Monday, June 29, 2015

At the Shore

There is nothing quite like being back at the shore of the Atlantic ocean! For me, being by the ocean is an almost mystical experience, simultaneously relaxing, refreshing, and exhilarating. 

Of course, one of the consequences of climate change is how the oceans may become more threatening to coastal communities - as Hurricane Sandy illustrated in this region just three years ago. But, growing up in New York at a different time, the ocean was generally seen as our great friend (as well as a supreme source of relief from summer's heat). 

The Jersey Shore was the sight of our spring retreat in the novitiate, our community-wide retreat in the last Jubilee Year, and another on-the-boardwalk retreat for our community's 150th in 2008. For now at least, the ocean still seems more friend than foe. It remains a perfect setting for a retreat!

So this week, Paulist priests and seminarians from all over the country are gathering at the Redemptorist Retreat House in Long Branch, NJ, on the famous Jersey Shore for what I anticipate will be a wonderful community retreat in observance of the current “Year of Consecrated Life.” This special “Year of Consecrated Life” is a gift to all religious communities from Pope Francis, who is himself a lifelong member of an Institute of Consecrated Life, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). 

In his message in preparation for this year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis identified three aims for the year. They are “to look to the past with gratitude,” “to live the present with passion,” and “to embrace the future with hope.” These three aims will form the thematic focus for our community retreat this week in the relaxing, refreshing, and exhilarating atmosphere of the amazing Atlantic ocean. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

150 Years Late

As weeks go in our nation, this has been one of the more transformational ones. A great debate has unexpectedly been unleashed in the country after the recent shooting tragedy at a Charleston church. And, as a result of that debate, the confederate flag may finally be lowered from its place of dubious honor at South Carolina's Statehouse - and hopefully elsewhere. Along with politicians, several corporate entities are also finally taking welcome action against the confederate flag. And, at yesterday's funeral of the church's pastor, who was also a state senator, the President of the United States, who knew him personally, spoke movingly and powerfully about removing the confederate flag.

At last! It's only 150 years since the United States defeated the rebellion whose treason against the United States that flag is a symbol and hateful reminder of. It is also a symbol not just of treason against the United States but of a history and culture of vicious and violent racist oppression, that sadly did not quite come to an end with the rebellion's defeat in 1865 but survived another century in Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and other evils. That that flag remains a living emblem of racial hatred is evident even from the circumstances of its reappearance at the South Carolina Statehouse in 1962 - as a symbol of regional resistance. That the flag still flies today, 150 years after Appomattox, highlights how the Civil War continues in our country, in spite of the the overwhelming military victory of the United States in 1865.

The confederate flag belongs in history museums and perhaps in civil war theme parks. It - and the ideology of racist oppression it represents - have no place in the public square. The Civil War settled once and for all which flag flies in this country's public places.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Chief Justice Saves Health Care for Us All - Again

King v. Burwell was a case so strange, so transparently and cynically ideological in its proponents' motivation, that the Court should probably never have taken it up in the first place. But then, having heard the case, the Supreme Court, by a decisive 6-3 vote, came to the clearly correct conclusion. And once again, it was Chief Justice Roberts, who stated the obvious: "Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”

In our system, the interpretation of legislative texts is inevitably one of the tasks of the Judiciary. And it can be a challenge - especially given what the Chief Justice noted are the Affordable Care Act's "more than a few cases of inartful drafting." But, in the end no matter how poorly written the statute and its infamous four words admittedly were, it was - as the Court's majority readily recognized - Congress's clear intent to increase the public's access to health insurance and to provide people with the financial subsidies necessary to enable them to purchase insurance on the exchanges that were to be created across the country. Of course, Congress probably had expected that most states would create such exchanges, as they likewise must have expected that most states would expand Medicaid. That so many states have failed to do so is a sad commentary on our pathetic politics, and on an opposition party committed to denying people access to affordable health insurance. 

Contemporary legislation tends to be very long and complex and probably contains many examples of "inartful drafting.". All the more reason, it seems to me, to take intent seriously, to take seriously what those who voted for the law evidently intended they were accomplish by passing it - in this case, making it possible for those who could not otherwise afford health insurance to do so with the help of a federal subsidy. In the end this logic was obvious to the majority of the Court - in fact, to all but its three most eccentric ideologues.

Obviously the most important result of this decision is that some 6.4 million Americans who have - in many cases, for the first time - acquired adequate health insurance thanks to the availability of federal subsidies need not now fear losing their insurance. But this result also means a further stabilizing of the new "Obamacare" status quo. It means many more Americans will continue to experience and become accustomed to the benefits of the law, which will, of course, make it harder and harder in the future for anyone to take access to affordable health care away from them. The opposition surely understands that. Everyone remembers what happened with Social Security in the 1930s. Like Social Security, "Obamacare" is now here to stay. And the nation is that much better because of it!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

High School + 50

High School may have been for some the happy highpoint of their lives. (I have heard about such people, but honestly I don't think I know any.) For others, it may have been the opposite. For most, it was likely somewhere in between. I, for one, have occasionally expressed the opinion that, if only one could magically just fall asleep for a few years, and then wake up ready to go to college or get a serious job, having missed high school in the process, he or she would have acquired the benefits of living through the high school years without the pain of actually having to experience them! 

