Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Much Ado

I keep coming back to that bizarre story I blogged about the other day,  about how a rape victim had been turned away at a Catholic hospital in Cologne last December.  Each time I went looking for more details, the central focus seemed to change.  

The story started with a woman waking up on a park bench one Saturday afternoon in December with no recollection of the past nearly twenty-four hours.  She got her mother to take her to the emergency room, where she was treated by Dr. Irmgard Maiworm, the GP on duty at the time.  Maiworm suspected she had been drugged and possibly raped.  With the patient’s permission, Maiworm called the cops, and prescribed the morning-after pill.  

Maiworm then got her assistant to call the gynecological clinic at neighboring St. Vinzenz Hospital to get her a full gynecological examination.  No can do, say the folks of St. Vinzenz.  We don't do rape cases.  We had somebody do that recently and lose their job.  For two months new rules had been in effect forbidding Catholic hospitals from providing post-rape exams.  These new rules came in response to the increasing use of the morning-after pill.  Such a pill, according to the guidelines, was not in keeping with Catholic values.

Maiworm can't believe her ears.  She phones another hospital, this time Heilig-Geist Hospital, only to get the same answer.  Eventually they find a Protestant hospital that will take her.

I know there are many people out there convinced there is a big daddy in the sky who wants very much for you to do certain things and not do others.    I wasn’t born yesterday.  I also know Big Daddy is not all that clear on what those things are, but that’s OK.  There are people around convinced he has empowered them to speak for him.  All you have to do is believe.

Leprechauns.  Trolls.  Wizards.  Witches,  Ghosts, Gremlins and Roman Catholic bishops.  I have trouble telling them apart.

* * *

Once this story started making the rounds, Germans went ballistic. On one television talk show, moderator Günther Jauch asked his guests what they thought about the Roman Catholic Church in Germany today.    His guests were so critical that he felt he needed to do another one, this time with practicing Catholic guests (plus the head of the Protestant Church in Germany who could be guaranteed to be at least diplomatic, and probably totally friendly on ecumenical grounds, which he was.)  The Catholic guests fell all over each other distancing themselves from the incident.  Lots of use of words like “outrage,” “disgusting” and “shameful,” and virtually everybody agreeing “this is not what the Catholic Church is all about!”   

Missing from the discussion was the fact that a hospital spokesman had given a press conference early on in which he insisted the whole story was a media circus full of misinformation.  There were no absolute guidelines.  Doctors were free, as they have always been, to make their own decisions.  One man’s guidelines being another men’s directives, the statement to the press came off pretty much as not very effective damage control.  The fact remains the Church had put out a clear condemnation of morning-after pills and the letter was fresh in the minds of hospital employees.

So the Cardinal decided to step in and ask some very smart questions.

How does this pill work, exactly?  Does it destroy a fertilized egg?   Or does it simply prevent implantation of the sperm?

The distinction, in the Catholic way of thinking, is crucial.   If it destroys the fertilized egg, it’s an abortifacient, since a fertilized egg is defined by catholic officialdom as a human baby.  It’s a killer.  And if it doesn’t, but simply prevents the sperm from reaching the egg, arguably no abortion has taken place.  It’s not a killer.  It’s just a “preventative.”  And, Meisner opines, a “preventative” would be OK.   (Details on the pill are available here and here and here.) 

Let that sink in.

A form of birth control would be OK?

Did he really say that?  The cardinal?

What appears to have happened is that where once there was one rigid, hard-and-fast rule about birth control (it’s a no-no), now there are two:

Rule 1 (for married people):  If you’re married, you cannot practice birth control and if you get pregnant you cannot abort the baby.  No change in policy, in other words.  It’s still a no-no.

(And, just to dot our i’s and cross our t’s, we might consider Rule 1-A: if you’re not married, you don’t need to worry about this because you are not having sex.  The birth control issue is irrelevant.)

Rule 2 (for women who are raped): If your rapist’s sperm fertilizes your egg, you are pregnant and you must have the baby.  If there is a means of preventing fertilization, such as the “morning after” pill, you may use it. 

For the first time, under these limited circumstances, birth control is now allowed.

Meisner’s was not the last word on the subject.  The German Bishops have begun debating the issue at their conference now going on in Trier, and speculation is strong they’re going to back Meisner up.

* * *

Meanwhile, over here in America, the story is no longer about the rape victim, but about the fact that the German Catholic Church seems to be ahead of their American counterparts in reconciling the two churches – the official hierarchical structure, on the one hand, and the “people’s church,” the body of believers who focus less on power and more on pastoral concerns, on the other.   One Catholic spokesman, James Salt, of Catholics United used the word “amazing” to describe the step of moving from “no birth control” to “birth control under certain very limited circumstances.” 

While I have to admit the step from zero to 1 is in most cases a bigger step than from 1 to 2, the only thing I find amazing is that the church once actually held the view that one must take no steps whatsoever to protect the life and well-being of a women who has been raped.  I really ought to be a bit more generous and recognize that for Catholics, any step forward toward greater human rights and recognition of the needs of women and others previously excluded by the church – I’m thinking, of course, of gays in particular – is a cause for celebration.

But I can’t help it.  I can barely keep back the hysterical laughter and the suggestion we ought to maybe break out the champagne or cry with joy that this retrograde organization has decided to give women a taste of dignity they had not allowed them before.

What will they do for an encore, put full postage on their mail?  Start using left-hand turn signals when they turn left?

