Catholics and Public Life

By , January 31, 2013 4:51 am

When I was a kid back in the 1930’s Roman Catholics were a real political force and they were taken very seriously at election time. However, whatever power or influence Catholics had came from its domination of the Democratic Party. So there were lots of Catholic mayors. A top person in the machinery of the Democratic Party was usually a Roman Catholic. There was even an unwritten rule that one member of the president’s cabinet would be a Roman Catholic. However, today, the situation has changed dramatically.
The majority of Catholics still considering themselves to be Democrats has dropped from 80% or 85% to down to barely 50%. On the other hand, in the recent election, both vice presidential candidates were of the Catholic faith and, wonder of wonders, today six of the nine members of the United States Supreme Court are Roman Catholics.
What is the significance of all this? Well, from my perspective, it is not too clear. I would like to refer to two decisions the court made recently that reflect dramatically different positions on social issues. Chief Justice John Roberts made the difference in the court’s decision to endorse the Affordable Care Act of the Obama Administration thus ensuring more than 30 million additional Americans being covered by health insurance over the next five years. On the other hand, Chief Justice Roberts, joining the majority of the Court, opened the flood gates of big money to influence our already battered political system. The case was Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. Catholics on the court voted on both sides on both issues documenting that there is no automatic Catholic vote on public policy issues. The ratio is the awesome divisiveness that is present within the citizenry of the Republic. As 2013 unfolds, conservatives will be doing everything in their power to block effective implementation of the Affordable Care Act while more liberal Americans have already launched a sizable effort to amend the United States Constitution and overturn Citizens United.
Actually, Roman Catholic moral theology is pretty clear on the general principles of both of these issues. Throughout the last one hundred years, bishops of the United States have urged the right of all citizens to participate actively in the political system. The principles are clear but how to do it is not that obvious. Needless to say, I have strong views on both subjects.

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The Bible As Literature

By , January 30, 2013 4:29 am

For most of the last century, the American people and its government have been struggling to resolve a pressing need and an apparent conflict. The need is a very real one and it casts a shadow over life in the United States. The conflict flow from the natural responsibility of a people, whether it be family, tribe or nation, to convey its value system to each new generation and our current inability to do that. Throughout history, all groups have learned to do this and thus preserve their values, traditions and mode of living. The United States does not know how to do that.
All true values are ultimately based on a moral foundation. On reviewing the relationship between religion and public education, the Supreme Court has slipped back and forth several times occasionally creating a small opening for more action, but usually making it ever more difficult. Back in 2007, Texas attempted to deal with this issue by enacting a law allowing public schools to teach bible courses as a separate elective but the law demanded that the courses are required to be fair and unbiased. This is not an impossible goal. The bible is the most important book in the history of much of the world. The bible has had tremendous influence not only in millions and billions of individual lives, but in the flow of history in the public area. The bible has been powerful and often involved conflict and even hatred. This means that since it is such an important book, it would be possible to teach where it came from, what culture influences affected the bible and, in reverse order, what the bible has affected in the flow of history.
The educators had good intensions but their efforts have not been completely successful as yet. Last week, the Texas Freedom Network released a study showing that among the 60 school districts that have taken advantage of this new state law there was widespread failure to comply with the law requiring courses to be fair and unbiased. I am not surprised. It would take a very disciplined teacher to utilize a book that primarily reflects God’s activity in history and not let his or her faith show through in the classroom. In other words, the professor is not to reveal that he or she actually believes the bible, actually holds to the idea that the events recorded in it are really true. I understand that the State of Texas doesn’t want Baptist teachers clearly teaching the Baptist faith or Roman Catholic teachers endeavoring to instruct their public school students in Catholicism. However, I don’t think that the personal faith of the teacher should be a reason for making that person ineligible as a teacher or professor.
Much has been written over the last two generations about the fact that the state cannot endorse teachers supporting one particular faith and I think that most Americans solidly agree with that. On the other hand, is there not a valid question as to whether or not atheism or at least agnosticism have become the established religion of the United States of America. I wonder.

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The Minimum Wage. Could You Live On It?