Certainly high school was not the happiest period of my life! But it was hardly hell on earth either. As with so many life experiences, my memories are more mixed than univocal. And even apparently painful experiences typically seem less so with the passage of time! And, if on the one hand I didn't make too many friends in high school, on the other I did meet my best life-long friend there. I also experienced some teachers who were model priests, who undoubtedly (if indirectly and unknowingly) contributed to my own eventual vocation. So, on this 50th anniversary of my high school graduation, I want to recall some of my better memories of that time and place.

It may not have been the best of times, but it was far from the worst of times. In fact, for many in my parents' and teachers' generation, people who had grown up during the Depression and come to maturity during the Second World War, the early 1960s may well have seemed to them to be the best of times. And some of that contentment - or complacency - certainly rubbed off on us!

While bullying and social stratification were as endemic in high schools then as they probably had always been before then, adolescence was not yet quite so completely cut off from adult culture, and much of what we experienced socially at school and outside of school was, for better or for worse, relatively congruent with the way things were in the wider world. The fact that we were such a relatively small school probably further reinforced that congruence, separating us even less from the wider world.

Most of us had known each other already for years before in grade school (from which, incidentally, I also graduated on this date - exactly 54 years ago). So high school was also in many ways a continuation of and congruent with parish life - at a time and place when the parish was largely identical with the neighborhood, which for most of us most of the time was almost identical with the world. 

If it was parochial in the good sense, it was perhaps also a bit parochial in the other sense. Certainly, the education on offer could hardly have compared with New York's famous specialized selective high schools such as Bronx Science or Stuyvesant, or of the famous Jesuit scholarship-only Regis High School. Perhaps the education on offer in those other institutions would have challenged me more effectively, broadened my horizons more, and better prepared me intellectually for City College and Princeton (neither of which were yet anywhere in my sights on graduation day). Who can say? Certainly, however, it was academically as good as what was available in most ordinary high schools at the time, both Catholic and public. And who is to say that I would have been remotely ready yet for the intellectual and emotional challenges those more prestigious high schools might have offered?

In short, like so much of life, it could have been better, but it could have been worse. And the fact that my future almost immediately turned out in some ways so different from what high school seemed to be preparing me for is itself also just part of the mystery of human life in a messy unpredictable world.

But, as I said, it was also parochial in the good sense. It reinforced historic communal values that would continue to form and motivate me - personally and socially, morally and religiously. 

I quickly lost contact with most of my high school class and so have only limited information about how they have fared over the years. In recent years (thanks to Facebook), I have managed to reconnect with a few of them. Some, I know, have died, as have several of my teachers and both principals. May they all rest in peace! (Or, as we would have said back then, Requiescant in pace!). I will be offering my Mass today for all my elementary and high school classmates and teachers, living and dead, wherever they may be, and whatever directions their lives may have taken them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (6)

The 6th and final chapter, Ecological Education and Spirituality, centers on the change that must occur in human beings themselves. Reminiscent of his earlier Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wants us to get out of ourselves. "We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other. Unless we do this, other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment" (208).

Young people in particular, the Pope warns, "have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism and affluence which makes it difficult to develop other habits" (209) Hence the importance of "cultivating sound virtues" which will facilitate "selfless ecological commitment" (211). Again it seems that the solution to the problems of the present lies in a retrieval of what humanity learned long ago!

Hence, he recommends recovering "the rich heritage of Christian spirituality" (216). Invoking Saint Francis of Assisi again, Pope Francis reminds the world "that a healthy relationship with creation is one dimension of overall personal conversion, which entails the recognition of our errors, sins, faults and failures, and leads to heartfelt repentance and desire to change" (218).

Since our present predicament is rooted in the human desire for more, which presupposes more mastery over the world, the Pope makes a case for the virtue of humility. "Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. it is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong" (224). Of course, that is a good description of where our culture has moved in the last century especially. The Pope acknowledges that cultural movement in the opening sentence of that same paragraph on humility: "Sobriety and humility were not favorably regarded in the last century." 

Indeed not, which is why that memorable line will likely not become a popular soundbite in the secular media! That in turn, of course, is what makes it less likely that the next century will be any different!

The personal conversion he proposes points to a retrieval of authentic civil society rooted in religious virtue and practice. "We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it" (229).

As he brings his encyclical to its close, Pope Francis invites us to focus on such basics as saying Grace before and after meals (227), an intensified appreciation of the sacraments, "a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life" (235), and the observance of Sunday, "a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world" (237).

The encyclical concludes with two prayers, a more generic prayer to God the Creator and a more explicitly Trinitarian Christian prayer "to take up the commitment to creation set before us by the Gospel of Jesus" (246).

Laudato Si' is long and repetitive. Reading it takes time and requires some patience. But, unlike the more philosophical prose of Saint john Paul II, for example, it is relatively accessible to the average reader, who takes the time to engage it, not primarily as a work of political philosophy or economic theory or as a program of public policy proposals, but as an invitation to conversion of heart, mind, and will. To read it effectively, therefore, one must the time necessary to absorb its underlying theological principles and its religious challenge to transformational spiritual conversion.

