Friday, May 29, 2015

Same-sex marriage and Catholic voters

The election in heavily Catholic Ireland last week, with 62 percent of the populace in the Republic voting in favor of same-sex marriage has been widely reported and analyzed.  The first piece I read was by Frank Bruni in the NYTimes, who raises a question he does not answer about why voters in traditionally Roman Catholic countries--from Argentina and Brazil to Belgium, France and Spain--have suddenly, it seems, become "gay friendly."

Why do sixty percent of American Catholic voters polled say they approve of same-sex marriage?  Bruni suggests that young Catholics are "less rooted in Rome." In Europe and Latin America, he goes on, many people pay "primary obeisance to their own consciences, their own senses of social justice."

That last phrase is troublesome. I doubt if the sense of social justice on the part of many Republican politicos in this country is congruent with the church's teachings, going back to Leo XIII in the late 19th century and including Dorothy Day and the Franciscan tradition embodied today most visibly by Pope Francis.  Bruni is overlooking the importance of "thinking with the church," which is not the same as agreeing with everything taught by the church.

That point aside, each country that has so far legalized same-sex marriage is different, so generalizations are not easily made. What is there about the Irish, for example, other than disgust with the hierarchy's handling of the sexual abuse scandal, that would lead them to such a surprising vote?

I would like to think it has a lot to do with charity toward an oppressed minority, a respect for equality in the eyes of God, even if this basic human respect is at odds with the moral teachings of the church.  Of course, there are other reasons, too: a higher percentage of Catholics today are better educated than in the past, at least in the USA.  There is also the Catholic experience with celibate clergy whose numbers include many homosexually inclined priests.

There may also be a paradoxical love of tradition, as E. J. Dionne mentions in his current Commonweal article. What is more traditional than marriage, which indicates a belief in the past as well as the future, a belief that a structure exists, even though outside the sacramental rubric of the church, enabling fidelity and fostering stability.

So it was sad to see the harsh response to the Irish vote from the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin: "a defeat for humanity." The Archbishop of Dublin was wiser, less hysterical: he said that church needed a reality check, that bishops should listen to young people.

Cardinal Kasper of Germany, in another context, has called for a "listening magisterium": a hierarchy that pays real attention to the capacity of individuals to think about moral and social issues in the context of what the church stands for.

One thing is now clear from the vote in Ireland and other seemingly Catholic cultures: the days of top-down authority coming from Rome are coming to an end, with more power being given (in keeping with the Second Vatican Council) to the laity and the local churches.  I hope that gay people will feel more at home in such a church and actually be treated in a Christian way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Greed and the socially dead

As the U.S. presidential candidates line up for 2016, it's "full greed ahead," to quote Frank Bruni's latest column in the NYTimes, referring to the uneasy mix of politics and big money.

Bill Clinton was singled out for earning $100 million over the past twelve years in speaking fees alone; his wife, Hilary, has been asking $200,000 per speech "to pay the bills." Meanwhile, a Miami billionaire bankrolls Marco Rubio, and the King of Jordan flies Gov. Christie in his private plane, among other perks.  Now that Jeb Bush has been able to earn "real money" after leaving his post as Florida governor, he can identify with the recent New Yorker cartoon that said:
"Now that I've made my fortune, I can run for office in order to consolidate it."

The absurd amounts of money pouring into political coffers is no surprise in a world where the top 25 hedge fund managers last year earned $11.6 billion in salary alone, with the top manager earning $1.3 billion, even though the funds themselves were down, paying only three percent interest to investors. What do these plutocrats expect in return for their support of presidential and congressional office-holders?

Meanwhile, the divide between these high-rollers and the shrinking middle class has seldom been wider, and the poor remain invisible. I was struck by a term, used by historian Peter Brown in discussing money in early medieval Christianity, that referred to the poor as the "socially dead," in contrast to the physically dead.

When greed and self-interest rule the public sphere, what happens to the community, its needs and its importance?  How visible are the poor to the donors at charity balls and dinners who enhance their own self-importance by announcing that they will seek the presidency, even if their mind is only on power and money?

