Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Bishop and the Politician

I have heard friends lament that the Church is once again in the news this time denying a politician, Representative Patrick Kennedy, communion. They fear that it is more bad press which the Church doesn't need and that it gives the media another opportunity to lambaste the bishops. I, on the other hand, think any opportunity to put the Church's opposition to abortion on the front page is a good thing. At the very least, it gets people talking about this important issue and gives us an opportunity to dispel some persistent myths.

One of the most frequently heard criticisms of the Church's actions over the past years is that it is the role of legislators to represent their constituents, not their personal beliefs and certainly not the mandates of their Church. According to this view, Representative Kennedy is simply upholding the settled law of the land and the wishes of those who elected him to office. For him to go against the wishes of his constituents because of his personally held views would be a violation of his oath of office.

This line of argument was first proposed by Mario Cuomo when he was the governor of New York and has been echoed by every pro-abortion Catholic politician since. However, it does not hold up to scrutiny because it is not at all the way that politicians behave. Politicians routinely support and promote legislation which flies in the face of the values of their constituency. For instance, though the first Gulf War was largely supported by the people of Massachusetts, Senator Ted Kennedy voted against it and was applauded for his courage. He was not representing the opinion of the people of Massachusetts, but his own personally held views. Most recently, the state legislature in Massachusetts enacted a law legalizing same-sex marriage though a majority of Massachusetts residents opposed it at the time. For that reason, the representatives would not allow the legislation to be placed on the ballot knowing it would go down to certain defeat. Again, their actions were not reflecting the interests of their constituents, but their personally held beliefs or the desires of an especially powerful and vindictive special interest.

In the current debate over health-care reform, Representative Kennedy has made it known that he would not support a bill that lacked a public option even though a majority of his constituents oppose it. Neither would he support a bill which did not include coverage for abortions, though his constituents oppose it. It is his personally held view that the public option and coverage for abortions are essential elements of any health-care reform package, and he is more than willing to impose that view on the people who elected him to office. But protections for the most vulnerable in society, the unborn child, he is not willing to either support or promote.

The fact is that Representative Kennedy has the clout because of his family's legacy to enact legislation to protect the unborn child from destruction and perhaps even convince his constituency that such laws are a good thing. He chooses not to whether because he does not agree that abortion is a heinous act or because he is under pressure from special interest groups within his party. Whatever the case, the values and interests of his constituents have nothing to do with it.

It is time for Representative Kennedy to admit that he does not think abortion is wrong and to accept the consequences his support for it has on his relationship with the Church. Of course, there is always hope that he will experience a conversion and become a champion of the rights of the unborn. With prayer and the continued persistence of our Catholic bishops to articulate clearly and forcefully how abortion harms the common good and undermines the future of our country, it is a possibility.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rising Health Care Costs

Access to health care is a basic human right. How that care is ensured to everyone is up for discussion. As always, the ends do not justify the means, and for a program to be morally acceptable it must be effective at delivering what it promises.

Extending health care insurance to more Americans is estimated to save 40,000 lives a year. As followers of Christ, we are bound to work toward providing people more access to quality healthcare.

Part of that commitment entails working to keep the cost of healthcare and insurance premiums within reach of more Americans. The current administration is correct to note that healthcare costs, which grow at a much faster pace than other costs, siphon off funds that would otherwise be used by households to buy food, make necessary home repairs and contract other services which keep the economy humming.

But can government involvement effectively bring down the costs of healthcare and health insurance? I must admit that I am highly skeptical.

A case in point from my own experience as a real estate appraiser.

A year or so ago, before the current crisis in the financial markets "hit the fan", my company charged $295 per appraisal. In April of 2009, Fannie Mae, now run by the US government, required all appraisals to include a new form detailing market trends including median sales price, marketing times and absorption rate. Our fee per appraisal went up to $345 to cover the upgrade to our software and the time involved in completing the additional research. This amounted to an increase of 16.9%.

Appraisals for homes whose mortgages would be insured by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), another arm of the federal government, require more detailed inspections because the appraiser must verify that the heating, plumbing and electrical systems are in working order, that the septic system complies with state regulations, and other items which we would otherwise assume in a conventional mortgage or rely on a home inspector to verify. For our trouble, we charge a modest $50 fee, raising the cost of the appraisal to $395.

This year, FHA has required that any home whose mortgage it insures undergo a second appraisal, again at a typical cost of an additional $395.