Fittingly, it is worth noting that the official date of the encyclical was Pentecost Sunday, the day when the Church recalls its own birth in the Risen Lord's gift of the Holy Spirit, the beginning of the Church's mission to continue Christ's life and work in our world. This encyclical is intended - and should be received as - another contribution of the Church's magisterium to that continuation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (5)

In Laudato Si' Chapter 5, fittingly entitled Lines of Approach and Action, Pope Francis becomes even more overtly prescriptive. In light of the encyclical's analysis so far, he proposes now "to outline the major paths of dialogue which can help us escape the spiral of self-destruction which currently engulfs us" (163). My own sense is that dialogue is generally seen as a soft and, in a context like this, a somewhat invitational word. Clearly, the Pope is not proposing solutions on his own, as if the papal magisterium standing alone offered detailed answers to all complex political, economic, and cultural questions. Obviously, these problems can only be solved by bringing many elements together in common effort, an effort this encyclical clearly proposes to advance, but cannot by itself replace.

First. Francis looks at the "Dialogue" that has been taking place in the international community. He acknowledges he modest advances that have been made, citing specific conferences and international protocols. Still,"Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world" and he labels our "postindustrial period" as "one of the most irresponsible in history" (165). He unhesitatingly advocates the progressive replacement of fossil-fuel technology "without delay" (165) and opposes buying and selling "carbon credits" as "a ploy which permits maintaining the excessive consumption of some countries and sectors" (171). The latter seems to reflect his sensitivity to the situation of poorer countries - as does his concern about respecting other states' sovereignty (173).

Turning to the "Dialogue" needed within individuals countries, the Pope challenges "the myopia of power politics." Short-sighted "politics concerned with immediate results, supported by consumerist sectors of the population, is driven to produce short-term growth. In response to electoral interests, governments are reluctant to upset the public with measures which could affect the level of consumption or create risks for foreign investment" (178). And, in a comment that could easily characterize the condition of our own American politics (especially in the wake of Citizens United), the Pope warns: "Unless citizens control political power - national, regional and municipal - it will not be possible to control damage to the environment" (179). "The mindset which leaves no room for sincere concern for the environment is the same mindset which lacks concern for the inclusion fo the most vulnerable members of society" (196).

Secular commentators try to pigeon-hole popes and their pronouncements in the secular categories of liberal vs. conservative (or progressive vs. traditional, etc.)  But such modern, secular political categories inevitably fall far short. Unlike liberals and conservatives, who have their respective political constituencies whose interests they seek to advance, the Church's magisterium is ultimately not based on winning constituents' votes but on proclaiming the Gospel. In classical Catholic political philosophy, economics is understood to be subordinate to politics and both to ethics. The right relation among economics, politics, and ethics is inevitably and inherently foundational dimension of any debate about the environment and indeed any aspect of contemporary public policy.

"Politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy. Today, in view of the common good, there is urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life." For example, the 2008 financial crisis "provided an opportunity to develop a new economy, more attentive to ethical principles, and new ways of regulating speculative financial practices and virtual wealth. But the response to the crisis did not include rethinking the outdated criteria which continue to rule the world" (189).

Given the failure of the political system to respond in a transformational way to the 2008 financial crisis, one can only wonder what it would take to get it to respond adequately to the environmental crisis. "The environment is one of those goods that cannot be adequately safeguarded by market forces" (190).

The overall takeaway from this section of the encyclical is the strong restatement of the principle that "economics without politics cannot be justified" (196), but that our politics today is largely broken by its subservience to interests inimical to the common good and the most vulnerable members of society, which obstructs the enactment of "sound public policies" and bring politics itself into "disrepute" (197).

Monday, June 22, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (4)

Continuing on to the encyclical's Chapter 4, Integral Ecology, Pope Francis is seeking "a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis" (137). Again, foundational to this approach is the sense of the interrelatedness of nature and society. "Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it" (139). Thus, "the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment" (141).

So, contrary to those who would ignore the issue, the care of our common home requires renewed and explicit attention to the natural environment, but that attention cannot be isolated from such social, political, and cultural concerns as drug use (142), the homogenization of the local and historical variety of cultures as a consequence of consumerism (143-145), and also "special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions" (146).

Our modern world is an increasingly urbanized one; and it is my impression at least that this is increasingly especially so in the developing world (which, of course, is where Pope Francis comes from). This is an urban pope from the global south, who understands the challenges of contemporary urban living, especially in the mega-cities of the developing world. "The feeling of asphyxiation brought on by densely populated residential area is countered if close and warm relationships develop, if communities are created, if the limitations of the environment are compensated for in the interior of each person who feels held within a network of solidarity and belonging" (148). As an urbanite, born and bred, myself, I find myself resonating particularly with his diagnoses of urban living's challenges. In particular, I applaud the priority he accords to public transportation (153), which is, I am convinced, a critical ingredient in maintaining the genuinely communitarian character of urban living.

Recalling Vatican II's definition of the common good in Gaudium et Spes, Pope Francis highlights this traditional moral notion of the common good as "a central and unifying principle of social ethics" (156). That, of course, is what this encyclical is - a teaching on social ethics, an exercise of the Church's moral magisterium.

In keeping with this foundational principle of the common good, Pope Francis recalls some traditional themes - the value of intermediate groups in society and in particular the family (157) and again "the universal destination of the world's goods" and "an immense appreciation of the dignity of the poor in the light of our deepest convictions as believers" (158).

