Saturday, April 28, 2012

Many Reasons to Reject Notion That "The Poor Are Responsible for Their Poverty"

For thirty years now, various departments and institutes at Houston's Rice University have been doing an annual survey that "has measured this region's remarkable economic and demographic transformations and recorded the way area residents are responding to them."

For most of those years the project has been headed by Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg and known as the Houston Area Survey. 

As the result of a $15 million gift by Houston philanthropists Rich and Nancy Kinder, the survey is now the responsibility of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, with Professor Klineberg as co-director, and called the Kinder Houston Area Survey.  The institute has also branched out to do similar surveys in other major metropolitan areas.

On April 24th a letter writer to the Houston Chronicle bemoaned the fact that in response to one question on the 2011 survey a surprising 59% of respondents  said that governments should act to reduce income differences between rich and poor in the United States.

This prompted the following excellent response from Donald M. Hayes (Montgomery, TX) posted yesterday and published in today's print edition:

Regarding "Responsibility," (Page B11, Tuesday), the letter writer is appalled that 59 percent of the respondents to the Houston Area Survey said the government should take action to reduce income differences between rich and poor in America.

He proceeds to assert that the real reasons have to do with alleged faults of the poor. He asserts that correcting income inequality is not a responsibility of government.

These prejudices are as wrong as they are widespread. An enormous body of research provides the foundation for this conclusion. Some of the best of this research has been done by the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Among the best of the best of this research is that done by the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Over generations a representative sample of families has been interviewed annually with respect to their finances. The research firmly rejects the notion that the poor are responsible for their poverty.

The major determinants, or predictors, of economic status in adulthood - poor, middle class or wealthy - are the circumstances of birth. The major determinants are social class at birth, race, and gender. The rule is that people live and die in or very near the class into which they were born, and within each class people of color do not fare as well as whites, and women do not fare as well as men.

Take the one variable of social class at birth: It determines the neighborhood in which one lives, which determines the quality of elementary and secondary education that one receives. Does government have a responsibility for inequalities in educational opportunity?

Does government have a responsibility to ameliorate the income consequences of educational inequality?

The social class at birth determines the quality of diet and health care of a child, which in turn has consequences for the child's income as an adult. Does government have a responsibility for class inequality in diet and health care? Does government have a responsibility to ameliorate the income consequences of these inequalities?

Many more examples could be provided: The poor are not responsible for economic recessions which impact them more adversely than those who have a larger economic cushion; they are not responsible for wars that kill and maim more of them than those who come from classes that can find employment without volunteering for military service; they are not responsible for regressive sales taxes and Social Security taxes; they are not responsible for a criminal justice system that sends more of them to prison; they are not responsible for a system of higher education that prices them out.

A little thought will cause more than 59 percent of Houstonians to agree with the sentiment that appalls the letter writer.

Donald M. Hayes, Montgomery

Friday, April 20, 2012

Two Cardinals Lauded for Pastoral Outreach to ... Of All People ... Gay Couples!

Yesterday the April 12-26th print edition of the National Catholic Reporter arrived by snail mail--and, lo and behold, with it an editorial I had missed, even though it apparently has been posted online since April 9, 2012.  The editorial praises two high-ranking cardinals, one an Austrian and the other an Italian, for positive pastoral outreach to, of all people, gay couples!

The Austrian is Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, who has a strong reputation for dealing calmly and practically with controversies.  The Italian is Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, S.J., now 85, who was Archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2004 and for quite a while considered a contender for the papacy until the election of Joseph Ratzinger as Benedict XVI.

What distinguishes the stands of both these church officials is how pointedly they diverge from the Catholic hierarchy's almost universally totalitarian campaign against civil recognition of gay couples.  Instead, Schönborn is working to change diocesan rules that prevent partnered gay people from serving on parish councils--even when they have been elected to serve by substantial majorities.  And Montini is suggesting that it is much better for states to favor homosexual partnerships than to promote gay hook-ups as a way of life.

