Reforming the Curia

Eight ideas for reforming the Vatican.

Pope Francis has set up a committee of 8 cardinals to advise him how to Canon of St. Peter's 2009reform the Curia. (I get this from a good Huffpo report by Nicole Winfield.) The small size and non-Italian composition of the group indicate he means business:
Maradiaga (Honduras), chair; Errazuriz Ossa (Chile); Gracias (India); Marx (Germany); Monsengwo Pasinya (DR Congo); O’Malley (USA); Pell (Australia), and one Italian Curia incumbent, Bertello. The secretary, Monsignor Semeraro, is also Italian.

The ideas being canvassed by reforming cardinals are quite radical. I cite, but number them for convenience of commenters:
1. “Term limits on Vatican jobs to prevent priests from becoming career bureaucrats.”
2. “Consolidated financial reports to remove the cloak of secrecy from the Vatican’s murky finances.”
3. “Regular Cabinet meetings where department heads actually talk to one another.”
4. “Bringing more laymen and women into the Vatican bureaucracy, ”

A thought experiment for policy wonk commenters. You have been appointed a consultant to the Gang of Eight. What is your advice to make the Vatican more efficient, honest, and responsive in serving the Pope, the bishops and the Catholic Church as a whole? To keep the exercise interestingly difficult, let us rule out changes in theology and basic structure, so no sounding off on reproductive rights, liberation theology, women priests, and Papal fallibility please. (I’m with you really! Trust me!)

To start you off, three more suggestions from me:
5. An FOI bull, throwing the archives systematically open to independent researchers after a short period, with exceptions for privacy (annulments).
6. Adopting English as the main day-to-day working language. With an Italian-Argentine Pope this will not work, but it follows the sensible practice of many non-Anglo multinational companies like ABB and Deutsche Bank.
7. Appointing women and lay cardinals. SFIK priestly orders are not technically required. Women have played leadership roles in the Church for centuries – probably more in the Dark Ages than now, with Hilda of Whitby and Odile of Alsace. Abbesses were usually like them Hilda surplus younger daughters of the nobility, and quite capable of steamrollering mere priests of lowly origins. [Update: Odile’s trajectory was a bit different – she rejected an arranged marriage and took to religion after a row with her (noble) father. It annoys Alsatian Catholics that the Vatican has never recognized her as a proper saint, possibly because of the unsettling example of independence, but that doesn’t stop them from venerating her at a hilltop shrine.]

I don’t have a good suggestion for making the Pope’s pro-poor rhetoric operational. An advisory committee of development economists (idea 8) looks rather feeble, but the Vatican does need a lot more expertise here not to let the pseudo-Marxists and neoliberals have all the best tunes. The Chinese Communists listened to Kenneth Arrow, why shouldn’t the Pope?

Source for photo

Mitt’s taxes

Romney’s tax dump today is full of interesting stuff.  He reports earning $14m and paying $2m in taxes, for a US federal income rate of about 14%.  He gave $4m to charity, presumably including a 10% tithe to his church. (This is  not the “put what you wish in the collection plate” kind of thing most churchgoers know about: if you don’t give the right amount – and the right amount is determined by something very like an audit – you get a lot of what the Mormons call ‘fellowship’ about it, a nice way of saying your whole social and business life goes to hell in a handbasket, and you are excommunicated from some critical church sacraments.  There’s a reason Ann keeps wanting to count their tithing in with their taxes.)  Whether the international business empire that is the LDS church is rightly considered a charity in ordinary language is a separate issue, of course.

The Romneys only deducted $2.25m, apparently to keep their average tax rate above the outrage level at least until the election (later they can amend their return – or just carry the deduction over to a future year: it will be worth a lot more if the Bush tax cuts expire, and the financing costs of a deal like this are historically low now.)  At the capital gains tax level of 15%, this means they gave (or lent at no interest) about a quarter-million dollars to an institution that Mr. Romney believes is much too big and spends too much money, but Romney has never had a problem violating a deeply-held position of principle if it will make him look good to someone for a news cycle or two.  It also means, by his own words, that people should think him unqualified for the presidency, as he is on record saying anyone who pays more taxes than legally necessary is some kind of fool.

