It’s Lent. Traditionally it’s a time for adult education in our parish. This year we decided to study the pope’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’.
The first meeting drew a group of 16 parishioners – almost all over the age of 60.
Perhaps understandably, the opening discussion never got much beyond statements familiar to most of us. More specifically, during our conversation we heard opinions voiced that:
- The 125 year old Catholic social justice tradition is indeed admirable.
- While capitalism has its problems, communism is just as bad or even worse.
- Little can be done about global warming or about any social justice issues for that matter; it’s all due to irreformably corrupt human nature.
- None of us is personally willing to change our lives much in response to the pope’s summons.
- However, we might stop using Styrofoam cups during the parish fellowship hour after Mass.
- We’re all on the same page and are preaching to the choir.
- Some within the group have already moved off the grid and are generating electricity from solar panels.
Of course, most of those statements are questionable and worth discussing.
In any case, participants weren’t entirely to blame for the conversation’s lack of urgency. After all, the dialog exactly mirrored the source the group decided to use to focus its discussion – Discovering Laudato Si’: A Small Group Study Guide published by the Lexington diocese. It disappointingly succeeds in defusing the pope’s radical document in a way that Rush Limbaugh or any climate-change-denier might endorse. In its selection of papal texts, but especially in its introduction and conclusion, the guide actually adopts an overall tone and specific argument that:
- The climate change debate is unresolved (p.10).
- In the meantime, there is no urgency. In fact the church’s slowness of response is wisely traditional and purposeful (p. 27).
- So Catholics shouldn’t “rush into the fray” (27).
- In fact, it is not yet time for “larger responses” (27).
- Instead the pope’s immediate summons is to personal change which itself necessarily takes time (27).
- This means concentrating on “many little tasks” that address our own “ecological bad habits” (26).
- Proper response, then, to the pope’s encyclical is to reduce, reuse, and recycle (27).
- Our tiny tasks also include “helping the poor,” even though they often ask more than we can give, and even though helping them can be “dirty and dangerous,” and the poor themselves can be “angry, violent, or erratic” (24).
- “Fortunately” we are not called to become climate change crusaders (26).
- Doing so would be as bad as doing nothing (27).
- And by the way, Marxism insists that “all capital and property should be controlled by the government” (5-6).
In view of such gradualism, complacency, misinformation, and discouragement of concerted activity, who couldn’t understand the group’s bemused lack of urgency in dealing with climate change and related issues?
And yet, the diocesan study guide flies exactly in the face of Laudato Si’ which adopts a strong position on the side of climate science. Its sense of urgency is unmistakable as is its overwhelming and specific focus on “the large issues.” According to Pope Francis, these call for abandonment of capitalism-as-we-know-it, for drastic structural change, joining world-wide movements, and restructuring economies according to a “preferential option for the poor.” Consider each of those elements.
First of all, the Pope unambiguously sides with climate science. Throughout the encyclical he endorses its findings:
- “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” (23).
- The pope classifies climate change denial among what he calls obstructionist attitudes which range from a “denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14).
- In any case, the pope adopts what the 1992 Rio Declaration called “the Precautionary Principle.” It states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures which prevent environmental degradation” (186).
- Laudato Si’ adds that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (186).
Secondly, there is a sense of undeniable urgency in the pope’s words:
- “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (161)
- Humankind today finds itself in a state of global “crisis.” (The word appears nearly 30 times in the encyclical. According to Merriam Webster, “crisis” means an unstable situation of extreme difficulty or danger.”)
- “Our contemporary lifestyle can only precipitate catastrophes” (161).
- Consequences of inaction will be “dire” (161)
- “Decisive action” is called for “here and now” (161)
- “We urgently (emphasis added) need a humanism . . . in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (141)
Thirdly, see how Pope Francis approves of “environmental crusades” and their actions. He says:
- “Public pressure must be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action” (179).
- “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products . . . This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.” (206)
- “The Earth Charter asked us to leave behind a period of self-destruction and make a new start” (206). (TheEarth Charter – part of a worldwide environmental movement – is an international ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century.)
- “The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges” (14)
Fourthly, the Pope centralizes the “larger issues” including re-evaluation of capitalism-as-we-know-it. His critique of the reigning economic system is found prominently in Laudato Si’ (LS), The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and elsewhere in his speeches and homilies. He has said:
- Unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” ideologies are homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).
- The right to private property should not be exercised primarily for personal gain (LS 93)
- In fact, the unfettered pursuit of money is “the dung of the devil” (Speech Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2015).
- Instead “ownership” of private property is primarily an administrative responsibility to be exercised for the common good (LS 95, 129, 156, 159).
- The earth’s wealth more rightly belongs to the poor than to the rich: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” (JG 57).
- The poor have been robbed of their resources and reparations need be made (LS 30, 51).
- “If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist.” (Pope Francis 2010 address)
- “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm. (Speech in Cagliari, Sardinia 9/22/13).