Just as you needed a Republican like Nixon to open China – because if a leftist had tried it he would have been shot down – Cardinal Meisner was apparently the right guy in the right place at the right time for this job.  He isn’t just anybody.  Not one of those bleeding-heart liberal types.  Not a renegade theologian like Hans Küng, who wants the Catholics and the Protestants to get back together.  Not a Garry Wills, who wants to get rid of the priesthood.  Not a Leonardo Boff or a Gustavo Gutierrez keeping the Vatican awake at night with their pain-in-the-ass demands for “liberation theology,” trying to make the church less about silken robes and golden rings and more about caring for the poor.  Cardinal Meisner is one of Germany’s most prominent Catholic clergy, heading up the largest and the richest diocese in the country.   The man whose home is that magnificent Cologne Cathedral.  Consider the company Meisner keeps.  First off there’s his protégé and right-hand man, Opus Dei Cardinal, Archbishop Rainer Woelki, famous for his description of homosexuality as an “offence against the ‘order of creation’.”  Meisner and Woelki’s father went to school together.

And Meisner has long been a personal friend of the pope.  When Josef Ratzinger was elected God’s representative on Earth, Meisner, we are told, burst into tears of joy in the Sistine Chapel.

On the occasion of the pope’s 85th birthday, a group of German papal loyalists put out a kind of “Festschrift”  to sing his praises.  The publisher explained that she was motivated in part by the desire to counter some of the negative press the pope got when he addressed the German parliament and so many people walked out on him.  Speaking at the press conference was none other than Georg Gänswein, the pope’s personal secretary and editor of and contributer to the book.  Also among those contributors is Meisner.  The book is called Benedikt XVI – Prominente über den Papst. (Benedict XVI – Prominent People Speak Out about the Pope).

* * *

It wasn’t missed in church circles that a conservative prelate had moved birth control out of the no-no column into the “under certain circumstances” column.  The first question was to what degree was Meisner acting on his own.  As if he actually could.  Or would.  An American publication, The National Catholic Reporter strongly suggested Meisner may actually have cleared his remarks with the Vatican.   And a report by the Irish national public service broadcaster, RTÉ confirmed it, straight from the horse’s mouth, almost, by diocese of Cologne spokeswoman Nele Harbeke.

So it’s official.  The Vatican has arrived in the modern era by recognizing that sometimes it’s a good idea to get in nature’s way in the baby-making process.  The rest of us never had a problem with this, and we wonder why it is the church couldn't have said from the beginning that rape is contrary to the will of God and therefore what goes on in rape is pain, not baby-making.  But probably they figured that would only lead to the slippery slope.  As it is, one has to wonder how long it will be before somebody decides the church can get behind the blocking of the sperm of a fifteen-year-old boy when it’s heading toward an egg in his fourteen-year-old girlfriend.  As long as they do it in a timely fashion.

* * *

So there’s the story.  Or so it would seem.  The church is getting closer to admitting that
women are equal in God’s eyes to men, and each time there is any progress, no matter how small, we can’t help but speculate how much more freedom from darkness and obedience to blindly held principles might come down the pike.  Will they let women speak for the official church as equals one day?  Will they recognize that although the animus that once led to the execution of homosexuals is gone, use of language such as “intrinsically disordered” and “offensive to God” when describing their natural desire for physical and emotional union with another person of the same sex still sets the tone for gay-bashing, trivialization and exclusion?

The church has been brought kicking and screaming one more inch closer to the modern age only because it got caught napping.  It could have done it without all this embarrassment if it had taken a pastoral approach to rape victims in the first place, and not waited for somebody to test the law.

But that's not the way the church works.  It prefers, even now, even after all these years, to argue over the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin.

All this kerfluffle.  All these hours of press conferences, emergency sessions of ethics committees, all this hair-splitting.  Some people are trying to downplay the event as manipulation.  The Catholic News Agency, for example, published an article to that effect.  When you look closely at it, though, what you see is some really lousy journalism.   You see little more than  a conservative doctor trying to “correct” the good Cardinal.  He says the cardinal was manipulated, but in fact there is no evidence to back that up. 

But there’s no need for conservatives to expend that effort on denying what Meisner has done.  All he has actually done is declare that in an act of violence, one we may safely assume was not what God was thinking when he asked us to be fruitful and multiply, there is no harm in preventing the fertilization of an egg in the body of an unwilling victim.  We are not preventing a life that was meant to be.  We are preventing a life that was not meant to be.   And not prevent in the condom sense, but prevent in the “keep these people apart” sense.

When the dust settles, we have to recognize this is not really about birth control at all, since all the old birth control restrictions remain firmly in place.  And so is the rule that if the rapist should succeed in getting that sperm into the egg, it’s all over.  The baby is on the way.  The victim can seek therapy, close her eyes and think of England, or give the baby up for adoption.  She just can’t stop the birth.

The church, who speaks for God, has made it clear what God wants.  If you get to the sperm in time, he wants you to stop the baby-making process.  If you don’t, he clearly means for a baby to be born. 

Isn’t it nice to have clarity where once we had a grey area?

* * *

In the final analysis, I think the story will be told this way:

A woman went to a doctor.  There was evidence she had had sex without her knowledge and consent.  The doctor took action to make sure she wouldn’t have a baby.  She didn’t split hairs over whether there was a fertilized egg in her womb; she simply looked out for the welfare of her patient.  Call that Irmgard Maiworm’s way.

Agents of the Roman Catholic Church working on what they thought were church guidelines decided the patient should not be treated because such treatment might involve abortion, or the appearance of approval of abortion.   When word got out, these agents issued an apology and insisted it was all a misunderstanding.

We now know how to prevent a rape victim from being further victimized.  We have the technology to keep her from having to carry a child fathered by her rapist.  God appears to favor women who live in advanced countries with access to that technology.  If women take advantage of that technology within the first couple of days after being raped, they do not offend him.  If they are not in a position to take advantage of that technology, either because they are poor, or uninformed, or because they live too far from people who have that technology, they just have to wait and watch while their ovum becomes fertilized.  The correct interpretation of that eventuality, in that case, is that God intends for that baby to be born.  Call that Bishop Meisner’s way.