What he actually owed, ignoring the foregone charitable deduction, was about 12.4%.  Apparently he doesn’t have a major problem with people paying almost equal amounts to their churches and their government; if his recipe were generalized, the two together would account for about 70% of GDP.

As neither Romney has a salaried job (no payroll tax), their federal income tax is probably close to their total federal tax, so they are paying a smaller percentage of their enormous income to the government he wishes to lead than the median American family: a $150/minute guy who doesn’t even have to go to the office is liable for a smaller percentage of his income than people who earn $15/hr actually punching in and out.  This state of affairs is apparently OK with Mitt; nothing in his tax plan, as far as I can see, would cost him a penny.

Much remains unclear and probably will not be revealed.  For example, what definition of “income” should we calculate the Romneys’ tax burden on?  They have all sorts of unrealized gains, and any person of wealth can hire people to find lots of ways – equine, for example – to move what most people would regard as income out of AGI or taxable income.  We’re still waiting to learn about the offshore accounts.

The bald facts of this round of transparency, whatever shoes haven’t hit the floor yet, are grossly, radiantly, repulsive.  That an enormously rich presidential candidate can present them with a straight face, without simultaneously deploring the sweetness of his deal, and the system he got it from, is simply unspeakable.

How to Think on Rosh Hashanah

Shimon Apisdorf is an Orthodox Rabbi based in Baltimore.  While I don’t always agree with him on theological or political matters, he really, really, really gets the High Holy Days.  His wonderful book, The Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur Survival Kit, should be on every Jew’s bookshelf — and in a lot of ways, it should be on the bookshelf of anyone, Jew or not, who cares about having a rewarding spiritual life.  As we move into the Yamim Noraim, I thought I would post his very insightful “Questions for a Meaningful Life,” written to be pondered on Rosh Hashanah — and really, all year.

We wish everyone a Shana Tovah U’metuka.

Questions for a Meaningful Life

1.  When do I feel that my life is most meaningful?

2.  Those who mean the most to me — have I ever told them how I feel?

3.  Are there any ideasl I would be willing to die for?

4.  If I could live my life over, would I change anything?

5.  What would bring me more happiness than anything in the world?

6.  What are my three most significant achievements since last Rosh Hashanah?

7.  What are my three biggest mistakes since last Rosh Hashanah?

8.  What project or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?

9.  If I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I undertake to accomplish in life?

10.  What are my three major goals in life?  What am I doing to achieve them?  What practical steps can I take in the next two months towards these goals?

11.  If I could only give my children three pieces of advice, what would they be?

Republican Jewish Values: Rabbi Isaac Jeret

I suppose that the “Rabbi” in the title should be used with very heavy quotation marks.

A few years ago, a friend of mine who attends a large synagogue in the South Bay complained to me about her rabbi.  “He doesn’t talk about God,” she said.  “He doesn’t talk about spirituality.  He doesn’t talk about Torah.  All he talks about is Israel, and everything is straight down the Likud line.”  Depressing, but not surprising, I thought.

What I didn’t know is that the rabbi in question is alleged to have been a thief in service to the Republican Party:

In response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 and the Carmel forest fires in Israel in December 2010, members of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, like so many others, wanted to donate money to help the victims. So, many of them directed donations through Rabbi Isaac Jeret’s discretionary fund.

But their money never made it to organizations working on the ground in Haiti and Haifa.

Jeret, who led the 500-member Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes for seven years, allegedly not only did not send the money where he was supposed to, but instead he is believed to have taken money from his discretionary fund to make political donations to congressional campaigns across the country, according to Timothy Weiner, the synagogue’s treasurer from September 2009 through June 2012, who participated in an internal investigation of the matter.