- “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed” (LS 172)
Fifthly, according to Pope Francis all of these concerns belong to ordinary people who as moral agents, must presumably educate themselves about their details:
- The pope’s summons to address these issues is not directed towards the experts, but to “every person living on this planet . . . all people . . .” (LS 3).
- In fact, the struggle for social justice and participation in political life is a “moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (JG 220, 258).
Sixthly, the pope offers an alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The alternative is an economy structured according to a “preferential option for the poor.” This dictates:
- Understanding Christian faith as essentially a call to prioritize the needs of the poor.” (In 2010 the future Pope Francis explained, “The option for the poor . . . is the Gospel itself.”)
- An economy erected from the bottom-up. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?
- Concern for all forms of life in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.
- Drastic modification of market dynamics entailing at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces under binding international agreements.
Finally, all of this – The Joy of the Gospel, Laudato Si’, the pope’s various speeches, and especially his address to the U.S. Congress raises specific questions about political activism and informed voting. For instance, does it mean voting:
- Against climate-change deniers and for those who share the pope’s climate concerns?
- Against champions of dirty fossil fuels and in favor of those supporting alternative, renewable energy sources?
- Against those who would exclude refugees from finding shelter in the United States and in favor of those advocating sanctuary?
- Against those who favor arms sales abroad and in favor of proponents of divestment from the arms industry?
- Against champions of capital punishment and in favor of those calling for its abolition?
- Against those proposing tax cuts for the richest 1% and in favor of increased redistributive taxes on their incomes?
- Against those whose answer to global terrorism is war, bombing, and drone assassinations, and in favor of those who offer legal and diplomatic solutions to the problem of national security?
- Against those who are selective in their “pro-life” advocacy, and for those who connect respect for life not just with abortion, but with providing care for unwanted children brought to term, with clean energy, environmental protection, universal health care, investment in public education, and opposition to capital punishment and war.
Pope Francis eco-encyclical is much more radical than the Lexington diocese pamphlet suggests. The study guide’s domestication of the pope’s urgent summons is not trivial. It fundamentally changes its message which is absolutely revolutionary (LS 114).
The earlier-mentioned Rush Limbaugh grasped that fact immediately. He said
“Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’. . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. . .”
“Essentially what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party. Well, no, that’s what it is! How else do you interpret it when the pope comes out and sounds like Al Gore on global warming and climate change? Or when the pope sounds like Clinton or when the pope sounds like any Democrat?”
Limbaugh, of course, is wrong. Plenty of Democrats (including the current president) shy away from the pope’s call for international control of pollution, for debt-forgiveness, colonial reparations, universal health care, abolition of capital punishment, cut-backs in military spending, and limiting “pro-life” concerns to the abortion issue.
Nonetheless, the diocesan study guide’s insistence on gradualism, avoiding big issues and rejecting international climate “crusades” renders it unlikely that diocesan discussion groups will ever move beyond timidity, caution, boredom and resistance to discussing the issues it raises both small and (especially) large.
After all, Cultural Revolution entails serious conversations about relevant cultural elements that Americans find difficult: economic systems, historic relations between the U.S. and the “Third World,” theological convictions, models of church, what group participants actually believe about God, Jesus and the Bible – as well as about significant practical responses to what is arguably the most important public document of the present century.
Becoming revolutionary means opening participants’ hearts and minds so all of us might move beyond pseudo-certainties, drop defenses, learn something new, and possibly endure personal transformation. Most of us are not much used to any of that.
Nonetheless those are the tasks before us in our Lenten study group – along with the questions appended below:
- Is personal transformation desirable for you – personally, politically, and theologically? How might our discussion group stimulate such personal change?
- Are you willing to engage in serious reconsideration of the relationships between climate issues and economic systems, U.S. history, Global South realities, and reinterpretations of Christian faith?
- Is it really true that members of St. Clare parish are reluctant to respond positively and energetically to Laudato Si’?
- Would parishioners be willing to fund a solar energy project that would move the parish off the grid?
- What about petitioning Bishop Stowe to sponsor a similar project to move the entire diocese off the grid?
- What do you think is the most important issue raised by Laudato Si’?
- Is the pope correct in identifying climate change as a moral concern? Does it have the same importance, for instance, as abortion?
- What within you is the biggest obstacle to accepting Pope Francis’ message? Is it possible for you to provisionally remove or somehow suspend that blockage for purposes of discussing Laudato Si’? How would you do that?
- How would our Sunday liturgies change if our community recognized the truth and urgency of Laudato Si’?
- Do you agree that within our church there are many different ideas about matters of faith such as the identity of God, the status of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, and the connection between faith and issues such as climate change
- If so, how do we reconcile such fundamental differences with Catholic identity?
- Do you think it important to clarify what group participants actually believe about such matters?
- What should be done about theological and political differences – pastorally, liturgically, and in terms of community action?
- What practical steps might be taken to make the parish of St. Clare more vital, relevant, prophetic (like the pope) and effective in the world?