Pope Francis: Agent of Change Part II

By the second anniversary of his papacy on March 13, 2015, Pope Francis had achieved worldwide fame and enthusiastic admirers among peoples of different nationalities and faiths. His humble nonjudgmental persona and embrace of the poor was balanced by his decisiveness in reforming the entrenched Vatican bureaucracy, the Roman Curia.

The Catholic Church has 1.2 billion followers in Europe, Africa , Asia, North America and Latin America. Church attendance has been rising in Africa and Asia, while it has been declining in Europe and the United States according to a Spanish-language Univision poll of 12 countries. The poll also found sharp differences on the question of whether a divorced Catholic who remairries outside the church is living in sin. 75 percent of African Catholics surveyed answered “yes”, while 75 percent of European Catholics said, “no”. Pope Francis has avoided categorical public statements on many subjects that involve family issues, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, divorce, contraception and abortion. He encourages discussion and debate. His more open approach is in contrast to the traditional positions taken by most of his predecessors. Here are some of his important actions and statements during 2014 and 2015:

On January 12, 2014, he named cardinals from small, poor countries, including Haiti, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua and Ivory Coast. He also chose a second cardinal from the Philippines whose large Catholic population was recovering from a brutal typhoon. The College of Cardinals with 120 members who elect each pope has been dominated by Europeans , especially Italians for centuries. Francis, who is from Argentina, and the first non-European pope in modern times named 16 new cardinals; nine from Asia, Africa and Latin America, six from Europe and one from Canada. None from the United States which already has eleven cardinals. Francis also made appointments to four key departments in the Roman Curia, including Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, one of his close allies. Vatican observers noted that Francis favored men who had worked as priests for years before becoming bishops, and had favored the pastoral style that he has always followed.

“What he is really trying to do is change the culture of the church,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for The National Catholic Reporter. “To reform an institution like the Catholic Church, you don’t just move boxes around on an organizational chart.” For the Vatican gathering of the cardinals in February, 2014 , Francis chose Cardinal Walter Kasper, known for liberal social views as the main speaker. In his hour-long speech, Kasper spoke on the family and the needs of divorced and remarried Catholics. He had told the pope that he wanted to address strengthening marriage and worried that he might offend some of the cardinals. Francis suggested he present the subject as a question rather than a thesis. After the speech, Kaspar said, “”So I put a question in a way to give a direction and a solution. I had the impression afterward that he liked it.” He added, “The pope has a ministry of uniting. He cannot take a confrontational way. He has to convince a majority. I hope it is a growing majority.”

On February 24, 2014, Pope Francis announced a major overhaul of the Vatican’s administrative and economic bureaucracy. He set up an agency to oversee budgets and financial planning and created a new post of auditor general to guard against fiscal mismanagement. He selected Cardinal George Pell, the archbishop of Sydney, Australia to head the new agency, the Secretariat for the Economy. Cardinal Pell had been openly critical of a scandal under Pope Bendict XVI– when his butler leaked private letters. At the time, Cardinal Pell had told the Associated Press, “It would be useful to have a pope who can pull the show together, lift the morale of the Curia and strengthen a bit of discipline here.”

Pope Francis has had his critics on the right and on the left. Many conservatives in the United States, especially the activist Pro Life Movement leaders, have been unhappy that Francis has not emphasized abortion as a major issue. At the other end of the political spectrum, those women who desire a greater role for women in church affairs, including the possibility of female priests, have seen no signs of that occurring in the near future. A third group of men and women who were advocates for victims of clerical sex abuse were angry with the pope’s defense of the church’s handling of the world-wide crisis. Father Reese, the analyst for the National Catholic Reporter said it was a mistake to analyze Francis as if he were a politician with an agenda. He said the pope’s primary goals are broader: to provide attention and care for the poor, and to establish a church culture of acceptance and forgiveness. “All of us in the church are going to have to realize that we are not going to get everything right away. And we’re probably not getting everything we want, ever.”

In February, 2014, a United Nations commission issued a critical report on the church’s handling of the abuse cases. By March 22, Francis took action and made his first appointments to a special commission with an equal number of women and men and more lay people than clergy. Marie Collins, an activist Irish woman who was abused by a priest as a child, said their priorities should include requiring dioceses to report abuse to civil authorities, responding to victims with a pastoral, not an adversarial, legalistic approach, and holding bishops who covered up accountable. “Until bishops who protected abuses are removed, it’s very hard to have confidence,” she said. Most of the eight members are from Europe and the United States, but more will be added from developing countries where Catholicism is growing rapidly.

