Archive for November, 2013



“There is absolutely no room for the neocons or libertarians to spin this letter. None.”

That was me, just a few days ago. Boy, was I wrong.

You would think, at my age, that naivete would be long gone, but nope. I continue to underestimate the tenacity of the neocons and libertarians and their concerted effort to somehow reconcile the global capitalist order with Catholic social teaching. I continue, actually, to overestimate humans, despite long experience of disappointment.

If you watched Fr Sirico’s video, which I posted here, you can see the outline of their defense: the problem Francis is addressing is nonexistent . There are no unfettered markets. Further, he isn’t talking about us; we believe in some regulation.

As if the pope were only addressing the most radical anarcho-capitalist notions of a lawless, moneymaking utopia (for the few; for the many it would be a dystopia).

Indeed there are regulations in place just about everywhere, but they tend to be the sort of bureaucratic hoops that the individual or small businessman has to jump through. For all intents and purposes corporations rule unfettered.

Proof? Not one of the bankers whose irresponsible wheeling and dealing and speculating led to the economic collapse of 2008 is in jail. Indeed, the government bailed them out, in an instance when “the market” should have been allowed to kick their asses, right before they were arrested.

Proof? Corporations will get around the very flawed attempt of the ACA to insure all Americans by reducing hours and hiring more part time workers. Because they can, with impunity.

Proof? The stock market has hit an all time high, while at the same time the working class and poor are sinking further into misery.

But the defense that is, oddly, being taken most seriously by those who are threatened by the pope’s criticism is that the English translation is faulty, that it somehow does not faithfully convey the pope’s thoughts.

I do not speak Spanish, so I cannot comment on the specifics regarding translation. However, if Spanish speakers were unanimous in criticizing the translation I might think there was something to the concerns our hand-wringing friends on the right are expressing.

But that is not the case. I have read any number of Spanish speakers say that the English translation is accurate. And translation, by definition, is an inexact process.

Further, all this is a bit moot: the official version is the Latin one, regardless the language in which it was originally composed.

And really, the Vatican is going to release a translation of the pope’s words that somehow contradict him? Incompetence? Or something more sinister?

Is it not clear that these things are really smokescreens? That in fact many people are uncomfortable with the Holy Father’s radical ideas about the global capitalist system?

I would only suggest to our libertarian or neoconservative friends that they read this beautiful exhortation with an open mind and open heart; after all with all the concentration on social questions a lot is being missed. While the pope pretty clearly is critical of the international corporatocracy that is but small part of what he is offering us.

And if, after prayerful reading, you still cannot agree, fine. I realize that much of what the pope says contradicts your long held beliefs, maybe even received under the mistake notion that economic liberalism is somehow “Catholic”; there has been a lot of disinformation about such things for a very long time.

If so, relax. It is not de fide; no one is go kick you out of the Church for adhering to your beliefs, any more than they are going to kick out people who dissent on any number of other teachings of the ordinary magisterium.

Heck, few are shown the door even for dissenting on de fide doctrines, and Francis shows every sign of opening the doors, rather than battening down the hatches.

Just, please, stop telling people that free market ideology is somehow “papal economics”, as the unfortunate Fr Zieba OP  titled his untimely book.

Please stop spinning.

In a world seeing the effects of forty years, more or less, of free market policies, which have provoked nearly unprecedented inequalities and the destruction of the working classes, such a contention can only give scandal.

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It’s the Pope’s Fault


“Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s all my fault.”

Pope Francis made me late for work on Wednesday.

Let me explain.

My old Saturn finally died in early October, with 247,000 miles on it. It rode like a tank and burned oil, but it just kept going, and when the mechanic quoted me a price of over $300 to repair the water pump and the timing belt, I decided to junk it. I got $200 for it, which I considered pretty good.

So I needed another car. I could not afford much, and ended up buying another Saturn, a 2002 with 157,000 miles on it, but it handled nicely, and appeared to have been better cared for than my old one. I figured it would be good for another 100,000 miles. Whoever owned it certainly did not have small children, for the interior was in great shape. And the price was right: $2000, which works out,with the credit union loan, to about $50 a month.

I drove it to work, than back again. The next day, cruising along, about half way to Wooster , with the CD player cranked up, playing a CD of 60s psychedelia I picked up at a garage sale, the engine coughed, then died.


