Steady as She Goes: Reflections on the Palm Sunday Readings

They were the strangest, most decent family I had ever met, and just about everyone in our parish agreed.  I used to see them, sometimes just one alone, sometimes as a family, biking everywhere they went in town – rain or snow, hot or cold, a simple trip to the grocery store or heading to Mass on Easter Sunday.  I could always tell it was him when I would see him far ahead of me on the road; that same, slow, rhythmic, consistent pedal speed; back perfectly erect, looking serenely straight ahead, seemingly in no hurry but clearly mindful of where he was going; unfettered by wind, rain, or snow (he would have made a model mail man).  Sometimes my interactions with him and his family were awkward (OK, frequently they were awkward); and yet, I always came away feeling bewildered by how such seemingly strange people always had the effect of both calming my anxieties, and at the same time challenging me to set aside my own judgments and appreciate the steady, consistent virtue that they exemplified.  There is no other word to describe my interactions with them than “bewildering.” Today’s readings take us to the beginning of the heart of the Christian mystery – the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  In the procession at the beginning of the Palm Sunday liturgy we hear the story from...

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Ya Can’t Have One Without the Other: Subsidiarity Again

Is it contrary to the principle of subsidiarity for a school principal to ban homemade lunches, my colleague Jana Bennett asks? Should there be a national ban on incandescent lightbulbs? These questions are not earth-shaking. But they are extremely important for establishing a Catholic social teaching that actually “works” – that actually applies to our day-to-day evaluation of systems. I wanted to write a separate post because the problem here begins when subsidiarity is deployed as a principle apart from solidarity. Pope Benedict writes in Caritas in Veritate (#57): The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa, since the former without the latter gives way to social privatism, while the latter without the former gives way to paternalist social assistance that is demeaning to those in need. I argue nearly the same thing in an (earlier!) essay in The Heart of Catholic Social Teaching, on CST and modern politics: that solidarity and subsidiarity together function as the key principles. How might we apply these in the cases above? I think two rules are necessary. First, we should recognize that subsidiarity is not a free-standing principle about “size,” but rather a principle that protects against “demeaning” or “paternalist” laws. Is any “lower” group harmed by these rules? As Jana points out, the law makes exceptions for those who demonstrate particular dietary rules....

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Subsidiarity and the Case of the Missing Lunch

I’m fond of telling my students that pretty much anything should be considered a “moral theology” question. (They don’t often believe me.) Consider the news headlines about the ban on homemade lunches. My knee jerk reaction was to think “How unfair! Parents ought to be able to decide what their kids eat.” Except that then I have second, and I believe better and more rational thoughts, for it turns out that the “homemade” lunches mentioned in the article consist in cheetos, sodas, and other processed foods. Should we care about this or is this truly a problem for the parents alone? On one hand, these foods are cheaper and more enjoyable for kids, making this a win-win situation for many parents. On the other hand, associations (though not causations, as researchers are careful to note) routinely show up in studies – links between nutrition and child obesity (and with it, the rise in obesity-related diseases), and nutrition and one’s ability to do well in school. So the principal decided to take it upon herself to ban them except in cases of medical necessity. Granted that parents who object could likely find studies that support the opposite claims (as is usually the case when it comes to scientific studies), it is the principal in this case who has the authority to ban the lunches from her school. She’s apparently not...

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The Death Penalty, Natural Law, and the Task of Moral Theology

There is an interesting debate over at First Things between Joe Carter and David Bentley Hart on the legitimacy of the death penalty. For both Carter and Hart, the sticking point concerns how Scripture should be read and applied on this matter. I am not so much interested in how they both read Scripture, nor am I really concerned here with the debate over capital punishment per se (though I would tend to agree with Hart over Carter), but rather, in Hart’s dismissal of natural law reasoning as helpful in making a moral case. At the beginning of his post, Hart writes, He [Carter] does make a passing reference to the dictates of natural law—at second hand, by way of Edward Feser—but I think that can be largely ignored. To be perfectly frank, most natural law arguments on the matter are hopelessly ad hoc constructions, consisting in prescriptions unconvincingly and willfully attached to endlessly contestable descriptions (that’s an argument for another time, though, when the Thomists have all already had their coffee). But, even if capital punishment is entirely in keeping with natural justice (and I am more than willing to grant that it is), that has next to no bearing whatsoever on how Christians should understand their moral obligations with regard to it. Hart goes on to show all the ways in which the New Law radically departs...

