Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Big Numbers

I don't know what to make of these big numbers I've recently come across.  In no particular order:

+  University of Arkansas football coach John L. Smith is trying to wipe out $25.7 million in debt in backruptcy court.  He is also trying to hang onto $1.2 million in retirement accounts.  Coach Smith invested in real estate, which he said was profitable until land values took a nose dive.  This year Coach Smith is scheduled to make $850,000 for coaching young men football for the Razorbacks.  He claims he has just $300 in cash on hand and $500 in a checking account. 

+  Former University of Texas star quarterback Vince Young, who was the third person taken in the 2006 NFL draft, is broke.  Young played for three teams over six years, going to the Pro Bowl twice for the Tennessee Titans.  At one time he had $26 million in guaranteed salary from his contract, and another endorsement deal with Nike worth $30 million.  News stories about his financial situation cite a raft of NFL, NBA and major league baseball stars who have little or nothing to show for their gaudy contracts, after wasting money lavishly on exotic cars, oversized McMansions, and crazy get-rich-quick schemes.  By the way, Young was cut from the Buffalo Bills just before the season started.  He is looking for a job outside of football.

+  A 1,000 foot tower under construction in Midtown Manhattan will be New York's tallest building with residences.  It will also host the largest number of billionaires.  One57 overlooks Central Park with fabulous 360-degree views of the region.  Its nine full-floor apartments go for a cool $90 million each -- before furnishings.  Seven other apartments range in price from $45 to $50 million.  The real estate agent said that contracts for more than $1 billion (with a "B") have been signed over the last year.  Fewer than 40 of the 92 apartments remain unsold, although two potential billionaires from China were "circling" two full-floor units.  One New York property appraiser said in The New York Times, "The scale of wealth in this building is just unheard of.  Despite all the problems economically, you are seeing these people invest in real estate unlike in any period that has ever happened." 

+  As of last Friday total television ad spending on the presidential race has passed the $500 million mark.  According to a story in the Washington Post on September 19, Republicans had spent $314 million on ads (27% going to support Gov. Romney -- $86 million).  Democrats had spent $277 million on ads (80% going to support President Obama -- $222 million).  Both presidential candidates raised about $125 million in the month of August alone.  I have seen estimates as large as $3 billion for money raised and spent in the entire 2012 "election cycle," including the primaries, national presidential race and all U.S. Senate and House of Representative races. 

When I read about these huge sums of money, I remember what a  friend of mine years ago told me.  At the time she was working in the "wealth management" section of one of the largest banks in Pittsburgh.  She said, "Frank, you would not believe the amount of money people have.  People you have never heard of, people who never get their names in the newspapers.  The money people have is beyond imagination."

Sermon in a Bottle

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "They had been discussing who was the greatest."

Last week I saw a tongue-in-cheek description of "the perfect priest."  (The perfect priest makes 15 house calls daily to poor families, but is always in the rectory office to answer the door and phone.  The perfect priest has 30 years of preaching experience but is 28 years old.)  Jesus obviously didn't pick  "perfect apostles" for companions.  In fact, they sound a lot like us -- at turns selfish, greedy, ambitious, just downright dumb.  Maybe he did that to teach us how far we have to go to understand what it means to follow him to the cross, and receive children in his name. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Anniversary Thoughts

In the Roman liturgical calendar, September 30 is the feast of St. Jerome, the great fifth century biblical teacher.  In my personal calendar, September 30 is the 34th anniversary of my priesthood ordination.  Bishop Vincent M. Leonard ordained 12 of us in St. Paul Cathedral for the Diocese of Pittsburgh in 1978, the year of three popes.  As we have done every year, my classmates and I will gather on Sunday the 30th with our families for Mass and a dinner to celebrate this special anniversary.  (Hurray, the Steelers have a bye and can't lose a game that day!)