So the appraisal which originally cost $295 now costs $790, a 168% increase! And I've not mentioned the additional costs involved in their mandate that one out of ten of those appraisals undergo a review by another appraiser at the cost of an additional $250 each. This has been a boon for appraisers, but a burden on consumers and lenders.

Perhaps government involvement will have the opposite effect in the field of healthcare. But I seriously doubt it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Cost of a Human Life

I read an interesting opinion piece in the Boston Globe on Saturday ("The Cost of not enacting health care reform", by Linday Bilmes and Rosemarie Day 10/07/09)

The authors argue that we work under the erroneous assumption that we are saving money by not insuring more Americans. However, sick and dead people do not work and do not spend money. By insuring more Americans we both save and extend their lives giving us more workers to increase our productivity and more consumers to boost our economy.

It turns out that the government estimates the value of each human life in terms of its contribution to the overall economy to be 7 million dollars. This is important to the cost benefit analysis of government programs. For instance, if a government program costing 100 billion dollars were estimated to save only 100 lives, it would not be considered worth the expense.

The authors apply this cost benefit analysis to the current health care proposals assuming that it will save 40,000 lives a year:

US government agencies typically use a figure around $7 million to represent the lost economic output from each death. If we conservatively use only half the government figure, or $3.5 milllion, it suggest that the annual cost to the US economy of 40,000 deaths is about $140 billion. That adds up to a cost of more than a trillion dollars over a 10 year period - even taking future inflation into account - well above the cost of enacting a health care package.

I find this a compelling argument. But I wonder if these authors would consider applying the same calculus to abortion. If so, we would find that the cost to the economy of ending 1.5 million unborn lives annually is a staggering 5.25 trillion dollars. If we were to multiply that over the 36 years since the legalization of abortion in the US, we would have a sum requiring exponents to calculate. If the price of doing nothing to provide healthcare to the 40,000 people who would otherwise die without it is too high, what is the cost of allowing millions of unborn children never to see the light.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Widow's Offering

They say, "If you need something done, find someone who's busy."

When God needs something done, he chooses a poor person.

The prophet Elijah could not have found a poorer, more desperate person than the widow gathering sticks outside the gates of Zarephath. She was down to her last morsels and was resigned to the fact that she and her son would soon starve to death. The story of her generosity to the prophet despite her own need has fed the faith of countless believers throughout the millenia and has inspired them to generosity even in the face of destitution.

Jesus likewise chose a poor widow as an example of giving in faith. In sharp contrast to the religious leaders whose fine garments covered over their spiritual nakedness, she abandoned all she had to God. She could have held onto those pennies thinking they'd be of no use. She could have looked at the religious leaders in their finery and thought that she needed the money much more than they did. Her generosity, instead, was an act of faith that God would provide for her if she would abandon everything she had into his hands. The story of her generosity now enshrined in the gospels has done immeasurably more good down the centuries than millions of shekels donated to the temple treasury could ever have.

It is an enduring truth of God's plan that he chooses the weak. If God has a plan for us - and he certainly does - we can be sure that it does not involve what we perceive our talents and strengths to be. If we think we are good speakers, he may ask us to be silent. If we think we are good organizers, he may call us to suffer under the chaos of a scatterbrained leader. Most likely, God is going to ask of us something we think we are totally incapable of doing or giving, something outside our "skill set".

This was the experience of every great saint. At some time in their lives they felt the frustration of wanting to do something great for God but being called to do something else. He led them to a ministry they thought was less important or that they felt ill-equipped to undertake. Yet they obeyed and drew on his strength to bring to fruition his great design, a plan much bolder and more effective than anything they could have otherwise mustered. God does all this to make it clear that it is his plan that works, not ours, and that it is his grace that proves effective, not our own gifts and talents.

The best advice I ever got from a spiritual director is that God is in the real, not the ideal. We may dream of doing great things for God, but he most often calls us to do small things with great love. He is calling us to take out the trash, pick up dog poo or coach a soccer team with great love. If we think we're not good at it or capable of it, we may find ourselves called to it nonetheless.

God can only use the poor because they have nothing to lose. They are the freest to give. If we want God to use us, then we must give out of our weakness and need.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Grief and Community

This originally appeared in Wednesday Morning Connection

When I was growing up, everyone in the neighborhood had the local paper delivered for one reason only - to read the obituaries. I remember it being the first page my grandmother would turn to. She would read off the ages of those who died shooting a "see that" look at us whenever they were younger than she.