The environmental crisis particularly highlights our (increasingly neglected) responsibility to future generations. "Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others" (159) The Pope identifies our current difficulties in fully facing up to this challenge "with an ethical and cultural decline which has accompanied the deterioration of the environment. Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today's self-centered culture of instant gratification" (162).

The encyclical seems to keep circling back to this theme, so central to the traditional biblical diagnosis of the human condition and to much of the tradition of political philosophy enshrined in Catholic Social Teaching. As one of my canon law professors once remarked decades ago, when certain points get repeated with regularity that is a good indication of their importance!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (3)

Having witnessed to the empirical facts of what is actually being observed in the environment of our common home and then having put forward the theological premise from which the Church speaks to address what she observes, the Pope now turns in Chapter 3 to The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis, which the Holy Father locates in "the dominant technocratic paradigm and the place of human beings and of human action in the world" (101).

Whatever our views on technology, few (if any) of us actually aspire to be Luddites. Like most of us, Pope Francis recognizes and appreciates the multiple benefits human life and society have reaped from technological advances. "The modification of nature for useful purposes has distinguished the human family from the beginning" (102). And, in a sure-to-be cited soundbite, he says: "Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age" (114). That said, however, it must be recognized that modern progress has given humanity unprecedented power. Pope Francis quotes Romano Guardini: "contemporary man has not been trained to use power well" (105). It is in this human misuse of the power provided by technological advances that the problem lies, in "the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm." One harmful consequence has been the acceptance by "economists, financiers and experts in technology" of "the idea of unlimited growth" - an idea the Pope bluntly labels as "based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth's goods" (106).

Reading this section transports me back to New Jersey in the mid-1970s. It reminds me of a research project of one of my professors that I was somewhat associated with in graduate school and that pushed me further in my very brief academic career to examine the intersections of religion and political philosophy to articulate alternatives to abundance. In other words, these issues are not new. We are, as a world-wide human community, just very late in seriously addressing them!

Then as now, it has been my experience that, when we talk about such subjects, we easily lapse into mystified language (e.g,, market forces), which obscure human agency and the service of special interests. In contrast, the Holy Father explicitly de-mystifies what ideology and politics have aspired to hide. Thus, he asserts "technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups" (107).

In keeping with the encyclical's style, certain themes are repeated and certain points of controversy regularly returned to. Thus the Pope again defends Christian anthropology from misinterpretation as "a Promethean vision of mastery over the world" (116) and again separates his teaching from imbalanced "biocentrism" (118). Again, he explicitly links healing our relationship with nature with "healing all fundamental human relationships" (119), and adds another explicit condemnation of abortion (120). "Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion" (120). Likewise, when warning against new boundary-breaking biological technologies, he specifically warns against experimentation on embryos, for "the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development" and "technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power" (136)

And again, addressing the value of work and the need to protect employment, the encyclical follows very traditional ground, citing Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes), Blessed Paul VI (Populorum Progressio), Saint John Paul II (Laborem Exercens), and Benedict XVI (Caritas in Veritate). Personally, I was particularly pleased to see an acknowledgment of the revolutionary character of monasticism's valuing of manual labor (126) and the mention of Blessed Charles d Foucauld's "rich and balanced understanding of the meaning of work" (125).

All in all, the takeaway from this section seems to me to be a very traditional Catholic critique of the dominant technocratic paradigm, enriched by what we might call some pointed political and economic interest-group analysis.

One final observation that struck me rather vividly was the Pope's criticism of much contemporary architecture. "If architecture reflects the spirit of an age," Francis writes in words which might delight that famous critic of 20th-century architecture, the Prince of Wales, "our megastructures and drab apartment blocks express the spirit of globalized technology, where a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony" (113). In that same spirit, what might one say about the multitude of ugly modern churches, more reminiscent of commercial shopping outlets than sites to inspire life-enhancing worship of the transcendent?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (2)

If Laudato Si's first takeaway (a technological-sounding neologism which I genuinely detest, but which I will use here because it works and everyone understands it) is that environmental degradation and climate change (and their assorted human and social casualties) are really happening and beyond serious debate, then the second is that any serious solution must also be seriously spiritual. "If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language peculiar to it" (63). So the encyclical's second chapter, The Gospel of Creation, is thoroughly theological.

For faithful Christians, this is of course very familiar ground. The biblical account contrasts an idealized state of harmony (what we traditionally have termed original righteousness) with our actual, current sinful condition, in which our relationships with God, with one another, and with nature have become disordered and conflictual. In the history of the Church, Saint Francis has figured particularly prominently as an exemplary image of discipleship. Not surprisingly, therefore, Pope Francis recalls "that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture" between human beings and nature (66) 

Since the 1960s, it has become fashionable to blame Christianity for modern civilization's exploitative approach to nature (as well as for almost everything else that has gone wrong in history). The Pope rightly rejects this and reads the creation accounts as implying "a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature. Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. ... Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership" (67).

The Christian theology of creation is more just just some generic spirituality. It is a faith in a loving God who freely creates (77). The concept of creation clearly sets the Christian commitment to our common home apart from secularist understandings of the natural environment and humanity's place in relation to nature. "The biblical accounts of creation invite us to see each human being as a subject who can never be reduced to the status of an object" (81). Christian faith affirms both nature as God's creation and human freedom and responsibility. "If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress" (78). Clearly envisioning a future in which human beings are responsible subjects but also in which we have definitively left behind of the modern mythology of material progress is one of the repeated themes and fundamental challenges of the entire encyclical.