In June of 2014, theAmerican Bishops met at their semi-annual meeting in New Orleans. They are a conservative group, almost all were appointed by Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict and they reflect their traditional doctrine and dogma . In 2015, they have to decide how to update their quadrennial guide for Catholic voters. This year, there was much discussion about the example Pope Francis was setting with his ascetic life style and emphasis on helping the poor and economic inequality. Many U.S. bishops live in grand houses and drive luxury vehicles they feel set the right tone for their position in the hierarchy. This year, they were well aware of the example Francis set with his emphasis on personal humility and economic justice .

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said in an interview, “We don’t perhaps at times talk enough about the poor, about the economy, and we don’t perhaps talk enough about reaching out to those with disabilities, those whose voices are not heard.” In contrast, the archbishop of Indianapolis, Joseph W. Tobin told a group of theologians, “What I’ve seen is how disruptive Pope Francis has been within the hierarchy of the United States. I was talking to a groups of brother bishops a while back and they were saying that bishops and priests were discouraged by Pope Francis because he was challenging them.” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the gathering that, if the voters guide is not revised, ‘it will not include anything of the teachings of Pope Francis.” The current guide discusses evil in terms of abortion and racism. Francis describes economic inequality as a social evil.

It is worth noting how the Paul Ryan 2011 Federal Budget written before he ran with Mitt Romney on the Republican ticket in 2012 was described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as “immoral” because it sharply cut programs for the poor, needy and children while raising benefits for the rich. The current 2015 Republican Budget closely follows the same design and provisions. Since Pope Francis is planning to make his first trip to the United States in 2016, it will be interesting to see if his visit to Philadelphia will come before, after or at the same time as the Democratic National Convention to elect their presidential ticket for November, 2016.

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Pope Francis: Agent of Change

On March 13, 2013, when Pope Francis stepped out onto the balcony in Rome for the first time, he was dressed in simple white robes. He smiled warmly and waved to the cheering, ecstatic multitude, speaking in Italian, “Brothers and sisters, good evening! You know that it was the conclave’s duty to give Rome a new bishop. My brother cardinals appear to have gone almost to the ends of the earth to find one, but here we are.” The intrinsic dignity and humility of his presence and words swept the crowd and millions watching around the world at that moment. In the months since then, his life style, ideas , public statements and actions have been a distinct change from his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Francis did not choose to live in the palatial palace apartments set aside for the pope at the Vatican. His home is nearby in Santa Marta in a small bare room with a table, chairs and one painting on the wall. As a Jesuit priest, he follows the rules and customs of his order within simple surroundings as he did when he was a bishop and cardinal in Argentina. He often walks to his destinations rather than ride in the formal limousine at his disposal. When he is greeted by crowds throwing gifts, he catches them and gives a thumbs up. He stops for photos with students. He tweets. He calls strangers on the phone. He is popular among Italian parish priests throughout Italy. Attendance at Sunday Mass had fallen to below 30 percent and parishes are happy with a pope who relates and talks to believers and non-believers. When he traveled to South America, he rode in an open car through the streets rather than the square, glassed- in vehicle known as ‘the pope mobile‘. More than a million excited men, women and children greeted him on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro. He is their pope — the first from Latin America.

Since his election, Francis has initiated measures to reform the Roman Catholic Church, after years of criticism for the way it mishandled sexual abuse scandals involving clergy world wide, as well as more recent scandals and allegations of financial corruption and mismanagement within the Vatican itself. It was reported on October 2, 2013 that the pope had hand- picked and appointed a group of eight cardinals to make changes in the 2000 year-old institution. They came from Australia, Chile, Democratic Republic of Congo, Germany, Honduras, India, Italy and the United States. His mission is to overhaul the complex and powerful Vatican bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. He said he has drawn this goal from the conclave of cardinals who elected him. In an interview published in a Jesuit journal, Francis said the Curia should be like a “quartermaster’s office” in the army because it was meant to manage “the services that serve the Holy See”. He defined the problem as the Curia having a “Vatican-centric view that neglects the world around us.” He called the eight cardinals “ not courtiers but wise people who share my own feelings. This is the beginning of a church with an organization that is not just top down but also horizontal.”

