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It’s Pansy Time!

Today, March 31, is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 83.

This is also Wednesday in Holy Week. Some years her birthday fell on Easter Sunday. (Some years my birthday is the Day of Pentecost.)

But today is also the day I planted tomatoes—far earlier than ever before.

The rule of thumb with tomatoes is that the safest time to plant is after the last possibility of frost has passed. Around here, that’s approximately Mother’s Day, the 2nd Sunday in May.

Pansies can be planted as soon as they appear in stores; they like cold weather. So mine are now in. I bought yellow ones this year for my planters on the front porch. I usually mix colors but not this year.

I fantasize that tomorrow the mailman will come by and think, “Well, he’s got his pansies in.” I imagine this every year, because I get such a kick out of planting my annual flowers. I want someone to notice them!

The lady across the street has a nice window box. I used to admire and envy it, until I realized she sticks in plastic flowers and calls it a day. No watering that way, I guess.

While I’m excited about the pansies, I’m really psyched about the tomatoes. They’re my favorite food, and nothing tastes better than a homegrown tomato. The ideal way to eat them is out in the garden with a salt shaker, and juice running down your chin.

I may lose this crop; there’s a reason the experts say to wait. When I bought this house six years ago in May and planted my first tomatoes, my friend Mark came down from Chicago to help with a couple of tasks, and told me he’d lost his tomato plants a few days earlier. Frost got them, of course. “What’s up with that?” he asked.

I was so eager to learn how to grow a tomato that I let my mind get spooked by what happened to his. So for the past five years I’ve faithfully waited until all danger was past.

I have now repealed that law, for several reasons. First, the eight plants I stuck in the ground today cost me all of $2.78. If I have to replace them I won’t go bankrupt, so it’s time I got over my anxiety. Second, last year’s experience was not good. We had a cool, wet summer and the tomatoes took forever to ripen; I didn’t get any till August, and mine were earlier than some of my neighbors’.

Third, my pal Peter visited me in May last year, and helped stake up my plants. I felt terrible about it, because I started later than normal; he’s from Amsterdam, and I would so have liked to be able to feed him some of my own produce. God knows he’s heard me rave about my tomatoes this whole time. But there we were, trying to coax along a few forlorn-looking plants that he wouldn’t have a chance to enjoy unless he stayed all summer. He did get to eat some local sweet corn, and marveled that here in the exotic Midwest, we actually eat it off the cob! He probably included this bizarre factoid when he inflicted his Travels in America slide show on his parents once he got home. “What’s next,” they must have wondered, “do they wear grass skirts?”

The bottom line for me is this. As soon as Murphy’s has plants for sale, buy them and stick them in the ground. I may lose a few but so what; God made more. The gardening industry knows when to put plants on sale for a particular market; doubtless Wal-Mart has elaborate data on when to offer what at all ten gazillion stores.

Since I am going to spend every day this spring and summer checking to see if I’ve got a tomato yet, I want my juicies sooner, not later. (I’m not sophisticated enough to do grow-lights in the basement, the way the hardcore tomato people do. And I can’t afford to build a greenhouse off the kitchen.)

It was 78º today in Chicago; we may have hit 80 here, the ideal temperature for planting. Yes, it will get colder, but I’ll keep my eye peeled for frost warnings and buy a newspaper to cover up my crop. It’s worth the risk.

Tomatoes are one of the best foods a person can eat. Here are some nutrition facts from learninginfo.org.

The tomato not only thrills the taste buds and brightens the dinner table, it also helps fight disease.

A review of 72 different studies showed consistently that the more tomatoes and tomato products people eat, the lower their risks of many different kinds of cancer. The secret may lie in lycopene, the chemical that makes tomatoes red, said Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among the studies he reviewed, 57 showed that the more tomatoes one ate, the lower the risk of cancer. “The evidence for benefit was strongest for cancers of the prostate, lung, and stomach,” he reported.