34 years!  As anyone who has done something for a long time says, where did the years go??!!  I had more hair and less weight that bright fall Saturday morning when my classmates and I prostrated ourselves on the cold floor of the cathedral sanctuary to hear and feel the litany of the saints sung and the ancient prayer of the bishop pronounced over us.  There was black bunting on the entrance of the cathedral as we entered that day, because of the shocking, untimely death of Pope John Paul I only two days before.  He was "only" 65 years old, and had served a mere 34 days as pope.  (One irreverent sibling of a classmate said the black bunting was there because the diocese was in mourning at the ordination of us clowns.)

I look back at the places where I served, and special people I met on the way:  as an assistant pastor in Munhall, McKeesport, Downtown Pittsburgh, Ross; as a pastor on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Hilltop communities, Mt. Washington, Sharpsburg, and now New Castle; in diocesan service in the social concerns office and clergy office. 

I recall very fondly my Jesuit teachers at the Bishop's Latin School; Msgr. Don Kraus and Father George Saladna at St. Paul Seminary; the excellent theologians I had as teachers at St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, and in doctoral work at Duquesne University.

How many hundreds of diocesan meetings (both boring and energizing) have I attended?  Weddings, funerals, baptisms of babies and adults, celebrations of the Eucharist have I led?  Talks give in parishes, courses taught for the diocese, at Duquesne University andthe Byzantine Catholic Seminary, articles written for the Pittsburgh Catholic?  Boards of directors I have sat on for Catholic Charities and other social service and healthcare organizations?  Co-workers in ministry--sisters, laity, deacons, priests, bishops--who taught me so much about Christian life and prayer?

In the slide projector of my memory come up  Kodachrome pictures of my mom and dad, who were such good loving parents to my brothers and me growing up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh.  Dad worked for 35 years as a clerk in the J&L steel mill in Hazelwood.  He volunteered as a Little League baseball manager for 18 years for North Baldwin athletics.  Mom was a cleaning lady in several downtown office towers.  She loved playing bingo, and later hit the slots at casinos.  How I remember my dad's unexpected stroke at age 69 on the steps of St. Mary of Mercy Church, on my parent's 42nd wedding anniversary.  Then the 14 years he survived as an alert and understanding patient in the Vincentian nursing home.  I led the funeral Masses for dad and mom through my tears, with the consolation that they are praying for my brothers, their families, and me every day from heaven.  Over the decades I treasure fun times, laughter at picnics, Super Bowl parties, and relaxing vacations with dear dear friends.

It is a cliche, but also a wisdom statement, one which gives me the title of this blog:  It is not what we receive but what we give that defines us.  I am most grateful to God for all I have received as a son, a brother, a friend, and a Catholic priest these many years.  In the Spirit of Jesus I hope I have given at least a little back through priestly ministry.

Jesus said,
"The gift you have received, give as a gift."
(Matthew 10:8)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steeler Silliness and Support

If Martians do exist, one of the places I think they must visit is Heinz Field on a brilliant sunny fall Sunday afternoon when the Pittsburgh Steelers play football. 

I did this past Sunday, when the Steelers beat the Jets 27-10.  A local friend shared his second season ticket with me, and the whole scene was a hoot.

First, you have to wear the uniform -- any combination of the colors black and gold.  EVERYONE was wearing the colors.  I'll bet the Steelers make enough money from imitation football jerseys alone to pay for Roethlisberger's salary. Every style, generation, and player name is represented.  Standing in the Great Hall, where the six Super Bowl trophies are on display, I see an ever flowing stream of  humanity dressed in variations of black and gold.  Oh, yes, about one in a thousand was wearing a wimpy white-and-green Jets jersey, but usually accompanied by three friends in Steeler finery.  Beyond jerseys there are Steeler earrings, hats, helmuts (including that goofy soft leather one from the 1920s), beads, scarves, watches (I wore mine!), belts, warm-up flannels, jackets, pins, shoes, blankets, and Terrible Towels.  A nine-year old girl sitting behind us had a yellow scrungi in her hair, face painted half black/half gold, a Number 43 shirt with "Polomalu" in sparkly silver letters, black pants and gold Crocs.  She was a Steeler princess! 