Five days after his first interview was made public, he was interviewed by Eugenio Scalfari, 89, the founder and editor of Italy’s largest circulation daily newspaper, La Repubblica. It took place after the pope had a call placed to Scalfari who said he was stunned to hear the voice on the other end of the line saying, “Hello, this is Pope Francis.” He answered, “Hello Your Holiness. I am shocked. I did not expect you to call me.” The conversation continued, “Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary. I can’t do Wednesday or Monday. Would Tuesday suit you?” Scalfari: “That’s fine.” Francis: “The time is a little awkward. Three in the afternoon. Is that okay?” Scalfari: Your Holiness, the time is fine.” pause while he thinks how to end the call… “Can I embrace you by phone?” Francis: “Of course, a hug from me too. Then we will do it in person. Goodbye.” La Repubblica, founded in l976, reflects the intellectual and financial elite of Italy. The meeting would take place in the pope’s small room with the table and chairs. The subjects areas they covered would be broad and fascinating.

Scalfari, an atheist, at one point asked if the pope was trying to convert him. Francis replied, “Convert you? Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. You have to meet people and listen to them. …This is important to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas.” When discussing world problems, Francis was very clear, “The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other. And the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present.” This was a sharp contrast with Benedict XVI who had called secularism and relativism the greatest evils the world faced.

When Scalfari asked questions about narcissism, the Pope was very forceful in his responses. “I don’t like the word narcissism. It indicates an excessive love for oneself and this is not good. …The real trouble is that those most affected by this – which is actually a kind of mental disorder — are people who have a lot of power. Often bosses are narcissists.” He developed the theme further, “You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy.” He referred to the Vatican-centric view as one he did not share. “I’ll do everything I can to change it. The Church should go back to being the community of God’s people and priests, pastors and bishops who have the care of souls, are at the service of the people of God.” On October 5, it was announced that, after a three day meeting, the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of eight cardinals planned to redact “a new constitution with significant new aspects” to regulate the Curia. Reverend Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, told reporters that the intent was to place the Curia at the service of the universal church, “in terms of subsidiarily, rather than the exercise of centralized power.”

Pope Francis has been compared to John XXIII who rose from humble peasant origins as a barefoot boy in the Northern Italian mountains to become pope from 1958 to 1963. He convened The Vatican II Council in 1963 that made major changes in the doctrine, theology and practice of the Catholic Church. His ecumenical direction led to the lifting of the false charge of “deicide” that had plagued generations of Jews throughout the world for almost 2000 years. Many Italians who have a portrait of John XXIII on their walls evoke his memory when they speak of Francis.

When Eugenio Scalfari completed his interview with the pope, he said, “Your Holiness, you are certainly a person of great faith, touched by grace, animated by the desire to revive a pastoral, missionary church that is renewed and not temporal. But from the way you talk and from what I understand, you are and will be a revolutionary pope. Half Jesuit, half a man of Francis of Assisi, a combination that perhaps has never been seen before.” They embraced, shook hands and the pope accompanied him to the door. Francis made a final comment about future talks together, “We will also discuss the role of women in the Church. Remember that the Church — la chiesa– is feminine.” Scalfari closed his article on the interview, “ If the Church becomes like him and becomes what he wants it to be, it will be an epochal change.”

Do You Read The Wedding Announcements on Sundays?

A full page ad appeared on December 31, 2014 in The New York Times, featuring Bill Maher, the social critic and witty comedian. He was dressed in a tie and jacket set off by a narrow striped shirt. He looked very debonair and had a sly smile on his face. The cut line was, “Yes, I do read the wedding announcements. I don’t know why.” When I saw that ad, running on the last day of the year and in the midst of one of the coldest, snowiest and windiest winters on record, I immediately cut it out to save for a future blog.

It is now March 16, 2015, and “If winter comes….Shelley wrote… can spring be far behind.” Today’s blog is meant to provide a welcome respite from the many disturbing, worldwide news stories we read every day. I hope you enjoy the change of pace.

Do you read the wedding announcements in the newspaper on Sundays? Do you look into the faces of the couple in the picture and muse briefly about them and their lives? How did they meet? What attracted them to each other? Do they look happy? Will it last?