Creation is ultimately Christocentric. "The ultimate destiny of the universe is the fullness of God, which has already been attained by the risen Christ, the measure of the maturity of all things. ... The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things" (83).

In this understanding, the human person, though connected with all of creation and other living beings in an interdependent balance, remains at the center. But that centrality has ethical consequences. Thus, "we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst" (90). "Hence ever ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged" and highlighting "the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods" (93).

If the encyclical's first takeaway is the empirical reality of the problem and the second is the inherently spiritual need for a religious solution, rooted in the theology of creation bound up in the mystery of Christ, a third is the traditional Christian priority of the social. "The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property" (93). Only with such a social understanding of the human condition can we ever hope to care for our common created home.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reading Laudato Si' (1)

In this globalized age of greater-than-ever centralization of almost everything, encyclicals (and indeed all papal utterances regardless of their specific level of authority) are increasingly guaranteed to receive a lot of public attention. At the same time, contemporary papal encyclicals tend to be long and wordy, which - in this age of diminished attention spans - suggests they may be less likely to be read in full by all who should read them (which in the case of this most recent encyclical is really pretty much everybody). All of which puts a serious burden of responsibility of anyone who presumes to comment on it - whether in the form of  secular commentaries in the media or on the internet, or intra-Church commentaries in catechesis and preaching.

One of the reasons for the encyclical's length, of course, is the range of topics it addresses and the different perspectives from within which it addresses them. Thus, Chapter 1, What Is Happening To Our Common Home, is - as its title suggests - an opening dialogue with the facts as we can observe them in our world. It is intended as "a fresh analysis of our present situation, which is in many ways unprecedented in the history of humanity" (17). The Pope's goal is to bring the empirical reality of environmental degradation and climate change home to his readers in a very direct way, "to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it" (19).

In keeping with the by-now almost unanimous consensus of the world's scientists, the Pope recognizes "that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity" and "aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive used of fossil fuels" (23). Amazingly, I can remember first hearing about this threat in college - more than 40 years ago. What was then a dire possibility is now our contemporary reality!

In addition to pollution and climate change, the Pope presents data on the problem of access to safe drinkable water - which he calls "a basic and universal human right" (30) - the loss of biodiversity, the increasing decline in the quality of human life, and the increase in global inequality. He emphasizes that the human and the natural environments "deteriorate together" (48). Meanwhile, even as physical and social conditions deteriorate, he highlights the evident failures of our political leadership. He calls the weakness of political responses "remarkable," but recognizes what I would call the rather unremarkable reason: "too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected" (54)

And then there is the problem of false solutions. "At one extreme, we find those who doggedly uphold the myth of progress and tell us that ecological problems will solve themselves simply with the application of new technology and without any need for ethical considerations or deep change. At the other extreme are those  who view men and women and all their interventions as no more than a threat, jeopardizing the global ecosystem, and consequently the presence of human beings on the planet should be reduced and all forms of intervention prohibited" (60). Here in the US, I suppose we are all acutely aware of the former group, those "special interests and economic interests" which are loudly skeptical of even the existence of a problem and adamantly opposed to society's effectively addressing it. But the latter group against which he warns is also loud and is influential in the international scene. Hence the importance of the Pope's explicit rejection of those who see human population as the problem and propose to deal with it in immoral ways - e.g., "forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of 'reproductive health'" (50).

This first section is thus a call to "take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair" (61), but also following in the long tradition of Christian faith and Catholic Social Teaching a call to reject both of those anti-human extremes.

The motif of our home "falling into serious disrepair" has an obvious Franciscan resonance. It should alert us that any really true solution, while certainly both technological and political, must be religious at its center. So this first section, while necessary to identify the problem as the world is actually experiencing it, is but a preliminary to re-examining the problem from a more fundamentally radical - i.e., religious - perspective, which is what the rest of the document does.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

"On Care for Our Common Home"

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Laudato Si', 2).

This morning, Pope Francis issued his much awaited encyclical on the environment - Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home - explicitly identified by the Holy Father an addition to the body of the Church's social teaching (Laudato Si', 15). Its Italian title (“Praised be”) comes from the famous Canticle of the Creatures of Saint Francis of Assisi, a poetic prayer that captures especially effectively a core component of Saint Francis' spirituality, a spirituality the Pope is proposing for retrieval today. Meanwhile, both the problem and the solution find expression in the subtitle - On Care for Our Common Home. For indeed the earth is our home - our only home this side of eternity - and, like any home, it must be adequately and properly cared for. It is also our common home, For, as Pope Francis has again reminded us: The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property (Laudato Si', 93).