Next you have to be willing to put up with a long walk from the parking lot to the stadium, outrageous prices for food and drink, boisterous lines in the bathrooms, leather-lunged idiots calling for the firing of offensive coordinator Todd Haley (at the second game of the season!), and a longer wait to exit the parking lot before you hit the road. 

But it is worth it.  Big Ben was at the top of his game, the defense rose to a shut-out after giving up 10 points on the first two Jets drives, and we all went home happy. 

Things you see and do at the stadium which you don't in front of your living room tv:  The season ticket regulars greet each other in neighboring aisles.  This was the first regular season home game.  Since most season ticket holders give away their tickets to the exhibition games, this was the chance to catch up on family news since December. 

You do not see each squint of the quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker, or even coach.  From where I was, behind the end zone in the open end of the field, I could barely make out Mike Tomlin or slimmed down Jets head coach Rex Reed.  Since we were low, only ten rows from the field, you have little idea of whether runners make the first down marker.  If the play goes into the far end zone, you rely on the crowd to tell you if it's a favorable or unfavorable  Steeler play.  You have to hand it to tv, it does give you the "up close and personal" view.  But what you do see in person is how close the pro game is to sandlot or high school football. 

It is midway through a dulsitory third period, third down and 16 to go on the Jets 37, Steelers have the ball.  I turn to my friend and kiddingly say, "What play do you call on third and 16?  Just heave it!"  Which is exactly what Ben does, toward the far point of the end zone.  At first it looks like the thrown pass is going far beyond the end line.  Then All-pro wideout Mike Wallace stops dead in his tracks, as his Jets defender flies by.  He jumps up and catches the ball, and lands -- barely -- with both feet in bounds.  The crowd erupts!  Touchdown, Steelers!  That cheer, that feeling of being with the team, of contributing to the team's success, of high fives with strangers all around you -- that you cannot get in your living room.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Jets get the ball at their 20.  Erratic Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez goes back to pass, and throws it to former Steeler Santonio Holmes across the middle.  To my eyes simultaneously it looked like two Steeler defenders and the ball both hit Holmes in his hands, and the ball flutters to the ground.  Incomplete pass.  No, wait a minute.  The sub replacement official threw a flag.  Pass interference.  The crowd (and Ike Taylor, the alleged perpetrator) can't believe it.  All fans turn to the Jumbotron behind us, where they give us the feed from CBS.  The replay, from three angles, clearly shows that the well-thrown pass was bobbled by Holmes, then Taylor and Ryan Clark hit him cleanly in his torso.  Excellent football play!  But it is still a penalty.  First down, Jets.

The boos begin.  They rain down from the top deck and through out the stadium, louder and louder.  The Jets run a play, gain three yards.  The boos don't let up. Sanchez throws an incomplete pass.  The boos grow louder.  Sanchez on third down throws a wild incomplete pass.  The boos continue.  The Jets punt.  And the crowd knows that, one, they've seen a horribly officiated game, and two, they had a great part (with the tremendous  Steeler defense) in getting the Jets off the field.

That you can't get in your living room.

Finally I have to say a word about a wild, wild Steeler two-minute video.  If you've seen it, you know my words will not do it justice.  (I don't know if it's availabe on You Tube, but even so, outside of the confines of Heinz Field it wouldn't be the same experience.)  This time it was shown after another Jet three-and-out forced by the Steeler defense.  It is one great hit after another, to a pounding beat.  Harrison, Keisel, Polamalu, Clark, Farrior, a jubulent Coach Tomlin, more Harrison hits, Polamalu jumping the snap cut and kniving over the center into the backfield, twirling Terrible Towels through snow flakes.  Over and over again.  The crowd roars.  It is an affirmation of the bond between team and fans.  We all grin, some move toward the exits as the Steelers have the game in hand. 

This is why pro football is the most successful sport in the U.S.  Even the visiting Martians will sit down, enjoy the show, twirl their Terrible Towel, and say, "Yoi and double yoi!"

Sermon in a Bottle

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "He rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan.'"

