous wedding!!)

In an article called “Paul Ryan’s Irish Problem” in the August 18 issue of The Daily Beast, Kelly writes,

“The Irish famine, widely regarded as the worst natural disaster of the 19th century, began when, between 1845 and 1850, repeated crop failures reduced the population of Ireland by a third. But crop failure wasn’t what caused the worst of it: a government economic philosophy called ‘Moralism’ and speeches made in Parliament that are almost word-for-word like Ryan’s own speeches about his Republican budget are what made the famine catastrophic, causing needless deaths.

“Charles Trevelyan, the British official who oversaw famine relief, was so intent on rooting out the ‘cankerworm of government dependency’ from the character of hungry peasants that he ordered relief food be sold rather than given away. That decision was the single-most devastating one, increasing famine deaths multifold—and unnecessarily.

“The words Paul Ryan used, last March, to introduce the Republican budget that eviscerates Medicare and other ‘entitlements,’ had, to my famine-trained ears, an eerie echo to Trevelyan’s. Ryan declared that America was at an ‘insidious moral tipping point,’ adding that ‘the president is accelerating this.’ He went on to say that a capacious safety net ‘lulls able-bodied people’…’into lives of complacency and dependency, which drains them of their very will and incentive to make the most of their lives. It’s demeaning.’ Far better for the American character for the poor to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps”…”

Drawing on his new book, The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish PeopleKelly argues that Ryan (and Romney) are rigid ideologues much like Trevelyan and his fellow strengthener of the Irish character, Sir Randolph Routh, who cared not the least about the effects of their policies on the starving peasants of Ireland. He concludes:

“Whether 165 years ago across the ocean or now, in America, there’s a danger  in the inflexible ideas of staunch ideologues… The British government assembled some of the most able bureaucrats in Whitehall to oversee famine relief. But men like Trevelyan and Routh were free market ideologues, and ideology creates a form of tunnel vision that blinds the ideologue to context.

“Yes, the free market is a very efficient instrument, but it runs on the profit motive, and in a period of crisis—whether 1845’s catastrophic crop failure or our current economic near-collapse—measures need to be taken—feeding the hungry, employing the unemployed—that, in the short run at least, won’t make anyone money.”

I have a funny feeling we won’t be hearing too much about this side of Paul Ryan’s Irish heritage at the Republican Convention next week.

More on Paul Ryan and Ayn Rand

August 15, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Jennifer Burns, the Stanford historian whose radio interview I discussed in my last post, has more to say about Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Among other things, she argues that no matter how much Ryan thinks of Rand, Rand wouldn’t think much of him.

An Ayn Rand Catholic?

August 14, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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As you surely know by now, Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket. Paul Ryan, of course, is the author of a budget passed by the US House of Representatives in March that would have cut Medicaid and other health programs by $770 billion and other programs, including welfare, food stamps, agriculture subsidies and transportation by nearly $2 trillion. You also may have heard that Ryan is a Roman Catholic.

What you may not know is that the great inspiration of Ryan’s career in politics is Ayn Rand, the 20th century Russian emigre novelist, and political ideologue. Ryan announced this himself at a meeting of the Ayn Rand Society in 2009, that is to say, three years ago. Rand was adamantly opposed to any connection between the government and the economy. She had her reasons: she’d grown up under Soviet communism and believed that Stalinist repression of free enterprise was the greatest evil known to humankind. Her philosophy is the absolute reversal of all things communist: laissez-faire economics, radical individualism, every tub on its own bottom. She despised the New Deal, and hated Eisenhower for not eviscerating it. (To learn more about all this you can listen to an interview of the Stanford University Ayn Rand scholar, Jennifer Burns, on today’s Brian Lehrer Show  on WNYC).  This radical economic individualism is what Ryan’s budget embodies and what Romney has endorsed by choosing Ryan as his running mate.