I’m not sure what is more outrageous here: that allegedly Jeret 1) didn’t spend the money where he said he would; 2) that he spent it on campaign contributions, which is illegal and threatens the Shul’s tax-exempt status; or 3) that he decided to give the vast majority of the money to Republicans.  (That’s a joke, but not by much.).

The Jewish Journal, in an attempt to be fair and balanced, reports that Jeret gave money to both Republicans and Democrats, and that is true.  But at least in the public listings of the $11,500 in contributions that he made in 2008 and 2010, $9,500 went to the GOP, and in 2010, all $7,500 went to Republicans — $7,000 to one Congressmember, Dan Rohrabacher.  Rohrabacher represents the district in which the congregation is, but he’s in a safe seat: this was clearly designed to be sent to House GOP candidates all over the country.

To be sure, Democratic Jewish leaders are hardly without sin — no one is — but I have never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of the alleged use of a rabbi’s discretionary fund.  And in any event, Jeter — who unsurprisingly, has resigned his post — was hardly a bit player.  He gave a speech at the Republican National Committee dinner in October 2010, where, shortly before suggesting that President Obama had “bowed down” before foreign leaders, he said:

I pray that a majority in the House and the Senate emerges in November that champions these traditional and historic American values and principles and calls upon the President of the United States to abide by them in the discourse and conduct of American foreign-policy.
Apparently, among “these traditional and historic American values” are stealing from your congregation, opening them up to legal danger, and doing so for the purpose of supporting a party that wants to create American plutocracy and destroy Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
It will be interesting to see where Jeret winds up.  He need not worry: Sheldon Adelson will surely take care of him.  No doubt he will figure out some way to either start his own think tank or work for a place like the Ethics and Public Policy Center.  And when he does, he will probably rail against the “dependence” of poor people and about how progressives threaten Israel.  Just wait.



Io triumphe

The ecstasy of winning.

Jessica Ennis crosses the line to win the final 800m race of the heptathlon, and the Olympic gold.

Photo source: AP

The transformation of her pretty-girl-next-door face at her Pindarian moment of triumph reminds you of something else, doesn’t it? Gian Lorenzo Bernini  got there first, in his audacious Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Rome: Continue reading “Io triumphe”

Higgs and Spinoza

A speculation about quantum fields and consciousness.

Warning: amateur Sunday philosophising ahead!

The media reports of CERN’s experimental confirmation of the Higgs hypothesis have framed it as all about the particle not the field. The particle is incredibly rare: CERN made half-a-dozen by smashing nuclei together at energies not seen elsewhere in the universe since the first moments of the Big Bang and they decayed in trillionths of second. The same may have happened in Klingon accelerators, but that doesn’t affect my point.

The thing that’s there all the time and everywhere is the Higgs field, described as a molasses that slows down some everyday elementary particles – the fermions (protons, neutrons, electrons), giving them mass, and leaves bosons (photons) alone to zip around weightless. (Corrections welcome. The “slowing down” is presumably a loose metaphor, as there’s no such thing as absolute motion, and a proton stationary in some inertial frame would still have mass.) All particles are oscillations in quantum fields; the Higgs particle is a rare oscillation in the Higgs field, which spends its working aeon giving mass to fermions.

Which brings me to consciousness. Philosophers bash their heads against a brick wall by asking what it is. Beyond “you know it when you have it”, the project does not seem to advance. “Qualia” is just a pretentious label for “WTF, unsolved problem”. The most fruitful current line of inquiry is “how does consciousness come about in the brain? What is its the neurological correlate?” That looks soluble in principle by ordinary scientific methods. But there’s another question, the way the schoolmen and Descartes looked at it: “what stuff can be conscious?” Technically, of what substance is consciousness the accident or attribute?