Most of us have already lived much of our livesunder the darkening shadow of environmental degradation and its consequences for the world and for the future of human life and civilization. Already in 1971, Blessed Pope Paul VI warned the world: “Due to an ill-considered exploitation of nature, humanity runs the risk of destroying it and becoming in turn a victim of this degradation” (Octagesima Adveniens, 21). As the evidence has piled up and the scientific understanding of what is happening has become more certain, subsequent popes – both Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI - have also addressed this crisis directly. Now Pope Francis has highlighted the Church’s concern by devoting an entire encyclical to this important topic, drawing on the insights of scientists, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders - among them (surely something of an innovation in a papa;l encyclical) statements on the subject made by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

As such documents increasingly tend to be, the encyclical is lengthy and detailed. Rich in substance, it warrants attentive reading and meditation. Having done a quick first-read today, I will be re-reading it reflectively in the days to come, commenting opportunely on its moral and political challenges to us as individuals and as societies. That is what we all will need to be doing - together - in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Cardinal Sarah's Surprising Suggestion

For a while, after the 2011 introduction of the revised translation of the Roman Missal, I regularly recited out loud the two Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation prayers at what (since 1969) is now called the Preparation of the Gifts. This was in order to memorize the new version more quickly and so minimize my chances of lapsing into the earlier language. Previously, I had usually (as the rubrics seem to prefer) said those prayers "in a low voice." Now that I am sufficiently comfortable with the present translation I have reverted to that practice. The two prayers are nice enough but don't really say that much. So there seems little benefit to be derived from overly highlighting them by going with the option of saying them aloud when there is no singing. 

The former Offertory prayers of the traditional Roman Rite were perhaps not all that superior - other than the Veni Sanctificator prayer to the Holy Spirit which used to be said between the In spiritu humilitatis (which we still say) and the Lavabo (which was retained, but in an abruptly abridged form). Nor were those prayers all that ancient, having entered into the various medieval sacramentaries rather late in the first millennium. Frankly, I've always found the case for replacing the older Offertory prayers with something simpler to be reasonably persuasive (except again in the case of the Veni Sanctificator), but not so persuasive as to believe that the change we actually got has significantly improved the rite. 

All of this, of course, prescinds from the heated ideological arguments on both sides of the debate about the older Offertory vs. the newer Preparation of the Gifts, arguments that are often really more about other issues - such as how explicitly sacrificial the language of the prayers needs to be or how much the prayers need to highlight either the distinct role of the priest celebrant in the sacrifice or the common role of the entire congregation in the sacrifice. To my mind, the Orate Fratres (now once again correctly translated) adequately addresses the latter issue - referring to one sacrifice simultaneously offered by both the priest and the people, while clearly acknowledging that they exercise separate ministries in the one offering (meum ac vestrum sacrificium).

So I was intrigued by the surprising suggestion recently put forward in L'Osservatore Romano by none other than Cardinal Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments:

It would also be desirable that the Penitential Rite and the Offertory of the “usus antiquior” be inserted as an enclosure in the next edition of the Missal with the aim of stressing that the two liturgical reforms illuminate one another, in continuity and with no opposition.

Honestly, I don't really see that happening (although since the prayers in question are all said silently it would have little noticeable effect - and so perhaps could happen). Personally, I think there are already too many options in the the rite and that any changes should be prescriptive. That said, I would be quite content to leave the current prayers in place, but I certainly wouldn't at all mind if they restored the Veni Sanctificator prayer to the Holy Spirit and possibly also (mainly on account of its antiquity) the Suscipe, Santa Trinitas that used to be said between the Lavabo and the Orate, Fratres. That, I think would be more than enough change and would also respond to all but the most ideologically extreme objections to the current  Offertory/Preparation rite. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Waiting for Laudato Si'

Laudato sie, mi Signore, cum tucte le Tue creature ("Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures"). For the first time in history a poetic prayer in medieval Umbrian dialect is providing the title for a papal encyclical - Pope Francis's second encyclical, eagerly being awaited by a world not much accustomed to appreciating papal pronouncements. Such pronouncements seem to have increased exponentially in both number and length in modern times; and, while both of Pope Francis' immediate predecessors were noted for their commitment to caring for the environment, this will be the first time an encyclical letter has been devoted completely to this important topic.

Apparently the Italian text (or at least an Italian text) of the encyclical has been leaked and is already in circulation on the Internet. How exactly that version will match up with the definitive official text to be released on Thursday we will just have to wait until then to find out! But, in the meantime, it seems fitting to reflect a bit on the Franciscan prayer the Pope has chosen to highlight by his choice of the encyclical's title. Unlike the unfortunately misnamed "Prayer of Saint Francis" (Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, etc.), which cannot be traced textually prior to the early 20th century, Francis's "Canticle of the Creatures" is authentically 13th century. First referred to by Thomas of Celano in 1228, the canticle is said to have been composed by Saint Francis himself in late 1224 at San Damiano. According to tradition, it was sung in its entirety by Saint Francis (along with two other Friars) on Francis' deathbed, when the final verse praising "Sister Death" was added. Whatever the details of the case, the famous canticle effectively captures a core component of Saint Francis' spiritual charism. (So much so that, on one of my various visits as a pilgrim to Assisi, the one souvenir I can recall purchasing was a small parchment copy of the canticle.)