I called a tow truck and had it towed to the mechanic right across from the post office.

The next day they said that all they could figure out was that the engine was full of carbon. They said that the only thing to do was to disassemble the engine and clean it, a labor intensive process.

The cost: $900.

I am no mechanic, but this did not sound right. It ran smoothly right up until it broke down; it seemed to me that if this diagnosis was correct that it would have run roughly for a while before giving up the ghost. Plus, I really could not afford $900. I thought I should get a second opinion.

So I had it towed again, this time to an auto shop that had a good reputation. They are so busy that it took several days for them to get to it. When they did I got a phone call: the problem, they said, is that the gas gauge does not work. It had run out of gas.

One of the last thoughts I had before the breakdown was “Wow, this car gets even better mileage than my old Saturn. I don’t think the fuel gauge has even moved since I got it.”

All it cost me was $75 for the time it took for them to figure it out. To say I was relieved is an understatement. What’s more, I was happy to find a skilled mechanic – this would have eluded most- who also was honest. After all, he could have told me that I needed a new fuel pump and charged me $500 and I would have been relatively relieved.

When I told some friends about this one of them said that he had owned a car with a broken fuel gauge and that he was always running out of gas. I wondered to myself how anyone could be so stupid. I mean, really, all you have to do is set the odometer and keep an eye on it.

Tuesday night I drove home in a snowstorm, driving at about 30 miles an hour. I noticed that the mileage was  over 300, which is when I fill the 12 gallon tank (the car gets over 30 mpg), but I was so eager to get home that I did not stop at the gas station a block from home. I’d get gas in the morning.

So on Wednesday morning, excited about Evangelii Gaudium, which I had read the night before, I was busy writing my first impressions of the letter, and ended up leaving the house a bit late. Hurriedly I got in the car and headed onto the freeway instead of taking the lovely back road that I usually travel.

A mile and a half past Dalton, the tiny town that is about the halfway point, I looked down at the odometer and realized with a start that I had totally forgotten to get gas. I did the math: the odometer read 347 miles. 30 x 12= 360. Wooster was about 10 miles; maybe I should turn back toward Dalton, where there is a gas station.

Just as I thought this, the car stalled, then went dead.


I began walking back to Dalton, thinking that it would be easy to hitch a ride in my postal uniform.

Wrong. I stuck out my thumb, but car after car whizzed by. When I was about half way to town a Jeep finally stopped. The driver was a guy in his late 30s, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He offered to wait while I bought a gas can and gas and give me a ride back to my car. That was really nice, I said, but wouldn’t he be late for work? He said that he was on his way home from work, that he worked third shift. I asked where, and he named a factory in Wooster. He said that until a few months ago he had worked in a steel mill in Canton, the only union mill left, but the company had been bought in a leveraged buyout, and assuming that they would restructure and lay off the union workers and rehire a lower paid workforce, he got out before there was a glut of unemployed steel workers and found a lower wage job in Wooster. He had the union steel mill job for 15 years.

Welcome to Ohio, USA, circa 2013.

So in the end I was only 45 minutes late for work. I didn’t call to say I was going to be late, as my phone was dead and I did not want to ask to use the steelworker’s phone, as he had already been so generous to me.

Fortunately, my boss is benevolent, not hostile, and I was greeted with bemusement, rather than threats.

But it was all the Pope’s fault….

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Well now. Fr Sirico has responded to Evangelii Gaudium.  Very interesting. I watched this video once and then remembered the advice of an old friend, at one time a pentecostal seminarian, to watch preachers with the sound turned off to aid in the discernment of spirits. It works, it really does. I watched Fr Sirico once with the sound, and then without it. His countenance, sans the distracting words, is worried and anxious, up until around 5:20, when he talks about the pope’s line about business as a “noble vocation”. To me that means pursuing industry the way that the Church means it should be pursued, with a view toward the common good, respect for workers’ rights and paying a living wage.

But to Fr S, this was familiar ground, the needed apologia for capitalism, and his face immediately becomes more relaxed.

Don’t let these weasels fool you: they are not on the side of the pope, nor of the poor and working classes. They serve their masters, the corporate manipulators who fund them.

Thankfully, we have a pope who seems remarkably up to the challenge.