We have two Roman Catholic churches.  One, the pastoral church, consists of the majority of people who identify as Catholic.  They would like the church to go Irmgard Maiworm’s way. The other consists of an old boys’ club of increasingly irrelevant authoritarians whose desire to maintain control over the institution they run occasionally leads them to cruelty.

If you, or anyone you know, is ever raped, pray you fall into the hands of the Maiworms of this world, and not the Meisners.

Friday, February 15, 2013

If At First You Don't Succeed

Too much focus on the national news isn’t good, I think.   Watching Republicans at the national level having to filibuster things right and left and work their fingers to the bone to make sure the poor pay their fair share can get you down.  Sometimes it’s useful to turn our attention to politics down where the rubber meets the road.

Take Rick Brattin, for example.  Handsome dude.  Nice family man. Member of the NRA.  Republican gentleman from Missouri’s 55th District (Cass County, south of Kansas City), and Missouri House floor whip.

Like everybody who’s anybody, Rick’s got his own web page.  Nobody can make a web page on his own, of course.  We all need a little help from our friends, so I thought I’d see what I might do to help floor whip Brattin become a better whip.  Here are my suggestions for changes to his web page

Rick has six sections on his web page: Welcome, About Rick, Brattin Plan, New District, Press Library, and House Reports.

If you click on the first, “Welcome,” you read: 

We do not need the government to try to stimulate and attempt to control our economy, the government needs to just get out of our way and stop wasting our hard earned money on endless programs that have proven time and time again to be ineffective. It's time to bring the power back to the People, back to the free market, and put a stop to the slow erosion of our God ordained liberties and freedoms. Allow the hard working taxpayer prosper and to reap the benifits of the fruits of their labor--That was what our Founding Fathers envisioned for our Country and those beliefs and core values are enshrined into both our Federal and State Constitutions. God Bless America!

Not bad.  Got a run-on sentence there in that first sentence.  “Benifits” should be “benefits” and things are enshrined “in” and not “into” the constitution, but other than that, the message is a nice clear example of Republican thought.

The notation “Peculiar bridge construction” is not a typo.  It refers to bridge construction in the town of Peculiar.  There really is a Peculiar, Missouri.

Click on the second item, “About Rick”, and you find:

He has been an actvive and prolific lawmaker sponsoring and cosponsoring several bills in his first two sessions of his first term. Rick won re-election to represent the new Missouri 55th District to inlcude most of the previous 124th District of central Cass County.

“Actvive” should, of course, be “active” and “inlcude” should be “include,” but two misspellings aren’t bad.  Thirty-nine of the words in that paragraph are spelled right.  (Although, to be fair, two of those are numbers.)

In the third item, “Brattin Plan” you find:

Due to the budget shortfalls, some are talking about proposing increased in sales tax, fuel tax, and even toll roads on higways we already paid to build. We must look into new ways to streamline our roadways while at the same time making sure that taxes and costs are minimum.

I believe that should be an s and not a d at the end of “increased”, and you left out the second h in highway, Rick, and “toll roads on highways” could use some tweaking.  As could “costs are minimum.”  But we get the idea.

In the fourth item, “New District” you find:

On 1868 the county surveyor, Robert Cass, platted the Town of Peculiar. The city received its name when the first postmaster, Edgar Thomson since his first choice, Excelsior, was already in Atchison County. 

I’m still getting my head around why anybody in his right mind would name a town “Peculiar” – much less actually go and plat it.  Probably has something to do with the time when his first choice already existed.  Which was on 1868, apparently.

Rick gets full marks for the final section.  Most of the words on the page are either “house” or “bill” and both are spelled correctly.

Now let’s turn to Rick’s legislative contributions.

Here’s his latest, House Bill 201, a  a proposal he introduced yesterday to enhance science education, since Rick “I’m a huge science buff” Brattin is apparently hugely science education oriented.

It speaks for itself, sort of:

HB 291 -- Missouri Standard Science Act
Sponsor: Brattin

This bill establishes the Missouri Standard Science Act which
requires that science instruction in public elementary and
secondary schools and in introductory science courses in public
higher education institutions be standard science instruction as
defined in the bill.
That’s pretty clear, right?  What’s established is what is defined.

Any empirical data, as defined in the bill,
must have been verified, be capable of being verified, or be
identified as nonverifiable.

It’s always useful to verify things, when you can, of course.

To present an item as a scientific law, as defined in the bill, the law must have no known exceptions in its verified empirical data. When scientific theory, as defined in the bill, is presented, the bill prescribes the level of detail required for the presentation of theories of origin and biological origin in teaching and textbooks. Textbooks covering any scientific theory of biological origin must devote equal treatment to evolution and intelligent design.

I see.  No known exceptions in verified empirical data.  Intelligent Design.

Physical evidence must support the teaching of prehistory, and any conjecture about occurrence, causes, dates or lengths of time must be presented as theory or hypothesis, as defined in the bill. Naturalistic processes in prehistory must be duplicated by analogous naturalistic processes, as defined in the bill. False theories or hypotheses must be identified as false.

Good idea, I think, to have naturalistic processes duplicated by analogous naturalistic processes, but I’m not sure exactly how one identifies a false hypothesis.  I’ll have to work on that.

HB 291 is not the first time an intelligent design bill has been introduced by Rick.  A year ago he and five others started with HB 1227, and by the time they got to HB 1276, they had introduced an anti-evolution bill five times.    By the time January 13, 2011 rolled around, they had already introduced two that year, as well.  There was HB 1651 in 2010, and on and on.  Actually they’ve been at this for quite a while now in Missouri.  HB 911 in 2004, for example, followed by HB 1722, also in 2004.   You get the picture.  