By , January 29, 2013 4:28 am

I am glad to see thoughtful and fair-minded people beginning to talk about the need to raise the national minimum wage. While 19 states have set their own minimum wage above that set by the federal government, Texas’ current political leaders wouldn’t begin to think about raising it. The federal level has been locked in at $7.25 a hour since 2009. In view of that, I hope that Congress will raise the minimum wage this year. It is interesting to see Congress arguing that $7.25 is just fine after they have spent months arguing that poor people who only make a million or more dollars a year should not have to pay additional taxes. Did you know that there is a minimum wage for waitresses and other “tipped” workers? It is $2.13 an hour and it has been that way for almost 15 years!
If efforts to raise the minimum wage would begin to get traction, you can expect to hear arguments that small businesses CANNOT AFFORD to pay a higher wage. The evidence shows that most low wage employees work for large companies. Raising the minimum wage would also put pressure to bring higher wages to those working above that minimum level. Let’s face it. The middle class has been caught in a terrible squeeze for more than two decades and the nation needs to begin determined efforts to increase the share of the economic pie that the middle class receives.
Regretfully, it has been several decades since the average American family could be supported by one wage earner. It is taken for granted that the majority of our families require two paychecks to simply get by. If one or both of those paychecks is based on $7.25 an hour, you can be sure that this family is living in poverty, real poverty. Wealth continues to soar in this country. Production and profits are up but it seems that the lower levels of the economy continue to be squeezed.

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The Church’s First Chapter

By , January 28, 2013 4:52 am

People with deep faith in Jesus Christ feel very close to him and, of course, they are close. Believing in Jesus, they believe also in his presence made possible by reception of the Eucharist. When we turn our attention to our Lord’s first followers, I think that they tend to become a little more remote. Maybe that is just my opinion but Peter and Paul worked in a different culture, a different economy, all in all a very different world. Even though we study their sections of sacred scripture they still at times seem remote.
Let me make this suggestion. Go your copy of the New Testament and look at three very short letters written by two bishops, Timothy and Titus. We are used to bishop’s letters. Most of them write to the faithful of their dioceses with some regularity. Regretfully, the need for this or that annual collection somehow dominates the list of topics. Maybe the bishops themselves should go back and read these short letters of their predecessors. If you, yourself, will take the time to read them you will see that they are very simple, down to earth and very centered on problem solving, including conflict within the faith community, which was already present in that first generation. In Timothy, both letters have something to say about how the local Church should be structured and how the big concern must be given to correcting false teachers, good Christian moral life must be practiced and the faith must be taught with great clarity.
I really urge you to read these three very brief documents. They may help you to leap over those 2,000 years and realize that these two early bishops, Timothy and Titus, are in a very real way still with us.

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Unity of the Body

By , January 26, 2013 5:52 am

January 27th, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Last week’s Gospel was very down to earth with Jesus performing his first miracle by enabling a wedding celebration to continue. Today, I want to comment on the second reading from I Corinthians where
St. Paul raises a profound issue that is very important for our own individual spirituality and for the Church as a whole. St. Paul is responding to conflicts that exist in the new Church that he had established in Corinth and urging its members to see beyond their immediate needs and see the mystery of Christ present within them and among them.
Paul uses the example of the human body pointing out that it is a complex entity but also a unified reality and he stresses that every aspect of the body is held together by the same unity. The hand may not be an eye and the ear may not be an arm, but they are all united by the same life and reality. He then goes on to say to the people in the Corinthian Church that they are in different places in the Church, they have different roles, different responsibilities, but they are one Church and the oneness is formed by the awesome mystery of the Body of Christ who is within them and has brought them together. From several hundred miles away on the other side of the Mediterranean, Paul writes, “You then are the Body of Christ. Every one of you is a member of it.”
If we could really grasp this reality in the lives that we live in our parishes, conflict that so often manifests itself in the parish life would be virtually eliminated but it is not easy. The Corinthians were constantly overreacting with each other. We can do better if we try and are guided by God’s grace. We are one body…Christ’s Body!