Jesus wouldn't fit in today.  In a world where all children are above average in Lake Wobegon, college students expect an A just for showing up in class, and no one is responsible for debt, national or personal, Jesus would come across as an almost-white angry male.  He rebuked Peter, insulted his dinner hosts and any Pharisee within listening range, and even seemed to reject family ties.  His eyes and heart were fixed on fulfilling his heavenly father's will, even if it meant suffering, rejection and the death penalty.  When we smug Christians gather on Sunday, do we hear his passion, and his righteous anger, for a goal far beyond personal happiness?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Installation invitation

There was a time in the not distant past when a pastor just showed up in his new parish and started working.  No ceremony, no pomp, no reception committee, just unpack your belongings and begin doing the tasks of ministry.

About twenty-five years ago in our diocese deans began to conduct a ceremony of installation for new pastors in their deanery.  When Bishop Wuerl appointed me first pastor of the brand new parish Incarnation of the Lord on the North Side of Pittsburgh, I asked my neighbor, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Tobin, to install me.  (Our dean arrived in the deanery the same week I started.  He asked his classmate, Auxiliary Bishop William Winter, to install him.)  When I called Tom, he said to me, "Can I do this?  I've never done it."  I said sure, you can do it, you're a bishop.  I'll send you a set of prayers.  (It was only years later that the diocese established a required order of prayers for the installation of a pastor.)

Bishop Tobin was most gracious, and didn't mention in his installation homily how often he had beaten me in games of racketball.  Within a few years, Bishop Wuerl got into the act, and before you knew it, having the head bishop come to your parish and install you ceremonially became a regular part of diocesan life.

As I've mentioned in an earlier post, on July 30 Bishop Zubik expanded my responsibilities from overseeing two parishes to four in the city of New Castle.  At the same time he formally appointed me pastor of each of the four parishes.  (I had been "administrator," a technical term from canon law.  It means the priest is in charge of the care of souls in the parish and has all the responsibilities, but does not have stability of office.)  He also scheduled four Masses at which he will install me ceremonially.  In conversation with Bishop Zubik, I made the suggestion that he might want to have just one Mass, and at that Mass install me as pastor of each of the parishes.  He demurred, and said, no, I'll come to each parish, to make sure that the parishioners understand that you are truly their pastor.

All my loyal readers are welcome to attend one (or more!) of these.  Here is the schedule:

Saturday, September 22, 4:00 p.m. Mass at Mary Mother of Hope Parish

Saturday, September 22, 6:00 p.m. Mass at St. Joseph the Worker Parish

Sunday, September 30, 9:00 a.m. Mass at St. Vitus Parish

Sunday, September 30, 11:00 a.m. Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Parish

After the bishop's homily, I will be asked to read/pray out loud the Creed, renew my promise of obedience to the bishop, and renew my promise to teach the Catholic faith in its entirety.  Then the bishop will call forth first my parochial vicars, as brothers in the ministry; the members of the pastoral and finance councils, and exhort me to listen to their wise counsel; the staff of the parish, as co-workers in the vineyard; and finally ask all parishioners to stand, to recognize that I care for all the people in the parish, without fear or favor.

In one of our last "Good Leaders, Good Shepherd" sessions, we were asked to think about a moment or time that stood out for each of us as special in our priesthood, and to share it in our small group.  Mine was on Sunday, March 15, 2009, when Bishop Zubik came to St. Mary Church in Sharpsburg to install me as the first pastor of the newest parish in the diocese, Saint Juan Diego.  I had asked his permission to cancel three of the weekend Masses, and in a sign of the unified community have only one liturgy in the cathedral-like St. Mary's.  He agreed.  I invited the Korean Catholic Community, who met regularly in St. John Cantius Church in Sharpsburg, to join us.  Father Choi and the congregation were happy to come.  Their wonderful choir joined our parish choir as music ministers.  And the local Lutheran pastor brought his whole congregation to Mass as well.  (At his invitation, I had preached in his church only a few Sundays before for the Octave of Unity, and this was a kind act of reciprecation.)  We had children dressed in four nationality costumes (German, Italian, Polish, Korean) to bring up the gifts of bread and wine, and prayers of the faithful prayed in six languages.  There were 1,089 persons participating, SRO, literally hanging from the rafters.  In my mind, this sparkling Mass was Church at its best.