The other thing worth knowing about Rand, however, is that she was an absolute atheist. This, according to Dr. Burns, was why, despite her opposition to communism, she was not popular in the 1950s and 1960s, during the “Cold War.” Communism was identified with atheism, so an atheist anti-communist was a contradiction in terms. She was also adamantly opposed to libertarianism, believing it was hypocritical, and hated Ronald Reagan because of his adulation of the Religi0us Right. In some respects, she was an individualist’s individualist, belonging to no party except her own. This is the great inspiration of Paul Ryan’s career in “public service,” as he describes it.

In her interview Dr. Burns argues that as Paul Ryan has become a figure on the national stage, he has tried to put some distance between himself and Ayn Rand’s atheism, but that his economic position is still Randian through and through. And if you’ve studied much philosophy you realize that it’s not so easy to to divide something like the religious/metaphysical dimension of a world-view from its economic/political perspective: atheism fits pretty well with massive individualism and letting the market take care of everybody. Alternatively, it’s kind of hard to believe in the Christian God and leave your neighbor to shift for him or herself. (See, for example, Luke 10:25–29.)

So as a Randian, can Paul Ryan be a Catholic? Well, as another Paul said, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), so I guess Ryan is as much a Catholic as the rest of us sinners. It’s worth noting, however, that the US Catholic bishops criticized Ryan’s budget fairly strongly, arguing that it fails to meet the moral criteria of “promoting the common good of all.” With the choice of Ryan as Romney’s running mate, the bishops’ criticism is getting a certain amount of play, in an editorial in the New York Times, for example.

Trouble is, hardly any ordinary Catholics are aware of the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget. (I’ve been taking a survey.) What they’re aware of is that the bishops sponsored a two-week protest against the Obama administration’s denial of Catholic institutional and individual entrepreneurial religious freedom. I’d be willing to bet my vast fortune that not fifty priests in the entire country addressed the bishops’ criticism of the Ryan budget from the pulpit. How many do you supposed spoke of the “Fortnight of Freedom”? Meanwhile, I note that Paul Ryan’s ideological mentor, Ayn Rand, was adamantly pro-abortion. Wonder what Paul-baby will make of that one?

Wisconsin, Missouri, Whatever

August 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

That last post of mine was terrific, wasn’t it? Acerbic, pointed, typical MR.

Too bad I had the two events in the same state when reallly, they’re in two different states.

It would have made  pretty good blog if I’d said that the attack on the temple in Wisconsin illustrates how silly the Missouri amendement is. Too bad I didn’t write that one.

There are several morals to this story:

1) Don’t write blog posts in a hurry when you’re rushing to leave on vacation.

2) Don’t spend your life on the East and West coasts. There really is a lot to learn about in between.

3) Study harder in geography class.



Religious Freedom, Missouri Style

August 6, 2012 at 9:37 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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According to the New York Times, an as-yet unidentified gunman entered a Sikh Temple in suburban St. Louis during the Sunday service yesterday morning, killing six people and wounding three others. When police arrived on the scene the gunman shot one of them and a second officer shot and killed the gunman.

 Attacks on Sikhs in the US increased after 9/11; a Sikh was attacked in Arizona four days after the attack on the World Trade Center. It is believed that in many cases attackers confuse Sikhs, whose male practitioners wear turbans, with Muslims. whose male practitioners do not. There are twenty-five million Sikhs in the world

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Missourians will go to the polls to vote on Amendment 2 of the state constitution, which ostensibly strengthens the right of citizens to express their religion, and in particular, gives students the right to pray in school. According to, it also gives students in public schools the right to refuse to learn things that are against their religion:

“According to the language in the amendment, if a student who believes in creationism is asked to take a test on the scientifically accepted theory of evolution, the student could point to the new amendment and get out of the class. While the idea of creationism is allowed in private Christian schools, using it as an excuse in a public school could create a situation that makes everyone uncomfortable. Controversy could also arise if religions outside Christianity were used in public schools. Christianity is the most dominant religion in America, but other religions, such as Islam, are often looked down on. One could only wonder what the reaction would be if a Muslim student complained that their religious freedom was being infringed.”

