Tough Talk in the Times

Maureen Dowd is mightier than a nun with a ruler in her Sunday column. Some singed vestments out there. John L. Allen of the National Catholic Reporter argues that Pope Benedict has done more than his predecessors to combat child abuse. No doubt this is true, but not convincing. Let me explain using a parable.

Once there was a man who bought a huge old house that had been divided up into apartments. He used his life savings to buy the house and moved into the landlord apartment on the top floor. Soon he discovered a problem.

The plumbing, which was as old as the house, had never been upgraded. The previous three owners had done almost no upkeep. To do the job right would be hugely expensive and disruptive.

Soon some of the tenants from the basement apartments began to complain of stopped drains and bad smells. The landlord hired the same handyman who had done work for the other owners. Duct tape was applied.

It was only a matter of time until sewage backed up into the basement shower. The landlord had his guy remove the shower and cap off the pipes and all was well for a while. But then a bad smell started to rise from the cement floor. The landlord had his guy put down a new coat of cement. The smell was gone but the tenants had started to complain. They wanted a real fix, instead of having to wonder when the old pipes were going to fail again.

“Why me?” the landlord asked them. “It’s not fair to blame me for all this. I’ve done more to fix this problem than any of the previous owners. Besides, no one on the top floors is complaining about bad smells. I think you are just persecuting me.”

That’s my answer to John L. Allen. The Catholic church did not invent child abuse and they are not the only organization plagued by revelations of crime and cover-up. But the Church has to take responsibility for what’s coming up the drainpipes. If Benedict has done more, it’s basically because he has no choice.

Real fundamental reform of the institution would not be cheap or easy, but if they do not fix the mess, then no one will want to live in the house.

ANOTHER VOICE: Sinead O’ Connor was sent to an Irish reform school as a child, she writes about the culture of abuse that should not be allowed to prevail.

Pope Benedict’s Confession

So 2012 is in its last hours, and my prediction that the Pope would get a visitation from the spirit of John the XXIII did not come to pass. But I offer this dream, dedicated to Catholic
Workers and child soldiers the world over.

New York Times Book Review, June 24, 2012
My Life in Hitler Youth by Pope Benedict XVI
Translated from the German by Sophia Magdalena Scholl and Hans Scholl
With commentary by Steve Biko, Rabbi Hillel, Badshah Khan, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and the Ven. Mahaghosananda
Forward by Archbishop Oscar Romero

While confessional literature has won an enduring readership, it is unusual to find a religious or political leader who is willing to attempt it. Most are less given to autobiography than to self-promotion.

It is all the more surprising that Pope Benedict XVI, whose tenure had been characterized by autocracy, even, some would say, arrogance; has humbly and honestly laid bare his experience as a teenage German boy caught up in the Nazi war machine.

In today’s world child soldiers are cannon fodder in countless civil conflicts. Teenagers are recruited to sign ten, or even twenty-year contracts with the privatized militias favored by the developed nations. The desperately poor allow their children to be implanted with RFID chips and fed psychotropic drugs to increase their value on the mercenary market.

Pope Benedict’s book stands as a powerful challenge to our 21st century way of war.

The catalyst for this amazing book was a 2010 meeting in Rome with survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
“I prayed with them, I assured them that never again would such violation of innocence be tolerated. Committees would be formed, the guilty would be routed out. I thought I was doing all that I could, but there was no mistaking the disappointment in their eyes. They wanted to hear something more from me.”

From that day, Benedict began to suffer from insomnia. He was tormented by nightmares in which he was visited by the ghosts of his Jewish playmates who disappeared in the Nazi violence. A letter from ‘Konrad’, a boyhood friend and fellow Hitler Youth, triggered a spiritual crisis. Benedict flew to Germany, secretly and under high security, to hear his friend’s confession and to give last rites.

“Konrad needed to unburden his soul to someone who knew what we did, and what was done to us. Our souls were violated, we were seduced by hate. Only to each other could we admit that we sometimes enjoyed the seduction. We were robbed of our innocence, and the loss did not diminish with time. It was not for me, his fellow sinner and fellow victim, to grant absolution. We prayed together for God’s forgiving grace. We wept together. Then we forgave those who had done this to us. They themselves were seduced.”

