The Fever Chart

"Our only health is the disease / If we obey the dying nurse …"

Recovering the ‘Duty of Care’

This piece first appeared at Aleteia

My 27 year-old son Andrew recently alerted me to a “TED Talk” given last June by Lord David Puttnam, the British film producer (10 Oscars, 25 Baftas and the Palme d’Or) who retired in 1998 to work on public policy as it relates to education and media. The title of Puttnam’s talk was, “Does the Media Have a ‘Duty of Care?’” “Duty of care” is the legal concept that “you must take care to avoid acts or omissions which you could reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbor.”  Puttnam’s point was that since an informed citizenry is essential to the smooth operation of participatory democracy, the media have a ‘duty to care’ that their reporting be sober, substantive, and accurate. Reporting that is sensational, insubstantial, or driven solely by profit can reasonably be foreseen to undermine the goal of an informed citizenry, which in turn harms participatory democracy.

This is a subject of particular concern to my son, a two-time Iraq War combat veteran. When he arrived in Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in May 2007, he discovered that much of the media’s reporting about that conflict was indeed sensational, insubstantial, and inaccurate. Having seen the effects of American policy first-hand, he has ever since been trying to reconcile the gravity of the world as it is, as he’s experienced it, with the foolishness of the American media. He knows better than most of us what the stakes are when war is transformed into crass spectacle and co-opted by dime store patriotism. The same could be said for any of the serious issues that confront our nation and world, from the connivance of elites in the death of the middle class to the growth of the Surveillance State and questions of religious liberty. Read the rest of this entry »

Fed Up: How the Federal Reserve is Easing Out the Middle Class

This piece appeared first at Aleteia

I know what you’re thinking: with far more interesting topics like crime, immigration, Obamacare, and NSA spying, why bring up such boring, eye-glazing stuff as the Federal Reserve? Why not discuss those delicious partisan questions bandied about on what passes for television “news” – questions such as “Is Barack Obama a socialist?” or “Is the Republican Party on the brink of civil war?” Even fiscal policy – taxes, entitlements, discretionary spending, deficits and the debt – is easier to grasp than anything related to that black box known as the “Fed.”

But consider that…

-In 2013, the real disposable income of Americans fell by 2.7 percent, the largest year-over-year drop in forty years.

- And yet, the top ten American billionaires added $101 Billionto their collective portfolios last year. The top one percent of American households now owns 60% of financial assets, and since 2009 they have realized 95% of all income gains.

- In 2013, economic growth was sluggish, at best – a meager 1.9 percent. The unemployment rate fell, but that statistical mirage masked the fact that a record number of Americans simply left the labor force altogether.

- And yet, the Dow Jones index of 40 industrial stocks was up 26 percent in 2013, reaching 16,504. That’s 10,000 points higher than the Dow stood on March 9, 2009, in the immediate aftermath of the economic crisis of 2008. And the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 key stocks rose 29%.

What do these seemingly disparate items have in common? They were all made worse (or better, depending on your perspective) by something called quantitative easing – QE, for short – a Federal Reserve program that Stanley Druckenmiller, former chairman of the hedge fund Duquesne Capital, recently called it “the biggest redistribution of wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich ever.” Fact is, QE may be simultaneously the most important and the least understood story of the past five years. What isn’t ambiguous is the impact QE has had on income and asset inequality in the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

Comfortably Numb

Read this piece at Aleteia

Of all the deformations of character wrought by consumer society, perhaps none touches as many lives as addiction. New and recently updated studies show that Americans are self-medicating themselves in growing and alarming numbers.  In addition to the cumulative wreckage addiction wreaks on individuals and their families, there are huge implications for public health, as well.

In figures updated last month, the National Center on Drug Abuse (NCDA) estimates that there are 24 million drug abusers in the United States. This population is defined as persons 12 years or older who have consumed illegal drugs or illicitly consumed prescription drugs – pain relievers, stimulants and tranquilizers – within the past thirty days.  Overall, the study found that 9.2% of Americans regularly smoke, snort, shoot or swallow illegal substances. That number is up from 8.3 percent a decade ago. Read the rest of this entry »

Winners, Losers and the Wisdom of God

As a fan of the New England Patriots, I am not immune to the pagan magnetism of Super Bowl Sunday. Unlike the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, days most of us spend focused on family, the Super Bowl is truly America’s high holy day – the one moment each year when we all come together in a vast liturgical celebration of what we most long to be: winners. Though my team was not playing this year, I spent the two preceding weeks listening to sports talk radio, and on Sunday I tuned in to watch nearly the entire broadcast, including the extensive pre-game coverage. The entire spectacle was on view, as usual: the Via Sacra of Super Bowl Boulevard, the handsome celebrities and preening politicians, the ersatz patriotism, the heart-tugging commercials, and the procession of players into MetLife Stadium. There was the grandiose halftime show, the arrival of the mystical Lombardi Trophy, the euphoric coronation of the victors, and the ritual banishment of the losers. And then, suddenly, the gauzy dénouement, when the awful truth sets in that the football season is over, leaving nothing but baseball until late summer.