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The Joy of the Gospel

I just read Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation. Wow, Just wow. There is absolutely no room for the neocons or libertarians to spin this letter. None. While papal teaching has always been inherently radical – the principle of solidarity, of the primacy of labor over capital, of the preferential option for the poor, etc etc – it often has been cloaked in scholarly prose, in deliberately moderate tones, and even sometimes in ambiguity. Not Francis. Plain-spoken, direct, the pope of the poor and of the people. There is no way that this can be spun. The Acton Institute’s website is strangely silent. Nothing yet from First Things. I joked that the pope’s first encyclical would be called “Anathema Sirico”. Well, instead of an encyclical, addressed to the whole world, we got an Apostolic Exhortation, addressed to the Church, and while its title is “The Joy of the Good News” it might as well have the title I suggested. Sorry if I seem to be gloating; this feels like victory after a long (since ’79, when I returned to the Catholic Church) war.
Several people have cautioned me that this does not spell the end of neoconservatism, nor of Catholic libertarianism. “After all, it is not infallible, you know”. Well, yes; little is. But no one ever again will be able to say that free market ideology is “Papal Economics”, the unfortunate title of Fr Zieba’s book. Poor guy, publishing an apologia for market capitalism with that title about fifteen minutes before the actual pope demolishes his thesis.
And while much will be made, rightly, over the social and economic implications of the pope’s prophetic work, the opening paragraphs read like a personal letter to anyone beyond the initial stages of faith: a call to return to Jesus Christ, to embrace the “joy of the gospel”. This pope is nothing if not a radical: watering the roots, returning to the basics, putting all things in perspective.
I will be writing more about this letter; again I must be off to work.
If you had asked me, a year ago, to design my ideal pope, I could not have come up with a better one. Including the name. Thanks be to God!

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Bad Timing…


Here it is, fifteen minutes before I need to leave for work, and I learn that Pope Francis has issued a new Apostolic Exhortation. I only have time to skim it, but it looks like it is explosive. Those who tried to dismiss this pope’s inherent radicalism by saying that he was speaking off the cuff? Well, they have some ‘splaining to do. A brief excerpt (and I am sure you will be hearing more from me when I have time to read it carefully);

189. Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them. These convictions and habits of solidarity, when they are put into practice, open the way to other structural transformations and make them possible. Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.

 202.The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed, not only for the pragmatic reason of its urgency for the good order of society, but because society needs to be cured of a sickness which is weakening and frustrating it, and which can only lead to new crises. Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality,[173]no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.

203. The dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. At times, however, they seem to be a mere addendum imported from without in order to fill out a political discourse lacking in perspectives or plans for true and integral development. How many words prove irksome to this system! It is irksome when the question of ethics is raised, when global solidarity is invoked, when the distribution of goods is mentioned, when reference in made to protecting labour and defending the dignity of the powerless, when allusion is made to a God who demands a commitment to justice. At other times these issues are exploited by a rhetoric which cheapens them. Casual indifference in the face of such questions empties our lives and our words of all meaning. Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.

204. We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programmes, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.

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It is common on the right to blame the poor for their situation, to criticize what look like very bad decisions. I ran across this firsthand account of “bad decisions”, with the internal logic of one who faces systemic hostility at every turn. This is eloquent, and on a happy postscript, it attracted enough attention that people sent her money to be able to write a book….


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And believe me, if Michael Novak says that this mistitled book is the definitive work on the economic teaching of the modern popes, you can be sure that it….is the definitive reiteration of Michael Novak’s attempts to distort Catholic social teaching.

The priest who wrote this book, Fr Zieba, OP, of course, has a long association with Novak. He was instrumental, with Novak, Weigel, and the late Fr Neuhaus, in introducing neoconservative thought in Poland, hosting, at his Dominican friary, an annual conference promoting free market capitalism.

But I cannot say it better than this Pole, who posted this brilliant piece, which is the brief but definitive work on Polish Catholicism and capitalism:


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I am so happy that amidst the various devastations of the 21st century good American string music continues to find new acolytes. This is from a Michigan band, thanks to my nephew (and friend) Brad Baughman, an organic farmer and graduate student in East Lansing.

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A Perfect Song

Listening to this yesterday I realized just how perfect this song is. The orchestration, by Joe Boyd, does not overwhelm but complements Nick Drake’s bare bones fingerpicking: the soaring strings, the fluid bass, the intricate drumming. Perfect.

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I’m sorry; women dressing up as bishops is as silly as men dressing in drag….

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