Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Tonight marks the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq which began the Iraq War.
Here is an eye-opening and eyebrow-raising documentary about the lead-up to the Iraq War.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Word of the Day: REFORMER

On February 11 of this year, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI would step down from the papacy, ending his leadership of the Catholic Church worldwide.  He would be the first Pope to step down since Pope Gregory XII, nearly six centuries ago.  (Pope Gregory stepped down as a result of the Great Schism in the Catholic Church, more specifically the Western Schism, which resulted in two popes -- and, near the end of the schism, three popes -- in order that there would be one singular head of the Catholic Church.)  Pope Gregory XII's stepping down was under outside pressure.  If you want to get a little more specific, Pope Benedict XVI would be the first pope to step down without outside pressure since Pope Celestine V, whose papacy lasted just over five months in 1294.

On February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI ended his nearly-eight year papacy, resulting in "sede vacante", or vacant seat.  He is now referred to as Pope Emeritus.  ("Emeritus" means "having served one's time".)

The Papal Conclave to elect the next pope convened with 115 cardinals this past Tuesday, March 12.  It concluded the following evening, March 13, after only five ballots, with white smoke emanating from a smokestack -- black smoke means no pope elected yet -- and bells ringing.  Just over an hour after the white smoke was seen, it was declared "Habemus Papam!", or "We have a Pope!"  Stepping out onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would now and forever be known as Pope Francis.

His papacy has a number of firsts attached to it already.  He is the first pope from outside Europe in almost thirteen centuries (Gregory III, 731-741 A.D.); the first to come from the Southern Hemisphere (Argentina); the first from the Americas (Latin America); the first to take the name of Francis (after St. Francis of Assisi); the first to take a name never taken before in 1,100 years; and the first Jesuit to be elected pope.  His taking of the name of Francis seems to indicate a strong emphasis on humility and helping the poor, which he has done much of while in Argentina.  

Signs of how he intends to live out his papacy could be found at his first appearance (when he asked for the crowd's blessing for him, and bowed to receive it, before he offered his blessing; wearing a simple white cassock) and on his first day (going to the hotel where he stayed before entering the conclave in order to pay his bill; opening the seal to the papal apartment and supposedly commenting, "There's room for 300 people here.  I don't need all this space.").

One of the words being used early on to describe the hopes for his papacy is "reformer".  At a time when the Catholic Church is in such turmoil, both internally and in public perception, it has been accepted that a reformer is badly needed.  Indeed, a reformer is needed.  As a former Catholic, thus an outsider looking in, I also agree a reformer is undeniably needed.  Not that I personally or spiritually have anything invested in this, but I do hope Pope Francis will be the reformer that is so sorely needed at this time.

The question that begs asking, aside from "will he or won't he", is what kind of reform will he bring?

There are several definitions for the word "reform".  Some of them are:
to put or change into an improved form or condition;
to put an end to something unacceptable by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action;
to induce or cause to abandon evil ways;
to become changed for the better.

The "improved form or condition" and "introducing a better method or course of action" would certainly be goals of Pope Francis' much more simplistic ways.  It will be interesting to see how that carries over to the Catholic Church at large.  (He was quoted as saying he wanted a "poor church for a poor people".)  Regarding the inducing of or causing the abandoning of evil ways could be the way to address, hopefully seriously for once and all, the financial abuses and child abuse cases of the Catholic Church.  It has not been, as is widely suggested, secular influences alone that have caused the downslide of the Catholic Church.  The closing or merging of Catholic schools, the closing or merging of Catholic churches, and the large number of multi-million dollar settlements have been brought on internally, not externally. 

The are many Bible verses and passages that speak of reaping what you sow.  The time of sowing has been, and I believe still is, going on for a very, very long time.  The time of reaping has been, and continues to be, at hand.  