Processed tomatoes (e.g. canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, ketchup) contain even more lycopene because cooking breaks down cell walls, releasing and concentrating carotenoids. Eating tomatoes with a small amount of fat enables lycopene to be better absorbed.

Even though eight plants is a lot for one person, there’s no such thing as too many tomatoes. I freeze them, I can them, I give them away; I can even sell my surplus back to Murphy’s. I could start my own farmer’s market!

My chives are coming back; I’ve harvested some already. The oregano is growing, too. Last week I planted onion sets as soon as I saw them at the grocery store. (Then I had to contend with my dog Luke, who naturally assumed that where I get to dig, he gets to dig too.)

My tulips, including some from Peter, are about 8 inches high; the crocuses are in bloom. The lilac bush is leafing out and will bloom in May. A few of the irises have sprouted, but they did very badly last year and I may have to replace them. The daylilies have new shoots. So far I can’t see any activity among the hostas, nor anything from the lilies-of-the-valley I planted last fall under the maple tree. But everything is coming along as it should; God, do I love spring.

And I haven’t even mentioned that the Butler Bulldogs are in the Final Four!

Butler's regional championship last week.

You know what I’m going to be doing Saturday, and it’s not thinking religious thoughts. The Easter Vigil begins at 6pm my time, but Butler tips off against Michigan State at 5:07. I’ll be going to church, all right, but not at Good Shepherd. Mass can wait until Sunday when there isn’t any basketball. I mean, first things first.++

Coach Brad Stevens of Butler.

Catholic Abuse Scandal: The Problem Is the System

Speculation is beginning that the pope will be forced to resign.

There is a great deal to admire about the Roman Catholic Church: its theology, liturgy, advocacy for the poor and provision of social and health services. None of these are Rome’s exclusive products, far from it, but in most of its public works the Church behaves impeccably.

So why does it find itself caught up in worldwide scandal (again)?

The problem—the scandal, the shame and crime of the Church—is located in its system of governance.

It’s your basic dictatorship, and in that sense is not much different from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Castro’s Cuba.

Wikipedia offers a definition of totalitarianism:

Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state, usually under the control of a single political organization, faction, or class domination, recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible.[2] Totalitarianism is generally characterised by the coincidence of authoritarianism (i.e., where ordinary citizens have no significant share in state decision-making) and ideology (i.e., a pervasive scheme of values promulgated by institutional means to direct the most significant aspects of public and private life)[3].

Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of state terrorism.

In Lord Acton’s famous quotation, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is no reason this should be different in the Church than in any other human institution.

In the present widespread, international pedophile crisis, the Church has chosen coverup and conspiracy over the needs and rights of innocent children because telling the truth would tend to undermine the Church’s power. The Church has tried to suppress scandal, thus causing much more scandal.

It’s always done this, so there’s no reason anyone should be surprised.

When you have a strongman at the top of a hierarchy, he and his underlings will do anything necessary to maintain his position. Mao did, Stalin did and so do the popes.

The Vatican, like North Korea, encourages a cult of personality of its Great Leader.

The antidote to all this is called democracy—power to the people and all that.

If you ask average American Catholics, clergy or lay, why they put up with Church dictatorship, they invariably reply, “The people are the Church. The hierarchy isn’t the Church.” They’re right, but it’s a little too convenient; formulaic buck-passing as if ordinary Christians bear no responsibility for crimes committed in their name.

But indeed, the people in the pews are responsible. They can blame the system all they want, but indeed they have power and always have had. They just shirk their responsibility, live in denial, blame the hierarchy and worship Jesus while plugging their ears.

They’re the only ones who can change their Church. And the only way to do it is to take responsibility for it—to depose those in power and create mechanisms to limit future office-holders.

Do they want to do this? No. But the net result is catastrophic; more innocents victimized and countless millions who turn away from the Church in disgust.

The independent National Catholic Reporter asks this week in an editorial:

“The focus now is on Benedict. What did he know? When did he know it? How did he act once he knew?”