All are welcome to attend these installation Masses.  Just know because of the tight schedule, there will not be a reception after any Mass.  Nevertheless, I am very grateful to the bishop to come north to New Castle twice to install me as pastor.  May these rites make every one of us more aware of Christ the slave/servant, who came to serve and not to be served.

Sermon in a Bottle

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "Be strong, fear not!"

We are all captive to our fears and instincts.  It is a hard-earned lesson to know this, and even harder to do something about it.  Too often "the church" is viewed as a place for people without fears, without troubles.  It's exactly the opposite!  As the saying goes, "The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints."  We bring our fears into the church (both liturgy and community), and learn from one another to trust each other, and the God who is always with us.  As Jesus said, "Fear is useless.  What is needed is trust."

Sermon in a Bottle

Somewhere back in time (maybe a few months ago) I stopped blogging my 100 word reflection on the Sunday readings of the Catholic Church's lectionary, which I labeled "Sermon in a bottle."  Well, time to start up again.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time - B.  "Care for orphans and widows in their affliction."

This Sunday the lectionary begins an arc of five consecutive passages from the Letter of James.  This is without doubt one of my favorite books of the bible.  In the tradition of the great Jewish prophets, James doesn't pussyfoot around.  His short epistle is full of imperatives, and he exhorts his listeners to DO the message of Christ, don't just listen to it.  He is a patron saint of social justice, looking out for the poor, orphans, and the humble, attacking the arrogant rich.  Read all five chapters, and be prepared to examine your conscience!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Foolishly Predicting Pigskin Winners II

Yes, I'm back again.  With the National Football League set to start on Wednesday, September 6, I've scrambled to put together my predictions for winners in 2012.  No, I haven't visited even one of the 32 training camps.  No, I haven't bought a half dozen pro football magazines from the Giant Eagle aisle.  Yes, I am just guessing in most of these.  But, hey, that's where the fun is!

Last year I managed to get three of the eight division winners right, but missed on both Super Bowl contenders.  (I picked the Packers to win for the second straight year over the Ravens.  For those with short memories, the Giants and Eli Manning overcame the Patriots in a low-scoring but thrilling win.)  But who could have seen the Giants coming, when they were 7-7, and then ran off six wins (including three away playoff wins) on their way to Indianapolis and that famous silver trophy.

So here you are.  Don't go betting the rent money (or the food money, or the insurance money, and certainly not the gasoline money) on my 2012 picks.  Just enjoy the season, and try not to get concussed.

AFC North:  Steelers

AFC East:  Patriots

AFC South:  Texans

AFC West:  Chargers

Wild cards:  Ravens, Broncos

Ravens over Chargers
Steelers over Broncos

Patriots over Ravens
Texans over Steelers

Patriots over Texans

NFC North:  Packers

NFC East:  Giants

NFC South:  Saints

NFC West:  49ers

Wild cards:  Falcons, Lions

Giants over Lions
Saints over Falcons

Packers over Saints
49ers over Giants

Packers over 49ers

Super Bowl:  Packers over Patriots

I'm light on upstarts (Bears, Bengals, Cowboys, Bills) and heavy on "the usual suspects."  Peter King in Sports Illustrated calls the Steelers season a weak 8-8 (and out of the playoffs), I see them gaining revenge on the Ravens.  I see the 49ers and Patriots as very successful, but ultimately losing dramatically.  (If it were to play out as I guess, Tom Brady will have won his first three Super Bowl appearances, and lost his next three.  Shades of Jim Kelly and the Bills.)  As never before, injuries will play a huge role in who gets into the playoffs and who is an also-ran. 

