Letter to Bishop Lennon

(text of a letter sent to Bishop Richard Lennon, Diocese of Cleveland, April 20, 2009:)

Dear Bishop Lennon:

I am a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Bedford. Until 2000, when I began a new career which limited my time for parish activities, I served as a member and chairperson of Pastoral Council and as a member or chair of several parish groups including a School Task Force (1989), the parish component of the Diocesan Liturgical Review (1990), and a School Futuring Committee (1997). In addition, for over twenty years I directed a contemporary music group at St. Mary that assisted at weekly liturgies, and I continue to assist there as a cantor and substitute organist as the need arises and my schedule permits.

Although I was unable to participate in the parish cluster activities leading up to the recent preliminary decision to merge three Bedford-area parishes into one, I understand that the parish has filed a timely appeal of that decision. Meaning no disrespect to the teams that developed the cluster plan, I would respectfully suggest three reasons why merging all three into one parish housed at the present St. Pius X church is a mistake.

  • As a musician who has played at all three parishes, I can witness that the worship space at St. Mary is by far the best of the three. (As a parishioner, I believe that this is at least partly because the staff and parishioners there have made liturgy a priority.) St. Mary has newer instruments and is both above ground and accessible to worshipers with special needs.
  • If one worship space is to remain, the one located at St. Mary is better situated within the geographic area, being more central within the parish cluster. The current St. Pius X buildings are relatively close to parishes to the north and northwest, but the plan ignores a huge swath to the south and southeast. The space between St. Pius X and the nearest remaining parishes to the east (St. Rita), south (St. Barnabas), and southeast (Our Lady of Guadalupe) would be six, ten, and ten miles respectively.
  • This distance between worship spaces will accelerate the movement of Catholics residing in this cluster to suburbs further out, encouraging sprawl and decimating the Catholic presence in these inner-ring southeastern suburbs.

The task set before the parish leaders, you, and your staff, is a difficult one. I respectfully suggest that keeping open the worship space at St. Mary would be a better way to reconfigure the parishes of this cluster.

Payday Loans, 391% Interest, and Issue 5

I’ve concluded that I’ll vote “yes” on Issue 5.

Like so many of these statewide ballot issues, this one is confusing, especially if all you look at are advertising messages. That’s because virtually all the advertising has come from one side: the payday loan industry, which obviously has a stake in seeing this issue go down.

Issue 5 is a referendum on a provision of a state law (HB 545) that passed this spring with bipartisan support, capping the interest rates that payday lenders can charge. The 391% figure commonly cited by opponents reflects the most common way that these loans work: a two-week, $100 loan with a fee of $15. The payday loan industry worked hard and successfully to keep mention of the 391% figure out of the ballot language.

Once again, the language of this issue is confusing. A “yes” vote on the ballot is necessary to uphold the law. A “no” vote removes that portion of the law and permits the high-interest payday loans to continue.

Almost the only advertising you’ll see on TV consists of messages opposing Issue 5. That’s because the payday loan industry is the party that will lose money if the issue passes, so they spent plenty to get it on the ballot and they’ve invested heavily in encouraging people to vote against keeping the law. You can see a pretty good ad at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtStucEk6zo.

One of the most disturbing things about this campaign is the scare tactic in which opponents talk about the vast database of information that the state will supposedly have to develop in order to enforce HB 545. Enforcement of any law is pretty much impossible without a mechanism to monitor compliance; the same argument could be made regarding the enforcement of virtually any regulation. I don’t see anything special about this one, but this appeal probably works with voters who instinctively oppose all regulation.

All that said, there’s a legitimate argument to be made for a “no” vote: that banning high-interest payday loans removes a financial option that people should be able to choose for themselves. In general, I agree that the principle of caveat emptor should rule the marketplace. But taken to extreme, that principle would abolish virtually all consumer legislation, and experience suggests that people need some protections. The big question, I guess, is whether this provision of HB 545 is a protection that deserves to be repealed. I’m pretty skeptical of the wisdom of the present General Assembly, but on this issue I’m inclined to side with the legislators and not with the industry being regulated.

