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Catalonia and the Splintering of Europe

Secession is something of a dirty word in these parts.

My readers know that the United States dealt rather dramatically and thoroughly with the question of secession during the Civil War in the 19th century, meaning that the issue of whether a country could break apart is something which does not often cross our minds on this side of the Atlantic.  True, our media has done a great deal of reporting on the occupation of Crimea by Russia, but mainly because that action raises a number of strategic concerns for this country.  Somewhat less attention has been paid to the question of independence for Scotland, although it is reported on from time to time for the two-fold reason that the people there speak English, and Americans are fascinated by just about anything that goes on in Britain.

However in other parts of Europe, the possibility of break-up is being actively considered, yet remains outside the common knowledge of most Americans.  Consider the recent referendum in Venice for example, on whether to leave Italy and become an independent republic again, as it was before Italian unification in the 19th century.  The story received scant attention on these shores, but the referendum passed with a staggering 89% of the vote, accompanied by a huge turn-out: of the 3.7 million eligible voters, approximately 2.4 million voters took part, and of those over 2.1 million people voted in favor of declaring independence from Italy. Another example is the question of independence for Catalonia, an issue which is now starting to come to a head, but which is not being analyzed very much in American news outlets either.

As the reader may know, if he is a regular visitor to these pages, Catalonia is the northeastern region of Spain along the Mediterranean, of which Barcelona is the capital.  The Catalan people have their own separate language, flag, and culture, distinct from the rest of Spain, a fact which, at various points over the past few centuries, has caused them to try to gain independence.  Economically speaking, Catalonia is one of the most powerful of Spain’s 17 component regions, producing between 1/4 and 1/5 of the entire output of the Spanish national economy, depending on whose figures you believe.

Because of this, Catalan yearning for international cultural recognition has, in recent years, been joined with something resembling economic libertarianism.  The perception, rightly or wrongly, among the Catalans that they are paying far more into the central Spanish economy than they are getting out of it, has fostered a widespread call for less centralized control by Madrid.  This development of a greater desire for self-determination based on economic policy, not just cultural preservation, has appealed to a broad swath of Catalan voters, and led to an upcoming referendum which could lead to Catalonia declaring independence from Spain…or maybe not.

Back in January of 2013, the Catalan Parliament adopted a resolution that Catalonia had a right to hold a vote on whether to declare independence from Spain, as a sovereign legal and political entity.  This was temporarily suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court in Madrid in May 2013, pending judicial ruling on the matter.  The resolution was rejected yesterday by the court, declaring that “within the framework of the constitution, a region cannot unilaterally convoke a referendum on self-determination to decide on its integration with Spain.”

While this was making its way through the legal system last year, the major Catalan political parties did not wait to see what Madrid would decide.  In December 2013, the Catalan government announced that a referendum would be held on November 9, 2014, in which two questions would be placed before the electorate.  First, voters would be asked whether they wanted to declare Catalonia a state; if so, the voters would then be asked whether that state should be independent of Spain.  The central government in Madrid has already declared that any such vote would be illegal under the Spanish Constitution, a position strengthened by yesterday’s court ruling.

Keep in mind, there are two very important differences with respect to the way the Scottish and the Catalan independence referenda are proceeding.  In the case of Scotland, the vote will only ask one question: whether Scotland should be an independent country.  In Catalonia, the two-part question means that, in theory, a majority of voters could declare that Catalonia is a state, rather than simply a province or a region, and yet those voters could also decide that they do not want to be independent of Spain.  Additionally, while the Scottish vote is taking place with the blessing – if not the approval – of the British government, the Catalan vote, if it happens at all, clearly will have no such approval nor be recognized, whatever the outcome.

Yet interestingly enough, Tuesday’s ruling may not prove to be a defeat for the Catalan referendum after all.  Not only was this court result expected, but it may actually galvanize Catalan voters to go ahead with their vote anyway, in defiance of Madrid.  If it does, Catalonia may be betting on the fact that the current Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and the conservative Partido Popular which he heads, are now unpopular.  The Spanish economy remains something of a basket case, with around 26% of Spaniards still unemployed, and economic growth this year predicted to be only around 1.2%, according to figures released today by the Bank of Spain.

Given that Spain has been in the economic doldrums for several years, this growth rate is actually comparatively good news, but it is not winning Sr. Rajoy or his party many votes.  Recent polls suggest that in the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections in May, the Partido Popular is likely to lose to the Socialists and other leftist groups.  And since national elections must take place in Spain in 2015, Catalonia may be betting that Sr. Rajoy will not want to risk being seen ordering the police or armed forces to arrest and prosecute those trying to organize the referendum.