Francis's famous references to Brother Sun and Sister Moon may, to a modern audience, contribute to a somewhat sentimentalized image of Francis. Some of Saint Francis' contemporary popularity is indeed connected with such a somewhat sentimentalized characterization of Francis as an animal-loving figure from some sort of medieval Disneyland.  But there was nothing frivolous about Francis (who preached to the animals) or about his vocation to rebuild a Church that appeared to be collapsing in ruins, anymore than there is anything frivolous about a commitment to reverse the human degradation of an increasingly ruined creation. Francis' famous references to Sun and Moon, Wind and Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and Death as Brothers and Sisters served to re-situate human beings within God's created order, something human beings have persistently resisted all the way back to Adam. Genesis recalls how human beings were placed within creation to cultivate and develop it; but that, as a result of sin, the relationship between human beings and the natural world has become an arena of conflict, in which merely eking out a living from the land is now fraught with so much difficulty, and which now, thanks to the modern degradation of the environment, is becoming even more difficult for the poorest. It was the attempt at separation from the creaturely condition that was at the heart of Adam's sin and is, morally speaking, at the root of the contemporary degradation of the environment. And a moral ill will require a moral cure in the form of conversion of heart. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Magna Carta at 800

Who knew, who could ever even have imagined, 800 years ago today, when a cabal of English feudal lords forced King John to sign the "great charter" (magna carta) "in the meadow that is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines," that we would still be talking about it today, that anyone would even remember it today, so many centuries later, so many wars, revolutions, and constitutional fixes later?

Magna Carta was certainly an important event in English history, even if historical interest in it has been disproportionately American. (It says something that the Magna Carta monument at Runnymede was erected only in the 1950s and by a bunch of American lawyers!) Magna Carta was important because it set the history of the English-speaking peoples in a direction that elevated the rule of law above the rule of the sovereign. One can, I suppose, speak of it as setting our history in the direction of limited, constitutional government. But limited government has now become an ideologically weighted term. To avoid its baggage, I prefer to speak of the rule of law, which is also, I believe, closer to the feudal spirit of the original document. There is, of course, a connection between privileging the rule of law over that of the sovereign and the principles of parliamentary and constitutional government that the English-speaking nations justly pride themselves in. But it is also quite a leap to get from England in 1215 to the political institutions and constitutional orders we have today in most of the English-speaking world. But political evolution has to start somewhere, and Magna Carta is certain a good place to begin.

On the other hand, what we have today is a constitutional regime rooted in individual rights. Magna Carta was not really about that. It was about the rule of law, and the law in question was largely feudal law. The rights it upheld were for the most part feudal rights, not abstract rights of man but customary rights that went with institutions in society and with persons as participants in those institutions. Magna Carta may have helped move the historical process in the direction it ended up, but it also witnesses to other possibilities.

The contemporary autonomous individual would have been unknown in 1215. A political and constitutional system based on individual autonomy would have been inconceivable then. If the "archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants" and others to whom King John addressed Magna Carta could have have conceived of a polity based on the autonomous individual  (which, of course, they couldn't), they might well have also recognized in individual autonomy a danger to their sociall institutions and customary rights as real as that posed by their inadequately constrained king.

Indeed, this anniversary ought really to invite a reappraisal and renewed appreciation of the multitude of customary social institutions which individuals were once inseparable from and whose diminished status today has left a significant vacancy in society - a vacant space increasingly occupied by another inadequately constrained sovereign, the increasingly authoritative modern state.

In this regard, we might consider that the very first right of a non-state actor Magna Carta mentioned among the guarantees King John was compelled to recognize that day at Runnymede was the right of a religious institution.  For the first liberty guaranteed by Magna Carta was

... that the English Church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished, and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed, appears from the fact that of our own free will, before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church's elections - a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it - and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Growing, Sprouting Seed

Shortly after I moved to Knoxville five years ago, some friends from New York came to visit. They opened the back door of our house and were just thrilled to discover a back porch and a backyard. Unfortunately, I had to admit to them that I had never yet ever stepped out onto that back porch or into that backyard!

Jesus did much of his public preaching and teaching in rural Galilee. So it’s no surprise so many of his images and parables are agricultural in inspiration. That may make obvious sense, but it also may make them hard to relate to, for those of us whose background is completely urban. Indeed, to a non-gardener like myself, gardening seems incredibly complex and difficult. Likewise, as a non-farmer, I imagine farming as also quite complex and difficult. But Jesus’ parables which we just heard [Mark 4:26-32] focus on something else – less on the human work involved and more on the mystery of the process. The kingdom of God, Jesus says in the first parable, is as if someone were to scatter seed on the land and watch as it sprouts and grows and yields harvest.  Meanwhile, the second parable contrasts the final product of God’s kingdom with its seemingly modest and maybe even inauspicious beginnings.

A couple of decades ago, when I was new to preaching, I remember being surprised to discover that the first of these parables is unique to the Gospel of Mark, and is not also contained (as so much of Mark’s other material is) in either Matthew or Luke. That seemed strange to me then and still seems so now, although all these years later I have no more or better insight as to why that should be. But, however obscure, however easy it may be to overlook, I think this remains a really powerful parable. It speaks to something many modern people in particular seem to worry about – God’s silence, his apparent absence from the world. The point of the parable (or so it seems to me) is to acknowledge God’s silence - but also to exclude our misinterpreting that silence as being due to inactivity on God’s part. Silent God may well be, but absent he is not.

Both parables are about the wonderful way the kingdom of God grows – unstoppably mysteriously in the first parable, unstoppably successfully in the second.   So, despite whatever other human narratives it may be competing with for our attention, the narrative story-line of the kingdom of God is unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success.