A website called “ballotpedia” provides some coverage of this issue at http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/Ohio_Issue_5_(2008). That coverage is, unfortunately, somewhat out of date, but some of the links are helpful. Especially unfortunate is that the website details the “no” option as “supporters of repealing BH 545,” confusing the yes-no question still more. A list of endorsements of a “yes” vote on Issue 5 appears at http://www.yesonissue5.com/documents/Issue%205%20Supporters.pdf.

Clams for Casinos

I’m not a gambler. I do have some money in mutual funds; I participate in a bragging-rights-only football pool; and at Christmas each year I buy a few lottery tickets to use as stocking-stuffers. If I tried gambling, I suspect that I’d enjoy it; and with my lack of willpower, within a few months I’d be living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere.

But I have plenty of friends who love gambling. When the spirit moves them, they head off to Windsor, Erie, Kentucky, the Argosy, or Mountaineer–anywhere but Ohio–and they take their money with them. That’s part of the reason why I’ll be voting for Issue 6.

The other reason is that I really dislike the deception that’s being practiced by Issue 6 opponents. I don’t have a moral opposition to gambling, but I can respect those who do. What I can’t respect are the deceptive practices of the organized opposition, which is funded primarily by the owners of the casinos I mentioned earlier. They’ve exploited voter ignorance (never in short supply) with their argument that Issue 6 contains sneaky loopholes.

The reason we have to vote on Issue 6 is that it’s a constitutional amendment, not a piece of legislation. The reason it needs to be a constitutional amendment is that Ohio’s constitution now prohibits most gambling. The amendment would permit the passage of a state law permitting a casino, and sets some of the rules for that law.

In other words, if Issue 6 passes, it won’t create a single new casino. The next political battleground would be the state legislature, and any resulting legislation would require approval of a governor who opposes gambling.

The supposed “loopholes” the opponents are quacking about are actually items left for the legislation to deal with. If the amendment were to deal with all of them, it would have to be longer than the existing state constitution.

So I’ll vote for Issue 6. Partly I’ll do so because I’d like to see some of that money staying in Ohio, and it would be nice to attract some high-rollers from neighboring states. I’ll also be voting for Issue 6 to cast a vote against the deceptive practices of the out-of-state casino owners who are fighting against the development of any Ohio competition.

But maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on them. Even if gambling isn’t bringing out-of-state money into Ohio, at least this advertising campaign is.

Making a Joyful Noise, NEA-style

Over the years, I’ve played and sung at a wide variety of liturgies; but one of the most unusual comes up once a year at the NEA Annual Meeting.

The National Education Association, an organization of public educators, is the largest labor union in America, with about 3.1 million members. Every year its leadership gathers over the Independence Day holiday for the seven-day NEA Annual Meeting, which culminates with the four-day Representative Assembly. (The NEA RA is the largest business meeting in the world, assembling 9,000-10,000 voting delegates in the same room. Imagine the Republican and Democratic party conventions combined, add about 10% more people, and then realize that in this body anyone can go to a microphone and speak!)

So why is there a delegate Mass at this gathering of public educators? For the answer, you have to look at the schedule.

Some trade and professional meetings have developed a reputation for hijinks. I would never suggest that there’s no fun at NEA’s Annual Meeting, but the hours are long: state caucuses start at 7:00 AM, and RA sessions typically start at 10:00 AM and continue pretty much straight through past 6:00 PM. Because of the costs involved, the schedule unfolds without breaks: the proceedings continue through the July 4 holiday and Sundays. This year Sunday, July 6, was the fourth day of the RA and a day of business as usual.

So delegates of faith have a choice: on their sabbath, they can go to a church, temple, or mosque and miss part of the business that their colleagues have sent them to conduct; they can skip religious observances altogether; or they can conduct their own, which is what many of the Christian delegates do.

When I arrived at my first Annual Meeting (Minneapolis, 1995), I was elated to see that the Minneapolis Convention Center was very close to the Basilica of Our Lady; then I learned that the basilica was under construction and closed for services at that time. But soon I noticed signs mentioning a “Mass for Catholic delegates.” When Sunday rolled around, I found myself in the company of a few hundred delegates, all worshiping enthusiastically. As a stranger away from home, I found it very moving to find a congregation to worship with.

