Laudato Si’: Pope Francis’ UPSETTING (But Hopeful) STORY About Our WORLD

Same Text

In my local faith community – St. Clare’s Catholic Church in Berea, Kentucky, we’re getting ready for Advent. As our seasonal project, we’re proposing a parish-wide discussion of Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

I’ve suggested that we purchase copies of the encyclical for each adult member of our parish, that we centralize it in a special liturgy, and that we present copies of Laudato Si’ to each recipient just as we do the Eucharist each Sunday. The presenter would say something like, “Receive the call of Pope Francis’ to reform your life and save our planet.” And the recipient would respond, “Amen.”

However, as our Peace and Social Justice Committee has discussed such possibilities, some have remarked that the pope’s encyclical is rather long and difficult to read. They’ve predicted that despite having the book in their hands, many parishioners will never get around to reading it.

What we need, my friends have said, is a comprehensive thumbnail sketch of the encyclical’s contents – with some provocative discussion questions.

So in fewer than 2000 words, here’s my stab at that. My summary contends that in Laudato Si’ Pope Francis is telling us a disturbing but hopeful story. In fact, the story’s main point (about the failure of capitalism) is told in all the papal social encyclicals since Leo XIII (1891). But this time the world is listening.

Here’s what Francis says in Laudato Si’:

  • The earth was given to humankind as a whole (93).
  • It belongs to everyone (93, 95, 158).
  • Thus the earth is primarily a Commons (164).
  • The climate itself is a common good (23).

_____

  • Though the Commons by definition cannot be privately owned, the Church has always recognized the right to private property in other spheres (93).
  • However the Church has never understood even this right as absolute or to be exercised primarily for personal gain (93).
  • Instead the right to private property has primarily been considered an administrative responsibility (95, 159).
  • As such it must always be exercised for the common good (129, 156).
  • In fact, “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
  • So it is immoral that the earth’s resources and wealth be concentrated in the hands of a few (50, 90).

_____

  • The Judeo-Christian tradition unequivocally supports the position that the earth belongs to everyone (66, 67, 71, 76, 93, 95), that human “owners” do not have absolute dominion over possessions (67, 68, 75, 82, 83, 93, 95), that all life forms are loved by God (68, 69, 76, 77, 92, 96), and that extreme wealth inequalities are immoral (70, 71, 71, 90, 95).
  • Jesus endorsed all those beliefs by incarnating God’s presence in a poor worker as the locus of God’s presence par excellence (98, 99).
  • Additionally, the natural world itself, as the “Book of Creation,” represents a source of revelation. It too supports biblical insights that summon humans to ecological responsibility rather than to absolute dominion over nature (85, 86,87, 88).
  • Jesus supported such convictions with his teachings about the universal fatherhood of God (96), with his parables about seeds, soil, plants, flowers, harvest, birds, and weather patterns (97, 100), and with display of his own complete harmony with nature (98).
  • The work of the Church, as a community of Jesus’ followers, is “to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature,” while at the same time protecting humankind from self-destruction (79).

_____

­­­­­

  • Nonetheless at some point in history (“when the Roman Empire was seeking to impose absolute dominion”), the notion of private property became distorted (74).
  • Private property came to mean absolute ownership for personal enrichment without reference to the common good.
  • The notion of private property expanded to include the right of “owners” to do whatever they wished with “their” property including its complete destruction, without regard for “collateral damage” suffered by billions of humans and innumerable life forms excluded from the benefits of the market system (49, 67, 123).
  • Eventually common goods such as seeds, water, and life itself were turned into commodities whose ownership was “privatized” (30, 134).

_____

  • After the Industrial Revolution, the power of “owners” to alter and destroy “their” goods increased dramatically.
  • The steam engine and its successors (including today’s robots and computers) conferred power to alter and even destroy not only what owners considered their belongings, but the Commons in general (including the air, water, wetlands, mountains, non-human lifeforms, “resources” below the earth’s surface, and the climate itself).

_____

  • Free market ideology has played no small part in enabling unregulated technology’s harmful impact on the earth.
  • This ideology includes deep-seated, but often indefensible (109) convictions, for instance that:
    • Human beings enjoy absolute dominion over nature (67).
    • The world is anthropocentric: it revolves around human beings who can treat other life-forms as instruments for their benefit and pleasure (115).
    • Such beliefs are supported in the Bible (67).
    • A technological imperative demands that every advance in technology represents “progress” and therefore must be accepted as inevitable (105).
    • Might makes right and winners are entitled to “take all” (82).
    • Government regulation of the market is always undesirable, even in the face of huge income disparities (60).
    • No action should be taken on climate change in the absence of indisputable proof demonstrating the human origins of unusual climate events (186).
    • Unregulated market forces can solve all problems of environmental destruction and poverty.