At one time, the ostentatious nature of the Catholic Church (i.e. the Vatican, many of its individual churches) seemed fitting.  Anything that seemed as "common as the people" couldn't have a sense of high importance and, I would argue, the aesthetics of grandeur fed into that perception.  Such grandeur (i.e. altars, chalices, clerical garb) was helpful, I believe, in getting those who were much simpler folk (i.e. country-dwellers and distant villagers) to be impressed with the church's importance.  Yes, the Catholic Church did have a much deeper message than merely appearances, but appearances helped to make first impressions...and you know what they say about first impressions.

It isn't just the secular folk (non-churchgoers, non-believers, atheists, etc.) who have seen what has been going on and have been screaming for an end to the abuses, but Catholics, and other religious persons, have been crying out as well.  How can the Catholic hierarchy say that only outsiders or troublemakers, of whatever kind, are the problem when those among your own numbers have abused or been abused?  Your house is not crumbling from the outside in, but from the inside out.

In the gospel of Matthew, there is a parable of Jesus' called the parable of the wise and foolish builders.  It reads, "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.  And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!"  (Matt. 7:24-27, New Revised Standard Version)

So, Jesus' words included the abuse of power and the giving of a bad name to religion as good things?  Worthwhile things?  Desirable things?  Perhaps there should be a parable about pretending your house is built on rock when it is actually built on sand.

Last summer, I wrote a similar article on this topic with emphasis on a case against a priest in Philadelphia.  My interest, albeit as no longer a member of the Catholic Church, is a personal issue for me.  I think any institution is prone to abuse.  The key is not simply having guidelines in place to avoid it as best as possible; those are preventative measures.  The key is what is done when it happens.

And so, at this time of crossroads within the Catholic Church, there are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide who will be watching, I'm sure with great anticipation and hope, as to what Pope Francis does.  Will his simplistic and humble approach reform the church's approach in general?  As I have always understood it, Jesus never operated in any other way than simplistically.  A lot less ostentatiousness and a more down-to-earth and meet-the-people-on-their-level approach would not hurt, in my opinion.   

And yet, I wonder what role do simplicity and humility have in the reformation that is needed regarding long-standing abuses?  What key are they to that kind of reform?  Pope Francis is only a few days into his papacy and, barring any unforeseen tragedy, time will tell as to what keys he holds and to what kind of a reformer he will be.


Friday, March 1, 2013

Word of the Day: REVERSE

On July 2, 1964, then-President Lyndon Johnson signed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed race, society, religion, minorities, and women with regard to discrimination.  Just a little over thirteen months later, on August 6, 1965, President Johnson also signed into law The Voting Rights Act of 1965, reinforcing the Fifteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, by saying that no state is permitted to impose discriminatory voting qualifications.  It disallows states from requiring anyone from doing anything that could deny qualified citizens their right to vote without the oversight of the U.S Justice Department.  Such practices, at the time (under Jim Crow laws) directed primarily toward black persons (i.e. literacy tests, poll taxes, naming how many soap bubbles were in a bar of soap, naming how many jelly beans were in a jar) were considered legal requirements. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 were a one-two punch against discrimination in this country, in general and in regard to voting.

Part of the passing of the Voting Rights Act included revisiting it, voting on it again, and it would be passed, or not, for a duration so many years, and then revisited for another vote that number of years later.  After its initial passage in 1965, these provisions were revisited after two five-year increments (1970, 1975), a seven-year period (1982) -- at which time, some of the provisions were made permanent -- and after a twenty-five year period (2007).  However, it was in 2006, one year before the expiration date, that then-President George W. Bush signed the provisions into law once again.  His signature renewed the act for another twenty-five year period (lasting until 2032).

One of the provisions, specifically Section 5, reentered the news on Wednesday of this week when the case of Shelby County [Alabama] v. [Attorney General Eric] Holder came before the Supreme Court.  The case is an appeal of a 2011 ruling in a District of Columbia district court to uphold the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act related to the 2006 renewal as a possible unconstitutional overstepping of authority by the U.S. Congress.  During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia made what I call a shocking statement about the Section 5 provision of the act -- the provision requiring the U.S Justice Department to approve any changes in voting procedure to ensure those changes are not discriminatory.  The law covers, with exceptions for certain cities or districts, eight states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas); certain counties or cities in six states (California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia); and certain townships in two states (Michigan, New Hampshire).  All of these areas were heavily allowing or enforcing voting discrimination to take place many decades ago.