I’ll leave you, gentle reader, to find your own way to the rest of this current bill 291, and to follow its fate, if you’re interested in how the leaders of Missouri are helping the children of Missouri make their way in the world.  (And we should not dump this all on Missouri.  Intelligent design bills have been introduced in Colorado, Montana and Oklahoma, as well.)

In any case, I’m sure at least some of the kids Rick is looking out for will make a name for themselves at univeristy. 

Is that how you spell it?

Must look that up.

source for Intelligent Design muscle
source for Missouri State Univeristy

Thursday, February 14, 2013

All About Michael

Regen Kreis Flag

Deep in the Bavarian Forest, the largest protected forest area in central Europe, where the Black Regen river flows together with the White Regen river, lies the town of Regen, capital of the Regen Region.  Just plain Regen.  Not black, not white, not Regensburg, which is a much bigger town about 100 km. to the West.  

Just Regen.  Which means Rain.  But doesn’t come from ‘regen/rain’ but from the Latin name for the river, the Regana.  When they thought she was feminine.  And Reganus, when they thought he was masculine.  And Reganum, when they thought it was neuter.  They had trouble deciding.  Regen now consists of a bundle of villages, including Rinchnachmündt, which was obviously never meant to be said aloud.   

Regen is a homophone with Reagan.   Which is not a gay telephone. 

So many coincidences.  So much distraction.  Perhaps I'll just get on with it.

I’ve wandered the Bavarian Forest in my day.  I love the villages of Bavaria, and one day I will go back and rent a car and and drive all around and see the changes since I lived in Munich in 1960 and 1961.

Once head of the Inquisition (the institution which now goes by the more euphonious name of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) Josef Ratzinger, soon to be known as Ex-Benedict – no relation to one of the more popular items on a gay brunch menu – calls this once über Catholic part of the world home.

But so does Michael Adam.

Tobias and Michael
Michael Adam made a name for himself by becoming the youngest mayor in Germany, at age 23, in the village of Bodenmais (ambiguously, "corn on the ground" or "corn in the attic,"  since we’re into translating names), in the Regen District.  Three years later he became district administrator for all of Regen.  No mean feat, since he represented not the Catholic ruling party, the Christian Social Union, which is not really socialist, but the Socialists, who really are - although less today then they once were.  And he beat his CSU opponent by 57 to 43% of the vote.  To put some extra Schlag on the Coffee, he’s also a gay man, who married his life partner, Tobias, last September.  In their wedding announcement they asked that their relationship be considered a private affair and urged folk in the nicest possible formal language  (“von diesbezüglichen Nachfragen abzusehen,” lit. “to refrain from inquiry on anything related to this”) to bug off - please!   Guess being a gay socialist in - did we say "once oh so Catholic" - Bavaria requires careful planning.  Oh, and by the way, he’s Protestant, to boot.

Like the also gay, also socialist, mayor Klaus Wowereit in Berlin, his country’s capital city, Michael Adam is not interested in becoming an icon of gay liberation.   He just wants to do his political job.  I take it as an extremely positive sign that in the commentary following reports of his success there is a lot of fury at the mention of his being gay.  "Why should it matter!!!  (Fill in  exclamation marks at will.)"   There is a good answer to that, unfortunately.  It is still news that a gay man should be making his way in the political world, particularly in a place which not so long ago had an intensely Catholic (did I mention that?), and therefore homophobic, culture.

I learned about Michael Adam in this morning’s paper, where it was reported he was trying to help out another gay man who was having some trouble.  Tobias G. (a different Tobias from Michael’s partner Tobias) was all set to open a restaurant when the bank found out he was HIV positive.  It’s not clear that’s why they turned down his loan, although it's highly suspicious, since things were going smoothly until that fact came out.  And now he’s getting threats and hate mail.

It doesn’t take a broad stretch of the imagination to follow the banker’s thinking.  A man who is HIV+ and he wants to open a restaurant?  Can’t exactly see that as a financial winner.

The problem with that, though, is that while gays have made great strides, and the good people of this Bavarian village and region of Regen are able to show they are a pretty open-minded lot, there is much to do to shake off some wretched ignorance in regard to AIDS – which, face it, is still associated in the minds of most people with gays.

Tobias G. has the benefit of modern medicine, and he lives in a country which takes good care of its people.  What that means is that his HIV status is now undetectable.  Only a decade ago, AIDS was a death sentence for most.  Nowadays, you can actually start with AIDS and work backwards to “No AIDS, only HIV.”  And you can then work even further back to “No more HIV.”

Tobias G. is a danger to nobody.  Not himself.  Not his partner.  And certainly not anybody who might want to eat at his restaurant.

But Tobias G. has given up the fight.   He once had a dream, after working in restaurants around the continent, of going home and opening one in his native Bavaria.  He has now set that dream aside.  Thanks, Michael, for offering to put in a good word with the bank, but no thanks.  I’ll find something else to do.  This is my home.  I’m not leaving.

It took me a moment to make sense of this article in today’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.  It looked like it was about Michael Adam.  Under the title of the article, “Gay, HIV-positive, Done in” it has a picture of Michael and not Tobias G.  And next to the picture is the blurb: “Regen District Head Michael Adam, also homosexual, offered to help the gastronome.  He refused.”

What’s that all about?  This is an article about an HIV-positive man in Bavaria, not about the district head!  "Also homosexual?"  

Were the commentators right who complained about the media’s making a big deal about homosexuality?  How the hell did they decide to put Michael Adam’s photo on this article*, when all he did was offer help to some guy – who it was actually about – and get turned down.

Was the SZ right in seeing a connection?

I really don’t have the answer to that one.

*update - February 15 - Apparently somebody on the Süddeutsche Zeitung editorial board asked the same question.  Just checked the links and I see they've taken the picture down.