The stakes are high; the NCR knows it:

“We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history. How this crisis is handled by Benedict, what he says and does, how he responds and what remedies he seeks, will likely determine the future health of our church for decades, if not centuries, to come.

It is as foolish to believe that the pope will institute reforms as it is to think that Kim Jong Il will someday see the light. They have to be forced; and as long as today’s Catholics are willing to put up with totalitarianism, nothing much will change.

Secrecy. Child abuse. A criminal syndicate. Blaming the victims. “The Supreme Leader is infallible.” Propaganda. The cult of personality. All decisions made by Rome. No questions asked or tolerated. “God has ordained it this way forever.”

The problem isn’t clerical celibacy, foolish though that is, or the all-male priesthood, so that women have no power; the problem is dictatorship, with all the lying and thieving that goes on because of it.

The divine right of kings doesn’t work anymore; five hundred years ago people noticed that kills people. But Catholics still yammer on about their “Holy Father” as if life stopped in the 1500s.

In my church if something goes wrong, we throw the bums out.

In my church we elect our local pastors, bishops and archbishops. The whole church has to ratify bishops’ elections. If they don’t perform we get rid of them; this isn’t rocket science.

Catholics have been way too passive, gullible and irresponsible. If they don’t force democratic changes on the hierarchy, they’ll continue to get children victimized by criminals. Subsequent generations will reject Jesus as the symbol of a scam, not the Savior of the world.

I wouldn’t want all that on my conscience, but Catholics don’t seem to mind.

Jesus was infallible; popes are not. Jesus rose from the dead; popes, like all the rest of us, need major help with that.

Laypeople: limit the pope’s power or cover your own head in shame. You are responsible, and don’t be surprised if God holds you to it on the day of judgment.++

Fra Angelico: Last Judgment

Abuses Cases Show Vatican’s “International Criminal Conspiracy,” Lawyer Says

And Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s right in the thick of it.

Germany’s going through a public convulsion these days as news of sexual abuse by Catholic priests has finally hit the fatherland.

It’s not just America and Ireland any more. Did anyone think the scandal would stop at the border?

A pedophile priest in the Munich archdiocese underwent “treatment” there in 1980 while Benedict was archbishop. After two years the priest was transferred to the nearby town of Grafing, where he was accused of molesting kids in 1985 and convicted the next year.

Benedict’s vicar general while he was in Munich has apparently volunteered to be the Fall Guy. He made the decision to allow the transfer, he says, and Benedict didn’t know a thing about it.

Do you believe that? The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests doesn’t.

Nicole Winfield of Associated Press reported March 13:

“We find it extraordinarily hard to believe that Ratzinger didn’t reassign the predator, or know about the reassignment,” said Barbara Blaine, president and founder of SNAP.

Imagine: you’re the regional vice president of a $50 million-a-year business and one of your district managers gets accused of heinous crimes against children. Do you hustle him out of sight so he can see a doctor, or fire his ass?

If you chose to get him to a doctor, do you allow your chief deputy to handle everything without ever reporting back to you? Do you allow your deputy to get the man rehired as a district manager in an adjacent region? Munich to Grafing is 25 miles away, but in a different diocese.

As archbishop your job is to be a control freak. You’re so good at it, you’re soon promoted to corporate headquarters in Rome and put in charge of the Vatican’s sex police.

In 2001 you send out a letter telling bishops worldwide that they’re to report their sex freaks to you, where all investigations are secret.

The pope, meanwhile, remains under fire for a 2001 Vatican letter he sent to bishops advising them that cases of sexual abuse of minors must be forwarded to his then-office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the cases were subject to pontifical secret.

In Ireland, the bishops interpreted that to mean they shouldn’t tell anybody, not police, not parents, only Ratzinger.

Now the Vatican claims his letter was “misinterpreted” by the Irish bishops. Let me ask you, what kind of a Senior Vice President can’t make an order clear to highly educated Regional Managers?

Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has cited the document as evidence that the Vatican created a “wall of silence” around abuse cases that prevented prosecution. Irish bishops have said the document had been “widely misunderstood” by the bishops to mean they shouldn’t go to police.

But canon lawyers insisted Friday that nothing in the document precludes bishops from going to police when confronted with a case of child abuse.

The letter doesn’t tell bishops to also report the crimes to police. But the Rev. John Coughlin, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School, said a principle of moral theology to which every bishop should adhere is that church officials are obliged to follow civil laws where they live.

In the U.S., Dan Shea, an attorney for several victims, has introduced the Ratzinger letter in court as evidence that the church was trying to obstruct justice by keeping the cases secret.

“This is an international criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice,” Shea said.

The other day the head of the German Catholic Church had a big meeting with Benedict about the abuse crisis. The pope’s PR team said he listened carefully and was very concerned.

But he didn’t say anything afterwards, and the PR team promised he’ll soon send a letter about this—to Irish bishops, not German ones, and “soon” is a relative term.

Yesterday the German Church suspended the convicted pedophile priest, who was working in comfy digs, providing pastoral care to tourists in a spa town. You can’t make this stuff up.

Christopher Lawton of Reuters reports:

In Ireland on Monday, Cardinal Sean Brady dismissed calls to resign for his minor role in a 1975 case where two victims of a wayward priest had to sign oaths of secrecy. The priest later admitted to molesting 90 children over a 40-year period.

Minor role? That’s not what AP’s reporting. Brady doesn’t want to play Fall Guy, so he’s playing another bureaucratic game, Pass the Buck:

Irish Catholic leader won’t quit for abuse coverup

By SHAWN POGATCHNIK (AP) – 9 hours ago

DUBLIN — Ireland’s senior Roman Catholic, Cardinal Sean Brady, said Monday he would not resign despite admitting he helped the church collect evidence against a child-molesting priest — and never told police about the crimes.

Brady, as a priest and Vatican-trained canon lawyer in 1975, said he interviewed two children about the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Rev. Brendan Smyth. He said both children were required to sign oaths promising not to tell anyone outside the church of their allegations.

Smyth went on to molest and rape scores of other children in Ireland, Britain and the United States before British authorities in neighboring Northern Ireland demanded his arrest in 1994. The Irish government of the day collapsed amid acrimony over why Smyth was not quickly extradited to Belfast.

Brady admitted his role in gathering evidence against Smyth because he has been named as a defendant in a current Dublin lawsuit filed by one of Smyth’s female victims. Lawyers in that case unearthed records of Brady’s involvement in gathering testimony from two Irish boys abused by Smyth.

Brady said it was the responsibility of his diocesan bishop, as well as the leader of Smyth’s separate Catholic order of priests, to tell police. But he said the church didn’t do this because of “a culture of silence about this, a culture of secrecy.”

“Yes, I knew that these were crimes,” Brady said. “But I did not feel that it was my responsibility to denounce the actions of Brendan Smyth to the police. Now I know with hindsight that I should have done more, but I thought at the time I was doing what I was required to do.”

Brady said he would resign as leader of Ireland’s 4 million Catholics only if Pope Benedict XVI asked him to go.

The pontiff so far has failed to accept the 3-month-old resignation offers of three other Irish bishops who have been implicated in Catholic abuse cover-ups in Dublin. The reform-minded Dublin archbishop, Diarmuid Martin, had pressed for all three to go, but other Irish bishops have criticized Martin for not adequately defending the church against outside attack.

But indeed, it’s the Vatican PR team that’s on the attack. They’re playing Shoot the Messenger. How dare anyone think that the “holy father” made a mistake or failed to act?

But that really isn’t the accusation anymore. The question is whether Ratzinger has directed an international criminal conspiracy.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why he was elected. As the longtime head of the Vatican Sex Police, he knows where all the bodies are buried, and he knows how to protect himself first and foremost. His flunkies will pull out all the stops to save him; they have to, because if he goes down, so do they; so does the entire edifice.