Of course, if Catalonia decides that it is a state within a state, this may prove almost more confusing within Spain’s patchwork system of government than if it simply declared independence.  Unlike the United States or Germany, Spain does not have a federal system of government, with a clear division of powers between the various state governments and the national government.  Rather, individual relationships were negotiated between the central government in Madrid, and the component regions of the country, which over the years have occasionally been re-visited and renegotiated.

Thus, even if full-on independence does not pass in Catalonia, Spain could be looking at a major constitutional crisis.  Other wealthy, culturally and linguistically separatist regions in the north of Spain, such as the Basques or Galicia, could decide that they, too, want to hold such referenda.  Some might want to stay within Spain; others might go for full-on independence.  The end result could be an evisceration of the Spanish Constitution, something which Madrid absolutely does not want.

In a wider European context, Brussels is clearly concerned about what the fracturing of nation-states means for the future of the European Union.  Paradoxically, it is the greater degree of self-determination brought about by membership in the EU which has helped to bring about these resurgent independence movements, but there is no guarantee that a newly independent Catalonia, Venice, or Scotland would be permitted to join the EU.  Their “parent” states could indefinitely prevent their accession, for example.  These would not be friendly annulments, as occurred in the breakup of Czechoslovakia, nor bloody, drawn-out divorces, as occurred in Yugoslavia, but something altogether new, which Brussels will have a very difficult time dealing with.

Stay tuned.

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona September 11, 2012

Pro-Independence Rally in Downtown Barcelona
September 11, 2012

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The Servant of All, or of None: Why Kathleen Sebelius Must Go

This morning when the alarm clock radio went off, as is often the case the first thing I heard was not the classical music for which I listen to this particular radio station, but rather a summary of news headlines from NPR.  The second of these headlines included an audio clip from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who was defending herself against calls for her resignation as a result of the thus-far tortured attempts to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.  Rarely do I sit bolt upright in bed because of something I hear on the news, but in this case it would have been difficult to do otherwise.

“The majority of people calling for me to resign,” Secretary Sebelius commented at a press conference, “I would say are people who I don’t work for. And who do not want this program to work in the first place.”  You can watch Secretary Sebelius actually making this comment by following this link.

Sometimes one can almost audibly hear someone’s career hitting the skids, and this is one of those moments.

Over the course of her service in both elected and appointed government office, Secretary Sebelius has done many things which those of a different political persuasion from hers have taken issue with.  That of course is the nature of politics, and indeed of representative democracy.  She has also taken on a rather antipathetic view of her own Catholic faith, a view which she appears to value more than the fraternal correction she has received on numerous occasions from many of her fellow Catholics, including her own bishop.  One can debate whether and to what extent an individual’s religious beliefs become relevant to their place in the public square, or the obligation of public officials who are Catholics to adhere to the tenets of their faith.  I will leave that to those more adept than I at addressing such matters, and refer you for example to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s superbly-written book on this subject, “Render Unto Caesar”.

However in this case we are no longer dealing only with someone who has headed off in a policy direction which runs counter to and in fact openly attacks the institutions of her own faith, but someone who does not appear to understand the basic principles of civics, as practiced in the United States.  For as any reasonable American must acknowledge, regardless of their political affiliation, a public servant is the servant of all.  Secretary Sebelius is not simply the employee of the person who appointed her to the position which she presently holds, or of the political party which she happens to belong to, or of those who happen to agree with the policies she is attempting to implement.  She is, whether she likes it or not, here to serve all of us.

It cannot be that we simply accept or ignore the revelation that someone who was appointed to serve all of the people of this country equally has concluded that, in fact, she must only serve those whom she personally prefers.  This is not simply bad governance, it is the very definition of arrogance.  It betrays what is clearly a deeply-held, personal belief, spoken perhaps without thought as to its implications, but nevertheless revealing of the philosophical principles of the speaker,  that to be a public servant is to be selective in one’s servitude.

Our American system of government cannot function when our public servants are only capable of serving those whose views mirror their own.  So when a public servant of the people of the United States cannot come to grips with that fundamental concept, then that servant must either step down or be dismissed.  There are no two ways about it.

