Monday, November 19, 2012

My reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy...

Last week at their Fall General Assembly, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) addressed twelve mostly internally focused action items.  They successfully passed eleven of them.  However, they failed to pass a pastoral message intended to offer hope entitled, “Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy.”  Since the bishops failed at crafting such a message, I thought I’d try.

My Message on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy:

Brothers and sisters, now as in other times, economic conditions cause many people to be unemployed or underemployed.  Consequently, numerous people live in poverty.  I will leave to economic historians the task of understanding the complex reasons as to how and why these economic conditions exist.  Instead, I offer some reflections on things we might do regardless of how extensively we feel any negative impact.  My reflections are based upon a poem by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.   

The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.

1.  The fruit of silence is prayer.  Find your silence.  Turn off gadgets for a while and separate yourself from the world’s noise so that you can hear what God and God’s creation are telling you.  Do not fear the silence.  It is in the silence that God will come to you, or that you will realize God is already quietly accompanying you.  God is capable of flamboyant cartoon character style superhero feats but predominately works in understated simplicity. 

In the silence, you can converse with God.  But, again, do not fear the silence.  Refrain long enough from rattling through your wish list telling God what to do to listen to what God wants of and for you.  It’s o.k. to respond to what you hear.  Such dialogue with God, listening and responding, is called, “prayer”.

2.  The fruit of prayer is faith.  In your silence and prayer, you will begin to understand wherein lies your faith.  What comes to mind first?  Is it yourself?  Your nation?  Your money?  Your material goods?  Your personal security?  Your fears?  Your ambitions?  Your family?  God?  God’s creation? 

3.  The fruit of faith is love.  As your silent prayers lead you to understand where you place your faith, you will learn what and whom you love.  You also will better understand who loves you.   In this silence God’s untiring love and acceptance can sometimes become clearer.  Likewise for understanding which people offer you untiring love and acceptance and which people need your untiring love and acceptance.   

4.  The fruit of love is service.  Clearer understanding of love inspires service in almost an infectious way.  What does God want you to do?  Does your understanding of God’s will conveniently resemble your own will or does it resemble care for the totality of creation?

Our actions loudly express our definition of love.  This is where the gospels’ good news messages come to life.  Be slow to judge and quick to forgive.  Seek truth rather than justifications.  Care for the poor, ill, weak, and marginalized rather than create, ignore or worsen their situations.

Beginning with Rerum Novarum, Catholic social teachings introduced the concept of “subsidiarity”, an organizing principle that speaks of the need to balance between individual and government efforts to care for people.  It was written in response to a growing concern stemming from communism that people would abdicate personal responsibility completely to the government for the care of people by saying “it’s the government’s job to care for people.”   Quite simply, subsidiarity says that society should use the smallest, most local entity that can effectively address needs.  It does not swing the pendulum all the way back to no government responsibility. 

We must return to subsidiarity’s original meaning rather than the perverted self-serving, selfish, politicized ones of late, used as excuses to slash human services from governmental budgets so as to keep more money for one's self.  If a governmental entity provides the most effective way to address the need, then Catholic teaching says the government should address it and individual citizens should pool their tax monies to fund it.  If individuals can most effectively address it, then they should.  Sometimes a labor union best helps address the situation.  For this reason, Catholic social teaching strongly supports the right for workers to organize and engage in collective bargaining. 

Subsidiarity encompasses individual, collective union and governmental efforts as valid potential responsible organizations for addressing society’s needs.  The question is not “should I pay for this”; it is “how shall I pay for this.”  The difficulty lies in determining the most effective approach.  In some cases, such as millions of people lacking healthcare, we can easily say that the current approach is not effectively living the gospel value of caring for the sick.  In such instances, “any” versus “the most” effective approach is a vast improvement and highly moral.

Millions of impoverished people can seem daunting.  It is easy to think their care is beyond my scope and abilities to address.  Yet, subsidiarity challenges individuals to not use this as an excuse to become selfish, detached or callous.  It challenges us to understand our role in creating or fixing massive problems.  It challenges us to loosen the grip on our money either to generously share it directly with the poor or to pool it with other people’s money via taxes, charities or union dues.  And it challenges us to do this without judging while at the same time trying to understand and address root causes. 