Let the games begin!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day Statement

Back somewhere in the 1970s, Msgr. George Higgins began writing a letter on Labor Day addressed to Catholics everywhere, on the issues of work and workers.  George was the most famous of the 20th century "labor priests," and was a staff member of the  U.S. Catholic bishops' conference for 40 years.  After his retirement, the conference continued the practice.  These statements don't get much press, so to my ever-loyal readers, I am reprinting the 2012 statement here.  This letter comes from Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, California, who is the chairman of the committee on domestic justice and human development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. 

Note that so many of the phrases in the letter ("just economy," "moral imperative," "rights of workers," "just wages," "human dimensions of poverty") you never hear in any political campaign.  At the end of the letter Bishop Blaire notes that the bishops as a conference are preparing a more fully developed reflection on "work, poverty and a broken economy."  I look forward to reading it.

Placing Work and Workers at the Center of Economic Life

By Bishop Stephen E. Blaire

This Labor Day, our country continues to struggle with a broken economy that is not producing enough decent jobs.  Millions of American suffer from unemployment, underemployment or are living in poverty as their basic needs too often go unmet.  This represents a serious economic and moral failure for our nation.  As people of faith, we are called to stand with those left behind, offer our solidarity, and join forces with "the least of these" to help meet their basic needs.  We seek national economc revewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life.

The Broken Economy Leaves Too Many Without Decent Work

Officially over 12 million workers are looking for work but cannot find a job and millions more have actually given up seeking employment.  Millions more are underemployed; they are willing and able to work full time, but there are not enough jobs available.  Over ten million families are "working poor" -- they work hard, but their jobs do not pay enough to meet their basic needs.  The sad fact is that over 46 million people live in poverty and, most disturbingly, over 16 million children grow up poor in our nation.  The link between joblessness and poverty is undeniable, as Pope Benedict points out:

In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or "because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family"  (Caritas in Veritate, #63).

Public officials rightfully debate the need to reduce unsustainable federal deficits and debt.  In the current political campaigns, we hear much about the economy, but almost nothing about the moral imperative to overcome pervasive poverty in a nation still blessed with substantial economic resources and power.

These harsh economic realities bring terrible human costs for millions of families, who live with anxiety and uncertainty and cope with stagnant or falling wages.  Many are forced to work second or third jobs, which places further strain on their children's well-being, and millions of young adults are denied the ability to begin families.  These people are not abstractions:  they are fellow parishioners and our neighbors; our cousins, aunts and uncles; our brothers and sisters; our mothers and fathers; possibly our own children.  The economy should help families thrive, not place additional pressures on them.

This broken economy also contributes to the danger that workers will be exploited or mistreated in other ways.  For example, many employees struggle for just wages, a safe workplace, and a voice in the economy, but they cannot purchase the goods they make, stay in the hotels they clean, or eat the food they harvest, prepare, or serve.  Immigrants and their families are especially vulnerable, which highlights the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform.

The Catholic bishops of the United States, through our Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), provide help and hope to exploited and mistreated working people.  MRS helps workers who have fled their home countries with the promise of employment, only to find themselves forced to work long hours in dangerous jobs.  CCHD supports groups throughout the country that empower working people to raise their voices and regain wages that have been taken from them, demand fair treatment, and seek greater economic opportunity.  The broken economy also places additional strain on other Catholic organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, and the Society of  St. Vincent de Paul, that struggle to fulfill our Gospel mandate in the face of increased demand and fewer resources.

The exploitation of working people, whether subtle or obvious, injures their humanity and denies their inherent dignity.  Exploited and mistreated workers require our care and solidarity.  An economy that allows their exploitation and abuse demands our attention and action.  As the bishops point out in the Catholic Framework for Economic Life,  "By our choices, initiative, creativity, and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life, and social justice. "  We should ask:  How do we contribute to forces that threaten the human dignity of vulnerable workers?  How can our choices in economic public life enhance their lives, pursue economic justice, and promote opportunity?

A Call for Economic Renewal and Support for Workers

Our nation needs an economic renewal that places workers and their families at the center of economic life and creates enough decent jobs for everyone who can work.  Work is more than a paycheck; it helps raise our families, develop our potential, share in God's creation, and contribute to the common goodl.