Will learning the difference between Muslims and Sikhs be considered a violation of students’ religious freedom? Is the right to massive ignorance protected in Amendment 2, or, for that matter, by the First Amendment to the US Constitution?

Pollsters predict that the amendment will be supported by 80% of the voters, but commentators also predict that it will be held up in court for years. One can only hope.

You may wonder why I am commenting on this in a column about American Catholicism, aside from the fact that Catholics (presumably) oppose the murder of innocent human beings. Well, the Catholic bishops of Missouri, great defenders of religious freedom that they are, have come out in support of the amendment. One imagines catechetics classes in Missouri Catholic parishes in which children are trained to pray for freedom from contraception at public school gatherings.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying

August 4, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, as you know, I’ve been thinking about death and dying lately. Here’s my latest contribution to the conversation, a review of Richard Wagner’s book, The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying. It appears on Richard’s webpage, with a link to Amazon, and was published originally in the August 2012 issue of  Gumbo,  the newsletter of the Grail in the United States.

The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying: Enhancing the End of Life, by Richard Wagner, Ph.D. Las Vegas, NV: Nazca Plains, 2012. 431 pp. Paperback, $19.95; Kindle, $12.95.

Well, it’s happening. The baby-boomers are becoming senior citizens. I joined Medicare and got my half-price MTA card in April. My husband has retired and we’re planning a trip to Paris.

But getting older isn’t all sweetness and light.  Even as Keith and I are packing, my best friend from college has checked into a hospice in Toronto, her metastatic breast cancer exploding throughout her body.  Ten or twenty years ago I would have characterized this as a catastrophe. Increasingly, it’s the new normal.

Apparently we Americans put a lot of energy into avoiding this “darker” side of getting older. Psychotherapist Richard Wagner has extensive experience helping people to come to terms with their own deaths and the deaths of those they love, so he’s written a workbook for the rest of us: The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying.

The chapters of The Amateur’s Guide are structured around ten sessions of the death and dying support groups that the author leads professionally in Northern California. Ten fictional group members, composites of actual participants, interact with one another, telling their stories, and engaging the material that Wagner and other experts present.  Forms are also provided for us, the readers, to respond to the materials, provide feedback, even evaluate the contents and process of the workshop.

Among the death and dying-related subjects the book/workshop addresses are fear and avoidance of the reality of death, dealing with regrets and old wounds, end-of -life documents and preparations like advance directives, wills and trusts, who to notify, distribution of your possessions, etc., spirituality in death and dying, sexuality and intimacy in the dying process, and what someone’s last weeks and days are actually like.

Reading the responses of the various group members to the presentations and assignments helps to make this material real. But doing the assignments yourself makes death and dying all the more palpable.  I was surprised at how deeply moved—and disturbed—I was as I did the various exercises, for example, writing my own obituary and describing the last weeks and days of my own life. This may not be true for everyone, but for me, engaging the prospect of my death was a sobering experience. But I feel I am better for it.

No book is perfect, of course.  For the first half of the book, I found it almost impossible to keep the ten members of the group straight in my head. I finally made a crib sheet with the name, age, and a brief description of each, which I printed out and kept inside the front cover. The publisher should send out a bookmark with such information on it when someone buys a copy of The Amateur’s Guide so that readers can consult it as each group member begins to “talk.” The book is also pretty large—the cover is eight by ten inches and the book is an inch thick—which made it hard for me to take on the subway, where I do a lot of my reading.

But this is quibbling. The Amateur’s Guide to Death and Dying makes a valuable contribution to helping readers come to terms with an aspect of life that too many of us tend to avoid. Groups around the country would do well to use it to help members begin—or continue—to deal with the reality of death



Terry Gross Interviews Bishop Blair

August 2, 2012 at 11:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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On July 17, Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, interviewed Sister Pat Farrell, the (soon-to-be-former) president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Then, on July 28, she interviewed Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, one of the US Catholic bishops appointed by the Vatican to shape up the LCWR over the next five years.