The Pope returned to Rome with a new resolve to address the needs of the world’s children. His Encyclical, ‘The Sin of Obedience’, shocked many in the Catholic hierarchy, but did much to mend relations with parishes torn by the sexual abuse scandals. His eloquent stand against war, previously muted by his close relationships with the world’s aggressors, was broadcast worldwide. Benedict’s frank conversations with Rabbi Hillel concerning the abuses that occur when religion becomes handmaiden to politics led to a change in direction that some call ‘radical’. His account of that conversation is not only a heartfelt apology for the failure of the Catholic Church to effectively oppose the Nazis, but an admission that political expediency corrupted the Church’s response to the atrocious acts of that regime.

“Christians had forgotten that the greatest Rabbi, Our Lord and Savior, spoke truth to power, even at the cost of his life. Being truly Man, as well as truly God, he suffered as we all do.”

The Pope’s incognito visit to Brazil, where he met some of the poorest of his flock in the favelas (slums), celebrating Mass in a tin shanty, washing the feet of meninos da rua (street children) will go down in history as an act of saintliness.

Since then, the Pope has led his flock in a direction that is changing the global Church. The Pope’s recent encyclicals have drawn criticism as well as praise.
‘A Little Child Shall Lead Them’ prompted one conservative commentator to remark that the Pope, who was formerly known as a crusader against abortion “now expects us to waste our tax dollars on snot-nosed welfare brats.”

But despite accusations of betrayal from many of his former allies on the American religious right, this pope is enjoying a surge of popularity not seen since the reign of Pope John the XXIII. The attrition of the past few decades is reversing as the Church gains more new converts and lapsed Catholics return to the faith.

The rumor that the Vatican will soon make priestly celibacy optional has sparked a renewed interest that promises to alleviate the dire shortage of priests in the developed nations; and if implemented would legitimize the de-facto priestly marriages that are common in Africa.

Meanwhile, in Central America, the revival movement known as ‘Caridad’, endorsed by the Church despite its strong resemblance to the ‘Liberation Theology’ that was dismantled by Benedict just a few years ago; promises to take the wind out of the sails of the Protestant Evangelical revival as former Catholics return to the faith of their childhood.

Here in the US, it is interesting to see some of the same politicians who enjoyed support from the pulpits of their local Catholic churches now invoking the principle of separation of Church and State.

Worldwide, the Catholic church has undergone a profound shift in emphasis. New orders of nuns and other religious operate with a freedom and authority unimaginable just a few years ago. With the goal of protecting children, nuns have organized on behalf of women in practical ways–health care, literacy, employment, respect.

‘Space Your Children’ a family planning pamphlet by Liberian nun and midwife Sr.Grace Wah, has been tacitly approved by papal authorities despite its frank endorsement of birth control. Sr.Wah would have been facing censorship, if not excommunication, for such views prior to Benedict’s change of heart.

Pope Benedict continues to reach out to those who have suffered the most from global war. His conversation with Hussam Abdo, a teenage would-be suicide bomber disarmed by Israeli police, and Zawadi Mongane, a rape survivor from the war in Congo, is still being parsed by theologians for its affirmation of living a whole and healed life in the wake of unbearable wrong. Truly, Pope Benedict has become a voice of conscience for the Christian world and extended the hand of friendship to other faiths.

This Pope, who began his reign determined to roll back the changes of Vatican II, now stands in the shoes of John XXIII, and promises to take his legacy farther than any thought possible.

We Need More Nurses

Huffington Post on the shortage of primary care doctors. At the Town Hall meetings last year I heard more than one opponent of health care reform say that we couldn’t insure all Americans because we don’t have enough doctors.

It’s long overdue to recruit and support med students and doctors, but don’t underestimate what nurses can do to ease the strain and reach patients. In home care, we provide a remedy for the revolving door nature of our present system, and we bring together the fragmented aspects of care when we spend time with the patient. We are part of the solution to the health care crisis.