Whatever happens with respect to the implementation of Obamacare, clearly Secretary Sebelius has revealed by her own words that she is personally incapable of continuing to serve all of the American people effectively.  If she cannot serve all of us, then she should not be permitted to serve any of us.  And for her own sake, as a fellow Catholic, I hope that when she does leave, as she now must, she will take the time to reflect on what she has done during her time in office, not only with respect to the principles of civil governance, but particularly with regard to the Church to which she belongs.  Let us hope that her replacement, whoever that will be, will be more willing and able to serve the people of this country effectively and professionally.

HHS

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On That Whole Church-and-State Thing

Yesterday was the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy, the Patroness of the city of Barcelona.  It is the largest festival held in the city each year, including concerts, fireworks, and so on.  The official ecclesiastical portion of the celebrations centers around the baroque Basilica which houses the statue of La Mercè, as she is known.  On September 24th, a mass in honor of the Blessed Mother is celebrated at the basilica, to which dignitaries and officials are invited, including the members of the Barcelona City Council.

This year Councilman Jordi Marti Grau, head of the socialist bloc on the Barcelona City Council, refused to attend the mass.  On Monday he issued a statement saying he would not attend because he finds the custom “anachronistic”, and was offended by the display of “allegiance to the Church” represented by the City Council in attending the annual service.  At the reception held at City Hall following the mass, which Mr. Marti naturally attended – no leftist will turn down free food at taxpayer expense, whatever their anticlerical opinions – Mr. Marti said his party intends to lobby to change the nature of the present ceremony honoring Our Lady to something that is more appropriate “to a secular society and a secular state. ”  You can read Mr. Marti’s entire statement regarding this issue on his blog.

What is interesting about his view, much as I loathe Spanish socialism in all its forms, is that he has a point.  In this country we would not have to raise the issue of whether it would be appropriate or not for government to become involved in a religious ceremony.  Let me give you an example from American civic life by way of contrast.

The annual Red Mass for the opening of the Supreme Court’s term is coming up on Sunday, October 6th at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington, DC.  Several of the Justices of the Supreme Court will likely be in attendance, as will members of Congress and the Cabinet.  This is not a compulsory event, but rather a tradition in which jurists and members of the government are invited to gather together to pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in their actions over the course of their working year.

Inevitably there are a few complaints about officials attending such a mass, usually from those who also want to see us drop  “In God we trust” from our currency, so that we can worship someone with inferior intellectual credentials to the Almighty, such as Richard Dawkins.  However in general the American people seem to understand that something like the Red Mass is simply an event, which those invited may choose to attend or not attend as they see fit.  For example Justice Elena Kagan attended the mass last year, while she did not attend the year before; Justice Samuel Alito did not attend last year, but he did attend the year before.

As is the case with much of Spain, for Catalonia at least at present is still legally a part of that country, the festival surrounding Our Lady of Mercy is largely more secular than religious in nature these days.  There is little popular interest in taking part in masses or processions, and more in shopping, becoming publicly intoxicated, and doing rude things in alleyways. The collapse of Christianity throughout Spain has taken place at an astonishing pace over the past 30-odd years since the death of General Franco.

Yet because Spain has always been and remains a majority Catholic country, even if in most instances in name only, these festivals and celebrations dating from a time when there was greater religious faith, or at least more social pressure to pretend that one did have faith, have remained in place even while belief and practice have declined.  In America we do not have any religious holidays on our federal, state, or local government calendars which would cause the services provided by government to be shut down for the day, apart from Christmas.  Though some could persuasively argue that the celebration of Christmas in the U.S. has not been related to Christ for quite some time now.

This of course begs the question, “Whose holiday is it, anyway?”

Mr. Marti argues that there should be a more secular celebration of the mass, which is a rather obvious red herring, since one cannot actually have a valid Catholic mass which is secular in nature.  It would be like asking a zebra to turn itself into a cow.  Rather, Mr. Marti simply intends to force the city into a public affairs nightmare which will cause it to disassociate itself from the Church.  Since there is no way that the Archdiocese would agree to hold some sort of secular mass for the Feast of Our Lady at the Basilica, Mr. Marti will then pressure the city to not attend in an official capacity.  And in a city as generally left-wing and anticlerical as Barcelona, he will find a great deal of support toward achieving his goal.

The irony of this controversy is that in the U.S., even those of us who, like myself, happen to be rather conservative, can understand and appreciate why government needs to be careful about being too close to religion.  Most of the time we do not seem to have a problem with the President or a governor or senator attending a religious service, largely because we have such a wide host of religions, denominations, and sects represented within our population, which of course Spain does not.  Nor do most reasonable Americans take the view that even the concept of the Deity must be removed entirely from the public square.