I wholeheartedly recommend the NCR editorial, which follows:

Perhaps it is just a sign of the times that Catholics would be jolted reading that a cardinal, facing a difficult pastoral situation, would publicly acknowledge having asked himself: “How would Jesus act?”

That’s the question that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, asked when considering whether he should let stand a pastor’s decision to prohibit a gay man in a registered domestic partnership to serve on a parish council.

In March, Florian Stangl, 26, was overwhelmingly elected to the position by gaining 96 of 142 votes cast by members of the parish. The pastor, Fr. Gerhard Swierzek, head of the small parish, intervened and, upholding church law against homosexual partnerships, asked him to renounce the position and also, according to reports, asked Stangl not to receive the Eucharist.

The archdiocese at first upheld the rule. Then Schönborn asked himself that question. And Stangl asked to speak to the cardinal.

Schönborn apparently decided that one thing Jesus would do is invite Stangl and his partner to lunch.

What he discovered over lunch, he said later, was that he was “deeply impressed by [Stangl’s] faithful disposition, his humility, and the way in which he lives his commitment to service. I can therefore understand,” said the cardinal, “why the inhabitants of Stützenhofen voted so decidedly for his participation in the parish council.” And then Schönborn suggested that the archdiocese would look into reworking the rules for pastoral elections, which currently require that candidates sign a declaration that they support all church teachings.

In a statement explaining his decision, Schönborn said, “There are many parish councilors whose lifestyle does not fully conform to the ideals of the church. In view of the life witness that each of them gives taken as a whole, and their commitment to the attempt to live a life of faith, the church rejoices in their efforts.”

It is interesting that in the same week, news has circulated widely on the Internet and elsewhere of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini’s view, expressed in the book Believing and Knowing, that while society should defend and support family life, “it is not bad for two people to have some stability instead of occasional homosexual relationships, and in this regard the state could also favor them.”

Is it too much to suggest that Martini and Schönborn could be a leading edge of a shift in hierarchical thinking? After all, this is the first generation of prelates who have had to confront the reality that gays and lesbians will no longer remain a hidden “problem.” They are openly part of our lives, our cultures, our faith communities, and will continue to be. They are no longer an abstraction to be spoken about, without challenge, as some theological or ethical curiosity.

The other thing Schönborn did was talk publicly about his wrestling with this issue, discussing it during an hourlong interview on Austrian television Palm Sunday night. These questions are part of the public discourse, and he demonstrated that the church can be part of that discourse.

Schönborn revisited this issue in a homily directed to the priests of the archdiocese during the Chrism Mass on Tuesday of Holy Week and placed it into the larger question of pastoral care for Catholics whose lifestyles do “not fully conform to the ideals of the church.” Rather than railing against people in gay partnerships, cohabitating heterosexuals, and divorced and remarried Catholics, Schönborn has said the church needs to embrace them in their faith journey.

Schönborn’s approach has attracted a great deal of notice, of course, because it is so strikingly different from so much of the confrontational policing of borders that goes on in the church these days. It doesn’t burden the laity with a requirement that the hierarchy, we know, would miserably fail as a class -- that all be perfect in every detail.

What if, for instance, the U.S. bishops had decided to invite theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson for lunch -- even dinner -- to discuss her work before condemning it out of hand? What if Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Mass., had invited Victoria Kennedy to lunch to talk over whatever objection he may have to her as commencement speaker at Anna Maria College? What if these U.S. leaders would have taken into consideration these women’s “life witness” as a whole? Both episodes might have had more civil, not to mention rational, endings.

Spending time with someone, especially breaking bread with someone, tends to soften the hard edges. It doesn’t negate principle, but it may make one hesitate, or even rethink, before publicly condemning someone.

The culture warriors among us might balk at such a strategy. At a distance, the lines always look sharper and more defined. It’s tough to keep warring against someone you’ve come to know a bit and whom you perceive as reasonable and well-intended.