But Sunday wasn’t just about the Super Bowl; it was also the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. At my parish, we welcomed a guest celebrant: Fr. Michael Marigliano, a Capuchin friar. Fr. Michael pointed out that in stark contrast to the Super Bowl, all the figures in the Presentation narrative would have been considered losers in their historical context: Simeon, an odd old man obsessed by a private revelation; Anna, an elderly widow who spent her nights huddled in dark corners of the temple; Joseph and Mary, making their way across the temple courtyard with their pitiful two pigeons. And the forty day-old Jesus, the speechless Word of God, soon to be a refugee hunted by Herod’s death squads. Taken together, the five of them didn’t amount to much – losers in the world’s calculus of success and failure, without power, wealth, fame, or nobility. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine, the Janus of Europe

An article that first appeared at Aleteia

Ukraine, a strategically located nation of 45 million, seems to be coming apart at the seams. The largely Ukrainian-speaking western part of the country desires closer ties to Western Europe, including economic and political integration with the European Union (EU). The mostly Russian-speaking eastern half of Ukraine wants to preserve the nation’s historic economic and political ties to the Russian Federation, headed by Vladimir Putin. But the division goes deeper than just disagreements about political alignment, economic systems, or even security arrangements. What is happening in Ukraine today is fundamentally an identity crisis, one that has the potential to become a flashpoint between the West and a resurgent Russia, and which could also have significant consequences for the cause of Catholic-Orthodox reconciliation.

None of this is new for Ukraine, which straddles the important northern banks of the Black Sea. For millennia, this territory has acted as a kind of hinge connecting the western and eastern halves of the Eurasian landmass. Like Poland to its west and Belarus to its north, Ukraine has been overrun, occupied, sundered and reconstituted many times since the founding of the Kievan Rus in 882. The former Soviet republic is a demographic patchwork: two distinct Slavic languages; a large percentage of ethnic Russians; and three competing religious groups, including two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches – the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC/KP), which is not recognized by the rest of the world’s Orthodox Churches, and the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC/MP) – as well as the small but influential Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, a “Uniate” body in communion with Rome.   Read the rest of this entry »

Breaking Open the Liberal Echo Chamber

This piece appeared at Aleteia

About a dozen years ago, in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal that descended on the Archdiocese of Boston, a group known as Voice of the Faithful (VOF) was formed. Ostensibly, its purpose was to work for greater accountability and justice for victims – all worthy goals. But VOF was soon captured by the usual gaggle of dissenters, who saw in VOF a platform to push their left-liberal agenda on the Church: women priests, popular election of bishops, changes in the Church’s teaching on sexuality, and so on. In response, I formed a little local group called Fidelity Forum. We saw it as our mission to write editorials and attend VOF’s public meetings in order to witness to the authentic teaching of the Church on matters that had nothing to do with accountability or justice for victims.

A nearby parish had become something of ground zero for VOF in our area. At one meeting, the discussion topic was doing away with the Petrine office, which the moderator claimed was a fourth century innovation. I stood and made a case for the papacy based on Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and admonished the priest who was hosting the event. The moderator, a layman, got very angry and accused me of wanting to “take the Church back to the Dark Ages” in order to “kickstart the Inquisition.” He explained to the group that I was an Ultramontanist who didn’t understand the spirit of Vatican II, and was in all likelihood fixated on my “daddy figure” in Rome.

These caricatures and accusations were not unexpected, of course. It’s what liberals of both the right and left do best, particularly when confronted with the disconnection between their secular, rationalist vision of the good society and the truth about what the West has become and, more importantly, where it’s headed. They really have the same story to tell, and the formula for telling it is always the same: “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition.” Sure, the objects of liberty are different for left-liberals and right-liberals: the former are focused on sexual and social liberties, while the latter are largely consumed by economic and political rights. But what they share is a common vocabulary as well as a philosophical anthropology, which Pope Paul VI summed up neatly as “an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.” Read the rest of this entry »

Does God Love the Poor More Than the Rich?

