April 2014

To Wash Or Not To Wash

First, my apologies to William Shakespeare.

Rome is called the
“Eternal City”. Originally it was a political concept springing from a self-possessed people. But over time the term has come to mean more. For example, the Catholic Church is headquartered in Rome, technically the Vatican City State. And the church moves with such tortoise-like alacrity, that eternal has frequently been used to designate the speed of change. Then came Francis.

Not since John XXIII has a pope so energized the church with the gifts of the spirit, in particular, the spirit of humility. In Catholic theology there is a built in tension between the institutional church (tradition) and the movement of the spirit (charism). The church is neither singularly pentecostal, nor can it be fossilized in an authoritarian past. That tension keeps the church in balance. The progress may be slow, but it is steady. With a few hitches.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we entered into Holy Week. And Thursday evening begins the Triduum, the most sacred three days in the Christian calendar when we commemorate the Last Supper, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Although symbol is core to all the rituals of the Catholic Church, perhaps the most powerful and inspiring one occurs on Holy Thursday when the priest washes the feet of parishioners, a reenactment of Jesus’ Last Supper. Enter Pope Francis and his universal vision.

It is not overstating the case to suggest that Francis is a rare person. A Pope with the wisdom to acknowledge his own limitations and the humility to admit that he does not know everything. Unfortunately, not all his bishops share those traits.

Last year, Francis modeled Jesus, not just by washing feet, but washing the feet of women. And not just women, but a Muslim woman. It was so moving that one could be forgiven for thinking this model would be followed by others. And, indeed, some have. But in Wisconsin there is a bishop who defies not just the example of the Pope, but also the fact of evolution.

Robert Molino, the bishop of Madison, is stuck in the past. Irretrievably. He has ignored the Pope’s example in his own life and has also prohibited any priest in his diocese from washing the feet of any woman in any church. He seems to have confused his role with that of the universal shepherd. Sadly, this has caused enlightened pastors in his diocese to skip this profound symbol altogether.

I understand that the twelve Apostles were all men. But the Scriptures do not say that only men were in attendance at the Last Supper. And if women were present, washing their feet would have been an even more profound demonstration of Jesus’ humility and fully consistent with the meaning of his action.

It is so tempting to say Molino is misogynistic. But that is too kind a word. It is more accurate to suggest he is Neanderthal. But that is an insult to our ancestors. No, I’m afraid that Bishop Molino is an archeological phenomenon. He simultaneously proves and disproves evolution.

By contrasting him with Pope Francis one can prove that evolution takes place and at the same time prove that evolution is not inevitable. Francis embraces women as the equal of men and all men as equal to each other. Molino embraces only his own kind.

Of course it is possible that the contrast proves divergence. Francis, like most of humanity, is continuing to evolve. Molino, like some, is devolving. Either way this is not as comical as I pretend. It is tragic. Tragic that women in the Madison diocese are so demeaned. Tragic that the Catholic Church has a pope who has been to the mountaintop and a bishop who is still swinging in the trees.

A Supreme Mistake

Money talks. This is an old aphorism in American culture and probably among people the world over, for human history has demonstrated that the rich generally get whatever they want. The haves never have enough and the have-nots never get enough. This is sufficiently problematic in the world of finance. But when that world intersects politics, the result is generally disastrous.

Democracy, certainly the American version of it, is predicated upon the principle of one person, one vote. No one individual possesses a greater claim than any other on the outcome of an election. At its core, democracy is essentially egalitarian. But this guarantee of equality is eroded when elections are determined by the amount of money available in a campaign. That is a lesson we should have learned in the 1970’s.

The Watergate scandal toppled an administration and led to the only Presidential resignation in U.S. history scarring the reputation of Richard Nixon, arguably a great statesman. But it did more. At the time, the scandal awakened Congress and the American people to the corrupting influence of money in politics, proving that this corruption is not just theoretical. The buying of politicians and political influence is intrinsically perverted and leads inevitably to a political and social landscape that is as dark as the night that follows the day.

The U.S. Supreme Court, at least five Justices, appear ignorant to historical reality. In yesterday’s decision McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” Ironically, and not just a touch cynically, that is exactly the right that the Supreme Court has now stripped from most Americans.

I am baffled by one aspect of this decision: Why didn’t the Supreme Court just abolish elections altogether and merely put candidates up for auction? Oh, come to think of it, they did. How many Americans have $3.6 million to contribute to an election? People might do well to ask themselves whether their individual votes equate with participation compared to that kind of wealth.

There is an element of incomprehensibility in the court’s decision. Money is a tangible object, but the Justices want us to believe that spending it to influence elections is an exercise of free speech. This suggests that some people are more free than others because they possess more wealth. It also makes slaves of the poor, reducing the average American to a plantation worker. And if I am not mistaken, we already fought a war over that.

America is quickly falling, if it hasn’t already, into a world of oppression. An abyss where the oligarchy control all aspects of government—legislative, executive and judicial. We’ve seen this before, throughout history and around the globe. And we know the result. People will put up with oppression for only so long before they revolt. We did it ourselves over two hundred years ago. The last line of defense should the Supreme Court, but it has now fallen prey to the power and whim of the wealthy. As such, more and more citizens will begin to realize how powerless and disenfranchised they truly are.

I fear we are nearing a new revolution. Since the court’s ruling in McCutcheon infringes on the fundamental rights of the governed, maybe it is time to revisit our own Declaration of Independence. That founding document states, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government…” Then again there might a less drastic solution.

In American democracy the government is the people. That’s why we have elections in the first place: to vote in and out of office those who, respectively, do or do not represent us. It is a reality today that running a campaign costs money. Perhaps the time has come for the government to equally fund all campaigns—the federal government for federal candidates and state governments for state candidates—and to eliminate all private funding. This is money that belongs to all the people, not just a privileged few. I realize that such a proposal will fall on many a deaf ear. But elections should be determined by the power of a candidate’s ideas and convictions, not the size of his or her bank account.

Money talks, but it is not speech.