I offer this list of reflections to help challenge ourselves on the question of subsidiarity.

If you are an employer, do you work or just reap from other’s efforts?  Do you employ friends and family?  If so, do they work harder than others so as to set an example or are they enjoying unearned benefits from cronyism and thereby driving up costs and taking jobs from honest workers?  Do you pay a just wage and follow Catholic teachings that support collective bargaining rights?  Do you accept a just wage or are you over-compensated? 

Do you pay a just wage regardless of race or gender rather than discriminate?  Do you provide flexible working situations to support employees attending family needs?   Do you provide your employees with healthcare so as to prevent and address illness?  Do you have more intimate knowledge of your general ledger and balance sheet than you do of your employees?  Have you de-humanized your employees into human “resources”, sourced from the lowest cost alternative as though they were a piece of wood or plastic part?   

Are you honest in your business dealings?  Do you embrace truth?  Do you welcome suggestions for improving operations to better serve your clients and employees?  Do you employ enough people to provide quality products and services or do you cut corners in the interest of increasing your financial profits?  Do you pay your fair share of taxes to local, state and national governments or do you find justifications for your dishonesty or greed?

If you are an employee, do you offer a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage?  Do you engage in dishonest practices that cost your employer and customers more money such as saying you’re sick when you are not, taking advantage of expense reports, or taking office supplies for personal use?  Do you waste time or contribute to counter-productive work environment activities such as gossiping or bullying?  Do you offer your best efforts and try to improve your skills?

Do you provide quality goods and services?  Do you treat customers with respect and care?  Do you question when you see policies that cause waste?   

If your wages or work conditions are unjust, do you work with others in solidarity to address them with management in a constructive manner?  Do you refuse to pay union dues while reaping the benefits of those who do pay union dues?  Do you disparage unions while enjoying the benefits of their negotiating efforts?

If you are seeking employment, do you treat finding a job as your fulltime job until you have a job?  Are you engaging in activities that improve or diminish your employability?  Have you adjusted your spending patterns and sought assistance?  Are you making your needs known?  

For all people, do you truly give as much as you are called to give?  Do you give 10% of your gross earnings towards caring for the poor, ill, weak and marginalized or do you mostly give donations to organizations that benefit you or are inwardly focused (such as is the case with many churches)?  Do you donate a few canned goods, buy some giving tree gifts, or donate spare change at the holidays and consider your obligations to the poor met? 

Do you perform works of charity to make yourself feel good, stopping when you have a sufficient sense of euphoria or do you tirelessly love and care for others? 

Do you depersonalize and dehumanize the poor, ill and marginalized so that you can be callous or indifferent to their needs fooling yourself into thinking you are different than them, or do you seek interactions with them, learning how much in common “they” have with you. 

Do you complain about paying taxes because you are greedy and selfish?  Do you engage in your government to help identify and implement solutions rather than just complain about problems?  Do you let go of your money or do you treat taxes and charitable donations as private bank accounts that should only be disbursed according to your personal wishes?  Do you have the humility to recognize that your ideas for solving problems might not be the best or even plausible ones, or do you entrench yourself in your ideas and surround yourself with people of similar mindset?  Do you listen for ways to collaborate or do you treat negotiations as a zero-sum game where someone wins and someone loses? 

Do you pay your bills, on time and before spending money on other things?  Do you overextend yourself financially and expect other people to compensate for your excess?  Do you confuse wants and needs to the point your personal spending reflects priorities not aligned with the gospel?  Do you cherish money and things so much that you make financial decisions based upon short-term, personal financial cost, or do you weigh the human or long-term financial costs of your spending decisions? 

Do you look for “free” stuff and take “free” things though you can afford to pay?  Do you accept or seek government funds just because you qualify for them, though you do not need them?  Do you think more about how you can give or what you can get? 

