Archive for July, 2014

SHAME, SHAME

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

After twenty-eight days away from this desk I returned this past Sunday with pleasant memories and not too many tasks sitting in front of me. Arthritis is beginning to take its toll on me, in the feet, hands, knees, elbows, etc. and I face a schedule for the coming year that in most ways is even more challenging than this last year which I found very challenging. Everyone, uniformly and universally, counsels me to slow down, take it easy, and then presents me with some event where my presence is absolutely necessary so for me, like for many others of you, the proverbial “road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We’ll see. But what I wish to reflect upon in this blog entry is far more difficult and sadder than anything I can say about myself, the diocese, or even the Church.

I have asked our Catholic Charities to consult with Migration and Refugee Services division of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to see how many of the unaccompanied children mostly from Guatemala and Honduras we might be able to temporarily resettle. As you know, parents of those two countries are doing everything they can to send their children to the United States to escape possible death, torture and abuse in their homes towns and cities. Gang violence is so bad in those situations that even if the children do escape but are captured and sent back, they are highly subject to even greater risk of death just for having attempted to escape. The media has done a very good job of portraying the evil at home and critics of US immigration policy have done a very bad job of painting a true picture of the situation. No parent wants to turn their children at an outrageous price over to a suspect entrepreneur who promises to deliver the children through Mexico and across the US border. But their fear for their children’s lives leaves them little other options. It is a replay of “Operation Pedro Pan” when Cuban parents entrusted their children to a unsure future in the US as Fidel Castro began his reign in their country but a major difference between then and this situation is that the Cuban parents knew there was a program or people on the receiving end who would care for their kids until family reunification was possible. It is also a replay in miniature of the countless tens of thousands of  mostly Catholic Vietnamese families who braved the dangerous waters of the South China Sea to escape the North Vietnamese communists taking over the South after we brought the flag out and surrendered. In that instance, the resettlement was a reflection of our national guilt and shame.

What is happening now along the border with Mexico is not the same as the steady flow of “illegal immigrants” which has led to the national discussion of immigration policy for which the majority of the House of Representatives has no heart. The “humanitarian quotient” of the unaccompanied minors we see coming our way cries out to heaven for a humanitarian and not a politically timed or motivated response. It is something our Church has responded to in the past, something which we know how to do, and something which we should be doing. If those kids need our help, I am ready to ask everyone in this diocese who possibly can to help me give them a temporary home which will be safe, secure, and free of shame. Shame on those who would kill, maim and torture children and their parents in their home land simply in the name and as a form of gang violence and shame on their own government for allowing it to happen. Shame on those elected representatives in our country who for seemingly  reasons of political gamesmanship and an upcoming election turn a deaf ear to the cries of these kids. And shame on us if we stand all the day idle. Their parents want them back but until then, will we be willing to be the hands of a compassionate and loving Lord?

As that song from LES MISERABLES goes, “will you join in this crusade?”

+RNL

A LIONESS IN WINTER

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM. Photo via USCCB blog.

Why does it so often happen that it takes either death or a departure to move humanity to recognize the incredible gifts of a person which have too long been taken for a given. Such is the case with this blog and the person whom I am going to lionize precisely because she will be leaving a position in the Church, which she has so ably occupied and plied for several decades. I am writing about Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a Religious Sister of Mercy who has served in the Communications Department of the United States Catholic Conference for years.

The bishops’ national headquarters and the bishops have had a fine Communications Department for years. Russell Shaw, still an active writer on “things Catholic” was the chief of the Communications staff when I arrived in 1984, followed by a wonderful Albany priest, Father Kenneth Doyle, who was then followed by Monsignor Frank Maniscalco of the Rockville Center diocese. It was, I believe, Father Doyle who brought Sister Mary Ann Walsh onto his staff as a media spokesperson and right-hand-woman.

Quietly, effectively, honestly Sister Mary Ann has tirelessly attempted to make the sometimes-inscrutable decisions of this country’s bishops known and, better still, understood by the religious working media. The media trusted her always. If she could not tell them something they wanted to know, it was because persons like myself told her not to, or she was not privy to it herself. There was no one better in the Conference all those years at giving “background” on what we were up to than Sister Mary Ann. She could have been and probably should have been Director of Communications at some point in her term of service, but loyally and quite capably she soldiered on.

Saint John Paul II came to the United States for a third time on my “watch” and my colleague in the office, now Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, in charge of planning that visit asked if Sister Mary Ann could run the whole press and media business for World Youth Day 1993. He would say and I would second, she was simply superb. But, more importantly, the media that covered the moment also gave her high marks. That moment for Sister Mary Ann earned her the promotion enthusiastically made by her “Boss”, Monsignor Maniscalco.

I left my eleven-year tenure at the USCCB /NCCB in 1995 but the one constant has been the presence of Sister, during the twice-yearly general meetings. It had to sometimes be very hard for her to represent the bishops. There were moments when we lacked the sensitivity we should have had for women. I think of the doomed Pastoral Letter on Women in the Church and Society. The “Society” part was easy enough but the “Church” part ultimately doomed the project. The debates on inclusive language in the liturgy had to be hard for her to represent at times and the day-after-day assault on sexual misconduct with minors would try and test any woman. I suspect that there were moments when she wished that she represented someone else than the bishops but she hung in there, putting the best face possible on dicey matters – ever loyal to her employer but probably churning inside. In every way, Sister Mary Ann Walsh was a pro and to this moment I would bet the bishops do not fully appreciate the “gem” we had.