Many of us — particularly women — have been reading these social commentaries for years, observing along the way certain sea changes in life styles and choices for the couple. More women are keeping their own names. Couples are being married “in their home”. Both men and women are doctors or lawyers. And the phrase, “previous marriage ended in divorce” has become very familiar. The New York Times began carrying same sex marriages several years ago. The text identifies by name one of the two men or women in the picture as “on the left”. The entire section has “Vows” at the top of each page.

There appear to be an increasing number of remarriages, what George Bernard Shaw called “the triumph of hope over experience”. And a growing number of announcements share that the couple met through one of the popular dating services on social media. Beyond Facebook, one finds a wide range aimed at specific religious, ethnic, regional and age groups. Almost all post pictures and profiles that describe age, education, interests, priorities and objective. They include: e.Harmony, Jdate, Christian Mingle, South Jersey Matchmakers, PlentyofFish and Okcupid. Surveys show that the picture is the immediate turn-on or turn-off. The profile is important, but “He looked cute” or “She was beautiful” led to reading the profile and deciding whether to send an e-mail.

Today’s weddings sound pretty traditional compared with newspaper accounts of manners and mores in the l970’s. It’s interesting and fun to look back at weddings in The New York Times society pages of that era. Here are a few:

“Westport, Connecticut, July 11, 1970. They were married here today in the woods outside the rough-sawn cedar house the bridegroom designed and built and in which they will live. The bride, whose feet were bare, wore a Mexican wedding dress, and carried tiger lilies she had picked at the side of the road.” Mexican wedding gowns were very popular in the early seventies, long before Vera Wang rose like a meteor on the fashion horizon with her elegant creations.

The groom’s attire often varied. “New Canaan, Connecticut. July 12, 1970. The groom whose hair is almost as long as his bride’s wore what he described as a ‘Plains Indian buckskin shirt’ with leather pants and boots.” Today’s notices have completely dropped the lavish attention to what the bride wore with more emphasis on her education and career. Many of us miss those wonderful fashion details. We delighted in reading about the “cream satin gown trimmed in alencon lace embroidered with pearls” and the “heirloom veil worn by the bride’s great, great grandmother.” These lovely images were the stuff of dreams as well as envy.

“Annnisquam, Mass. March 7, 1971, The bride wore a gown of Canadian wool that she wove on a loom in her home. Of lavender, plum and purple, it had tiny bits of blue to create the look of a stained glass window. ‘They’re my favorite color,” the bride said. The bridegroom wore Levi’s with high leather buckled shoes and a brown leather vest with silver buttons, made for him by a tanner in West Virginia.”

So there, Vera Wang with your exquisitely simple dresses! And you grooms with your staid cravats and striped trousers. How unimaginative you appear in your classic attire. Many of the couples portrayed in The Times in the 70’s appeared to be in rebellion against the long line of ancestors who had come over on The Mayflower. Today’s notices seem dry and distilled in contrast to the candor of that day. One didn’t have to read between the lines to gasp.

“Southhampton, Long Island. The bride’s dress by Sarmi in pink organdy with white satin was above the knee in length. After graduation from Miss Hewitt’s, she made her debut at the Tuxedo Autumn Ball and was a member of the the New York Junior Assemblies…It was not a happy day for the bride’s mother. From the moment the engagement was announced, she has said in rather blunt language that she disapproved of the marriage. ‘He is completely unacceptable to the family in every way’ she said in letters to society editors. ‘None of the family who are living wish in any way to be associated with this marriage, and those who are not alive would never have received or acknowledged him.’”

This writer never learned if that marriage, which was number two for the bride and number three for the groom, lasted. Or if the bride’s mother ever changed her mind about her new son-in-law. The odds on that happening certainly didn’t sound too good.

We bridal announcement junkies will just have to subsist on the occasional celebrity wedding to stoke our need for the in-depth social coverage and fashion comments that continue to fascinate us. But you can be sure we will still be reading the regular notices every Sunday and looking at the pictures. Two faces, usually smiling out at us, as we wonder what the future has in store for them.

Notorious R.B.G.

Have you heard of the blog “Notorious R.B.G.” ? That is the tongue-in-cheek complimentary name tag for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has been making news for years with her oral dissents on significant 5-4 decisions rendered by the conservative majority. Oral dissents are rare and hers have been important since she is the oldest member at 81 years and known for her incisive legal thinking and oratory. Perhaps you have seen the formal portrait of the nine justices . She looks like a tiny bird perched next to the substantial bulk of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the front row.