Everyone and every institution has a role to play in builing a more just economy.  In the words of our Conference, we seek an economy that serves the person rather than the other way around.  Blessed John Paul II said:

...society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers' training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society.  The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.  (Centesimus Annus, #15)

Unions and other worker associations have a unique and essential responsibility in this needed economic renewal.  Our Church has long taught that unions are "an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies" (Laborem Exercens, #20) and are examples of the traditional Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity in action.  At their best, unions demonstrate solidarity by bringing workers together to speak and act collectively to protect their rights and pursue the common good.  Unions are a sign of subsidiarity by forming associations of workers to have a voice, articulate their needs, and bargain and negotiate with the large economic institutions and structures of government.

Like other insitutions, including religious, business and civic groups, unions sometimes fall short of this promise and responsibility.  Some union actions can contribute to excessive polarization and intense partisanship, can pursue positions that conflict with the common good, or can focus on just narrow self-interests.  When labor institutions fall short, it does not negate Catholic teaching in support of unions and the protection of working people, but calls out for a renewed focus and candid dialogue on how to best defend workers.  Indeed, economic renewal that places working people and their families at the center of economic life cannot take place without effective unions.  This renewal requires business, religious, labor and civic organizations to work together to help working people defend their dignity, claim their rights, and have a voice in the workplace and broader economy.

Building a More Just Economy

In this time of economic turmoil and uncertainty, we need to reflect on the moral and human dimensions of too much poverty and not enough work.  We are called to work together--business, labor, and government--to build a productive economy that offers opportunity, creates jobs, generates growth, protects the dignity of working people, respects the family, and promotes genuine human development.

The relative silence of candidates and their campaigns on the moral imperative to resist and overcome poverty is both ominous and disheartening.  Despite unacceptable levels of poverty, few candiates and elected officials speak about pervasive poverty or offer a path to overcome it.  We need to hear from those who seek to lead this country about what specific  steps they would take to lift people out of poverty.  In this election year, Catholics should review and act on what the U.S. bishops said on economic issues in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship:

Economic decisions and institutions should be assessed according to whether they protect or undermine the dignity of the human person.  Social and economic policies should foster the creation of jobs for all who can work with decent working conditions and just wages.  Bariers to equal pay and employment for women and those facing unjust discrimination must be overcome.  Catholic social teaching supports the right of workers to choose whether to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively, and to exercise these rights without reprisal.  It also affirms economic freedom, initiative, and the right to private property.  Workers, owners, employers, and unions should work together to create decent jobs, build a more just economy, and advance the common good.  (#76)

Our Conference of Bishops is developing a pastoral reflection on work, poverty and a broken economy.  This modest reflection will draw heavily from Pope Benedict's powerful encyclicals, will communicate our solidarity with those who have been left behind, and will call for prayer, education, discussion and action.  It will be an example of responding to the call of Pope Paul VI to the laity: take the initiative freely and to infuse a Christian spirit into the mentality, customs, laws and structures of the community in which they live.  Let each one examine himself, to see what he has done up to now, and what he ought to do.  It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsiblity and by effective action.  (Octogesima Adveniens, #48)

This Labor Day, millions of working people and their families have urgent and compelling needs.  I ask you to join me in a special prayer for them and all workers, especially those without a job struggling to live in dignity.  May God guide our nation in creating a more just economy that truly honors the dignity of work and the rights of workers.

Veep Stakes

I'm not the first to notice that for the first time in American history both major candidates for the Vice Presidency will be Catholic:  Joe  Biden (incumbent Democrat) and Paul Ryan (Republican).  Both are also active in the practice of their faith (unlike President John F. Kennedy, who barely knew what the inside of a Catholic Church looked like).  According to news reports, Biden attends Sunday Mass at both St. Patrick and St. Joseph Churches in Wilmington, Delaware, and Ryan is an usher at St. John Vianney Parish in Janesville, Wisconsin.