I wonder if the socially (and spiritually) dead today do not include those who seek public office for their own enrichment and remain blind to the needy all around them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Race Matters: Is Biology Destiny?

Is racial prejudice, so much in the news as African American youth come in conflict with mostly white police officers, a learned behavior, or is it innate?

Nicholas Kristof in a recent New York Times piece blew me away with his summary from a study, published in  Psychological Science, by a Harvard researcher that indicates we have in our brains an ingrained tendency to racial bias.   "The human brain seems to be wired so that it categorizes people by race in the first one-fifth of a second after seeing a face."

This is very disturbing, at least to me, having thought we learn about racial difference as we grow up.  I think of the boys playing next door to me: two whites and one black, long-time buddies. I thought young kids were color blind.

But Kristof's summary tells us that even infants show a preference for their own racial group: the type of faces they are familiar with. Does this mean we are doomed to spend our lives judging and possibly hating those unlike us?

Whatever the evolutionary origins may be, the answer is no.  The penchant for one race over another does not mean that this is one's destiny.

Kristof suggests that, if we make friendships with other races and come to admire certain athletes or heroes of other races, we will grow more tolerant, thereby overcoming the biological pre-disposition.    We may have hidden gender and racial biases, but we might also disapprove of them; and we can work to counter them.

I thought about some of this while watching a documentary about the Roma people, often called Gypsies: "A People Uncounted," which focuses on the Holocaust and the long-standing prejudice by the white majority in Europe against darker-skinned "gypsies," often stereotyped in story and song as thieves and musicians.  They came to Europe from India a thousand years ago and remain the most widely discriminated against group, with twenty percent of these people experiencing hate crimes today.

There are, I learned, about 12-15 million Roma in Europe; 500,000 were killed at Auschwitz or in mass shootings, and the film gives too much emphasis, I think, on this tragic past and not enough on the present.

The story of the Roma people is important because it has generally been overlooked: these people rarely have had the education or social structure to become writers and academics; they remain wanderers or shunned as outsiders at a time when racism in Europe is on the rise: stories about anti-Semitism make it into the news but rarely do we hear of the Roma people.

The main voice of hope in this bleak view of the European Union and its prejudice is that positive things can occur at the local level: if families, communities, and churches take action on a case-by-case basis, discrimination can be fought.

But the roots of this animosity grow deep, deeper than the thousand-year history of gypsies in Europe, as deep as the brain itself.  Apparently.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Problem with Work

Americans are known for over-working. We have created a consumer society that promotes products people feel they must have to satisfy their quest for happiness, thus leading to debt. Other costs, such a health care and college tuition, prompt too many people to undertake more than one job to pay for the cars, the insurance, and everything else needed to keep up with life in the 21st century.

Compounding the problem today is the proliferation of digital technology that allows many employees to be on call all the time, anywhere. Everyone has a smartphone or similar device attached to his or her body at all times, making stress a constant and making the workplace demoralizing and demanding.

How can we slow down?  How can we find a balance between work and living so we are not burned out?

Sidney Callahan in the recent America magazine notes this problem and suggests that monastic detachment may be an answer. She cites the Rule of St. Benedict, which since the 6th century has governed life in Western monasteries and serves as the model for contemplative prayer today. It is also analogous to the practices of yoga and mindfulness that have become popular.

For the Benedictine tradition, work is valued "without overvaluing and over self-investing in achievement as the measure of identity," she writes.  In the monastery, time for work and study, recreation and hospitality, is limited and secondary to the spiritual life, the "work of God."  As a result, work is important but less important than prayer. It is impossible in such a world for status, money or power to become a goal, as it is in the lives of most people.

The key lesson from the monastic tradition is that "who I am is always more important than what I do."

What a contradiction to today's culture, where what we do (or want to do or used to do) often defines who we are and how we think.

I don't know how the goal of monastic detachment advocated by Callahan can be implemented in the workplace, though I have read that some innovative outfits like Google have developed innovative, flexible schedules where employees can take long breaks for exercise and meditation on the campus where they work.

For most people, however, finding a balance between activity and leisure, with time for creativity and the spirit to flourish while earning enough to pay the bills, is a daunting challenge. But I believe we are creative enough to find solutions before we destroy ourselves.