It does go to show, however, that the generally rather peaceful separation of Church and State which we enjoy in this country is not something which is a part of public life in many others, including those with democratic forms of government.  In the case of Mr. Marti, who is more interested in becoming mayor someday than in anything else, he picks on the Church because he can.  Like his political ancestors who within living memory did things like dig up the corpses of dead nuns and take them out into the streets to shoot at them, Spanish leftists find Catholic institutions an easy target because they tend not to be able to fight back anymore.  Yet even putting that aside, one does have to consider, in a country which is largely no longer Christian, whether Mr. Marti has a valid point about changing the participation of government officials in religious events from official to unofficial status.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cardinal Sistach (center) celebrating mass at the
Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona

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The Presidency: Knowing When to Say When

Presidents Day is coming up here in the U.S. on Monday, and while these days there really are not any traditions to speak of for this holiday, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the limitations of that office.  Technically the holiday is the official celebration of the birthday of George Washington.  However its proximity to the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, not to mention laziness in both academia and in the popular press, has turned it into a day when we celebrate all of the U.S. Presidents.  Thanks to our incessant need for advertising of course, we are being bombarded this long weekend with images of Washington, Lincoln, and others – even non-Presidents like Benjamin Franklin – trying to sell us cars, bed linens, and so on.

That being said, Washington himself is someone for whom all Americans ought to be deeply grateful to Providence, particularly when we look at how the office of Prime Minister or President in other countries can lead to the implementation of policies completely at odds with the will of the people whom they govern.  Cousin George (he is a distant relation) did not make himself a king by setting up an American monarchy and accompanying aristocracy, even though he was certainly popular enough to do so.  Nor did he cling to power once he achieved it, but instead reluctantly served two terms and stepped down, leaving the office to his political successors rather than to his relations.

Yet historically speaking, our Presidents have not always known when to reign themselves in; we see occasions throughout our history when they have become drunk on power and their own opinion of themselves.  One reason why we have two-term limits for Presidents today for example, is because of the inability of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to cede power.  We are often told that thanks to Roosevelt’s inspiration, America got through the Great Depression and World War II, and no doubt he must be remembered for that service.  Yet we should also be aware that he was incredibly power-hungry, as we learned from his breath-taking attempts to bend the Supreme Court to his will.

In the 1930′s when FDR and his brain trust came up with sweeping legislation to get Americans to work and to create the foundations of the social welfare system, to his fury he found that lawsuits were being brought against some aspects of his plans, challenging their constitutionality.  Upset that conservatives on the Supreme Court were determining aspects of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to be unconstitutional, Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed him to pack the Supreme Court with his own appointees, in order to pursue his agenda.  You can learn more about this often-forgotten chapter of American history in Jeff Shesol’s fascinating book, “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court”.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis – certainly not the most conservative of jurists – reacted to the news that FDR was going to attempt to manipulate the Supreme Court with the kind of gravitas with which the old look at the impatient, doomed-to-failure plans of those younger and more foolish than themselves.  On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt sent attorney Thomas Corcoran to hand-deliver a press release to Brandeis before the proverbial poo hit the fan, as Shesol describes:

The president has sent me, Corcoran said. He handed Brandeis a press release. If there had been any way to exclude you from the plan, Corcoran continued, the president would have done so; no offense was intended. Brandeis scrutinized the release, was silent for a moment, then looked up. He asked Corcoran to thank the president for the courtesy. But “tell your president,” Brandeis said gravely, “he has made a great mistake. All he had to do was wait a little while. I’m sorry for him.” Corcoran wondered what Brandeis meant by “wait,” but lacked the nerve to ask. With that, Brandeis shook the young man’s hand and passed through the red velvet curtain.

Fortunately for all of us Roosevelt’s plans eventually fell apart, and after he died during his fourth term in office, Americans had the common sense to pass legislation preventing a President from staying in power again for so long, in so doing looking back to the example of Washington for inspiration.

So as we near George Washington’s official birthday celebration, we Americans can still hope that the tension between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government will provide at least the possibility for compromise, and also for prevent those in power from riding roughshod over the will of the people.  Unlike in countries such as Britain, France, and Russia, the head of the ruling political party in the United States does not always get his way.  And that, in my view at least, is a very good thing indeed, as no doubt Washington himself would agree.