A “Notorious R.B.G.” book is coming out, written by Shana Knizhnik who created the blog and Irin Carmon of MSNBC. Carin says, “ The kind of raw excitement that surrounds her is palpable. There’s a counter-intuitiveness. We have a particular vision of someone who’s a 350 pound rapper. And she’s this tiny Jewish grandmother. She doesn’t look like our vision of power, but she’s so formidable, so unapologetic, and a survivor in every sense of the word.”

Her physical strength has become legendary. Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the conservatives and one of her best friends, recounts the time they both were invited to lecture on the French Riviera . “She went off parasailing! This little skinny thing, you’d think she’d never come down.” Ginsburg still works out twice a week at the Supreme Court gym with her personal trainer. At home, she does daily stretching exercises at night. She has survived colon cancer in l999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009. Both recoveries went smoothly and she returned to the bench in record time after surgeries. In 2014, a stent was placed in one of her arteries on a Wednesday. The Court’s public information officer told reporters that Ginsburg “expects to be on the bench on Monday.”

Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University and began her law studies as one of nine women admitted to Harvard Law School out of a class of 500 in 1956. An oft told story relates how she and the other women students were invited by the Dean to dinner. During conversation, he asked them how they justified taking the place of a man in the class. Ginsburg was taken aback, but replied that her husband Marty was also a law student and it was important for a wife to understand her husband’s work. In later years, Ginsburg said about the Dean, “He was a wonderful man but he had no sense of humor.” The years at Harvard were very challenging . Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer. As he recovered, Ruth brought him notes from his classes and typed up his papers while she continued her own classes and took care of Jane, their toddler. At graduation, Ginsburg achieved the Harvard Law Review.

The early decades of her legal career were spent as an advocate for women’s rights as a constitutional principle. She became well known for her legal skills and was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to serve as an Appeals Court Judge. She served for 13 years with distinction from 1980 to 1993. At that time, a vacancy appeared on the Supreme Court and President Bill Clinton nominated her as the second woman Justice after Sandra Day O’Connor. There was a vigorous confirmation hearing where Ginsburg declined to tell the Senators how she would vote on certain pertinent issues. She was confirmed by the full Senate by a vote of 96 to 3. She has served since with distinction and is recognized as the leader of the liberal wing along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg had been married for 56 years when he died in 2010. She has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren. She is very active and travels to accept awards and give speeches. In February at the New York City Bar, she introduced Gloria Steinem who delivered the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law. Several weeks before, at a meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, Ginsburg introduced Professor Herma Hill Kay, recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award. As the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court with a long remarkable career, she has received many honors over the years.

Because of her age and recurrent health issues, Justice Ginsburg has often been queried about retirement plans. Since she is the leader of the liberal wing, observers have raised the prospect that Obama, who has appointed two liberals, would be able to appoint a third. She used to answer by citing Louis Brandeis who left the bench at 82. In January, when the question was raised, she said, “John Paul Stevens didn’t step down until he was 90.” Her tenacity and brilliant work appear to have captured the imagination of a myriad of supporters and fans. Coffee mugs and T-shirts have her picture on them. There’s an R.B.G. portrait available as a tattoo for your arm, and a baby costume of her for Halloween. “Justice Ginsburg Explains Everything You Need to Know about Religious Liberty in Two Sentences” is sold on Twitter. She has become an admired public icon, especially among women.

On January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama gave his State of The Union Address to the joint session of Congress. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seated in the front row with the other Justices and the TV cameras caught her dozing. The next morning, one of her grandchildren called her and exclaimed, “Bubbe, you were sleeping at the State of the Union!” She told a reporter that she had wine with dinner before the speech, but the main reason was that she had been up throughout the previous night writing an opinion on an important case. “My pen was hot!” Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be 81 years old, but she is not ready to retire from The Supreme Court.

Chris Christie: On The Ropes!

In 2012, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican convention where Mitt Romney would be nominated for President. Listeners became puzzled as Christie spoke at length about his parents, his wife, his children and even his idol from Asbury Park — Bruce Springsteen. He then shifted to explaining how he had worked with Democrats in the legislature to save New Jersey workers’ pensions. He described this feat as a bi-partisan effort of “politicians who led instead of politicians who pandered.” Eventually, he did segue to Mitt Romney but the lasting image was of Christie extolling himself.

