Pope Francis to Congress: Remember Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton

CPr_SKJWUAEYOphI spent a wonderful morning down on the national Mall watching Pope Francis address Congress. What an amazing speech. The air was electric! Not something you normally feel inside the political beltway of D.C.

Tears sprang to my eyes when the pope said he would build his talk around four great Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Wow! I finally felt like the church was done wandering in the wilderness and was ready to come home to the living gospel of at least the 20th century!

Here’s one excerpt:

My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.

I would like to mention four of these Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. …

Here’s the link to the complete transcript of Pope Francis’ address to Congress:

11-EN-congressional-address

Norm Ornstein: Romney vs. ‘Young Guns’ in 2013

On the radio show “To The Point,” Norm Ornstein, Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative D.C.-based think tank, gave an insightful look into what the “Young Gun” Republicans (Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan) have planned for Congress after the election.

Ornstein, with Congressional scholar Thomas Mann,  is co-author of  It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism. Here’s the critical excerpt:

“The decision to use the debt limit as a hostage taking event was cooked up well before the 2010 elections. It was a conscious approach by the ‘young guns,’ as they call themselves–[Eric] Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan. It was the first time ever that the debt limit had been used as a hostage for another set of goals. You had a large number of Republicans who ran by pledging they would never vote to increase the debt limit. This was not something that just emerged and then it was a question of who would navigate through it. …

The problem that Romney would face [if elected] would be particularly acute, paradoxically, if the Republicans win the House and the Senate. Because I can tell you from conversations with Republicans in both chambers, but especially in the House, and this was Paul Ryan’s plan long before he became the running mate. They’ve got a plan that if they capture everything their going to put together in January the ‘Mother’ of all reconciliation bills, avoid a filibuster, and it’s going to provide the vision of Ryan’s budget, which is far more conservative than what Mitt Romney suggested in that first debate. They are going to try to pass it through on their votes alone and send it to him and, in effect, dare him to veto it. His ability to withstand what would be very conservative policies coming out of a Republican House and Senate would be very limited.”–Norm Ornstein

Listen to the whole interview on KCRW’s To The Point (Oct. 8, 2012).

Stephen Colbert: Reading Matthew 25 From the Migrant Fields

Comedian Stephen Colbert joined the panel of witnesses at a House hearing on immigrant farm workers. Mr. Colbert has partnered with United Farm Workers and their campaign calling on unemployed Americans to take jobs in the agriculture sector. The UFWs president, Arturo Rodriguez, also testified at the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security hearing chaired by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA).

“Stephen Colbert” is a fictional persona of the comedian by the same name. Both are Catholic. In the clip above, Colbert breaks character for a moment to quote from Matthew 25: “Whatsover you do to the least of these …”

More Healthcare: Leading U.S. Catholic Newspaper Stands With Sisters on Healthcare

hcr-is-pro-lifeIn more late-breaking news, the nation’s leading Catholic newspaper the National Catholic Reporter, released an editorial backing the passage of the current health-care reform bill before Congress. “Congress, and its Catholics, should say yes to health care reform,” states NCR.

This move aligns NCR with thousands of Catholic sisters and millions of lay Catholics (see Catholic Nuns Pick Up Where Bishops Fall Down) , but puts it at odds with U.S. Catholic bishops, who said earlier this week that they could not support the current bill.

We do not reach this conclusion as easily as one might think, given the fact that we have supported universal health care for decades, as have the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association and other official and non-official organs of the Catholic church. There are, to be sure, grave problems with the bill the House will consider in the next few days. It maintains the squirrelly system of employer-based health care coverage that impedes cost reduction. Its treatment of undocumented workers is shameful. It is unnecessarily complicated, even Byzantine, in some of its provisions. It falls short of providing true universal coverage.

Nevertheless, NCR sees passing healthcare reform as a giant step forward in correcting a failed system and putting the country on the right track for continued improvements. NCR acknowledges that much of the heated debate as we get closer to victory will be around the abortion issue.

All sides agreed to abide by the spirit of the Hyde Amendment, which for more than 30 years has banned federal funding of abortion. But the Hyde Amendment applies to government programs only, and trying to fit its stipulations to a private insurance marketplace is a bit like putting a potato skin on an apple. Pro-choice advocates could not understand why a government that currently subsidizes abortion coverage through the tax code should balk at subsidizing private plans that cover abortion in the insurance exchanges the bill establishes. They have a point. Pro-life groups understandably worry that opening the door to federal funding of abortion, even indirectly, risks further encroachments on Hyde. They have a point, too.

