Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Letter Not Sent

I did something some time ago that I’ve never done before in my entire life.  I was so angry over a sermon I heard at Mass one Sunday that I wrote as pointed a letter as I could muster to the responsible assistant pastor (now moved on).  When I began the letter I was absolutely resolved to send it.  But, by the time I had finished it, my anger had dissipated enough for me to realize that the whole project was pointless and self-indulgent.  So, the letter was never sent.

But, after spending so much time on it, I figured someone ought to read it.  So here, while we still bask in Easter’s glow, is the letter not sent.


Dear Fr. S____________,

I write to you to respond to comments made in your homily given on the weekend of ____________, which I believe reflect neither Scripture nor Catholic tradition.  Because your homily was such a substantial departure from any recognized Christian principle, I felt it necessary to take this extraordinary step.

Your homily focused on these words of St. Paul to his companion, Timothy:  “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”  I Timothy 2:1-2.[1]  You spoke about about the virtue of a “quiet and tranquil life.”

I might quibble with you over the merit of a “quiet life” in a free democracy – whose quality and character depend on an active and engaged electorate – as opposed to what we might reasonably expect from a small dissident sect trying to survive under an autocratic foreign rule.  But my more serious objection is to the final comments made in your homily – remarks that were beside the point as far as I could tell – namely, your criticism of government programs designed to improve peoples’ lives.

As I recall, you said that these programs “crowd out” quiet efforts of individuals to care for family, neighbors and co-workers.  You said that government programs provide care impersonally from a great distance by people unfamiliar with the local situation.  You used the example of a parent facing the need to pick up his or her child from school, and pointed out that another family member, a neighbor or a co-worker would do a much better job providing help in this instance than some nameless bureaucrat in Washington. 

The impression you left us with was clear:  all government efforts to aid its distressed citizens were not only ineffective, but at times harmful and at least marginally immoral, and were motivated by politicians’ desire for self-aggrandizement rather than any genuine concern for those in need.

I believe that much of your characterization of government programs was wrong on the facts but more importantly for our purposes your broad-based attack on government social programs is not consistent with either the Gospels or Catholic teaching.

Jesus makes it clear that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:40.  That seems to include pretty much everything.  Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus suggest that he endorses only small-scale action on behalf of those in need.  And the Church recognizes this.  As early as 1919, American Catholic bishops called for government involvement in establishing a social safety net following World War I:  “The state should make comprehensive provision for insurance against illness, invalidity, unemployment and old age.”  Program of Social Reconstruction, U.S. Bishops, February 12, 1919. 

In particular, the American bishops have endorsed national health insurance and social security.  In their pastoral letter on Health and Health Care of November 19, 1981, the bishops called for an adequately funded national health insurance program for all Americans:

Following on these principles and on our belief in health care as a basic human right, we call for the development of a national health insurance program. It is the responsibility of the federal government to establish a comprehensive health care system that will ensure a basic level of health care for all Americans. The federal government should also ensure adequate funding for this basic level of care through a national health insurance program.

The bishops’ commitment to a national health care policy was again reiterated in “A Framework for Comprehensive Health Care Reform: Protecting Human Life, Promoting Human Dignity, Pursuing the Common Good,” June 18, 1993:  “For three quarters of a century, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for national action to assure decent health care for all Americans.” 

The U.S. bishops have also unequivocally endorsed national social security, and “strongly urge[d] all Catholics to support and participate in the Social Security System,” concluding that “we believe that the Social Security System in the United States is a program that is vital to the protection of human dignity for millions of Americans.”  1983 Statement on Social Security.  This commitment to social security was reiterated in “A Commitment to All Generations: Social Security and the Common Good” published in 1999.

While these statements hardly exhaust Catholic thinking on the role of government in society, I believe that they are sufficient to show that your views do not reflect the historic Church position.  Clearly, under the teaching of the bishops, government has an important role in providing for the welfare for its citizens.  Your wholesale rejection of this role, then, amounts to teaching as doctrine the precepts of men.  In my view, it is a serious abuse of priestly authority to squander the few precious minutes allotted for a homily – the only opportunity in the entire week that most members of the congregation will have to hear the Gospel message amid the clamor of the world – hawking your own personal political views.

Beyond its inconsistency with basic Christian tenets, your narrow ideological position ignores both the nature of social problems and the services government provides.  Unlike your universal condemnation of government efforts to provide care for its citizens, I don’t suggest that a government solution is always and everywhere the best solution.  But when the problem is national, such as widespread poverty among the elderly or the growing crisis in health care, a national response is warranted.  Individuals, even with the best of intentions, are no more equipped to solve these problems on their own than they would be to repel the invasion of a modern, mechanized army.  I agree that I would not ask someone in the welfare department to pick up my child from school; but neither would I request my neighbor or co-worker to put out the fire if my home were in flames.  A trained, properly equipped and publicly funded city fire department would no doubt do a better job.

Some time ago, my father-in-law died after an extended illness. As his last days approached, arrangements were made for Hospice care.  The Hospice workers came to his home, bathed him, changed his bedclothes, made him comfortable and kept him as free from pain as possible.  They were able to help in ways that my mother-in-law was unable to do both physically and emotionally.  They visited almost every day, and became intimately involved in the rhythms of the household.  They not only brought comfort and dignity to my father-in-law in his last days but also provided enormous support to both my mother-in-law and my wife.  Through perhaps an act of Providence, the Hospice workers happened to stop by the house within minutes of my father-in-law’s death and, as a final kindness, helped the family through that most difficult time.  The cost of this Hospice care was covered to the last penny by the United States government though Medicare.

I suspect that you do not share this belief, but it is my conviction that on the Last Day, when all accounts are settled, credit will no doubt be accorded the American people for their resolve carried out through duly elected representatives to allot a generous portion of their own resources, not only to care for the people like my father-in-law in their last hours, but also to aid countless other citizens who – with or without aid from family and neighbors – still require help to meet basic needs or obtain a hand up in difficult times.  It puzzles me that you cannot see the fundamental decency in this. 

An aside here that was not in the letter:  the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof expresses sentiments similar to Paul's when he is asked if there was a blessing for the Tsar:  “A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar... far away from us!”


James R said...

Nice letter; perhaps nicer that it wasn't sent. Mother also receives care from government paid caregivers, privately paid caregivers, family members and occasional neighbors. My observations are these:

There is no question that family members provide a spiritual lift that others can not provide, especially when the ages of family members are under 4.
Paid care provides both quality care and caring when family care would lead to all but impossible hardship.
There is no difference in care or caring whether you are being paid by the government or privately.

stephen b said...

This should have been sent.

stephen b said...

Your letter should have been sent. Maybe your pastor will choose his words more carfully next time.

Big Myk said...

Perhaps. Who knows? But my judgement was that it would probably be dismissed as just another rant by some crank.