It is now March, 2015 and New Jersey’s pension system for public employees is in shambles, affecting teachers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and state employees. States, nation wide, have similar fiscal dilemmas when their yearly budgets must be balanced. Christie had boasted that as a Republican Governor in a blue state with a Democratically controlled legislature, he had solved the problem. That has not turned out to be true. On Monday, February 23, Judge Mary C. Jacobson of New Jersey State Superior Court ruled that Christie had violated state law when he declined to make the full payment into the state’s pension system for public employees last year. She ordered him to find a way to fund it now. In addition, she ordered the Christie administration to pay the legal fees of the public sector unions that had sued to force the payments. Christie has vowed to appeal her decision.

Judge Jacobson, who had been appointed by Christine Whitman, a Republican governor, had ruled in June, 2014 that since Christie was faced with an unbalanced budget, he could skip the payments for that year since the state was facing financial ruin. The Legislature then proposed a three year tax increase on incomes exceeding $1million and a one-year corporation tax surcharge. However, Christie used his line-item veto to strike those proposals and issued only a partial payment to the unions. It is worth noting that when he first ran for governor, he sent an Open Letter to the teachers of New Jersey , refuting rumors that he might “attempt to demolish or take away teachers’ pensions and benefits.” He emphasized, “Let me be clear — nothing could be farther from the truth.” When he later “borrowed” liberally from their pension fund, he bluntly told the teachers‘ unions, “Get over it!”

On Tuesday, February 24, the day after Judge Jacobson’s ruling, Christie gave his yearly budget address in the State Assembly chamber in Trenton to the legislators and other dignitaries. He devoted his entire 25 minute speech to New Jersey’s pension system. However, he offered few specifics. He said, “I’m here today to speak the truth. I did not come here today just to identify the problem, shrug my shoulders and return to business as usual. This is the type of leadership our state requires. Coming together. Thinking differently. Fighting for all the people. Addressing the long term. This is how we get things done. I will never stop working to fix the problems we have previously ignored. I will never give up on New Jersey.” His only reference to Judge Jacobson’s ruling was, “We don’t need a judge to tell us we have a problem.”

The governor called for freezing the existing pension plan and released a commission report with recommendations for the pension system. He proposed a new “cash-balance pension plan” and said he had an “unprecedented accord” with the teachers’ union which included a signed “roadmap” of broad agreement. However, Wendell Steinhauer, the union president said after the budget speech, there was “no deal” , calling it “an agreement on guidelines, and that we will continue talking.” He also focused on the governor identifying the revenue source for state payments. “If you don’t have a revenue source, it doesn’t matter if you have a plan.”

After his speech, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, the Democratic majority leader commented skeptically, “We need a governor who is in the state long enough to try to understand the problem.” Christie has spent much of 2014, traveling across the country in his role as head of the Republican Governors Association (RGA) He has tried to distance himself from the Bridgegate scandal that has brought two federal prosecutors’ investigations, New Jersey and New York, that are still not completed. He also has been actively building his image as a potential Republican candidate for President in 2016. It is ironic that he has trumpeted his ability to work across the aisle with Democrats on pensions as his signal achievement.

Since Christie was elected to a second term in November, his approval rating has been steadily sinking in New Jersey as well as on the national scene. His brief trip to London ended badly when he was blunt and abrasive with British reporters who ventured to ask him several questions. He did not go so far as he has gone with members of the American press, whom he has told to “Sit down and shut up!” But, to draw on Queen Victoria’s famous comment, they were not “amused” when he brushed them aside rather than answer their queries. In the U.S. political polls of possible Republican candidates in 2016 for President, Christie was at one time in the lead. Now, the front runners are Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. Christie is in single digits with Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry. At the Conservative Political Action Conference outside D.C. on February 26, Christie declined the chance to deliver a prepared speech. He took part in an interview with Laura Ingraham, a far- right talk show host in a ballroom with many empty seats. Her questions were very tough and he responded in typical Christie fashion. She asked, “Why are you performing so poorly with Republican voters?” His response, “Is the election next week?” It would appear that Chris Christie may be on the ropes, but he is not down yet.