The woman who had organized that Mass is Ellen Logue. At the time, she was a retired delegate from California. I contacted her and offered my services as a musician for that congregation. She gratefully accepted, and I have been playing and singing for the delegate Masses ever since.

To foster the continuation of this practice, Ellen was assisted by not only deep faith but also good, practical organizational skills. When she arranged conference rooms for the Masses she made sure to arrange them for the other Christians attending as well, so that the delegate religious services aren’t just a Catholic thing. She used her extensive connections in the Catholic Church, especially within the Dominican order, to recruit priests to preside at the Masses. And she encouraged all delegate worshipers to come together for the purpose of worship only, and to resist any attempts to use these faith gatherings to promote positions on the sometimes-sensitive issues that come before the Representative Assemblies.

Ellen continues to be a source of help, support, and advice. And since she stopped attending RAs a few years ago, quite a number of delegates have stepped forward to continue the leadership she started. We have ministers of the Eucharist, Word, hospitality, and music. And we have organizers who make sure that NEA reserves rooms so that all this can happen.

So once again this year, on Saturday, July 5, over 300 delegates gathered for Mass in an assembly room at the Washington Convention Center. It was an odd sort of church: the microphones had been turned off, and the worshipers stood or sat behind tables still set up from a meeting a few hours earlier. I don’t recall any candles, and worshipers passed conference bags for donations. But inside that room as in Catholic churches all over the world, it was the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, and that’s what we celebrated with our celebrant, Dominican Father Albert Paretsky.

It wasn’t just like Mass back home: some had to catch shuttle buses for their hotels, so as we sang the closing hymn the procession out included many of the faithful. It was quick, but it was reverent, joyful, and musical: the beauty and significance of the Mass is greater than our human limitations. As with Mass back home, some of the worshipers stayed around for a while. (Some new friends from Pennsylvania even helped carry my keyboard and other supplies on the DC Metro!) Many commented on the beauty and meaningfulness of this shared worship experience, and I’m guessing we’ll look forward to meeting together again for Eucharist next year in San Diego.

Prejudice by Another Name

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink! It reinforced what psychologists have been saying for years: sometimes we aren’t even aware of the reasons for our decisions. Gladwell writes about times when we make decisions literally within the blink of an eye. Evidently, those judgments sometimes turn out to be as accurate as those on which we spend a lot of time. (Or, as my former teaching colleague Jerry says, “When you study long, you study wrong.”)

This article is about what I believe is a form of prejudice. This is an area which I think it’s best to approach with humility: those of us who have our favorites in this Presidential campaign may have made up our minds months or even years ago for reasons we’ll never know. I’m pretty sure that the reasons why I’m supporting a white candidate have nothing to do with her race; but if Gladwell is right, I may never be sure.

It’s tempting to take the position that our true motives are unknowable, so any time spent on knowing them is time wasted; but I think we have an intellectual and moral responsibility to try to understand our motives. And I think that’s especially important for Democrats this year because the sex and race of the candidates are more important in this primary than they have ever been before.

This phenomenon is being called “identity politics.” The Web site dictionary.com quotes the American Heritage Dictionary as defining identity politics as “political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.” (It’s worth a trip to Wikipedia for more on this phenomenon.)

I must confess to some discomfort when I hear Hillary Clinton’s supporters pointing out how wonderful it would be to elect the first woman to the White House. To me, that was never much of an argument, and I’m equally unimpressed by the equivalent argument being made by Barack Obama’s supporters. Both arguments are appeals to identity politics.

Earlier in the primary when several white male candidates were still running, if supporters had ever suggested voting for one because he is a white male, observers would rightly have condemned the suggestion as racist and sexist. But political leaders and regular citizens alike say openly that they’re supporting Clinton because she’s a woman or that they’re supporting Obama because he’s black. Allegedly that’s identity politics and it’s OK, but to me it’s just prejudice by another name.

I wrote in a previous post that our challenge is to vote for the person we believe will make the best President. We can honorably reach different conclusions about whether that’s Clinton or Obama, but I think we are obliged, to the extent that it’s possible, to make that judgment independent of the sex and race of the candidate.