Maybe seminaries should consider placing a great deal more emphasis on developing the “invitation to lunch” as an integral part of pastoral theology programs.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Retired Australian Bishop Geoffrey Robinson Calls Catholics to a Better Sexual Ethic

I am especially grateful to the National Catholic Reporter for reporting in mid-March that Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, who served as Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Australia from 1984 to 2004, is calling for a thoroughgoing reformation of official Catholic teaching on sexual ethics.

I appreciate learning about Robinson's proposal, because it is significant in several way.

First, he is no stranger to the church's rules on marriage or to canon law in general:  prior to being named bishop, he was Chief Justice of the Archdiocesan Marriage Tribunal and President of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand.  This is no theological neophyte or lightweight speaking up.

Second, Robinson headed the Australian bishops' investigation into the causes of clerical sexual abuse in his country--which, he says, convinced him that sex is always a serious matter and that abuse crisis showed that the church's official sexual teachings dangerously misplace what should be taken seriously about sex:  (a) they allowed the perpetrators and their bishops to treat the damage done to victims as not very serious at all, enabling the offenders to be handled clandestinely, by just making a good confession and getting reassigned; and (b) they encouraged the bishops to give higher priority to protecting the institutional church from public scandal--and criminal and civil damages--than to just treatment of the victims and effective discipline of the perpetrators.  Robinson concluded that an official teaching on sexual ethics that could yield such outcomes was seriously deficient.

Third, when his fellow bishops took umbrage at his findings, Robinson decided he could no longer serve as a bishop.  Officially he resigned in 2004 for reasons of health.  But he says the health problems were brought on largely by the antagonism of his peers.  His integrity in parting company with them and taking his views global indicate that his proposal is based on faithfulness to the damning facts he gathered about the sexual abuse crisis and to his conscientious convictions about the new directions those stubborn facts require.

Robinson's proposal, which NCR has endorsed editorially, is straight-forward:  the official Catholic position on sex since Humanae vitae (issued on July 26, 1968)--that, to be moral, every sexual act by any human being must be open to unitive and procreative purposes within heterosexual marriage--is badly flawed, and that fixing the flaws will result in a better valuation of heterosexual and homosexual relationships, not to mention marriage and contraception.

NCR reports on Robinson's proposal as it was delivered to the Seventh National Symposium on Catholicism and Homosexuality, sponsored March 15-17, 2012, by New Ways Ministry in Baltimore, MD.  But NCR notes that Robinson's analysis is more detailed and developed than can be summarized in an article and refers readers to Bishop Robinson's website for the complete text of his thesis.  It is found at a link entitled Christian Basis for Teaching on Sex.

In terms of its content, there is little in Robinson's proposal that could be called radically new.  Virtually all of the content reflects the ideas of several prominent Catholic moral theologians in the second half of the 20th century.  But what is truly novel is that a Catholic bishop has grasped their arguments, made them his own, and spelled out where those arguments must lead the church in its teachings on sexual ethics.

One of Robinson's key insights is that the church's teaching on homosexual acts is flawed because its teaching on heterosexual acts is flawed.  This was my thinking as well in my doctoral dissertation in 1982.  In Chapter 2 of Part II, Examples of Creativity in Christian Doctrine, I positioned two doctrines back to back--the teaching on contraception and the teaching on homosexuality--because I believed changes in one would result in changes in the other.  It is clear that Robinson grasps this linkage.

Robinson argues, first of all, that Christians must question church officials when "It is claimed that God inserted into nature itself the demand that every human sexual act be both unitive and procreative."  If the claim is true, Robinson says, it appears to stand out as the only instance of God giving such a specific divine purpose to a created thing.  It also suggests a God who takes undue, disproportionate offense at matters which seem not to have much impact on the unfolding of his universe.

Robinson also questions whether unitive and procreative aspects are essentials of each and every marriage, not to mention each and every act of sexual intercourse.  He also echoes several Catholic moral theologians who have said that the Catholic tradition on sexual ethics focuses much too exclusively on the physical structure of sexual acts, "rather than on how such acts affect persons and relationships."