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Dutch Move to Ban Jewish and Islamic Slaughter of Non-Human Animals

How’s this for strange bed-fellows?  Dutch (mostly far-left) non-human animal rights supporters are teaming with the far-right ‘Freedom Party’ (which continues to be driven by worries about the considerable Muslim influence in the Netherlands) to ban certain kinds of religiously motivated slaughter of non-human animals: As in most western countries, Dutch law dictates that butchers must stun livestock — render it unconscious — before it can be slaughtered, to minimize the animals’ pain and fear. But an exception is made for meat that must be prepared under ancient Jewish and Muslim dietary laws and practices. These demand that animals be slaughtered while still awake, by swiftly cutting the main arteries of their necks with razor-sharp knives. Apparently a clear majority favor the ban, but complicating factors surrounding this issue push beyond the already controversial topic of non-human animal rights/welfare–and play into a seriously-strained relationship between Dutch Muslims and secularists: Abdulfatteh Ali-Salah, director of Halal Correct, a certification body for Dutch halal meat, said he felt the debate made Muslims in the Netherlands feel Dutch society is more interested in animal welfare than fair treatment of its Muslim citizens. “If the law goes through now there’s nothing else to do but protest,” he said. “And that’s what we’ll do.” This also marks an important reversal given that “Holland has proud traditions of tolerance and was one of the first countries...

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Inequality: A Clear and Present Danger

In 2008, Bishop Girotti, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, released a list of “Seven Social Sins,”  including three economic social sins: excessive wealth, creating poverty, and contributing to the widening gap between rich and poor. Each of these three social sins names and highlights particular aspects of economic structures and culture in contemporary society. In my opinion, inequality is perhaps THE moral question we, as a society, cannot ignore any longer. To expose both the reality and dangers posed by inequality in the United States, I recommend the new Vanity Fair article, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%” by the 2x Nobel Prize winner and Columbia economics professor, Joseph Stiglitz. The upper 1% of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40% . . . While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall.” Throughout the article, Stiglitz examines the reasons for this growing inequality and argues why the current levels of inequality in the United States are profoundly dangerous. America’s inequality distorts our society in every conceivable way. There is, for one thing, a well-documented lifestyle effect—people outside the top 1 percent increasingly live beyond their means. Trickle-down economics...

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Putting Some Flesh on these Bones

April 10, 2011 Fifth Sunday of Lent Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 In the Introduction to our book, After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice, Mark Allman and I start with some words from the prophet Ezekiel. As one of the exiles deported by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.E., Ezekiel predicted the devastation of Jerusalem. Even if their military defenses were successful in the past, Ezekiel admonished the people about their dangerous illusion of security—promoted by false prophets “saying ‘Peace!’ when there was no peace”—that underpinned their idolatrous way of life marked by vice, unrighteousness, injustice, and oppression. When his dire warning came to pass a decade later, the focus of Ezekiel’s message shifted to the hope of Israel’s restoration, the New Jerusalem. The plain filled with dry bones will be transformed into a habitat full of vitality. The dispossessed would return to their land, rebuild their homes, and regain their livelihoods. God will mercifully redeem them (as the Psalm emphasizes) and will put God’s spirit in the people, so that they might have new life and truly know God in an intimate way that transforms who they are and how they live. This new era was to be characterized by lives devoted to virtue, righteousness, justice, and true peace, or shalom. Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones scattered across a plain is...

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The Banality of Evil . . . Again

A shocking story appeared on the front page of the New York Times yesterday regarding a small-town Kentucky woman, beloved by neighbors, with a dark past. Issabell Basic, previously known as Azra Basic, was charged in 1993 for war crimes by the Bosnian government, but she has only recently been located in rural Kentucky leading to her arrest this week: Nearly two decades after fleeing her native Croatia, the squat, hardworking woman known as Issabell Basic lived a quiet life in this small town, firing up her Jeep Cherokee each day for the 25-minute commute to her job making Hot Pockets. She doted on the dog she had bottle-fed as a puppy, was handy at sinking a fence post, and though neighbors never took to her stuffed grape leaves and cabbage, friends loved the cakes she baked each time a birthday rolled around. Emphysema kept her close to the series of homes she shared with Steve Loman and his wife, Lucy, whom she called “Sis.” The Lomans, in turn, describe Ms. Basic, 51, as a “big-hearted” person — the kind who would not buy something for herself without first picking up a gift for a friend, but who was also so scarred by the Bosnian conflict that she could not watch war movies and had severed all ties with her native land. But perhaps there was another reason for...

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Of Fraud & Foreclosures

Economists and others have consistently been warning that the housing crisis (and cascading effects on the rest of the “economic recovery”) is far from over.  In particular, L. Randall Wray at Huffington Post has done a series of articles on the fraud involved in the foreclosures.  Without the proper paperwork and desiring to take back the property, banks have resorted to systematic fraud to create the needed documents. This dirty little secret of the “economic recovery”  was exposed on last night’s 60 Minutes: CBS  The Next Housing Shock Video I imagine that the 60 Minutes story will come as a shock to most people. Now I will confess, my father is an economist, so  I was aware that banks were attempting to foreclose without legal documentation; however, I was not aware of the extent to which they were resorting – outright counterfeit. Exposing this at Bank of America,  Economists William Black and Randall Wray began their series by arguing, that the FDIC should place Bank of America in receivership and the federal banking agencies should impose a moratorium on foreclosures until the mortgage servicers correct their systems, which currently often rely on massive fraud and perjury. There can be no assurance that foreclosures are lawful until the banks actually find the mortgage “wet ink” notes signed by debtors to prove they are the true beneficial owner of the mortgage debts,...

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