As someone who is neither black nor female, I hope a final observation will be appropriate. To me at least, it is clear that being a woman has been a far greater burden to Clinton’s campaign than being black has been to Obama’s. I have never heard anyone suggest that Obama’s race makes him unfit for the Presidency, but I have heard plenty of people suggest that Clinton’s sex is an obstacle. If she appears sensitive, she’s weak; if she appears tough, she’s a lesbian. Obama hasn’t had to contend with anything remotely like it. I have a friend who believes that many white voters who tell pollsters that they would vote for a black candidate actually won’t. He may be right, and racism may hide below the surface. But evidently sexism doesn’t have to stay below the surface: it can be indulged in openly and without penalty.

The implication–and it comes as a surprise to me–is that at this point in our journey as a society, sex is a far more potent political force than race.

This historic primary has revealed things about us that we might prefer to have kept secret; but we’re better off for knowing them, and we’ll be better off if we can acknowledge them honestly, openly, and fairly.

We’re Electing a President

I have a lot of friends (and at least one family member) supporting Barack Obama for President. That’s their right, and if the Illinois Senator becomes the Democratic nominee I’ll be happy to support him against either of the Republican candidates.

I went through a period of indecision, but everything became clearer when I realized that my choice was actually pretty simple. The choice we all face is simple and yet profound. Our responsibility is to vote for the person who will make the best President. Period.

  • We can’t vote on the basis of who’s more electable. To do so is to allow our political adversaries to make our decision for us.
  • We can’t be swayed by the chance to be “a part of history.” Any Presidential election makes history, and everyone who votes is part of that history. (I’ll write later about “identity voting,” which I think is simply prejudice dressed in political correctness.)
  • It doesn’t matter which candidate is perceived as more likable. Millions of people thought they liked George Bush more than Al Gore or John Kerry: how’s that working out?
  • Without attention to where it’s heading, why it’s important, and how it’s to be accomplished, “change” is an empty promise.
  • Substance is more important than style. Rhetoric is valuable only when employed to communicate a meaningful message. The best speaker isn’t always the best President.
  • Even the ability to run a good campaign seems to be a poor predictor of success in office. Bush ran a better campaign than Gore or Kerry, but has been a disaster in office.

Most of the people I know who are supporting Obama seem to be doing so for one of the reasons I’ve just listed; I seldom hear anyone suggest that he’s more qualified or that his positions on issues are superior to Clinton’s.

I’ll readily concede that Republicans and independents hate Clinton more than Obama and that he seems sincere and likable, promises “change,” makes great speeches, and has run a fabulous campaign. None of that matters, because on the basis of her experience and the substance of her proposals, Hillary Clinton offers a greater likelihood of success as President.

That means that she deserves–and gets–my vote.

The Candidates on Education

I’ll admit it: I’m almost a single-issue voter. For me, where there are clear differences, public education tends to trump most other issues.

While voters always say that education is among their top concerns, they generally don’t vote like it. I think that’s because candidates on both the right and the left have had a tough time coming up with a message on education that really provides much traction with voters.

The fact is that Americans are highly conflicted on education. Culturally, we detest snobs and intellectuals. Many of the greatest figures of our national folklore are self-made women and men who rose despite their humble beginnings–not those who took advantage of a great education.

These days, only about 20% of households have children in school, and a study I read some years ago estimated that about 25% of parents have never entered their children’s schools. We Americans say that education is key thing that we can do for our children, but we don’t vote like it, and sometime I think that because we don’t really believe it.

On education, here’s where the candidates stand.

Righter: Clinton

Just how bad is the 2002 ESEA reauthorization, commonly–and obscenely–referred to by the Bush campaign slogan “No Child Left Behind”?

The answer to that question is best reserved for another column. Suffice it to say that I believe what’s wrong with it cannot be fixed. It is profoundly anti-education and anti-child, substituting shallow testing skills for true learning and ignoring what we know is best for children. I believe that tomorrow’s parents will hate learning and disrespect schools in ways we can only dimly imagine today. NCLB should have been strangled in its crib.

On NCLB, Clinton’s issue statement on education says it simplest and best: “As president, she will . . . [e]nd the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”

Notice that she doesn’t say she’ll fund it, which admittedly would be better than what the present administration has done. She says she’ll end it. One can only hope.