There are two options, and neither is appealing. Dualists say consciousness is an attribute of mind-stuff. This can be conceived as a soul-sized packet – I have one, you have another, Fido may have one -, or pantheistically as a single universal mind.

  • Objection 1: the mind-stuff has never been observed. But then, neither has the Higgs field, which we are now invited to believe in; this has also only been inferred indirectly, by a long chain of inference and related observations. Not conclusive.
  • Objection 2: how can the mind-stuff be causally affected by matter, for instance by a photon striking a receptor in the eye and generating an electrical signal in the brain? Matter must have some mysterious property enabling it to give rise to conscious experience. Dualism does not solve the problem to which it’s supposed to be an answer, which is the implausibility of matter being conscious.

Materialists say that it’s the matter that’s conscious, stupid, and laugh at the myth of “ghosts in the machine”. However that commits them to a strange view of matter. The physical properties of all instances of an elementary particle are identical. But some, a tiny proportion, support consciousness, by mechanisms not yet elucidated but, it is assumed, following the standard models of natural law. So all elementary particles (or possibly all particles of a particular common type; it may be the electrons or the protons) are consciousness-capable. If not, the materialist answer to the “what substance?” question is handwaving.

The natural physical mechanism for this would be, it seems to me, another invisible universal quantum field. [Update: see comment by John Casey below.] The rarity of the consciousness interaction is not a decisive objection. Conscious brains are much rarer in the universe than similar-sized lumps of rock, but much more common than Higgs particles.

So materialists should line up with Spinoza. The universe as a whole supports mind, and in a sense is mind.

Thank you, class, for your attention, You may now return to documenting the failings of the presidential candidates.

Baruch Spinoza 3-in-1

Image credit. The Warhol stuff has no hidden meaning and doesn’t actually jibe with Spinoza’s rigorous monism, but it’s pretty.


We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles.  Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.

Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life.  This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.

For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do?   Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes.  We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)

In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”.  But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality.  I think Forster gets this right.


Another Bishop Shreds the Seamless Garment


A small Catholic college that invited Victoria Reggie Kennedy to speak at its spring commencement has rescinded the offer under pressure from the Worcester bishop, who described her apparent political views as out of line with Catholic teachings.

Anna Maria College in Paxton, west of Worcester, released a statement today placing the decision at the feet of Bishop Robert J. McManus and saying it still believes Kennedy is an appropriate choice.

However, the statement continued, “after hours of discerning and struggling with elements of all sides of this issue, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees decided with deep regret to withdraw its invitation.”

Anna Maria, a independent liberal arts college with 1,100 students, is deeply entwined with the diocese; last night, its president attended a dinner with McManus. Its statement notes that “as a small, Catholic college that relies heavily on the good will of its relationship with the Bishop and the larger Catholic community, its options are limited.”

Kennedy, the wife of the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy, published her own statement noting that the bishop refused to meet with her despite her overtures.

“He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith,” read the statement. “Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the Church I love.”

McManus declined to comment, but diocese spokesman Ray Delisle said his actions were consistent with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ruling “that Catholic institutions should not be honoring Catholics who take positions publicly which are contrary to the Catholic faith’s most fundamental principles, particularly on the dignity of life from conception and the sanctity of marriage.”

As they say, read the whole thing.  The bishop also seems very concerned about health coverage for contraception.

Note, of course, that the Bishops’ injunction does not seem to apply to Republicans.  Caring for the poor, social solidarity, even the death penalty are irrelevant.  Readers who have information about Republicans being denied similar venues, or being threatened with the withdrawal of the Eucharist for their anti-Catholic views on these issues, are encouraged to send them in. In the meantime. given that rebranding is all the rage these days, the bishops might need a new slogan:

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops: The Tea Party At Prayer

The rights of polar bears

Why we have a duty to save the polar bears and other species.