______

  • The combination of technological development, market forces, and an enabling “free market” ideology has increasingly conferred on industrialized countries the ability to exploit resources world-wide.
  • As a result, for the past 200 years, these nations have incurred an “ecological debt” vis-a-vis the rest of the world (51).
  • Besides robbing their colonies of valuable resources while often enslaving their people, the industrialized countries have filled the atmosphere with two centuries of climate-changing pollution which most proximately threatens the colonies they exploited (51, 52, 170).
  • As a result, the industrialized powers owe their former colonies debt-repayment (30).
  • Such reparations must at the very least include cancellation of “Third World” debts, transfers of money and of non-polluting technology (52, 172).

_____   

  • Indigenous people have been especially attuned to such inequities and obligations on the parts of their exploiters (146, 179).
  • They have not only experienced colonialism as theft of their resources, they have identified the practices of industrialized capitalism as the rape of the one they (and St. Francis) honor as “Mother Earth” (1).
  • For their part, scientists in the industrialized world have warned humans about the unsustainability of such practices on purely scientific grounds (161).
  • True to the predictions of both indigenous shamans and secular scientists, we have now reached a crisis point (23).
  • Humans must either change their economic paradigm (based on this concept of absolute ownership) or face extinction (23, 61, 181).

_____

  • Many with vested interests in continuing to profit from the earth’s destruction have adopted “obstructionist attitudes, including denial (14, 26).
  • They are more willing to risk the earth’s destruction than to abandon the concept of absolute ownership upon which capitalism-as-we-know-it is based (60).
  • So they mistakenly claim that deregulated markets and technological development will save the day without basic changes in the consumerist lifestyle (109, 110).
  • They also propose risky “solutions” [such as Solar Radiation Management (SRM)] rather than low-tech, common sense responses to problems connected with climate chaos (14).

_____

  • The common sense solutions must on the one hand include acts on the parts of individuals such as “avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or carpooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights. . .” and reducing the use of air conditioning (55, 212).
  • On the other hand, dealing with climate chaos requires action which national governments alone are capable of performing (38, 129).
  • These include weening national populations from dependence on fossil fuels (165) as well as investment in high-speed railways, and renewable energy sources. National governments must also strictly regulate trans-national corporate activity (38).
  • Changing paradigms even includes the submission of national governments to an international body with legislative authority to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (53, 173, 174, 175).

(Author’s Note: By the way, if we think the United States with its proud history of independence could never submit its own legislative power to the possibility of being overridden by some international body, we should know that it already has. U.S. membership in the World Trade Organization, the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and those of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) already allow international bodies to nullify U.S. laws such as those protecting our air and water. That is, if such national laws are ruled to interfere with the expected profits of multinational corporations, the laws can be rendered null and void, regardless of what U.S. citizens might think. In other words, there is precedent for U.S. submission to international bodies with binding authority to legislate about environmental deregulation. The pope is merely requesting that the same authority be given an international body tasked with protecting the environment rather than allowing its further degradation.)

  • In summary, the principles guiding necessary changes include the following:
    • The Principle of the Interconnectedness of All Reality: (e.g. 16, 42, 70, etc.).
    • The Principle of the Common Good: “The common good is ‘the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment’.” Laudato Si’ identifies the common good as a “central and unifying principle of social ethics.”(156).
    • The Principle of the Subordination of Private Property: “(T)he first principle of the whole ethical and social order” is “the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use” (93).
    • The Principle of the Universal Destination of All Goods: (See immediately above).
    • The Principle of Preferential Option for the Poor: This principle “entails recognizing the implications of the universal destination of the world’s goods . . . {T}his option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good” (158). In practice it means guaranteeing the rights of the world’s poor to land, housing, work, education, credit, insurance and access to markets (94).
    • The Principle of Distributive Justice: According to Pope Francis, the common good cannot be served without social peace which in turn “cannot be achieved without particular concern for distributive justice; whenever this is violated,” he observes, “violence always ensues” (156).
    • The Principle of Subsidiarity: this principle embraces decentralized solutions (144, 157, 179, 196).
    • The Principle of Transparency: Laudato Si’ states that “An assessment of environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views . . . Environmental impact assessment should . . . be carried out in a way which is interdisciplinary, transparent and free of all economic or political pressure. . . A consensus should always be reached between the different stakeholders . . . The local population should have a special place at the table . . . (183).
    • The Precautionary Principle: This principle (as expressed by the Rio Declaration of 1992) 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.” 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).