You can see parts of Clinton’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Surprisingly right: Huckabee

Give him credit. Mike Huckabee, whose issue statement on education proudly proclaims that he has “been a strong, consistent supporter of the rights of parents to home school their children, of creating more charter schools, and of public school choice,” spoke to delegates to NEA’s Representative Assembly in July.

Delegates aren’t used to seeing Republicans, because Republican candidates generally don’t even seek dialogue with NEA. He was warmly received, as he should have been.

The distinction between “public school choice” and “school choice” couldn’t be greater. “Public school choice” refers to the ability of parents to choose the public school best suited to their children’s needs. “School choice” is simply a euphemism for school privatization, including school vouchers.

For my taste, Huckabee’s a little too enthusiastic about charter schools: “As Governor, I fought hard for more charter schools, with their strong parental involvement and their unique ability to serve as laboratories for education reform, and for the rights of parents to home school their children.” But his statements can coexist with public education: I’m a pretty rabid supporter of public education, but even I would agree that parents have the right to home-school their children. And many public educators were interested in charter schools back when the idea was to use them to try out new techniques, not to bust unions, teach wacky curricula, and resegregate students.

I’m most concerned about what Huckabee’s statement doesn’t say. I wish it condemned voucher schools, but it doesn’t mention them. And I’ve heard that he says that he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, but his Web site doesn’t take a position on the movement to teach creationism along with evolution–a movement that in my mind is just nuts.

His statement does say, “I am proud that my three children attended public schools from K through twelve, as did my wife and I”–which is something even the Clintons can’t say.

You can see parts of Huckabee’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrong: Obama

Barack Obama supports merit pay.

His issue statement on education says, “Obama will promote new and innovative ways to increase teacher pay that are developed with teachers, not imposed on them. Districts will be able to design programs that reward accomplished educators who serve as a mentor to new teachers with a salary increase. Districts can reward teachers who work in underserved places like rural areas and inner cities. ” These are generally good ideas, although as usual federal education proposals ignore the overwhelming role that state and local funding play in public education.

But he saves the most troublesome item for last: “[I]f teachers consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.” This is merit pay.

Teachers I know are divided on just how troublesome merit pay is, but virtually all have problems with it. At its worst, it sets up two tiers of teachers: those who are are favored and those who aren’t. It rewards teachers who teach the best and brightest and punishes those who work with students who require the most intervention. And it turns schools, which ought to be learning communities in which educators work collegially to help improve the performance of all, into competitive enterprises in which anybody with a good idea is actually discouraged from sharing it.

You can see parts of Obama’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by clicking here.

Wrongest: McCain

Like most Republican candidates, John McCain refused to appear at July’s annual meeting of the National Education Association. So much for “straight talk.”

John McCain’s issue statement on education says that “Public education should be defined as one in which our public support for a child’s education follows that child into the school the parent chooses.” So despite all the talk about his being less conservative than many Republicans would like, he still supports the privatization movement, which would eventually, inexorably dismantle America’s system of public schools.

You can see parts of McCain’s speech at the NEA Annual Meeting by–oh, that’s right, you can’t: he stayed away.

Hillary for President

In the late weeks of the 2004 Presidential campaign, I observed that America’s problems were being aggravated by the “echo chamber effect”: people’s tendency to talk only with people who think pretty much the same as them.

So I decided that what the world really, really needed was for me to express some of my opinions. I began writing email columns and sending them out to people whose email addresses I knew. Eventually I set up an online blog and began posting those articles; they’re still there.

That was over three years ago, and the calendar has turned over a few times. We’re nearing the end of the most hotly-contested Presidential primaries in recent memory. For the first time in many years, the office is wide open: no incumbent President is available to run, no Vice President is running, and both parties have been having very interesting primaries. A few months ago, many fretted that Ohio would be irrelevant in the primaries; now it appears that we will have a meaningful role to play at least in the Democratic primary.

And in the meantime, the campaign of Barack Obama has brought into the political process a lot of people who previously stayed away. The primaries have stimulated a lot more excitement than we’ve seen before, and even in polite society, people are talking about about politics and religion. I’m not sure that the echo chamber is gone, but it’s become less fashionable.