My brothers and sisters, we are the Body of Christ.  Jesus’ presence in the world is not an abstraction or just an invisible force.  It has flesh and blood, our flesh and blood.  When we ask God to help poor little Lupe, Luis, LiYung, Latifa, Lucretia, Leopold, Leonid, Laura or Larry, we must immediately ask if God asks us to answer that prayer, putting some skin on Jesus. 

Do not despair that you personally cannot answer all prayers.  If you could, you would be God.  Instead, look for what you can do working with others either through local, charitable, union or governmental organizations.  And, for the love of God and God’s creation, have enough integrity to not call your greed, irresponsibility or apathy “Christian values.”

If you are feeling the negative impacts of the economy, know that you are loved and worthy.  Forgive the ignorance, arrogance and apathy of your fellow humans.  …But for the grace of God and the luck of circumstances, many would be in your position.  However, in their fear of being in your position someday, some try to pretend that this could not happen to them.  Forgive them; they truly know not what they do. 

Recognize and do what you can but have the humility to admit what you cannot.  Seek those who will assist.  Be patient with those who won’t.  Know that you are the face of Christ staring with haunting eyes at the rest of the body of Christ.  May God inspire the Body of Christ to stop self-inflicting wounds and focus on caring and healing. 

5.  The fruit of service is peace.  Through offering tireless loving service aligned with God’s will, we shall find individual and collective peace.   

Dona nobis pacem.  (Give us peace.)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflections on St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church

On October 7, 2012 Pope Benedict XVI declared St. Hildegard of Bingen a “Doctor of the Church”.  This is a title given by the pope to saints whose writings convey "eminent learning" and "great sanctity."  In addition to being saintly, they are considered the most important theological contributors throughout all church history.  Since only some popes are canonized saints and only a few of them have been declared Doctors of the Church, one can infer that Church Doctors’ writings carry higher weighting than most papal encyclicals.

I've been reading some of Hildegard of Bingen's writings.  Not only is she a Doctor of the Church, she was considered a doctor of her time.  I was surprised to see her writings describe several plants she used as emmenagogues and abortifacients: 
  • asarum/haselwurtz (emmenagogue and abortifacient)
  • farn (abortifacient)
  • tanacetum (emmenagogue and abortifacient)
  • feverfew (emmenagogue)
  • white hellebore (emmenagogue)
  • oleaster (abortifacient).

Emmenagogues regulate menstruation.  They are used to prevent conception, address hormonal disorders or abort an unborn fetus.    

It seems St. Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, advocated for if not facilitated contraception and abortion when it preserved the woman's health.  For example, she writes regarding asarum/haselwurtz, “A pregnant woman will eat it either on account she languishes or she aborts an infant which is a danger to her body, or if she has not had a menstrual period for a time period so that it hurts.”  Similarly she advises the use of oleaster for, “an abortion to a pregnant woman with a danger to her body.” 

Hildegard is a Doctor of the Church and Pope Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae the papal encyclical on birth control, isn't.  Whose beliefs should be weighted more heavily?  She was a woman and Paul VI was a man.  Who has better insight into women's health?

In the United States we are nearing a presidential election in which the U.S. bishops have campaigned heavily - trying to impose their views of contraception and abortion upon others.  None of the U.S. bishops are canonized saints.  None are Doctors of the Church.  Should Hildegard of Bingen’s or the bishops’ views more strongly influence Catholic voters this week?

The National Right to Life organization also lobbies and campaigns extensively on the issue of abortion.  Right to Life is a self-described “non-religious” organization, led by a mathematician and public health worker versus theologians or bishops.  They are not controlled by the church nor do they speak for the church, especially since they define “life” issues more narrowly than the bishops.  Though many good people belong to Right to Life, they are neither canonized saints nor Doctors of the Church.  Should voters follow Right to Life endorsements or consider whom St. Hildegard of Bingen, Doctor of the Church, might support?

What can we learn from St. Hildegard’s care for women?  How can we best perpetuate her work? 

(Physica by Hildegard of Bingen)