FOR DISCUSSION

  1. How does the message of Pope Francis’ encyclical make you feel? Hopeful? Discouraged?
  2. In your opinion does the pope step outside the area of “faith and morals” by addressing issues such as climate change and its relationship to capitalism-as-we-know it?
  3. How is climate change a matter of moral concern?
  4. Is the pope correct in subordinating the rights of private property to the common good?
  5. What might that subordination mean in practice?
  6. How is climate change connected with your faith?
  7. What alternatives to capitalism-as-we-know-it can you think of?
  8. What would happen if climate-change deniers applied the pope’s Precautionary Principle to climate change?

The Advent Project of Pope Francis (and Jesus): A World without War by Christmas! (Sunday Homily)

Evangelii-Gaudium-Image

Readings for First Sunday in Advent: IS 2: 1-5; PS 122: 1-9; ROM 13: 11-14; MT 24: 37-44 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120113.cfm

Isn’t it amazing how quickly the world changes? At times radical transformation happens so rapidly that we can miss the significance of events unfolding right before our eyes. One of those events occurred last week. Pope Francis astonished the world by publishing a revolutionary platform (Evangelii Gaudium) for his papacy, church and world. In doing so he is the first world leader among the global elite to call corporate globalization by its true name (systematized murder). As a result, 1.2 billion Catholics suddenly find themselves challenged about the free market, “trickle-down” theory, world hunger and poverty, the roots of terrorism, the unacceptability of war, the surveillance state and obsession of the rich with “defense” and “security.” All of those familiar elements were thoroughly rejected by the pope.

If Catholic Christians (and other fellow-travelers) were to embrace the pope’s message, history’s door would suddenly fling itself open to truly radical change. It would mean for the first time since the 4th century Christians would embrace “the way” of Jesus as opposed to that of Caesar, Constantine and their Euro-American successors. A world at peace would at last be possible.

Today’s liturgy of the word, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to envision such an unabashedly utopian world. Evangelii Gaudium makes that vision even more compelling and somehow brings it within reach.

Yes, a utopian world! It’s the Judeo-Christian vision. It’s the vision of Pope Francis.

Take the initial reading for this first Sunday of Advent. There the prophet Isaiah identifies Jerusalem as a Center of Peace. He does so in the most unlikely of circumstances – at a time when the city and the entire Kingdom of Judah (as well as the Northern Kingdom of Israel) finds itself under imminent threat from the Assyrian Empire. The threat obscured the vision of Isaiah’s contemporaries –but not the prophet’s.

Despite the fog of war, Isaiah can still see Jerusalem (and the world) as he wants them to be – as he thinks God wants them to be. Jerusalem suddenly becomes a harbinger of a place and time when war will completely disappear from the face of the earth. Then, Isaiah says, resources for battle will be reinvested in agriculture and forestry. Swords will be turned to plows and pruning hooks. No nation will rise against any other. Military training camps will be abolished. An era of light, the prophet promises, will have dawned with Jerusalem (City of Peace) as its center.

Urban renewal with a vengeance will result. That’s what today’s responsorial psalm (# 122) says. It had us chanting “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.” The psalm goes on: Let us go to Jerusalem for it is not only a City of Peace, but of the prosperity that inevitably follows the abolition of war and the reinvestment of military resources. Jerusalem’s infrastructure is completely rebuilt. It is as if (in the psalmist’s words) peace had penetrated the city’s very walls and the stones of its buildings. It’s the result of people reinvesting resources in peace, internalizing peaceful aspirations, and adopting the mantra “May peace be within your walls, prosperity in your buildings . . . “Peace be within you!” Action follows thought.