And so – later than I would have liked – I’ll be posting some political thoughts here. Unlike my 2004 and 2006 postings, this is an actual, honest-to-goodness blog, written with real, modern blogging software: so I can invite readers to post their own thoughts and reactions here as well.

Let’s get started. I have come to the conclusion that when I fill out by ballot for the March 4 primary, I’m going to vote for Hillary Clinton. In the columns ahead, I’ll try to explain why I’ll be doing that, and why I think other voters in the Democratic primary should do the same.

And that’s enough for now. The heavy lifting starts in the next column.

Ten Day Wonder

Today, without intending to, I joined the many voters casting the dreaded “provisional ballot” in today’s election. I’m told that this means my vote won’t be counted for ten days; I guess that’s all right, just so long as it counts.

Recent changes in election law have created “no-fault” absentee voting, in which voters can cast absentee ballots without giving a reason. Following a mistake-plagued May primary election, our Board of Elections encouraged Cuyahoga County voters to cast absentee votes rather than wait until Election Day to vote.

So Lynn applied for an absentee ballot, received it, and sent it in well before Election Day. I sent in my own application on October 28, which should have allowed plenty of time for the Board of Elections to mail me my absentee ballot. But legal challenges to Ohio’s voter ID law drew conflicting court rulings, causing election boards to hold onto their absentee ballots for several days to find out whether they needed to put stickers on the envelopes.

The legal decision was finally made on Wednesday, and my absentee ballot arrived on Saturday. By that time the only certain way to make sure my ballot got to the Board of Elections on time was to drop it off, so I figured I might as well wait and vote at our polling place.

I headed over there early this morning, only to learn that once you apply for an absentee ballot the only way you can vote at the polling place is by provisional ballot. Two other voters were filling out provisional ballots while I completed mine, so clearly my experience wasn’t too unusual.

If they are going to encourage voters to vote absentee, I think election officials ought to make it clear that doing so locks voters out from conventional voting. But overall, the experience wasn’t bad. The young poll worker handling provisional ballots was a bit tentative, but it was only 7:30, so I guess that’s not too surprising. I just wish I had waited around to make sure he signed the envelope containing my ballot!

God, guns, and gays

On Tuesday, The Plain Dealer reported on a press conference in which a group of ministers (who use an organizational name but claim they are speaking as individuals) voiced their endorsement of Ken Blackwell for governor. Interested in seeing the original article? Try this link. I sent the following letter to the editor, but so far The Plain Dealer hasn’t shown any indication that they will print it. I figure I’ll publish it here.

Predictions that Kenneth Blackwell’s campaign would focus on “God, guns, and gays” received further confirmation Tuesday in Ted Wendling’s article “Ministers Back Blackwell, Challenge IRS.”

The article quotes Donald Tobin, an OSU expert on tax-exempt organizations, as saying that the ministers spoke as individuals; yet it also identifies them as a a group calling themselves “Clergy for Blackwell.” No one disputes people’s right to form groups: like freedom of religion, freedom of association is protected in the American Constitution. But when they act in concert, specifically attempting to influence their congregations by implying that the Blackwell candidacy is blessed, no one should interpret their speech as individual.

This curious non-group “coalition” of people “speaking as individuals” would remind us all that the candidates’ positions on “abortion, same-sex marriage and placement of the Ten Commandments in public buildings” differ. These are serious issues; but does any thinking Ohioan believe that they have anything to do with Ohio’s present decline and imperiled future?

Mr. Blackwell is quoted as saying that “the flip side of a theocracy is not the secular state. The flip side of a theocracy is religous liberty.” What he conveniently forgets is that centuries of successful experience at home and bitter observation abroad have demonstrated that a secular state is the best protector of religious liberties.

In Matthew’s gospel (22:21), Jesus tells us to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” If we were electing a pastor-in-chief, the clergy’s statements–and The Plain Dealer‘s decision to give them prominent display–might make sense. As it is, we are electing a governor; and the governor’s mansion belongs to Caesar.

Electing a believer to live there is a good idea; electing someone who manipulates believers is not.