Regen flag credit
Wedding photo credit

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Unfit to Work

Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne
I’ve been listening to debates (here, herehere and here) on German television over the scandal that ensued when two Catholic hospitals turned away a woman who had been raped.  It’s complicated and the actual facts of the story are often mangled, but essentially, people were afraid of treating the woman because they feared they might be going against the guidelines of the local cardinal, Cardinal Meisner.

The story gets super complicated because it turns out the Cardinal should be following that rule from the top that the morning-after pill is forbidden because it’s an abortifacient and that means baby-killer in church talk.  Only the pill in question is probably not an abortifacient.  Or maybe it is, if taken in high doses.  And then again maybe not.  And the Cardinal, turns out, is saying if it’s not an abortifacient, it’s OK.  Which means the Cardinal is saying birth control is OK.  And that’s not OK, actually.

So the good Cardinal is taking a giant leap forward.  Maybe.  Birth control OK?


Meanwhile, most good German folk, Catholics as well as non-Catholics, are outraged that a Catholic hospital should turn away a woman in need of care.  You can’t really blame the hospital staff.   They know they work in a Catholic hospital and they know the official church position on birth control and on abortion.  What were they supposed to do?  They might have lost their jobs.

This took place in Cologne, where most people are Catholic, so these questions are on everybody’s mind.  Many will tell you outright that the baby in the womb after a rape is a living being, according to Roman doctrine.  So hands off.  And even if you’re not sure if there is a baby in the womb, hands off there, too.  The church teaches us we need to err on the side of caution.

What this means in practical terms is this.  OK, so you’ve been raped.  We will pray for you.  But your troubles are not over.  If you get pregnant, you will have to carry this baby to term.  If you don’t, your soul is in mortal danger.

Moreover, don’t look to us for help in getting rid of this little gift from God placed in your body.  We’re a hospital, and you’ve been beaten up, but we have our principles.  We’ll help you find another hospital, though, because God wants us to be generous and loving and kind.  What you do with your body once you get there is up to you.  Our hands will be clean.

Now that, it seems to me, is some seriously fucked-up thinking.

What’s that line Hobbes used to describe the human condition?  Nasty, brutish and short?

You have to wonder if he got his training at a Catholic hospital.

I could, of course, look at the bright side.   If you live in a primitive place where the only hospitals are Catholic, and the right of an anti-abortion ideology takes precedence over a human rights ideology, then you’re screwed.  But most of us now live in big cities and in secular societies and we have laws protecting women against religious abuse such as the one I’m talking about.  Women can get help from other sources, even Catholic women, and make their own choices about what happens to their bodies.   Not only that, the church has lost its fangs for the most part and now only scolds – you’ll go to hell, you’ll go to hell – and no longer ties you to the rack or passes laws effectively shutting down abortion clinics.

What’s that, you say?  They do still use their power and influence to pass laws like that?

I look to Germany as a more enlightened place than this country in so many ways.  They don’t have snake handler churches.  Or guns in churches.  They have lots more women in political positions.  They have a gay mayor in Berlin.  Had one in Hamburg, too.  Have had a foreign minister who is gay.  They are much much less likely to be governed by the prejudices of a cherry-picking church group like the Catholics or fundamentalist Southern Baptists.

Or so I thought.  Turns out I’ve been giving them way too much credit. 

I thought Germany, like other European countries, with a greater inclination toward taking care of the entire community with their social resources, would never fall into the trap we fell into with George W. Bush’s insidious “faith-based” initiative.  I was seriously mistaken about that.  Turns out, the Germans did it first, and in a much bigger way.  Faith-based social services have a long history in Germany.

The right wing in America pushes the view that the free market should prevail against government involvement in one’s everyday life.  Corporate boards make better managers than government agencies.  Big government is bad, the less government the better, yada yada.

There is a concept widely known and accepted in Germany of “subsidiarity.”  Subsidiarity means essentially that small is better, that local government is superior to and more efficient than centralized government, because it’s more in touch with local values.  According to the principle of subsidiarity, things begin with the individual and each larger unit is “subsidiary” (secondary in importance) to the smaller unit before it.  The notion has broad appeal to progressives and conservatives alike, and was articulated and embraced not only as early as 1885, by Pope Pius XI, but by Calvinists before him, and is exemplified by the notion that “God helps those who help themselves.”

Problem is, like all fundamentally sound ideas and instruments, it can be abused.  The church realized that by casting doubt on the wisdom of using the state to solve problems, solutions would fall to the churches, as the best organized of non-governmental units.  Once church schools and hospitals become an everyday reality, it does not require much imagination to see how “what is” comes to be seen as “what should be.”  It becomes the default condition.  What began with charity – the caring of the sick and the vulnerable – ends up being a bureaucratic practice, something done for practical reasons and not just charitable ones.  Just leave it to us here in the church.  We’ll take care of it.

The two leading conservative parties in Germany both have “Christian” in their names – the Christian Socialist Union (CSU) in Bavaria and the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the rest of the country.   In 1961, the CDU introduced the “subsidiarity principle,” and the stage was set for the nation’s welfare agencies to be religious organizations.  An apparently innocent, practical move.   But over time, more and more services fell under one or the other of the two major providers of social services, one Catholic (Caritas) and one Protestant (the Diakonisches Werk).  In the early 70s, Caritas had 137,496 employees.  By 2003, that number had increased by 263% to 499,313 employees.   In a similar time period, Diakonisches Werk went from 175,000 to 452,244 employees, an increase of 160%, and what this means is that nearly one million people are now employed in the health services of one of the two German churches.   If you add in the kindergartens and day care centers and old folks homes, the number goes to 1.3 million, making the churches the largest single employer in the country.