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Well The Show Is Over And Reality Sets In

By , January 25, 2013 4:41 am

Photo: Grimes

A large gang of carpenters and laborers are still working hard endeavoring to get the capitol grounds in Washington, D.C. in shape in order to enable the government to continue to do routine business. The hotels are no longer crowded, tons of trash has been removed and getting around the city is no more difficult than usual. The inauguration was both fun and expensive but now the president and the Congress must confront the large number of serious problems, conflicted situations, economic peril at home as well as military and terrorist peril abroad.
The most immediate issue facing the president, and you and I are facing it as well, is the need to deal with multiple fiscal issues within the next few months. The automatic budget cuts raise their head again in early March. The debt ceiling has come back to life. The absence for a federal budget adds to the bitterness between the White House and the Republican controlled House of Representatives. Maybe we should rename the Arab Spring. I think it is more like an Arab earthquake with dangerous and tragic situations continuing in Syria, Egypt and now Algeria. Our relations with Russia and China are less than ideal. All in all, it is a difficult and complex time in American history.
Shouldn’t we all be glad that there is always somebody out there who wants to be the president? Let’s pray for that man and let’s pray for our country.

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Catholic Habitators Starting In

By , January 24, 2013 4:51 am

You don’t have to know how to use a hammer or be a finished carpenter but if you are, that would really help. The Diocese of Austin is filled with wonderful people giving up their time and talent to help those who have less or who are in some type of need or difficulty. One of my favorite groups is called the “Catholic Habitators.” They are an active group of Catholic men and women and young people who are always in the process of constructing new homes for people in need. In Austin, they have built 19 homes and several more up in the Waco area. This group is part of an international program of building homes for the poor. The organization is Habitat for Humanity, founded by Millard Fuller, and because of his vision nearly half a million families now own their own homes.
Needless to say these houses are not freebies. Those who will get them have to put a vast amount of their own labor in helping others build their houses before they get theirs.
On January 19th, the group gathered to start a new house in the Toll Bridge Circle area in north central Austin. They will gather every Saturday for eight to ten weeks and when the house is finished either Bishop Vasquez or another diocesan official will be there to bless their work and to thank them for their generosity.
These wonderful people not only donate their time, energy and give up Saturdays in order to build these houses, but they also help pay for them. Labor is only one part of the cost of a house. Land, concrete, pipe, wiring, etc., etc. have to be paid for. The cost per house is $40,000. If you can’t give up a Saturday or two and don’t want to develop any calluses on your hands, give serious thought to sending $50 or $100 to this undertaking. There are more than 19 families who are now living in beautiful homes because of the generosity of this group.
I try to get out there every Saturday but since I am not too valuable on the construction site, I always try to bring enough Vietnamese eggrolls for everybody.
God Vincente and Maria and their three children who are about to get a home. God bless these wonderful workers. God bless the Vietnamese eggrollers. God bless you if you can step in and help with this. Give it some thought and prayer.
Austin Habitat for Humanity can be contacted at 310 Comal, Suite 100, Austin, Texas 78702,
(512) 472-8788,