Joe Biden was actually the fourth Roman Catholic to be a candidate for Vice President in our country, but the first to be elected.  For those with long memories, the others were Geraldine Ferraro (1984, with Democratic candidate for presidency Walter Mondale, also the first woman candidate for the Vice Presidency), Edmund Muskie (1968, with Democratic candidate for presidency Hubert Humphrey) and William Miller (1964, with Republican candidate for presidency Barry Goldwater.)

Others too have noted that both Biden and Ryan differ in their public policy advocacy with important teachings of the Catholic Church.  Biden, 65, falls into the "old school" Democratic support for unions, a governmental "safety net" to alleviate poverty, and vocal opposition to racism and sexism.  He also is "pro-choice," that is, supports Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion on demand in 1973.  He has repeatedly expressed the "I'm personally opposed to abortion but support the public policy on legal abortion" dodge.  Earlier this year he also came out in support of so-called "marriage equality," that is, the redefinition of "marriage" to include a union for two men or two women. 

Ryan, 42, has been a Member of Congress since he was 28, representing his southeast Wisconsin district.  On the issues of abortion and "gay marriage" he completely supports the teaching of the Catholic church, and opposes both.  He has been called the intellectual of the House Republicans, proposing a series of budgets which fundamentally change how the government supports the elderly, the poor, and other entitlement programs.  His proposed 2011 and 2013 budgets call for steep cuts in food stamps, and putting Medicaid on a path to cap the federal annual contributions (a.k.a., a voucher system with limits to the amount the federal government sends to the states).  His budgets call for continuing the "Bush budget cuts" after December 31, 2012, which continue the low tax rate for wealthy Americans.  He opposes any increases in taxes, willing rather to cut federal government programs (except spending on defense, which he proposes to increase).

Ryan's proposed budgets fly in the face of decades of U.S. bishop conference statements about how "the central moral measure" of any budget is how it affects poor and vulnerable people.  In a recent letter from Bishop Stephen Blaire, chairman of the domestic policy committee of the U.S.C.C.B., the bishops said "the House-passed budget resolution fails to meet these essential moral criteria."

On April 26 Representative Ryan delivered an address at Georgetown University, defending his budgets and the thinking behind them.  He said that his budgets are faithful to Catholic social teaching.  Ninety Georgetown University professors wrote him a letter, defending his right to speak on campus, yet challenging his use of Catholic social teaching as support for his budget proposals.  Two lively quotations from the scholars's letter are:  "While you often appeal to Catholic teaching on 'subsidiarity' as a rationale for gutting government programs, you are profoundly misreading Church teaching."  And, "Your budget appears to reflect the values of your favorite philosopher, Ayn Rand, rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Her call to selfishness and her antagonism toward religion are antithetical to the Gospel values of compassion and love."

Biden caught much grief and criticism from right-wing Catholics during the 2008 presidential campaign because of his public policy views on abortion.  It did not seems to matter much to American Catholics, who (according to polls) voted 53% in favor of Obama-Biden that year.  Ryan had been criticized by left-wing Catholics.  But these days it seems that all the left-wing Catholics could fit into a 1930s phone booth, and don't get anywhere near the kind of press coverage right-wing Catholic publications and public figures receive.

Another issue on which Biden and Ryan differ is support for the  Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. "Obamacare."  Ryan and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have repeatedly called for its repeal, even after the Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality.  Ryan, Romney, and others who have called for its repeal have not, however, given any answers to how our country can cover the estimated 45 million or more uninsured persons, or how our country can deal with the ballooning of health care costs.

In an interview with the National Review, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York tried to paint an irenic picture of the policy differences of these two Catholic politicians.  He said, "We've got two men who -- and you can disagree with one of them or both of them -- say they take their faith seriously, don't try and hide it, and who say, 'Hey, my Catholic upbringing and my Catholic formation influences the way I think.'  Not bad.  Not bad." 

I think it will be "not bad" if these many policy differences are aired completely, both at the level of these two candidates for vice president, and at the top of the ticket candidates.  And I hope and pray that the U.S. bishops' prophetic document of 2008 and 2012, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, is used by these two men and millions of Catholics, as they vote and determine how to lead our country.