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

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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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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.

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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).

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  • 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?

Pope Urges Catholic Parishes to Take in Refugees

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I woke up this morning to a promising Washington Post headline. It read: “Pope Urges Europe’s Catholics to take in Syrian refugees.” There he goes again, I thought.

The article described how Pope Francis “has called on ‘every’ parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family – an appeal that, if honored, would offer shelter to tens of thousands.”

Of course the vast majority of such migrants are “illegal” in the eyes of governments where the invited parishes, etc. are located.

The pope implied that Jesus’ attitude towards “the stranger” overrides such legislation. The Master’s words in MT 25:35 have him identifying with immigrants (and the hungry, naked, homeless, and imprisoned) and basing the entire final judgment on the way we treat such people. He says: “. . . I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,”

The pope’s appeal comes at a time when immigration along with climate change is a hotly contested issue not only in Europe, but here in the United States.

Of course, the entire panoply of Republican candidates (including the six of them who claim to be “devout Catholics”) consists not only of climate change deniers, but of candidates trying to outdo one another on the issue of excluding immigrants from our borders. Catholic candidates include Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio and George Pataki. Now they specifically diverge from the Pope not just on climate change, but on immigration as well.

Just yesterday, another ardent Christian, Sarah Palin, brought climate change and immigration together in typical GOP fashion. She told CNN that refugees from Mexico not only “better be legal,” but should be made to speak “American,” rather than “Mexican.” She sides with Donald Trump’s plan to build an exclusionary wall along the border. She also aspires to be Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Energy – a position she would embrace enthusiastically “because energy is my baby – oil and gas and minerals, those things that God has dumped on this part of the Earth for mankind’s use. . .”

Of course, Pope Francis words yesterday put him on the side of immigrants and against exclusionists. He invites his flock of 1.2 billion to follow suit. He also expressly rejects Palin’s reading of God’s mind about why the Creator “dumped” gas, oil, and minerals on Earth.

According to his eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, using the narratives of Genesis to encourage “the unbridled exploitation of nature” is an incorrect interpretation of the Bible (67). “Clearly,” the pope adds, the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism that would encourage the “drill, baby, drill” approach regardless of its effects on the planet (68).

But the pope’s words about welcoming immigrants struck even closer to home.  For years I’ve been wondering what it might take to awaken Catholics to the revolutionary power of the Gospel.

In my own Catholic parish, we find ourselves mired in a detached, decontextualized version of faith that ignores the world’s real problems.

Pope Francis represents the exact opposite trend. Yet despite his invitation to “change everything” issued in The Joy of the Gospel nearly two years ago, and in spite of the urgency of Laudato Si’, nothing at our local level changes.

Yesterday’s papal invitation shows us how to get off the dime. He suggests something practical for every parish to do: welcome at least one immigrant family from the detention centers on our own borders. House and feed them. Be a prophetic example to the exclusionists. Join with other (non-Catholic) churches to do the same.

The infrastructure is there: churches that are used for just a few hours each week, parish basements and halls that are similarly idle most of the time. Also, many of us have space in our own homes – or own second houses – that might similarly provide housing for Jesus presenting himself to us as an immigrant.

Our little parish of St. Clare in Berea, Kentucky has a Peace and Social Justice Committee of 20 highly committed people. We’re meeting next Sunday to plan our gala “Watch Party” on September 27th to see the Pope’s address our Congress and the U.N.

Now in the light of the pope’s invitation to open our buildings to immigrant families, we have something else to discuss and act upon.

Accepting Pope Francis’ invitation could move our parish to truly begin “changing everything.”

Can you imagine what would happen, if the families we accepted were Muslim instead of Christian?

Thank you, Pope Francis.

Oscar Romero’s Message: Another God Is Possible; Another God Is Necessary!

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(This is the second in a three-part series on our parish’s upcoming celebration of the beatification of San Oscar Romero which will take place on May 23rd. The event will be observed in Berea’s St. Clare’s parish on June 3rd, when our new bishop, John Stowe, will join us.)

In the previous installment of this mini-series inspired by the upcoming beatification of El Salvador’s Oscar Romero, I offered a thumb-nail sketch of the great archbishop’s life. Romero’s witness has been inspiring for many, including Lexington’s new bishop, John Stowe. (As I said, think of the thoughts that must have coursed through the bishop’s mind as he celebrated Mass recently at the very altar where Oscar Romero was shot. We look forward to his sharing those thoughts on June 3rd when he joins our local church to celebrate Monsignor Romero’s beatification.)

In fact, Monsignor Romero’s story should be encouraging to each of us because of its life-changing implications. It connects perfectly with the message of Pope Francis in his “Joy of .the Gospel.” Both tell us that political and spiritual transformation is not only possible; it is necessary to save our world.

First of all consider the example of Oscar Romero. His change was profound both politically and religiously. In both dimensions, he became a radical, like Jesus of Nazareth.

Remember, Monsignor Romero started out conservative in every sense of the word. To a large extent, that’s why he was appointed archbishop in 1977. Romero was considered safe. He was patriotic. He unquestioningly supported his country’s military. He looked on the widespread rebellion of the poor in El Salvador with great suspicion. He considered the would-be revolutionaries communist subversives.

And yet, the archbishop had this close friend on the opposite side of the political fence. He helped Romero grow. That friend was Rutilio Grande. Grande was a Jesuit who took very seriously his vow of poverty.