George

Detail of “Portrait of George Washington” by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1823)
The White House

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Tonight’s Do-Not-Miss Event in Washington: “The Final Gladness”

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area, then I urge you to put this on your calendar for tonight, even if it means leaving work or class a little bit early. For today at 5:00 pm in Gaston Hall, Georgetown University government professor James V. Schall, S.J. will be delivering his final lecture before retirement.  All that we know at this point is its title: “The Final Gladness” – and to be honest, even if we did not have that title, I would still urge those of you who are in the Washington metropolitan region to make an effort to attend, and hear what this great mind is going to share with us.

Father Schall earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy at Georgetown in 1960, and has been one of the great intellects of the university ever since.  The author of more than 30 books, as well as a contributor to many others, for decades he has been a voice of reason and common sense both in the United States and around the world.  His articles and essays have appeared in publications such as the National Review, Economist, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, L’Osservatore Romano, Christian Science Monitor, First Things, Crisis, Commentary, and so many, MANY others, that one is humbled by both the quantity and quality of his output.

Even if you are not a Catholic, chances are you have read Father Schall’s writing somewhere, if you have studied politics or current events beyond the mind-numbingly pedestrian, screaming-as-analysis sort of nonsense that tends takes place these days in certain quarters, both left and right.  He has seen it all, over the past fifty years, and has been a part of the national conversation long before many of my readers were even born.  His calm witness to classical principles, from the virtues of the classical academy to the benefits of a sensibly governed democracy, is no less sharp and insightful now, in his mid-80′s, as our country’s future hangs rather precariously in the balance.

For example, the reader may recall that in April of this year, Congressman Paul Ryan came to speak at Georgetown about the budget battle and the philosophical underpinnings of each side, left and right, with respect to the role of government in out lives.  As it happens, that lecture was given in the very same hall where Father Schall will deliver his final lecture this evening.  The reader may recall that a number of the leftist faculty on campus turned out to criticize Congressman Ryan, even before he made his speech to the faculty and students.

Father Schall was, very decidedly, not among these.  In his review of Congressman Ryan’s speech, Father Schall pointed out that the present Administration appears more and more interested in taking control over the wealth of others, in order to foster greater dependency upon the government:

This accumulation of wealth gives government huge power over citizens who are increasingly dependent on it. They are increasingly afraid to oppose its growth for fear that they will be cut out of societal benefits. Indeed, there is considerable speculation that this growing dependence of more and more citizens on the government is precisely what many politicians, bureaucrats, and other interested parties want. This leaves a mass of voters who do not dare oppose the state but who demand more and more for themselves.

He went on to observe how our increasing dependence on the government as the provider of goodies for all is not going to make our country wealthier and thereby better-able to take care of the poor; instead, the reverse will happen:

The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The only way for the poor to hope to increase their wealth is for the economy itself to grow as a result of their own endeavors. This is the classic notion that we must allow reward and incentive to flourish. If we take these away, no one will do anything to help himself. Everyone will become more dependent on a government increasingly willing to claim that it is itself the solution. Americans once knew this approach of the all-caring government was, to put it mildly, counter-productive and even dangerous.

In his personal philosophy of education, Father Schall has always been decidedly opposed to the idea that the university is nothing but an over-priced trade school.  Rather, in the Platonic tradition of the Academy, it is a place where minds go to be formed, away from the influences of the outside world, so that they can come to understand what is true.  He has often pointed out that more learning can arise from a good conversation in a pub, asking questions and challenging notions, than in simply memorizing and regurgitating facts in order to get a high mark in a class, and thereafter a high-paying job.

In an interview he gave recently, Father Schall pointed out that many universities, including Georgetown, have abandoned the idea of what the university is supposed to be, becoming “resumé universities” in pursuit of the almighty dollar, rather than classical universities in pursuit of truth:

“Resumé universities have students who focus on their internships, their extracurricular activities, their sports. What’s behind them is the notion that education is more than just knowing, but that detracts from the purpose of a university,” he said. “You can’t be a student if you’re doing 30 hours a week of something else.”  Schall maintains that students should remain actively involved in their educations whenever not in class. “Of course you can do nothing if you want, but you have the time to be free to be thinking about things,” he said.

Whether you have long admired Father Schall’s work, or whether you are now reading it for the first time, this is an event not to be missed.  Although Gaston Hall seats around 600 people, I suspect that it is going to be packed to the rafters with people who will want to hear Father Schall’s last public address to the Georgetown community.  Again, if you are in the Washington area this evening, I urge you: do not miss this opportunity to wish this very great man well, as he leaves the active teaching life to prepare for what comes next.

Schall

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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