Earlier this month, the Church celebrated the feast of the Ugandan martyrs – 22 native African Catholics martyred in Uganda in 1886. In the liturgy for that day, we read the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI at their canonization. Recalling the glorious martyrs and saints of the ancient African Church of Roman times, Paul exclaimed: “Who would have thought that in our days we should have witnessed events as heroic and glorious?”

Who indeed? Yet the fact of the matter is that, all over what we Westerners condescendingly call the developing world (and, above all, in Africa), the Church is experiencing enormous growth and profound vitality. So much so in fact that the energy of those local Churches has begun to overflow in missionary outreach back to the older Churches of the developed West.

Echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy of making the withered tree bloom, Jesus’ parable illustrates the unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success of God’s kingdom in the mustard seed’s growth into such a great plant that all the birds of the sky can find space for themselves in its large branches. What an amazing aspiration! What an appropriate image for what the church is called to be in our - what we, as Church, are called to be in our fragmented, strife-torn world!

But in doing so, we are, of course, also challenged to bear in mind the lesson of the parable of the growing, sprouting seed, which is – if I may deliberately reverse the famous last words of JFK’s inaugural address – that, on earth, our activity, our work, must truly be God’s own.

Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 14, 2015.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A World of Grace

Just the other day, I posted on Facebook some old photos from the 1990s of the annual outdoor Saint Anthony procession at Saint Peter's parish in Toronto, in which I was privileged to participate (carrying the saint's relic) every June for six years (1995-2000) - the first year still as a deacon, and then the rest as a parish priest. Community life in most parishes tends to be punctuated by such repeating annual events, of which at Saint Peter's in Toronto the annual Saint Anthony Italian Festival (festa) was one of the highlights.

Over the centuries, some saints seem to have become particularly popular patrons. In many cases, this has been due to a saint's particularly powerful reputation for working miracles. Saint Anthony (1195-1231) was the first Franciscans to teach as a professor scripture and was called "the Living Ark of the Testament" by Pope Gregory IX. Fittingly, Anthony is also a Doctor of the Church - Doctor Evangelicus ("Evangelical Doctor"). But it is undoubtedly his reputation as miracle-worker that has solidified popular devotion to him. My grandmother, for example, credited Saint Anthony with the safe return of one of her sons who had been serving in the Pacific in World War II. She had a very high opinion of his intercession and believed that he ranked exceptionally high in the heavenly court. Of course, there is no such official ranking that I know of; but popular piety and widespread interest (including popular interest outside the Church) have combined to elevate certain saints above the ordinary rank and file of those already extraordinary figures. In today's Church, there is a kind of brown-robed trinity of particularly popular Franciscan saints - Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony of Padua, and Saint Pio of Pietrelcina.

In one sense, miracles may appropriately be thought of as extraordinary incursions of the supernatural into our natural world. But taken too far that understanding can become excessively dualistic. For the natural world, we know, is already in some sense oriented toward the supernatural, and nature is intended to be perfected by grace. Miraculous incursions into ordinary experience may be much more common and less dramatic than the necessarily rigorous process for identifying officially documented miracles (e.g., for a beatification or canonization) might suggest.

Franciscan spirituality is rightly noted for its appreciation of the natural world. But it is a natural world with a supernatural orientation, a natural world in which grace is everywhere at work.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Climate Change and the Common Good

This is the title of the recent A Statement of the Problem and The Demand for Transformative Solutions produced by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on April 29. Despite its scholarly origin and title, it is actually a short document (about 8 pages of text), generally jargon-free, and so relatively readable by a general audience. Even so, I only just got around to looking at it this week - in anticipation of Pope Francis' much awaited encyclical on the environment, which is due to be issued within the next week.

(The Pontifical Academy of Sciences received its present name in 1936, but its origin dates back to 1603. It comprises 80 academic scientists appointed by the pope from around the world. The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences was founded by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1994 "to promote the study and progress of social, economic, political, and juridical sciences in the light of the social doctrine of the Church.")

As its title, Climate Change and the Common Good, suggests, this short statement is focused on the impact for future life on earth and human civilization of the scientifically describable phenomenon of the climactic changes currently being caused by human activity,in particular "the continued extraction and use of coal, oil, and gas in the 'business-as-usual' mode." In reasonably accessible language, Climate Change and the Common Good summarizes the underlying science - how the technological developments of the past two centuries have led us to this predicament, the damage done already, and the projected future consequences if our behavior doesn't change very soon. The warning is stark:

As early as 2100, there will be a non-negligible probability of irreversible and catastrophic climate impacts that may last over thousands of years, raising the existential question of whether civilization as we know it can be extended beyond this century. Only a radical change in our attitude towards Creation and towards our fellow humans, complemented by transformative technological innovations, could reverse the dangerous trends that have already been set into motion inadvertently.

The report highlights the particularly pernicious contribution of modern economic systems and ideologies:

Our problems have been exacerbated by the current economic obsession that measures human progress solely in terms of Gross Domestic product (GDP) growth, a practice that could be justified only if natural capital were of infinite size. Present economic systems have also fostered the development of unacceptable gaps between the rich and the poor. ... The case for prioritizing climate-change mitigation depends crucially on accepting the fact that we have a responsibility not only towards those who are living in poverty today but also to generations yet unborn.

In the end, dealing with this devastating global problem requires a kind of personal and collective conversion of heart - the kind of conversion of heart which is an especially fitting topic, it seems to me, for a papal encyclical.