In Chapter 13 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul agrees. He takes up Isaiah’s theme of peacemaking as “walking in light.” If you insist on arming yourselves, he says, let it be with light. This is a reference to the Enlightened Jesus. “Walking in Light,” Paul says, means embodying the Christ’s very presence. So Paul urges us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ” – as if he were a garment – so that all who see us find themselves looking at Princesses and Princes of Peace. Paul contrasts walking in light with working in darkness – idolizing pleasure along with competition, jealousy, blind consumption, and drunken oblivion that saps awareness of who we really are. These are the very evils Pope Francis identified as underlying corporate globalization’s systematized oppression.

Finally today’s gospel excerpt from Matthew calls us away from business as usual – the business of war. It challenges us to choose between destroying ourselves and working for the advent of God’s Kingdom.

We stand on the cusp of a new era, Jesus insists – a new beginning as radical as the new world facing Noah after the Great Flood. As then, today’s order is about to be destroyed, Jesus warns. (And it was, when Rome invaded Israel and turned Jerusalem to a pile of rubble.)

It doesn’t have to be that way, the Master insists. Instead of war’s destruction, there could be universal peace. Jesus called it “The Kingdom of God” – what the world would be like if the Parent of All were King – instead of Caesar, the great patron of war and oppression. Like Isaiah’s, Jesus’ vision too is utopian. In God’s Kingdom each treats the other as kin – as sister, brother, friend, and lover. The Golden Rule applies. The earth’s resources are shared, not horded or carelessly destroyed. There are no poor, because everything is shared in common, just as happened in the idealized community of Jesus’ earliest followers (Acts 2:44, 4:32, 5:9).

That Kingdom (or its opposite – it’s up to us) will arrive sooner than we expect, Jesus promises, “like a thief in the night.” This means most might not even know a new era has dawned till after the dreams that sleepwalkers cherish have disappeared. If they don’t wake up, it may even seem that the somnambulants’ very selves have been “taken” – like the man in the field and the woman at the mill Jesus mentions. They simply vanish while their minds and hands are focused on work that then becomes irrelevant.

Like Jesus (and Pope Francis), Noah tried to warn such people about the karma they were creating for themselves. But they were asleep – in denial really – concerned merely with eating, drinking, starting families and laboring as though Noah’s warnings were nonsense.

But then . . . la deluge!

Of course, most progressives hearing all of this today are about as believing as Noah’s audience – or Jesus’ for that matter. We find it hard to believe that real positive change can happen to our world. The evil surrounding us seems so permanent; its forces so overwhelming. But that’s only because we’re asleep. “Wake up!” is the message of Isaiah, the psalmist, Paul and Jesus.

It we do so, it immediately becomes apparent that eras really do change – and sometimes for the better. And I’m not just referring to Evangelii Gaudium. Think about it. All of a sudden, it seems:

• The Soviet Union dissolves – unexpectedly in a matter of weeks. No one saw it coming.
• Someone in the neo-colonial world decides “enough!” and 9/11 happens. In a single day, everything changes. With minimum expenditure, in one fell swoop empire’s victims begin dismantling an “indestructible” behemoth.
• Similar frustrations erupt throughout the empire in rebellions that the imperialists are powerless to control. It’s called an “Arab Spring.” Alternatively, the rebellions are characterized as “terrorism.”
• The Big Brother, who controls by watching us, suddenly becomes the object of our scrutiny and surveillance, and empire’s credibility is lost seemingly overnight. (Thanks, Edward Snowden.)
• In response, empire’s order crumbles before our eyes with its “leaders” themselves doing most of the destroying. That is the elite respond to attacks by looting the empire’s treasuries while they still can. They dismantle everything that made the empire proud. They destroy the basis of their country’s wealth – its infrastructure, the “freedoms of its citizens,” their jobs, the empire’s very Constitution. (Meanwhile, those responsible for 9/11 stand in the wings and laugh.)
• Nature itself cooperates and sympathetically unleashes its fury on a way of life that interferes with her laws. Mountains are literally moved as ice and glaciers melt. The corresponding world-wide deluge gives new meaning to Jesus’ reference to Noah in this morning’s gospel selection.
• Suddenly the imperial order finds itself discarded on the ashbin of history along with its counterparts – most recently Great Britain and the Soviet Union.

Will our future simply be more of the same with some other empire replacing the old one? Or will the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and 2.5 billion Christians in total finally wake up, truly follow the Enlightened Jesus, and transform the world – as the pope has invited us to do?

That’s the Advent project set before us today!

What will you do this week – what will I do – to hasten the advent of the world without war that Isaiah, Paul and the Prince of Peace imagined?

(Discussion follows.)