Responses to the two interviews mirrored the polarization in US Catholicism. Conservatives said Gross was much too easy on Sister Farrell, much too hard on Bishop Blair. Liberals found the bishop harsh and authoritarian.

This may come as a surprise, but I found the bishop benign compared to what I had anticipated. He issued no anathemas, nor was he rude to Terry Gross. He was kind of like your uncle who has worked  in middle-management at an insurance company for forty-five years and reads the New York Post. Not one original thought issued from his mouth during the entire interview. His performance illustrates one of the reasons college-educated US Catholics are leaving the church in droves–sheer boredom.

Lest my “radical feminist” friends think I am being too kind here, let me also say that I thought Terry Gross was entirely too easy on the bishop. One instance in particular comes to mind. Here’s that part of the interview:

GROSS: On a related note – and I’m not attributing this to the LCWR – but I think the issue of contraception is an issue that has driven many women away from the Catholic church. And many women within the Catholic church don’t follow the ban on birth control. And I think it’s fair to say, many women are confounded by the idea that they have to follow the rules set by celibate men who have no idea what it means to be pregnant, who have no idea what it means to have a sex – to know that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy; and that it’s very – it’s very challenging for many women to live in that kind – to live with that kind of rule, that every sexual encounter with your husband might result in a pregnancy.

BLAIR: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That would affect every aspect of your life, of your family’s life; of your health, of the finances of your family, of your ability to work, just of your ability of other children to maybe go to college because there wouldn’t be enough money if there were nine children, as opposed to two children. So on like, every level, every sexual encounter has the potential of affecting your future.

Now – and just on a practical level, this is why I think many women either leave the church, or stay and just don’t follow the church on that teaching. So I’m wondering if you think about that; and what you think about, when you do think about that.

BLAIR: Well, let’s begin with a little history. Until 1930, every Christian denomination was unanimous in condemning contraception. And I remember once seeing that in 1930, when the Anglicans did abandon the teaching – they were the first, I think, to do so – it was the Washington Post that editorialized that this would be the death knell of marriage as a holy institution and would lead to indiscriminate immorality; and legalized contraceptives would create all kinds of problems. Now, 40 years later, in 1968, when Pope Paul VI reaffirmed this received Christian teaching about contraception, he pointed to some of the consequences of separating intercourse and the procreation of children. He said there’d be a gradual weakening of moral discipline, a trivialization of human sexuality, the demeaning of women, marital infidelity often leading to broken families, and state-sponsored programs of population control based on imposed contraception and sterilization. That was in 1968.

Now – I think – 40 years later, it’s pretty clear that all of those things are happening. You know, we live in a world of divorce and broken families, cohabitation, recreational sex, fornication, promiscuity, pornography. And so you have to ask yourself, what are the consequences of this contraceptive morality, or contraceptive practice? But let’s be clear – the church recognizes that couples can have valid reasons not to have children at certain times in their married life. But what is the method, if you have valid reasons not to have children at certain times? People often scoff that the church condemns so-called artificial means but accepts natural family planning. You know, after all, the desired effect is the same, no baby. But…

GROSS: What is natural family planning?…

I, personally, was shocked that Gross allowed Blair to ignore her question as she did. The bishop basically said that contraception in and of itself has caused the decline of marriage. Gross completely failed to bring him back to the actual situation of women who cannot support six, eight, ten children. And both of them seemed unaware of research done right there in Philadelphia (where Fresh Air is produced)  that  William Julius Wilson discusses in the current issue of The Nation. It seems that increasing income inequality, at least for many low-income women who simply cannot find “marriageable” men because of the severely reduced employment opportunities for low-income males, has a stunning impact on the rate of marriage. This, of course, is the sort of thing that US Catholic Sisters spend entirely too much time on.

As the interview ended, I had a vision of the hierarchically-led US Catholic church of the future: a few million frozen-eyed zombies marching forward chanting: “Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained. Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained. Marriage exists only between one man and one woman. Contraception is abortion. Only people with male genitalia can be ordained…”

Then I fell asleep.

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