NCR also addresses the diverging opinions this week between the pro-passage stance taken by Catholic Health Association and Network, a Catholic social justice lobby representing more than 59,000 Catholic sisters and the anti-passage stance taken by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. I appreciated NCR delineating the different roles each sector plays.

[The Catholic Health Association] actually knows how health care is provided at the ground level. The USCCB’s inside-the-beltway analysis is focused on possible scenarios, many of them worst-case scenarios. The U.S. bishops’ conference is right to worry about such things and the sisters are right to put those worries in perspective.

In the final analysis, NCR reiterates that the current legislation is not “pro-abortion,” and there is “no, repeat no, federal funding of abortion in the bill.”

What is being debated is not the morality of abortion but the politics of abortion, concludes NCR, and there is plenty of room for honest and respectful disagreement among Catholics about politics. Amen to that!

Healthcare: Catholic Nuns Pick Up Where Bishops Fall Down

Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health Association president
Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health Association president

This week as seen a bizarre split in Catholic allegiances on passing the health care bill. On Monday, 15 March, U.S. Catholic bishops, who have been a strong, clear, and powerful advocate for health care reform have backed off from it over concerns that the language written by pro-life Dems Ben Nelson and Bob Casey doesn’t go far enough in preventing federal funding for abortion.

The bishops announced that they must “regretfully hold that it must be opposed unless and until these serious moral problems are addressed.” Yesterday, Catholic commentator E.J. Dionne wrote in his Washington Post column:

Yet on the make-or-break roll call that will determine the fate of health-care reform, bishops are urging that the bill be voted down. They are doing so on the basis of a highly tendentious reading of the abortion provisions in the Senate measure. If health reform is defeated, the bishops will have played a major role in its demise.

What a shame! But, where the Catholic bishops have dropped the banner, American Catholic sisters have picked it up.

Sister Carol Keehan, President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association (the largest Catholic health organization in the country, representing 1200 Catholic health facilities and 800,000 employees), issued a statement (The Time is Now for Health Reform) on Monday, maintaining support for the health care bill and explaining how the current provisions will work:

The bill now being considered allows people buying insurance through an exchange to use federal dollars in the form of tax credits and their own dollars to buy a policy that covers their health care. If they choose a policy with abortion coverage, then they must write a separate personal check for the cost of that coverage.

There is a requirement that the insurance companies be audited annually to assure that the payment for abortion coverage fully covers the administrative and clinical costs, that the payment is held in a separate account from other premiums, and that there are no federal dollars used.

In addition, there is a wonderful provision in the bill that provides $250 million over 10 years to pay for counseling, education, job training and housing for vulnerable women who are pregnant or parenting. Another provision provides a substantial increase in the adoption tax credit and funding for adoption assistance programs.

Two days after Sr. Keehan’s statement of support for the health care bill, more Catholic sisters representing hundreds of communities sent letters to Congress also in support of passing the health care bill.

NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby, headed up by Sr. Simone Campbell, released the text of the letter they delivered to each member of Congress on St. Patrick’s Day. NETWORK represents 59,000 Catholic sisters and more lay Catholics.

We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week. We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward.

As the heads of major Catholic women’s religious order in the United States, we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States who respond to needs of people in many ways. Among our other ministries we are responsible for running many of our nation’s hospital systems as well as free clinics throughout the country. …

The health care bill that has been passed by the Senate and that will be voted on by the House will expand coverage to over 30 million uninsured Americans. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all. It will invest in preventative care. It will bar insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions. It will make crucial investments in community health centers that largely serve poor women and children. And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments – $250 million – in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.

Of course, as all this plays out, conservatives against health care reform — including Americans United for Life, which is running a $350,000 ad campaign aimed at eight Democratic lawmakers who supported the Stupak-Pitt’s amendment which prohibited federal funding for abortion and allowed individuals to purchase private insurance that may or may not cover abortions — are cranking back up their machines and may be strong-arming behind the scenes to push House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (also a Catholic) toward the “deem to pass” or “self-executing” option.

CHA president Sr. Keehan wrote for Sojourners last November. I appreciated her clear, concise, and profoundly educated approach when she said:

“Health care must respect and protect human dignity from conception to natural death. In that spirit, coverage for everyone is a moral imperative and a matter of social justice.”