Even that increase would appear to be innocent.  If it were not for Paragraph 10 of the Federal Social Welfare Act, the Bundessozialhilfegesetz/BSHG, which stipulated that

In implementing this law the social welfare agencies shall work together with churches and religious organisations that are public corporations, as well as with private charities, whilst respecting their self-sufficiency in setting their own goals and carrying out their functions.

What this meant, in effect, would turn out to have stunning consequences.  It meant, first of all, that charities could set up organizations as it suited them, take the ones that were profitable and leave the rest to the state.  Secondly, all this could be done with taxpayer money.

Thirty years later, the same Christian Democratic government expanded the subsidiarity principle, effectively putting church organizations in charge of nursing care and end-of-life hospice care and writing in priorities for themselves over non-church agencies.

Over time, hardliners within the church began to assert themselves.  When the wall came down, and the Diakonisches Werk expanded in East Germany, where most people were Protestant, many people of no religious faith were hired by the DW.  Recently, however, they began to insist on active church membership for employment.   On the Catholic side, Caritas offered what is called “counselling about pregnancy conflicts,” after which a certificate would be issued which would permit a woman to apply for an abortion.  Then, suddenly, those certificates would become unavailable.

The two church-affiliated agencies have their own labor laws, not subject to state control.  Workers are not allowed to strike and must adhere to strict agency “loyalty guidelines” which include the following:

  • An employee must not marry a divorced person, and must not marry again if divorced.
  • An employee must not engage in homosexual practices.
  • An employee must be a member of the church.  If the employee leaves the church his/her employment may be terminated.

In August of 2006, Germany passed an anti-discrimination law (Allgemeines Gleichbehandlungsgesetz/AGG), which reads, in Section 1:

The aim of this law is to reduce or remove discrimination on grounds of race or ethnic origin, of sex, of religion or worldview, of disability, of age or of sexual identity.

That’s Section 1.  But when you get to Section 9, you read:

1) Notwithstanding §8 (Unequal treatment because of occupational requirements) unequal treatment because of religion or worldview in the course of employment by religious communities, by facilities attached to them whatever their legal status, or by associations which have as their task the common fostering of a religion or worldview, is also permissible when a particular religion or worldview adduces, in consideration of the self-image of that religious community or association for their right to self-determination or, depending on the kind of function, a justifiable occupational requirement.

If you think that’s muddy, you should see the original German.   Just note the subject and predicate, which I have put in bold face and italics.

Subsection 2 is even more delicious:

(2) The prohibition of unequal treatment because of religion or worldview does not affect the rights of the religious communities mentioned in paragraph 1, of facilities attached to them whatever their legal status, or of associations which have as their task the common fostering of a religion or worldview, to be able to require from their employees loyal and upright behaviour in the sense of their particular self-images.

Loyal and upright behaviour.

Written right into the law.  The right to determine another’s loyalty and to label his or her behavior as other than upright.

Today, as people are leaving the church in droves, those who stay include many who defend the church on the grounds that “they do so much good.”   They are apparently unaware that, in Germany, at least, only 1.8% of the cost of running Caritas and DK is paid for by church funds.  All the rest comes from the taxpayers.

Furthermore, if you are a Muslim, a Sikh, twice-married, or gay, you pay your taxes like every other German citizen.  44.5 billion euros is what it takes to run social services.  You can pay your taxes.  You just can’t work there.

And if you’re a doctor who wants to help a pregnant woman abort a pregnancy, you’ll have to find a hospital not run by the church.  Good luck with that.

In the U.S., only about 1 in 6 patients are treated at Catholic hospitals each year.  In Germany, where religious affiliation historically was based on geography, there are many places, particularly rural ones, where the only hospital available is a Catholic one. 

This is not to ignore, I hasten to add, the fact that many of these people owe their lives to the doctors and nurses of Catholic hospitals.  One must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  But it’s time to stop defending Mussolini because he made the trains run on time.  It’s time to get rid of the illusion that you can leave things up to the church and remain true to humanist principles of equality.

The official church thinks there is something wrong with homosexuality.  It believes it knows the will of God and God wants women to live out their lives subordinate to men.   Things are slowly getting better, we are told.  The church no longer tortures; it no longer teaches that Jews killed Christ and deserve to be run out of town.  It no longer supports dictatorships in Latin America to the same degree it once did.  There are lots of improvements.

But let’s not forget, as the Roman church transitions from one hardliner pope to the next (at least that’s what most people are predicting), that it still actually believes it is doing good by holding out against full dignity for gay people, and the full exercise of rights for women.  It is and remains a retrograde force.

I’m not faulting the church for the child abuse scandals.  That arrogance, bad as it is, will pass in time, and they are already paying for their hubris by having to watch people leave the church in droves.

I’m talking about the fundamental belief system, the one that defines Catholicism to the core in the eyes of the official church.  The one the pope and the cardinals and most bishops insist is essential to the very nature of the Roman Church.

There are good catholics struggling valiantly against this attempt to hold on to the right to define the nature of Catholicism.  They vastly outnumber the hardliners.

But the hardliners still hold the keys.  And although much of the church would like to see a more pastoral, inclusive approach on the part of the hierarchy, most Catholics also tend to accept the authority of the pope as part of the nature of things.  They protest the rigidity, but seek a comfort zone in the center and become enablers.  Just as non-European Catholics vastly outnumber Europeans, the Europeans have the control and will likely capture the papacy yet again when Benedict XVI resigns at the end of the month.   Hardliners who are the hierarchy are also vastly outnumbered.  But they too are still in firm control, to the chagrin of those who see no reason for the church and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be at odds.

There is no compromise.  One chooses human rights or one chooses the man with the pointy hat who claims to speak for God.

And tells you how much he loves you if you’re gay.

And then takes your job away.