In what I named the “dumbest blog post of 2011“, economist Karl Smith conceded that

There will be large environmental costs associated with climate change includ[ing] a very rapid increase in extinctions

but we should ignore this and

pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North America[n] regarding fossil fuel production


there are hundreds of millions of very poor families around the world right now, who would benefit enormously from lifting the energy constraint on growth.

So many species should go extinct for the greater good of man. Bye, bye polar bears.

Smith shrugged off my accusation of “yahoo values”. It may be sadly necessary to make a formal argument for the polar bears and lemurs and hundreds of other species. BTW, I stand by my language. Quite mild really. If you threaten a man’s grandchildren – which is what denialists and do-nothings are up to – around the Khyber Pass, he doesn’t say nasty things about you on a blog, he comes after you with a sharp knife and a plan to remove various body parts.

So here’s the argument. Continue reading “The rights of polar bears”

The Bishops’ Seamless Garment Frays Some More: Cue Erich Ludendorff

Although I disagree with it on specifics, I have always respected the Roman Catholic Church’s position that its social teachings are a “seamless garment” — that is, it focuses on all aspects of its social teaching even if it does not fit neatly into political boxes. 

Well, it turns out that the garment’s got a lot of rips in it:

Internal Komen documents reviewed by Reuters reveal the complicated relationship between the Komen Foundation and the Catholic church, which simultaneously contributes to the breast cancer charity and receives grants from it. In recent years, Komen has allocated at least $17.6 million of the donations it receives to U.S. Catholic universities, hospitals and charities.

Church opposition reached dramatic new proportions in 2011, when the 11 bishops who represent Ohio’s 2.6 million Catholics announced a statewide policy banning church and parochial school donations to Komen.

Such pressure helped sway Komen’s leadership to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, according to current and former Komen officials….

The earliest signs of discord came in 2005, when South Carolina’s Catholic diocese pulled out of the local Komen fundraiser. It was followed over the next four years by individual dioceses in Arizona, Indiana, Florida, Missouri and other states, where bishops either spoke out against Komen or took steps to stem donations to the charity, mainly because of its Planned Parenthood link.

The momentum picked up in 2011 when top Ohio clerics met in Columbus. High on their agenda was the question of whether the state’s nine dioceses should participate in Komen fundraisers.

No Planned Parenthood clinics in Ohio receive Komen money. But the bishops decided that diocese funds should no longer benefit the charity, for fear that money sent from local Komen affiliates to the Dallas headquarters could wind up in Planned Parenthood’s coffers or help fund research on stem cells collected from human fetuses, according to church officials.

So — in a probable violation of the Thomist Doctrine of Double Effect, the bishops have decided to refuse all support for any women’s health promoted by Komen for fear that somewhere, somehow, some money might make it into some Planned Parenthood office.  And they went even further, telling all of their parishoners not to do anything to help, either.  It was, of course, interesting that they did nothing of the kind concerning Republican candidates who vowed to slash funding for programs for the poor, many of which also supported Catholic Charities.

High on the 2011 agenda, of course, was this issue.  It’s not clear from the story, but this seemed to be a much higher agenda issue than, say, the truly vicious cuts proposed by Paul Ryan, or John Kasich, or any other right-winger.  Some things, you see, are just more important than others.

One of the glories of contemporary religious thought is the Catholic social justice tradition, epitomized by the likes of Dorothy Day but also advanced by thousands of lay Catholics and individual priests throughout the world.  Everywhere from US streets to isolated villages in the Congo, Catholics are modeling themselves on Jesus’ life, ministering to the poor, fighting for justice, and bringing the Holy Spirit to earth.  They deserve better clerical leadership than what they are getting.

It thus reminds me of a (perhaps-apocryphal) conversation between German World War I generals Max Hoffmann and Erich Ludendorff, about the valiant British infantry cut down through the idiotic strategy of their generals:

Ludendorff:  The British fought like lions.

Hoffmann:  Yes; but they were led by donkeys.