Let no one underestimate the Vatican’s ability to survive; self-protection is the one thing they’re experts at. From selling indulgences to waging wars, the Vatican has been a monumentally corrupt institution for at least a thousand years.

What they can’t do, haven’t done and will not do, is protect children in their care. They have a grand rationalization; their job is to defend the “one true religion” from all enemies.

Unfortunately they’ve convinced themselves they do that by protecting their CEO instead of Jesus Christ, who doesn’t need their help and never did.

But The Big Lie is starting to unravel right on Benedict’s doorstep. Soon he’ll be Playing the Martyr himself.

What bothers me most is that millions more people will make the mistake of deciding that Jesus is the problem, when the pope is the problem and always has been.

The Church doesn’t need secrecy, it needs transparency. That’s why I’m a Protestant; that’s why I’m an Episcopalian.++

My New TV Jinxed the Team

Robbie Hummel sidelined after his season-ending injury. (AJ Mast/Associated Press)

I did something very, very bad on February 24. I bought a TV, a 37-inch Vizio, high-def and all that.

The very same night the reason I bought it came crashing down. I should have known not to tempt the fates.

I haven’t watched TV since 1986. This makes me very weird, but it’s also made me a happier guy. Just think of all the commercials I haven’t seen—1.3 million of them.

Not watching TV is one of the best things a person can do for himself. I am now completely averse to violent images, and I only buy things I really want.

So what made me change? Purdue basketball, which I’ve followed since I was 7 years old. Purdue’s got a great team this year, ranked in the Top Ten all season long. I told myself, This could be the year we win it all.

Just once in my lifetime I want to see the Boilermakers win the National Championship. And if this is the year, I thought, I don’t want to miss it. So I broke down and bought a TV. It’s very nice, as TVs go. I called the cable company, which carries the Big Ten Network as well as ESPN; the cable was installed Feb. 24. At 8pm I sat down to watch Purdue play Minnesota, so excited I could have jumped out of my skin. About 9 minutes into the game, Purdue’s star forward Robbie Hummel blew out his knee and is gone for the rest of the year.

I’m very, very sorry, Robbie. I should never have broken the string. Your team would probably be getting a #1 seed tomorrow in the NCAA tournament if it weren’t for me. I’m hanging my head in shame. I apologize to Purdue people everywhere.

After all, I didn’t watch Drew Brees win the Super Bowl; I listened to the Saints beat the Colts on the radio and cheered my lungs out.

I listened to all those Purdue hoops on the radio; why couldn’t I have just waited until you made the Final Four? Why didn’t I just save my money and drive 30 miles to the nearest sports bar? I saw Purdue beat West Virginia there on New Year’s Day.

As it turns out, Purdue beat Minnesota that night after Hummel left the game, although the Boilers went into a total swoon after he left, and only pulled the victory out in the last minute. Since then, Purdue’s gone 3-1 to finish out the season, until this afternoon in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal—against Minnesota.

I sat in my big chair and watched; the Boilers scored all of 11 points in the first half. With less than 10 minutes to go in the game, the Gophers led by 30 and I hit the button, Power Off. I needed something more pleasant to do, so I scrubbed the kitchen floor on my hands and knees.

Hey, it’s Lent, I’m supposed to do penance.

March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament) is my favorite time of year. I fill out my bracket online and consistently beat 95% of The New York Times sports staff year after year.

So much for madness now; I’m mad at myself for screwing it up. There’s only one consolation in all this misery; Hummel’s a junior. He’ll have all the time he needs to rehab that knee (a torn ACL is a horrible, painful injury) and be able to come back for his senior season with his running mates JuJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, the trio who’s responsible for that Top Ten ranking. Hope will be reborn next year. Chris Kramer, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, won’t be around, and he’s the #1 reason I wanted Purdue to win it all this time, but the one consolation is we’ll get another chance.

In the meantime I guess I’ll enjoy my sparkly clean floor.++