So she is leaving now to write for AMERICA magazine, the weekly, Jesuit sponsored journal of Catholic opinion. Sister will now be free to tell her readers what she really thinks and not have to spin what we think. I look forward to her contributions because I know they will be thoughtful, measured, loving of the Church to which she has given her life in religion, but realistic about its warts and wrinkles. Sister Mary Ann had what I would call a “Novocain” face. In the midst of the most heated situations, her visage never changed. In the “winter” of the Church’s experience, she stood tall like a lioness overseeing her cubs, wishing for the world that she could help us escape our prey. And then she just prayed.

Sister Mary Ann, if I failed to say this to you before, you have made a simply amazing contribution to the life of the Church in the United States, albeit in almost anonymity. Mother Catherine McCauley, your foundress, is proud of you and so is a generation of General Secretaries. Thanks, and by the way, please don’t write a book because I am not going to. We know too much.

+RNL

ONLY THE SHADOW KNOWS

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

I have now had about twenty-four hours to reflect on the import of the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in what has come to be known as the “Hobby Lobby test.” If there is any reader who does not know what this is all about, it is simply that an owner of a family corporation found it against his/her personal conscience formed by religious teaching and long held belief to provide four components of the many required by the Affordable Care Act regarding contraceptive services . These particular elements were believed by the owners to be providing abortion services (for example, the morning-after pill is required). He had no objection to normal birth control medications, inter-uterine devices, sterilization).  A majority of 5-4 (all men and all Catholics) found for the Hobby Lobby owners in their objection and sustained their intention not to participate in this aspect of the ACA. The Court’s minority (three women, one of whom is Catholic, and one man) dissented strongly. Here are some of my “morning after” thoughts:

  1.  I am happy that we can still cling to some hope that religious conscience can still deserve protection in our country. The court used a 1993 law enacted by Congress and signed by no less than President William Clinton entitled “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act” as the basis for its majority decision, so that is a good thing. At the local level, last December Judge Elizabeth M. Kovachevich of the Middle District of Florida Federal Court arrived at exactly the same position on basically the same legal footprint in ruling in favor of a Pinellas county electrical contractor who owned his own company and also had deeply held religious feelings against the mandate.
  2. Judge Samuel Alito writing for the majority made it clear that this ruling applied only to solely or closely held businesses and therefore publicly traded corporations with stockholders, etc. could not make a similar religious claim and thereby avoid the provision of the so-called “contraceptive mandate.” Despite what you may have been reading today, the work-force universe which this ruling covers is incredibly small.
  3. As I, a non-lawyer reads the opinions, it would seem to me that there is only a slight glimmer of hope that the many more legal challenges awaiting the court’s attention, probably in the next term [October 2014 to June 2015] will find this same court ruling in favor of Catholic Charities, Notre Dame University [to name one university among many who have challenged this small portion of the ACA], the Little Sisters of the Poor, etc. I describe it as a “slight glimmer” because in his decision yesterday, Judge Alito almost legally blessed the procedure the Obama Administration put in place for exemptions and accommodations. Could that have brought a different decision in the Hobby Lobby case had it applied? Who knows?  Only the Shadow knows [here your author is showing his age as this line is from a ‘40s and ‘50s radio show].
  4. One cannot and should not ignore the minority finding, written by Justice Ginsberg as words of a “poor loser.” My guess would be that had the facts of this case or the many other cases on their way to the court dealing with the contraceptive mandate be put to public plebiscite, the minority’s and Mrs. Ginsberg’s position would be sustained. As I found out in the sample return of 7000 people to my survey in December 2013 of Catholic sentiment on contraception, Catholic public opinion has swayed a long way from the position our Church and the owners of the three businesses involved in yesterday’s decision to that of the minority opinion. While some of her points were not compelling to her brothers on the Court, they may be to others who will have roles to play when the mandate returns. There is ample time between yesterday’s ruling and the next one to come down for public opinion to be heard even more loudly. A strategy which says we have not sufficiently explained our position and therefore we will work harder to make it clearer and more palatable will, in my opinion not save the day either.
  5. So, one can rest in peace for a few more months that by a slim margin of one vote the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to this set of facts has been sustained, but uncertainty remains at least in my mind. I hope I am wrong. I thought the Court would find for the business owners in this case and in reading his opinion, I admire Justice Alito’s clear effort to provide a foundation for judgment that would win majority support. His rhetoric was measured, showing compassion at times, and limited. If I were the Obama Administration, I would have one more try at finding a solution which would end the legal debate, but I know they won’t because there is an election coming and I think he is pretty secure that on this one, the judgment of public opinion, he will win. But where is the great compromiser to be found in this day and age – in society, in politics or in the Church? Only the Shadow knows.

+RNL