So the priest moved out of the parish rectory and lived with the poor in their barrio slums. He knew first-hand their struggles, their family break-downs, their unemployment, hunger, low wages, and harassment by local police. Those became his issues, his context for interpreting the Gospel of Jesus.

Even more, Grande knew the Salvadoran military’s strategy for defeating the country’s impoverished insurgents. It was simply this: kill everyone who might possibly be sympathetic to rebel forces. That meant targeting most of the country’s non-elite. It meant butchering many of their parish priests. For Rutilio Grande, the slogan of the White Hand death squad represented an everyday reality and threat: “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”

Eventually, of course, the White Hand killed Father Grande himself. It was his martyrdom that pushed Oscar Romero over the edge and radicalized him. He utterly abandoned his conservatism. He would later say, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead, I thought, ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” (The “they” Archbishop Romero referred to was his own government, its military, and their backers in the United States.)

So Archbishop Romero started listening to the poor. He attended their “biblical circles,” where peasants shared their thoughts about Sunday gospel readings. Once after listening to simple farmers sharing thoughts about “The Parable of the Sower,” the archbishop stood up without comment and walked away from the group. The local priest followed him and asked anxiously, “What’s the matter, Monsignor, did something offend you?”

“No,” the archbishop responded, “quite the opposite. It’s just that I think I’ve heard the Gospel of Jesus today for the first time.”

This is where Romero’s Other Gospel, Other Jesus, Other God comes in. The archbishop discovered that when poor people read the Bible, they see things that remain invisible for people like us who tend to be white, comfortable, patriarchal, and supportive of empire.

Jesus was none of those things, the archbishop realized. He was brown or black, poor, a victim of empire, and counter-culturally open to the viewpoints and experience of women. Those factors constituted the Master’s standpoint. They deeply influenced how he saw the world.

More specifically, Jesus stood on the same ground as El Salvador’s poor (and by extension, the poor of today’s Global South). He was conceived out of wedlock by a teenage mother. He was an immigrant in Egypt for a while. He was a working man with calloused hands and sweat-stained clothes. His friends, people said, were drunkards and prostitutes. Rabbis expelled Jesus from the synagogue, and thought he was diabolically possessed. Even his family thought he was insane. Jesus became a vagrant without visible means of support. He lived under an oppressive empire. Imperial authorities saw him as an insurgent and terrorist. He ended up a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

All those characteristics, Archbishop Romero realized, described Another Jesus that to him was far more compelling, inspiring and faithful to the gospels than the abstract and other-worldly Jesus elaborated in the theological texts that guided his doctoral studies in Rome.

So San Romero concluded that the poor knew Jesus more deeply and authentically than he ever could. (They had what scholars called a “hermeneutical privilege.”)

The Jesus of the Poor revealed that Other God who alone could save El Salvador. Fidelity to that same Jesus can save our world from the path to destruction we’ve embarked upon. (And this is where Pope Francis’ continuity with Romero’s vision comes in.)

Francis too has chosen to prioritize the experience and understanding of the world that belong to its poor. In doing so, he challenges our very idea of God. He evokes the Other God who alone can save us from the abyss.. For the pope, God is not neutral, but stands with the poor in their struggles against oppression. What does it mean, he asks implicitly, that God chose the poor, oppressed and despised as the primary site of his Self-revelation?

It means the poor of the world are God’s Chosen People. That answer has led Pope Francis to be the voice of the voiceless. And he does so even at risk of being called a communist. In this, he’s like Dom Helder Camara the late and sainted bishop of Recife in Brazil. Dom Helder said, “When I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why the hungry have no food, they call me a communist.”

Pope Francis does more than ask Dom Helder’s question. In his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (J.G.), he answers it. I’ll tell you what causes poverty, he says. It’s the reigning economic system that is homicidal (J.G. 53), and unjust at its roots (59). It’s allegiance to the “trickle down” ideology of the rich – a theory that has never worked (53). The world really belongs to the poor, the pope insists (57). The rich who refuse to return to the impoverished what is rightfully theirs are robbers and thieves (57). The rights of the poor take precedence over those of private property (189).

The pope’s choice to be the voice of the voiceless extends to the environment as well to impoverished humans. Watch for his encyclical on climate change to be published sometime next month. There he’ll surely give voice to the planet’s animals, plants, mountains, forests, rivers, and oceans. In the face of climate change, he warns us, “God always forgives. Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.” So what’s the proper response to the challenges of Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and (we hope) Bishop Stowe? As I see it, proper response entails:

  • Leaving behind the safety of contemporary Christianity’s conservative ways.
  • Committing to a path of parish renewal and personal faith development intent on acquainting ourselves with the biblical God of the poor.
  • Viewing the world and its conflicts from below – from the viewpoint of the Other Jesus embraced by Monsignor Romero – from that of unwed mothers like Miryam of Nazareth, of immigrants, the mentally unbalanced, sex workers, the homeless, insurgents, terrorists and those being water-boarded and executed by the state.
  • Recognizing that with 1.2 billion members world-wide, a Catholic Church attuned to the spirits of Oscar Romero and Pope Francis has unlimited potential for changing the world.
  • Embracing that change as our collective vocation.
  • Abandoning pet convictions that national allegiance, military action, and trickle-down theories will solve our world’s problems.
  • Embracing the Other Jesus of the poor
  • His Other God
  • And the Other World that Oscar Romero, Pope Francis, and Jesus proclaim as the very essence of God’s Kingdom.