Monday, April 29, 2013

Science, Religion and the Big Bang

Who is the priest standing next to Albert Einstein in the image to the left, and what is he doing next to Einstein? He is Fr. Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest born in 1894, who, although virtually unknown today, will probably one day rank with Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein in the annals of science. Fr. Lemaitre took his doctorate in Physics at MIT, and it was his interest in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity that led him to the idea of the nature and origins of the Universe that now is popularly known as “The Big Bang.”

The accompanying video will give a good introduction to the work of Fr. Lemaitre. I don’t have the ability to go into the details here but will just say that Fr. Lemaitre came up with a solution to a fundamental problem in Einstein’s theory. The solution was based on Einstein’s theory but required a whole new way of looking at the universe. Lemaitre’s solution was originally scoffed at by Einstein but eventually new astronomical observations provided more and more confirmation of Lemaitre’s thesis. 
Basically Einstein accepted the idea of a static universe but Lemaitre argued that the theory of Relativity would fit better with an expanding universe. When astronomers discovered evidence that everything in the universe was moving away from us at an incredible speed, even Einstein had to admit that Lemaitre was correct.

Like most people I had never heard of Fr. Lemaitre even though I had always had an interest in the history of science. Last summer I signed up for a mini course at nearby Fairfield University entitled “God and Modern Biology.” Fairfield University is a Jesuit institution that has always had an interest in the local community. In this instance a Biology professor had received a grant from the Templeton foundation to offer a course on science and religion to members of the local Catholic community. About fifty representatives from Catholic schools and parishes in Fairfield County not only attended the five-week course but also participated in a number of workshops and lectures over the fall and winter.

For myself, I feel that I only scratched the surface when it came to subjects like astro-physics, micro-biology, and evolution. Nevertheless, as part of the course each group was asked to develop a program that we could bring back to our local parish or school that might serve to introduce others to the latest in science.

In our case we decided to look into a four part video series developed by Fr. Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit priest who also holds a doctorate in Astro-Physics. The series is entitled, “In the Beginning: Evidence for God from Physics.” The series is based not only on Fr. Spitzer’s own research but also on his extensive knowledge of the latest peer-reviewed and published scientific studies.

In the first video Fr. Spitzer discusses Fr. Lemaitre’s “Big Bang” theory and the subsequent scientific discoveries that confirmed his original thesis. In the second session Fr. Spitzer discusses the implications of the Big Bang. If the Universe is expanding and not static, it must have started or begun somewhere and sometime, and a beginning requires a creator outside of time and space. This is not just Jesuit theology but according to Fr. Spitzer, the conclusion reached by the latest scientific papers. In the final two sessions Fr. Spitzer goes on to discuss the evidence for the “fine tuning” that scientists are observing throughout the Universe.

In this series Fr. Spitzer concentrates more on science than on theology. He argues that the latest scientific findings not only contradict the assertions of ill informed but popular atheists, but also provide more significant evidence for the existence of a super intelligent Creator than the theological and philosophical theories of the past. Rather than science and reason being opposed to belief, he shows their fundamental compatibility with established beliefs. ###

Monday, April 15, 2013

Pope and Poverty

Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio


I’ve been thinking about writing about the new Pope from Argentina ever since his election a few weeks ago. Despite some carping from typical quarters, Pope Francis I seems to have gotten off to a good start. His choice of name, simplicity of lifestyle, and concern for the poor has elicited worldwide applause.

Nevertheless, I worry that many of his early fans might turn against him when he cannot fulfill all their expectations. No one man can do it all and ever since Vatican II Catholics have been continually reminded that the world’s problems are everyone’s responsibility. It was probably always wrong for the laity to think that everything was up to the clerical leaders of the Church, but in the last few decades it has become increasingly difficult for the ordinary person to say, “why don’t they, meaning the clergy, do something about this or that?”

Still, it is clear that the Pope can play a major role. Pope Francis I has already expressed his belief that the poor should be a major concern of the Church but why should his attitude be a surprise to anyone, or regarded as a step in a new direction?

But how are the poor to be helped? I think some of the early plaudits for the Pope came from those who believe that the Catholic Church has vast financial resources or assets that could be sold or used to benefit the poor. It’s as if they want Michelangelo’s Pieta to be auctioned off and the proceeds used to benefit the needy.  Or, perhaps they believe that chalices and other religious articles should be melted down and sold for cash.
A recent news article in a local newspaper gave front-page attention to the disparity between rich and poor even in the United States. The article focused on the plight of a single mother living with her four young children in low income housing in Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the richest communities in America.

Here is her story in a nutshell. She grew up in a household without her father. She claims that as a young girl she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. She became a rebellious teenager and traveled with a bad crowd. She had a baby out of wedlock at around the age of 15, and when she turned 18 both she and the baby were kicked out of the house by her mother. Since then she has always looked for work and tried to better herself. Somehow, she managed to take classes but ran up a student loan debt of about $25000.
At the same time she found a new boyfriend and they quickly had three more children even though he did not have a good job. Recently she had a fight with the boyfriend and kicked him out of her apartment even though she still claims to love him. It would appear that he has no intention of supporting his children. Of course, they never bothered to marry.

How does she survive? She lives in low income subsidized housing in Greenwich at a cost of $50 per month. It would be difficult for an ordinary person to find a rental in Greenwich for less than $2000 per month. As a resident of Greenwich, her children can attend one of the best school systems in the country at virtually no cost to her, especially since she pays no taxes. She gets about $650 per month in food stamp assistance. She and her children are most likely eligible for free medical care under Medicaid.