Published at Aleteia

I have a friend named Trish who frequently corners me after Mass to ask questions about things she finds baffling about Scripture or Catholic teaching. Her questions range from the mundane – “Why, if Mary remained a virgin, does Scripture refer to the ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus?” – to the sublime – “How can it be that Jesus is both human and divine?” Why Trish brings her questions to me, I’m not sure, but I always try to reward her curiosity by patiently providing as full an answer as I can.

A few weeks ago, following a particularly bracing set of Sunday readings, Trish approached me with this question: “Does God love the poor more than he loves the rich?” On the surface, it would seem so; in Scripture, there are nearly 3,000 verses concerned with justice for the lowly, the oppressed, and the stranger. Almost 400 of those verses specifically refer to “the poor.” In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord commands his people to “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The Psalmist declares that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34) and calls upon the God to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82). The author of Proverbs insists “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14) and “the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29). Read the rest of this entry »

Liberalisms, Left and Right

This piece was published at Aleteia

In recent decades, the supposed divide in American politics has been between two irreconcilably opposed camps: “liberals” and “conservatives.” In the wake of Richard Nixon’s successful “southern strategy,” this imagined division has also been embedded in the identities and self-understanding of the two major political parties, with the Democrats representing “liberalism” and the Republicans standing for “conservatism.” This binary template is even imposed on papal auguries, with some “conservatives” warning that Pope Francis is a “liberal,” and some “liberals” promising that they’re right!

From a Catholic point of view, this divide is artificial and grounded in a misrepresentation – sometimes deliberate, sometimes innocent – of what liberalism is, and, by extension, who is a liberal and who is not. The fact is that in the United States, we have two dominant liberal parties. The Republican Party, far from being conservative, is in fact the party of what we might call right-liberalism, also known as classical liberalism, which is primarily political and economic. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, carries the standard for left-liberalism, or what we might term modern liberalism, largely social and cultural. The disagreement of these two liberalisms on particular issues masks their shared roots and their mutually reinforcing worldviews. Read the rest of this entry »

The Militarization of American Policing

This article appeared at Aleteia

Last April, during the manhunt for alleged Boston Marathon bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnayev, television viewers were able to witness first-hand the militarization of a municipal police force. Officers in full battle gear rumbled through the streets of a Boston suburb in a variety of armored military vehicles, including up-armored Humvees and infantry troop carriers. As importantly, they deployed the tactics of soldiers, from small unit cover-and-maneuver formations and forcible, warrantless searches of private homes all the way up to the occupation-style lockdown of a major metropolitan area. It was an unprecedented demonstration of how police forces have evolved in the past quarter century. On some levels, it was also an understandable response – after all, the police were looking for two terrorist bombers who might have been part of a larger, active conspiracy.

But what many Americans don’t understand is the degree to which the ordinary business of policing in the United States is now being conducted using the equipment and tactics of the military and federal intelligence agencies. The Department of Defense regularly transfers excess or used equipment directly to the paramilitary units of police departments across the country. Just since August, for instance, 165 lumbering MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected armored vehicles) have been donated to local cities and towns. And it’s not just cities like Los Angeles and New York that are the beneficiaries of such largesse; this autumn, an MRAP was transferred to Currituck, NC, a coastal town of 20,000 with no discernable terrorism problem. From drones to rocket launchers, American police departments are being outfitted with lethal and intrusive military gear at an alarming rate. Read the rest of this entry »

Pope Francis’ Radical Call to Serve the Poor

This piece appeared at Aleteia

We know he’s a Jesuit by religious vow. He’s told us he’s a Franciscan at heart. But is Pope Francis also a Vincentian? The recent news that he’s been sending the Vatican Almoner out with some Swiss Guards to attend to the sick and poor in their homes suggests he just might be, at least in spirit.

Earlier this year, Pope Francis appointed Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, a Polish prelate, as the official Papal Almoner, a Vatican post responsible for acts of charity done in the name of the Holy Father. Pope Francis, who has called for a Church “that is poor, and for the poor,” gave Krajewski his marching orders in no uncertain terms. “The Holy Father told me at the beginning: ‘You can sell your desk. You don’t need it. You need to get out of the Vatican,” said Krajewski. “Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor.’”

And so, every day a Vatican courier delivers to Archbishop Krajewski a stack of letters from the sick or poor around Rome that have been personally reviewed by the Pope. The letters typically include terse instructions from the Holy Father such as “you know what to do,” or “go find them.” In the evening Krajewski takes some Swiss Guards and drives around Rome visiting with the poor, bringing them aid and comfort, spending time with them, all in the name of the Roman Pontiff. “This is the concept: Be with people and share their lives, even for fifteen, thirty minutes, an hour,” says Krajewski. Read the rest of this entry »