Valuing My Family

Two changes brought about by the health care reform bill will directly benefit my family. The option of keeping a child on the family health insurance plan until age 26 provides a security I did not have, because until now my family plan only covered an adult child who was a full-time student.

Student loan reform is long overdue and a great relief. It’s about time we brought some justice to college students, who are being overcharged for loans and lose their health insurance as soon as they graduate. What kind of country undermines young people ambitious and hard-working enough to sacrifice time and money to get an education?

The kids deserve a break, and now things are a little better. College graduates can start a business or work part-time without having to go uninsured. They can take a year out of school to work. This opens up an opportunity to earn tuition money and gain life experience without risking financial ruin or worse. And they won’t pay double interest to banks that serve no function in government guaranteed loans.

I hope Congress didn’t throw the Pell Grants overboard. What a place for the Republicans to draw the line!

I was born right in the middle of the baby boom. Boomers and youth are a big demographic. If reform works to benefit us it will be hard for the Party of No to scare us away from our own best interest.

Here’s a funny post from Crooks and Liars summarizing the last ten years in health.

Growing Collaboration

Over the past three years, I have dabbled in gardening, growing a modest assortment of vegetables and herbs in the modest yard surrounding my apartment. My initial foray into producing my own produce occurred in collaboration with my friend and next-door neighbor, Julie, whose thumbs are inherently much greener than my own. (Mine are more of an olive drab shade, for some reason.) That first summer, we grew a couple of varieties of tomatoes, which we planted in the sunny perimeter of Julie’s yard. The spot was chosen because it offered more light and better soil than my own slice of yard. We tended to the plants throughout the summer and into the fall and were rewarded with a bounty of tasty tomatoes. Though Julie has since relocated to a nearby town, I have continued to garden in some measure. Unfortunately, my tomatoes have been more crap than crop, as they stubbornly refuse to flourish in the less favorable conditions of my yard. Go figure…

The health of any organism is, in no small measure, dependent upon its environment. Favorable conditions promote good health. Adverse conditions hinder good health. Organisms that are young and still developing are more vulnerable to adverse conditions. By virtue of their reduced size and output, my tomato plants communicated their distress at having to spend their formative months in a shadier and sandier locale. Similarly, children raised in environments that are toxic or inadequately nurturing communicate their distress by manifesting developmental delays and physical/mental disorders. Often, when this occurs, the first person to take notice—perhaps besides the parent(s)—is the pediatrician. As a health care professional, he or she can assess the circumstances, advise the parent(s), and prescribe treatment, if any is available. However, in many cases, the environmental issues that are harming the child are beyond the doctor’s purview. For example, situations of family conflict, unsafe housing, community violence, or loss of income cannot be remedied by medical treatment. So what’s an M.D. to do? A referral to an outside provider (better suited to addressing such matters) can be made, but there is no guarantee that the family will follow through or gain access to the services they need. Frequently, these are the families that have the fewest resources and are the most disempowered. It is a significant dilemma and a very real public health issue.

All is not hopeless, though, as evidenced by the following article in today’s New York Times:

When Doctor Visits Lead to Legal Help

It was not the normal stuff of a pediatric exam. As a doctor checked the growth of Davon Cade’s 2-month-old son, he also probed about conditions at home, and what he heard raised red flags.

Ms. Cade’s apartment had leaky windows and plumbing and was infested with roaches and mold, but the city, she said, had not responded to her complaints. On top of that, the landlord was evicting her for falling behind on the rent.

Help came through an unexpected route. The doctor referred Ms. Cade to the legal aid office right inside the pediatric clinic at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Within days, a paralegal had secured an inspection that finally forced the landlord to make repairs, and also got the rent reduced temporarily while Ms. Cade searched for less expensive housing.

“It got done when the lawyers got involved,” Ms. Cade said.

Doctors and social workers have long said that medical care alone is not enough to address the health woes of the poor, which are often related to diet, living conditions and stress.

The pediatric clinic in Cincinnati is one of 180 medical sites around the country that now seek to address at least some of these broader issues by bringing lawyers and doctors — so often foes in the courtroom — together into a close partnership. [full article]

Maybe it’s time I consult a horticulturist.