Four years ago, just two years after President Bush signed the last extension of the law, Justice Scalia stated that, since it passed unanimously, its extension was a means to undermining the law itself.  No, he did not see it as support for the law simply growing, which it has done in every continuance since 1970, to a unanimous vote in 2006.  (I do not mean that as an eventuality that finally arrived, just that such has been the history.)  He cited the Sanhedrin, a former Jewish high court system, having a rule regarding the death penalty whereby any unanimous votes on it rendered it invalid.

Justice Scalia didn't mind being unanimously approved by the Senate (98-0) in 1986 to sit on the Supreme Court, though.

Justice Scalia expanded on his comments from four years ago, by stating the following from the bench on Wednesday: 
"This Court doesn’t like to get involved in racial questions such as this one.  It’s something that can be left to Congress.

The problem here, however, is suggested by the comment I made earlier, that the initial enactment of this legislation, in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear, was — in the Senate, there — double-digits against it.  And that was only a 5-year term.

Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term.  Double-digits against it in the Senate.  Then it was reenacted for 7 years.  Single digits against it.  Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it.  And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it.  And the House is pretty much the same.  Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this.  I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement.  It’s been written about.  Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act.  And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution.  You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it.

That’s the concern that those of us who have some questions about this statute have.  It’s a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress.  There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now.  And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this.  The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.

Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act.  Who is going to vote against that in the future?"

Justice Scalia believes that the Voting Rights Act perpetuates racial entitlement?  Really?  Well, Justice Scalia, you have the first letter and the number of syllables correct: it is not entitlement; it is equality.  As far as the idea of racial entitlement, it is not the Voting Rights Act, or its last reenactment, that perpetuates racial entitlement.  White persons denying persons who are not white the right to vote is racial entitlement.  ("We're entitled to vote, while you're not.")

If the Voting Rights Act is struck down by the Supreme Court, it makes the controls to put this train in reverse more accessible.  Anyone who has followed the news is aware of attempts to disenfranchise voters -- mostly blacks, other minorities, and the poor -- that have been well under way for some time.  Through voter ID cards, gerrymandering (redistricting voting districts), huge cutbacks on early voting, etc., keeping certain persons from voting seems clearly to not be an unfortunate side effect of these processes, but a desired goal.  Wasn't that same goal of keeping others from voting the reason for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter Rights Act of 1965 in the first place?  Wasn't that same goal in our past?  Wouldn't a reversal mean that every sore throat from screaming and every sore pair of feet from walking at public protests...every person directly affected by "separate but equal" environments...every person who was publicly humiliated...every person who was severely beaten, some with permanent injuries...every person who shed their blood...and every person who died for equal rights, went through all that for nothing?  Yes, it would.  

That cannot happen!  That must not happen!

Justice Scalia, it is clear that you want the country to go backward and there is a likely racial component to that desire.  I suspect that not every justice on the court shares your views, or shares them as vehemently as you do, but I fear that too many might.  After seeing something happen that I never that would -- the Citizens United decision three years ago -- that lies firmly on the carpet of culpability resting at the foot of the same Supreme Court on which you sit (and which you voted in favor), that "too many" sharing your beliefs will equal "enough" to strike down the nearly-fifty-year-old law.  

I admit to not trusting all the time two of the three branches of government, executive (President) and legislative (Congress), from time to time.  The third branch, judicial (Supreme Court), seldom grasped my attention in the same way.  However, that is no longer the case.  The judicial branch has become just as untrustworthy as the executive and legislative branches have been.  

Justice Scalia did get one thing right, although not in the way he intended it.  When he said, "Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes", he is correct.  Our history shows that white persons were entitled to vote, while black persons were not, and it took us all the way up to 1965, the latter half of the twentieth century, to begin to change that.