Let’s add it up. She gets housing assistance worth about $24000 per year. If her four children had to go to a private school, it would easily cost about $15000 each or $60000 per year. She gets almost $8000 per year for food stamps. A medical insurance plan comparable to Medicaid would easily cost over $10000 per year for a family her size.

I’m not blaming this young woman or others in similar situations. She has had a hard life and with little apparent guidance or assistance. In fact, she seems always to have looked for work, and she certainly had the smarts to find housing in Greenwich, a choice she made so that her children could grow up in a community largely free of crime and drugs.

But how is the Pope or any other religious leader to help her? She certainly could use more income but it would appear that more than anything else she could have benefitted from some spiritual or moral guidance during her lifetime. Did anyone ever tell her that bedding down with a man who lacked both the will and the skill to support a family was a bad idea?

More than a dispenser of alms the Pope has to be a spiritual and moral leader. One of the things that I have found most objectionable about the press coverage of the new Pope is the way in which his election is being used as a kind of slap at his two predecessors, John Paul II and the recently retired Benedict XVI. By implication, it would appear as if they did little to help the poor.
If that is the case, why are the fastest growing and most dynamic parts of the Catholic Church found in the poorest areas of the world? Why, for example, is Catholicism growing by leaps and bounds in Africa despite often vicious persecution? Maybe the poor of the world, who are not so fortunate as to live in Greenwich Connecticut, have looked to the previous Popes as liberators. It can be argued that by his efforts to bring freedom to his native land of Poland, Pope John Paul Ii did more for the world’s poor that any Pope in history.

Just go to this link and view the Polish company of Les Miserable performing “One More Day” in a Warsaw mall that looks like it could be the Mall of America. Before the Pope’s initiative, Poland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Maybe the people at the Mall turned out to be a little more materialistic than the Pope might have desired, but they are no longer poor. Video can also be viewed below.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Local Budget Blues

We are now in budget season. From the Federal government and the fifty states down to the smallest municipality budgets are being proposed and adopted. Unlike the Federal government states and municipalities have to present a balanced budget each year.

The budget process in my home town of Fairfield is probably typical of what is going on all over the country.    

A recent edition of a local newspaper carried Fairfield First Selectman Mike Tetreau’s letter to the town about the proposed budget that features more than a 6% increase. Tetreau pointed out the relevant issues but noted that there will be “substantial changes to the original budget proposal,” and urged all residents to be involved in the process.

In the same paper a letter writer castigated the Fairfield Taxpayer Association for failing to come up with any meaningful ways to cut taxes, and urged that the proposed budget be accepted “unless Fairfield Taxpayer or other well-intentioned individuals can come to the table with palatable cuts.”

I’m not a member of the Taxpayer Association but as a well-intentioned taxpayer, I would like to offer some suggestions. In the first place, I would like to discuss the method of arriving at a budget proposal. I question the argument that it should be up to the Taxpayer Association or well-intentioned individuals to do more than complain about a 6% increase in taxes. At that rate everyone’s taxes will double in the next 12 years.

Budget cuts should be the responsibility of the town government but experience has shown that government’s never cut their budgets from one year to the next. No department chief would ever submit a budget decrease. It is more likely that even if they won’t need more money, they will ask for more so that their boss can get credit for trimming the budget. 

At the same time our elected town representatives on the RTM (Representative Town Meeting) rarely have the time or the expertise to deal with complicated budget issues. After all, they are unpaid volunteers who spend hours and hours away from their own jobs and families to attend interminable meetings. Moreover, as a recent public meeting has shown, they are caught in the middle between angry taxpayers and parents alarmed by potential school budget cuts.

However, a possible solution appeared in another recent news item. It was recently announced that a Stamford Superior Court had just entered a $2.88 million judgment in favor of the Town of Fairfield against Maxam Capital Management of Darien, an investment advisor who had placed town retirement funds with the now infamous Bernard Madoff. This was the last of the town’s Madoff related lawsuits and First Selectman Tetreau announced that all the town’s lost retirement funds, over $15.4 million, had now been recovered.

Actually, only 80% of that figure was recovered since 20% or $3 million had gone to pay attorney fees and litigation costs. For the moment, we will leave aside the question of why the Town’s officials initially handed over the money to Maxam and paid it 3% each year just to hand the money over to Madoff. Let’s just say that the Town made a good decision to pay 20% to the lawyers in order to recover the 80%.

I suggest that these or other lawyers and accountants also be hired on a contingency basis to review the budget and that we pay them 20% of cost savings that they come up with. The Town’s proposed budget called for a $15 million increase. It’s hard to believe that a team of lawyers and accountants working for a 20% contingency fee wouldn’t be able to make a substantial dent not only in the increase but also in the total budget.

Here is how things turned out in Fairfield. Predictably, in subsequent announcements First Selectman Tetreau indicated that he had found a way to lower the budget increase to 4.8%. Then he and the other Selectmen approved a budget with less than a 4% increase, and sent it to the Representative Town Meeting for approval. Sure enough, the local newspaper headlined that the Selectman had cut the budget even though he had merely trimmed the inflated increase. 

The Town has also apparently taken a significant step in the new policemen’s contract and adjusted the formula for calculating police pensions. If the initial report can be believed, a police officer will now retire on 70% of final pay and not the former 80%. This tweaking of the benefit formula can save millions in the long run.

Yet, there are many other questions. Why are firemen and policemen able to retire on a pension based on final year’s pay when every one else in town retires on Social Security where the benefit formula is based on a worker’s average pay over 30 Years? Why does the town provide pension benefits for salaries over $100000 per year? Employees making more than that should be able to supplement their pensions on their own. Social Security benefits are only based on income up to a cap of around $100000.