There are changes in the works.  You can tell because the church is ratcheting up the rhetoric.  Even the allegedly liberal Cardinal Meisner of Cologne (the one who appears to have spoken out in favor of birth control) went on the offensive recently.  The church, he says, is up against a “Catholic phobia.”   The media, he says, show “malice.”

Phobia and malice are Meisner’s choice of words, apparently.  Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who represents the Vatican, has another.   What we’re dealing with, says Müller, is a “Pogromstimmung.”  A pogrom-like atmosphere.

No kidding.  Pogrom.

Hard to beat rhetoric like that.

Not that the pope isn’t trying.  

“Christians are the most persecuted people on earth,” he says. 

No wonder he's tired and calling it a day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Put your clothes on, David

The town fathers discuss the newcomer to town
One of the first things I ever heard about Japan was from the minister of my church back in the 1950s, when I was growing up.  It was during a Pilgrim Fellowship outing.  The pastor stayed in a cabin with all the boys and there were a couple women along to chaperone the girls in another cabin.

The pastor used the occasion to give us boys a sermon on the importance of modesty.  It’s perfectly all right, he said, to disrobe in front of other boys, illustrating the point by splashing his naughty parts with talcum power after we had all showered together – I had never seen anybody do that before.  We didn’t have genitals in our house growing up.

But one must be extremely careful to show respect for girls by never letting them see you with your shirt off unless you were swimming or something like that.  He then told us about his days as a chaplain in occupied Japan right after the war.  “We had to teach the Japanese modesty,” he said, almost as an aside.   “They used to take baths together, men and women, and when they travelled overnight on the train, they’d strip down in the aisles before climbing into bed.  No shame at all!”

I thought that was weird, and I knew instantly it was terribly wrong.  What primitive people.   It must have been difficult after the war, teaching them about democracy and decency and so much else.  Thank God I live in a country with such wonderful values.  The Marshall Plan.  Lessons in decency.  So much we have to offer the world.

The Japanese learned their lessons well.   Mixed bathing is no more, although I have heard there are some outposts where it still occurs when nobody outside the region is around.  And I remember sitting in an onsen in Northern Japan once where the men were bathing and the women had to pass through to get to the women’s section.  The convention was they had to shield their eyes.

In public restrooms women come in all the time to clean the urinals without worrying that there are dozens of men doing their business.   The fact that these are always older women, and never sweet young things, defines the limits.

I remember how surprised I was the first time I went into the history of homosexuality in Japan to learn how open it once was, given that when I first went to live there in 1970 homosexuality was even more taboo than it was here.  There was a time, though, not so long ago, when it was anything but taboo.  The ancient samurai had their boyfriends much as the ancient Greeks did.  Now that fact tends to get flushed out of the history books, homosexuality being a modern-day no-no.

How did it get to be a no-no?  The same missionaries teaching the people not to get into their jammies on the train in front of others, I suspect.  Today, Japan has a huge porno industry, male sexuality being what it is.  But for some bizarre reason, while you can see all sorts of quite explicit kinky stuff in the manga, the comic book, the salary man is reading on the subway next to you, if it’s not in manga form, but actual photos, the genitals must be pixelated.  You can see an erect penis.  But you are required to see it blurred.

Modesty, or lack of it, is a curious thing.  In some places women are expected to hide their ankles.  In others their hair.  In Japan, a woman in a kimono is covered with tons of wrapping, but her collar emphasizes her bare neck, all the more erotic for being the only flesh you see.

I haven’t thought about this in a while, but all these thoughts came rushing back this morning when I read that in the town of Okuizumo, near the Sea of Japan, folks have their you-know-whats in a knot because one of their local boys made good and decided to gift his home town with some art.  He decided on two of his favorite statues – the Venus di Milo and Michelangelo’s David.  Had a Chinese artist make copies and planted them in the public square. 

Problem is, David isn’t wearing any underpants, and some parents think it just isn’t appropriate for children to see what makes it Michelangelo’s David and not Michelangelo’s Mary Lou, although she would probably not get a free pass, either.

Don’t you love it how people use children as an excuse to run from their own sexual hang-ups?  Even today, Japanese families sleep with their small children and they take baths with them as well.  There may actually be a Japanese child of five somewhere who has never seen the body of a naked adult, but I wouldn’t bet on it.   This complaint has got to be coming from an adult – or a number of adults – who learned his or her lesson from the American occupation all too well.

Prudes have always been around.  In the west, the problem was solved by putting fig leaves over the naughty parts.

It would appear the good folk of Okuizumo have never heard of fig leaves.   I can hear the debate in the city council now.  “I suppose we could put fig leaves over the you know…that place.”

“But then the backside would still be showing.”


Underpants it is.

“Dovunque al mondo…” sings Captain Pinkerton, Madame Butterfly’s American lover.  “Everywhere in the world the American Yankee travels…sinks his anchor at random….”  And takes what he wants.  That was Puccini showing a disdain for American imperialism, spreading American ways for the dubious benefit of the rest of the world.

Wonder what Puccini would have said had he lived to see Pinkerton replaced by American missionaries. 

Same spreading of American values.

Only this time it’s all about underpants.

photo credit

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Sausage Making

The fat lady hasn’t sung yet on the gay marriage vote in Britain, but Her Majesty’s Government has done itself proud to bring the issue to this stage.  Just hours ago, in the House of Commons, 400 members of parliament voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and only 175 MPs voted against.  That is a huge margin.

Opponents are making much of the fact that Prime Minister Cameron’s Conservative Party is badly split, and more conservatives are against change, surprise, surprise, than for it.   That is to say, more than half of the 303 conservatives either voted against it, abstained, or took that delightfully British option of voting for it and against it at the same time. 