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Friends to the Friendless

By , January 23, 2013 5:18 am

It was nearly ten years ago that groups concerned about this country’s criminal justice system approached the Federal Communications Commission and asked them to propose rules to lower rates charged to prison inmates for interstate telephone calls. The FCC has been thinking about it for nine years but with no action! They have now indicated that they are going to take the issue up.
Interstate prison calls are dominated and controlled by two private equity firms, Global Tel*Link Corp. and Securus Technologies Inc. They are not cheap. There is a wide disparity between prison rates and we can certainly hope that this situation can be remedied. In Texas it costs $6.45 for a 15-minute interstate call. In Idaho it is $16.55. Prices are set by the company providing the service and the prison system. It is true that prison calls cost more than residential telephone services for reasons that include security but prisoners make collect calls or set up prepaid accounts funded by relatives or my their earnings from prison jobs that pay only cents per hour.
The leading force that is trying to correct this situation is an organization started here in Austin called Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). It is led by Charles and Pauline Sullivan and it has been an awesome force for good in the face of problems within our prison systems around the country.
When CURE started twenty years ago its first undertaking was to develop cheap, private bus service to various prison facilities. The prison system took little interest in where a prisoner’s family lived and they would be incarcerated 500 miles away when other facilities would be quite close. Next, CURE went after the evil of “tenders.” That was the system where prison guards would pick out the toughest, meanest person in a cell block and put him in charge of maintaining order. That abuse resulted in much brutality but CURE was able to get it outlawed. CURE has accomplished other good things as well but my main point is the example of how much good can be accomplished if a few people with a vision are willing to make a sacrifice in order to confront evil and injustice.
After setting CURE up on a stable statewide basis, Charles and Pauline went national and succeeded in setting up CURE organizations in almost every state in the nation. Finally, they have gone international. Most people who get locked up are poor. Their families are poor. Resources are terribly limited and therefore they can be virtually friendless. CURE is the best friend that prisoners have and I hope they continue to grow ever stronger and more effective.
CURE is now an international organization. It’s address and telephone number are PO Box 2310, Washington, DC 20013-2310, 202-789-2126.

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As Usual, It Is the Poor Who Suffer!

By , January 22, 2013 4:18 am

Heads no longer turn when someone refers to a one-world economy or a globalized economy and there are many aspects of this new economic situation that will be helpful to the whole world’s population in the long run. However, on the short run, it is often the poor that suffer by changes in the system.
The expansion of the biofuels industry has contributed to spikes in food prices and a shortage of land for food based agriculture in poor corners of the Third World because raw materials are grown wherever it is cheapest. Back in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, I had many opportunities to drive all over Mexico and through much of Central America. One thing that I clearly remember as I cruised those thousands of miles was that corn was everywhere – corn in the plains, corn in the valley, corn very high up the sides of steep mountains. Scattered over this enormous area you would always see the small houses, huts really, of the people who were growing that corn. It not only provided them a livelihood, but it provided them with life itself. A simple life, yes, but at least they did not starve.
Today?? Well, the corn is still there but a great deal of it is not making its way to the table. Many developed nations have enacted laws mandating the increasing use of biofuel in cars and the policy is having a ripple affect across the planet. Land once devoted to growing food for humans is now sometimes more profitably used for churning out vehicle fuel. Timothy Wise is a top university development director and an expert on development aid. His studies reflect that the United States is purchasing 40% of Guatemala’s corn to make biofuel. I am sure you can well imagine the affect that this is having on the cost of tortillas in that poor, rural country. Parts of Guatemala that were covered with corn five or ten years ago is now be utilized to produce sugar cane and African palms. Fifty percent of Guatemala’s children are chronically undernourished, the fourth highest rate in the world according to the United Nations.
Biofuel. We try to solve a problem and create another one! 

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The Awesome Malice and Cruelty of the Taliban

By , January 21, 2013 4:17 am

The tragic abuse of women in the Muslim world is well known but from time to time individual acts of cruelty and injustice really stand out. Last month, a young girl named Malala Yousafzai walked out of a hospital in England after recovering from three bullets fired by Taliban gunmen back on October 9th. Her crime? BBC had spotlighted her and the New York Times did a documentary on her wonderfully heroic commitment to education of young girls. When Malala survived the shoting, the Taliban announced that it would try again because she needed to be killed for a crime of attempting to defend the rights of women in Pakistan.
I would like to believe those U.S. leaders who frequently assert that the Taliban has been virtually shut down. Such statements are frequently made in discussions about justifying the use of drones. I hope that they are right but there is plenty of reason to think that the Taliban are continuing to spread. It will be some time before we find out how things work out in the upheavals going on across North Africa and the Middle East. Even if the Taliban was wiped out overnight, the world still has a problem of a major religion, a religion adhered to by well over a billion people that has terribly harsh views on the value of women, their role in society and their right to dignity and protection. Certainly we will all be happy if the Taliban disappeared but I also think it would be wonderful if Muslim leaders in the West and in North America would speak out and denounce the abuses of women in those parts of the world where Islam dominates. Maybe they couldn’t do it in Egypt but they ought to be able to do it in New York.

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