Against the tradition's emphasis on a supposed natural law that only conservative Catholics seem capable of discerning and on openness to producing offspring as the sine qua non for ethical sex, Robinson proposes that what should be taken seriously is what Jesus told us to take seriously:  "all the evidence tells us that God cares greatly about human beings and takes a very serious view of any harm done to them, through sexual desire or any other cause... I suggest, therefore, that we should look at sexual morality in terms of the good or harm done to persons and the relationships between them rather than in terms of a direct offense against God."

Robinson notes that this direction would still pit the church against a modern society that "has become more and more accepting of casual sexual activity that is not related to love or relationship."  Thus, says Robinson, "I do not simply conclude that all sex is good as long as it does not harm anyone... Jesus invariably said 'Love your neighbour,' and this implies more than the negative fact of not harming... The essential difference between the two is than an attitude of 'do no harm' can put oneself first, while 'Love your neighbour' must put the neighbour first."

Drawing directly on his analysis of the sexual abuse crisis, Robinson is insistent about this contrast:  "we must take the harm that can be caused by sexual desire very seriously indeed, and look carefully at the circumstances that can make morally bad the seeking of sexual pleasure because they involve harm to others, to oneself or to the community.  Some of these factors are:  violence, physical or psychological, deceit and self-deceit, harming a third person (e.g. a spouse), using another person for one's own gratification, treating people as sexual objects rather than as persons, separating sex from love to the extent that sex loses its ability to express the depths of love, trivializing sex so that it loses its seriousness, allowing the desire for present satisfaction to restrict the ability to respond to the deeper longings of the human heart, harming the possibility of permanent commitment, failing to respect the connection that exists between sex and new life, failing to respect the need to build a relationship patiently and carefully, failing to respect the common good of the whole community."

For me, the list is a bit too comprehensive.  I understand, especially after the priestly sexual abuse crisis, why Robinson insists on taking sex seriously.  But is there a point at which the focus on relationships is being taken too seriously?  The approach as Robinson presents it seems to devalue and exclude all instances of, to sanitize commentator Bill Maher, pleasure sex.  Is it possible that "sexual activity not related to love or relationship" between truly consenting adults can be appropriate for some individuals at some points in their lives?  The church could never preach that it would be good for anyone to become permanently stuck in that lifestyle.  But do such experiences never have value?

Yet to take love and relationships as the aspects of sexual pleasure that should be taken most seriously would be a tremendous advance over focusing exclusively on procreative purpose.  Indeed, the analysis of the teaching on contraception in my doctoral dissertation showed several attempts to nuance procreative purpose with a greater emphasis on the unitive aspects of sex, especially in the period from Thomas Aquinas through the 19th century.  It was only when the Anglican Communion decided that contraceptive practices could be moral that Roman Catholicism responded with encyclicals like Casti canubii--which Humane vitae declared sacrosanct.

Robinson would propose evaluating homosexual acts by the same standards as heterosexual acts.  So "anything goes" would be ruled out, but homosexual acts which embodied love of neighbor and care for sexual relationships would be applauded:  "Positively, it would follow that sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are not, in and of themselves alone, offensive to God.  It would mean that sexual acts are pleasing to God when they help build persons and relationships, displeasing to God when they harm persons and relationships."

What I find most encouraging about Bishop Robinson's appropriation of this sexual morality is that it exhibits the pattern of creativity in church teaching that I highlighted in my dissertation.  Christians reach a point in time when a received teaching is no longer functioning as it should:  rather than promoting growth and harmony among Christians and humans in general, the teaching starts yielding unintended consequences.  Honest followers of Jesus pay attention to those outcomes, re-examine the teaching, and discover novel evaluations that place the old teaching within new limits.  In this case, giving priority to love of neighbor and loving relationships recontextualizes procreative purpose and anything we once might have said about the physical structure of sexual acts.

It is a process that has gone on numerous times in the history of Christianity.  It is how the church achieved the teachings we still value today, how the church achieves new teachings that address the signs of the times, and how the those teachings will be placed in an even newer context tomorrow.  It is how, in the context of all the proposals ever made about Jesus and ever to be made, "the many become one, and are increased by one."