Cameron’s neck is on the line.  He’s clearly hoping the support of the majority of Brits, who favor same-sex marriage 55 to 36, will matter more in the long run than those 176 of no, who me?, or yes-and-no votes.

We still have to wait and see what the Lords and Ladies of Britain’s Upper House will have to say.  One hopes now that the Dowager Countess Violet has accepted the marriage of Lady Sybill to the chauffeur, she might persuade her peers that worse things can happen to the institution than to allow others who love each other to do the same.

That debate should be even more interesting.  One blogger predicts they will be persuaded by the large victory in the House of Commons and not want to look like a bunch of “dotty hereditaries wanting to hang and flog the life out of the nation.”  One must not forget, however, how many fine bishops sit in the House of Lords.  They too, even though they are unelected, have a voice. 

What a marvelous age we live in.  I untangle the dogs’ legs, get up from my nap, and tune in to the news online to discover that not only do Britain and France seem to be making rapid progress toward full marriage equality, leaving us colonials in the dust once more, but you can actually watch more than four hours of the actual debate and avoid the laundry entirely for yet another day.  

If you’ve never heard them go at it in the British Parliament, have a look.  There is no better entertainment than this cacaphonous circus making history and alternating between shouts of disapproval and “giving way to the Right Honourable Member” who then gets up and explains why everything just said is balderdash. 

We are in medias res, as I said.  But as I sat there listening to all the MPs go at it, I marvelled at how many were women, at how many different regional accents there were, at how different the whole thing looked since I sat in on a parliamentary debate in 1961 and heard an MP address all of six other male members present, three of whom were asleep, and urge Britain to have their kids start school a little earlier.  Or later.  Can’t remember which, now.

There’s excitement in the air.  A sense that things are moving, that things are getting better.

Hope that’s the case.  In any case, though, have a peek at the debate.  Contrary to what you’ve heard, it can be really good for the democratic soul to see how the sausage is made.

The flag over Parliament picture is from the Huffington Post two hours ago.   They have a fine article on the topic.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Songs my mother taught me

The highlight of my day comes when my partner and I light the candles and sit down to dinner each night.  I try to keep the dogs away from the table.  He sneaks one of them up to sit behind him, as if I couldn’t see her behind his back on the chair, and we talk about his day making labels for food products and my day at the computer obsessing over the latest Republican outrage or example of democratic cowardice.

We talk from time to time of moving into the 21st century and getting some proper music playing devices, but he and I both, frankly, are still happy with our CD collection.  There is always music at dinner.   He usually selects the music.  I put my foot down on Yoko Ono, but go along with Japanese female singers of the 1930s.  Opera usually works.  So do French chansons or Portuguese fado.

But last night he put on Yoshikazu Mera’s CD, Romance.  I didn’t pay any attention because we immediately started talking about the macaroni and cheese he put on the table piping hot from the oven.

We got into an argument.  Well, not really an argument, because I didn’t really have anything to say as he went on about how awful American food could be.  “Look at this thing you call ‘macaroni and cheese,’ for example,” he says. 

It was an exquisite moment of disconnect.  We were on different wave lengths.  He was in one of his Japanese cultural nationalist modes – Why is it the Japanese can take a dish like this and know instinctively to use high grade cheeses and high quality pasta and combine chicken and prawns and make a lovely meal when Americans think they can actually eat the mess they make with melted Kraft cheese on overcooked macaroni!?

The reason I didn’t engage was that I was in another world.  This lovely countertenor voice was singing one of the most haunting pieces of music ever written, Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me.”

The first time I heard it I remember being stopped dead in my tracks by the melancholy.  Was there ever a better illustration of how music can say more than words can?

“It’s not macaroni and cheese, anyway,” Taku was saying.  “It’s “Chicken and Prawn Gratin with noodles.”

Whatever it was, it was a moment of delicious absurdity.  Cheesy noodles.  Cheesy lyrics.

Here’s the original Czech version by Czech poet Adolph Heyduk which Yoshikazu was singing:

Když mne stará matka zpívat, zpívat učívala,
podivno, že často, často slzívala.
A ted' také pláčem snědé líce mučím,
když cigánské děti hrát a zpívat učím!

Which translates:

When my old mother taught me to sing,
it’s strange that often, often she cried.
And now I also torment my swarthy face by weeping
when I teach gypsy children to play and to sing!

Heyduk also wrote a German version without the gypsies:

Als die alte Mutter mich noch lehrte singen,
tränen in den Wimpern gar so oft ihr hingen.
Jetzt, wo ich die Kleinen selber üb im Sange,
rieselt's in den Bart oft, rieselt's oft von der braunen Wange.

Which translates:

When my old mother still taught me to sing
tears often hung on her lashes
Now, when I make the children practice their songs
tears trickle down into my beard, often trickle down from my brown cheeks.

And here’s the English version you see most of the time:

Songs my mother taught me, In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children, each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing, oft they flow from my memory's treasure.

I can’t judge the Czech, although I love the image of “torturing my swarthy cheeks with tears.”  The German version sounds better to me in English translation, while the English version has some awfully inappropriate word choices apparently selected not for image but for rhymability: vanished-banished and measure-treasure.

So apologies to those of you who think this quatrain is good poetry.

I think all you need to hear is the title, and let the music take you from there.


Not cheesy at all.

Yoshikazu Mera singing Songs My Mother Taught Me:

Fritz Kreisler playing Songs My Mother Taught Me:

And Itzhak Perlman, also on violin, with a Marilyn Monroe bonus, if you still want the cheese (and I don't mean Marilyn).

Or, even better, Yo Yo Ma on the cello,

Paul Robeson's beautiful deep baritone version.

Type in Songs my mother taught me on YouTube and you'll see this could go on almost forever.

It's noon, I've been at it since 8 a.m., and I'm only scratching the surface of this obsession.

picture credit