Reading the obituaries was not about a morbid obsession with mortality, it was about the duty to remember those who had died and to comfort the families. And the spiritual work of mercy to pray for the dead was taken very seriously. Funeral masses and monthly memorial masses were always well attended for that reason. My grandmother's prayer book bulges with memorial cards from funerals and wakes. All of it to commemorate those who have gone before us and to remember them in prayer that they enjoy the mercy of the Savior.

One of the popular readings for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is from the Book of Wisdom: "...their hope is full of immortality" (Wis.3:4). As a Christian people we approach death with hope and confidence for it is the gateway to an everlasting life with the God we long to see. Nonetheless, we never lose sight of the fact that death is a real loss. While the lives of our loved ones are changed and not ended, that change is real and leaves us with a deep sense of grief. Our words of comfort are always accompanied by gestures such as holding hands, crying together and remembering together. Grief brings us right up to one of life's great paradoxes for we are never so alone as when we lose a loved one, and yet we are never so remembered and never so held in prayer by a loving community.

Our shared grief creates community. In the recent past, we have probably never been so united as a country and as a world community as we were after September 11, 2001. There is a shared sense of loss when a soldier is killed, when young people senselessly lose their lives , and when people die unexpectedly in accidents. Even when the loss is economic, when we have even more reason to hold on to our money, we do not forget to be generous. In the face of pain, we remember who we are, that we are inter-connected.

Remembering those who have gone before us and praying for them is a demand of justice. Sharing grief is a constituent element of Christian community. The Church, in fact, was born in the upper room where Jesus shared a last meal with his disciples and where the apostles later gathered to mourn his death. The Commemoration of the Faithful Departed is a time not only to remember where we came from and where we are going, but who we are - a people bonded by loss and directed by a hope full of immortality.


Loving Father,
We celebrate your victory over death
which we already taste when our grief
draws us into the consolation of community.

We pray for those who have gone before us
marked with the sign of faith,
that one more act of mercy may attend them
as they journey into your presence.

Make us generous so that no one may feel
abandoned in their bereavement.

We ask this through Christ our Lord
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever.

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Souls Day

There is quite a different spirit and tone between yesterday's celebration of All Saints Day and our celebration of All Souls Day today.

Yesterday we rejoiced with the saints who already enjoy the glory of heaven, while today we pray for those souls experiencing God's last act of mercy in Purgatory. Yesterday we celebrated Jesus' resurrection victory which the saints already share in, while today we pray for those souls being stripped of the last encumbrance of sin which clings to them. Looking at it again from our perspective, yesterday we celebrated Jesus' promise to us that we will ourselves one day "share the lot of the saints in light", while today we painfully remember that before reaching the glory of heaven we still have to struggle and suffer with the realities of sin and death in our world. Jesus has already won the victory for us, but the drama of redemption is still being played out in history and in our individual lives.

Despite the more somber and penitential spirit of today's liturgy, the hope that faith gives still takes center stage, is still the focus, is the reason we can call today's liturgy a "celebration". For death is no longer the victory of sin over God's gift of life, no longer an senseless and tragic end to human existence, but, in Jesus, death becomes the passageway to everlasting life and salvation.

The Old Testament readings underline this victory of God's mercy over his just wrath. In the first reading from the book of Lamentations the author reaffirms his belief that "the favors of the Lord are not exhausted." Though he interprets the destruction of Jerusalem as God's just punishments for the people's infidelity, he reminds himself that God does not delight in destruction but wounds only that he may heal. In the responsorial psalm, the people of Israel are encouraged to hope in the Lord because he will not keep track of sin but treat us according to his mercy.

But as yet in the Old Testament that hope in God's mercy remains vague. The people continue to await an historic salvific event to focus their hopes upon. It is not until the New Testament that our hope in God's mercy becomes real in the person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His death ripped away the veil barring our access to the Father. By our baptism, we are all given a share in his death and the pledge that we would likewise come to share in his resurrection.

We are a people who continue to live in bondage to sin and in the shadow of death. When we have passed through death, God will show us one last act of mercy by stripping from us whatever stain of sin may still be remaining so that we may look with unveiled faces upon the revelation of his glory which he has had planned for us for all eternity.