Once again, I’m proud to see Catholic women leading the way toward sane and humane governance and policy.

‘When Fortune Turns Against One of Us …”: In Defense of Liberalism

cardboardcityorigLast night, at the end of his health care speech, President Obama gave one of the great defenses of the modern Liberal political tradition — the important role that government has to play in defending liberty and providing for the common good.

He layed out a healthcare reform platform that sets in place a cushion for those times “when forture turns against one of us.” It’s an organized way of making sure that we are “there to lend a helping hand.” We do this because it is right, because it makes us better human beings, because it’s spiritually enlivening, because it is fiscally appropriate, and because it’s what we want someone to do for us and our kids if we ever need it.

In some ways, the reactionary town-hall tiffs orchestrated by a few folks on the Far-Right forced Obama to teach a national civics lesson. Sixth grade civics covers the meaning of citizenship; how citizens exercise roles, rights, responsibilities of civic duty at local, state, and national levels; how power, responsibility, and authority are distributed, shared, and limited; the purpose, organization, and function of local, state, and national government, etc.

Obama framed the end of his speech with excerpts from a letter from Ted Kennedy: “What we face,” Kennedy wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

Here’s the last section of Obama’s speech:

Everyone in this room knows what will happen if we do nothing. Our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it the most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true.

That is why we cannot fail. Because there are too many Americans counting on us to succeed — the ones who suffer silently, and the ones who shared their stories with us at town halls, in e-mails, and in letters.

I received one of those letters a few days ago. It was from our beloved friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy. He had written it back in May, shortly after he was told that his illness was terminal. He asked that it be delivered upon his death.

In it, he spoke about what a happy time his last months were, thanks to the love and support of family and friends, his wife, Vicki, his amazing children, who are all here tonight. And he expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform — “that great unfinished business of our society,” he called it — would finally pass. He repeated the truth that health care is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that “it concerns more than material things.” “What we face,” he wrote, “is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

I’ve thought about that phrase quite a bit in recent days — the character of our country. One of the unique and wonderful things about America has always been our self-reliance, our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government. And figuring out the appropriate size and role of government has always been a source of rigorous and, yes, sometimes angry debate. That’s our history.

For some of Ted Kennedy’s critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their minds, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government.

But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here — people of both parties — know that what drove him was something more. His friend Orrin Hatch — he knows that. They worked together to provide children with health insurance. His friend John McCain knows that. They worked together on a Patient’s Bill of Rights. His friend Chuck Grassley knows that. They worked together to provide health care to children with disabilities.

On issues like these, Ted Kennedy’s passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience. It was the experience of having two children stricken with cancer. He never forgot the sheer terror and helplessness that any parent feels when a child is badly sick. And he was able to imagine what it must be like for those without insurance, what it would be like to have to say to a wife or a child or an aging parent, there is something that could make you better, but I just can’t afford it.

That large-heartedness — that concern and regard for the plight of others — is not a partisan feeling. It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character — our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

This has always been the history of our progress. In 1935, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism, but the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

That was true then. It remains true today. I understand how difficult this health care debate has been. I know that many in this country are deeply skeptical that government is looking out for them. I understand that the politically safe move would be to kick the can further down the road — to defer reform one more year, or one more election, or one more term.

But that is not what the moment calls for. That’s not what we came here to do. We did not come to fear the future. We came here to shape it. I still believe we can act even when it’s hard. I still believe — I still believe that we can act when it’s hard. I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility, and gridlock with progress. I still believe we can do great things, and that here and now we will meet history’s test.

Because that’s who we are. That is our calling. That is our character. Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America.

Read the whole transcript here.

Mark Up the Bail-Out Budget Yourself

Congress is moving rapidly to enact a gigantic taxpayer bailout of the financial sector, with a potential cost of $700 billion or more than $2000 per American citizen. The folks at PublicMarkup.org believe, as Justice Brandeis said, that “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants,” and that all legislation ought to be open to public comment and consideration in real-time, not just after the fact.

So, as a public service, they’ve posted for public comment the 44-page proposal currently in front of Congress from Senator Chris Dodd (Chair of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs) and the eight-page text of the “Legislative Proposal from Treasury Department for Authority to Buy Mortgage-Related Assets.”

Section 8 of the Treasury Department documents states: “Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”

Isn’t it this lack of oversight and “just trust me” attitude that got us into this mess? “Budgets are moral documents” as we say at Sojourners, repeating the Hebrew prophets..