The lineaments of right-wing criticisms of Pope Francis’ new encyclical “Laudato Si’” are becoming clearer by the day. A critique by Ross Douthat’s appeared in the June 21st edition of the New York Times.
Two days later, David Brooks took his stab in the same newspaper, writing a column called “Fracking and the Franciscans.” The title of Brooks’ article introduced specifically spiritual note into the rebuttal of the pope’s letter. In effect, it asks us to decide between St. Francis’ approach to nature (the pope’s ideal) and that of the fracking industry. Brooks clearly prefers the latter.
More specifically, Brooks’ op-ed makes clear the exact point of diversion between the pope and his conservative critics. On the one hand, the pope is calling for a “bold cultural revolution” – a spiritual revolution – based on love and compassion for the earth and on a “preferential option for the poor.”
On the other hand, Francis’ critics see that as “unrealistic” (in Brooks’ words). They prefer working within the given political and economic framework. For them, a society based on “harnessed” greed and self-interest is better than one based on love and compassion for the poor. There is no need for spiritual change. In short, greed is good. As David Brooks says, “in the end, purity of heart backfires.”
Douthat had earlier moved in the same direction by disparaging what he saw as excessive negativity in the pope’s letter. He accused the pope of overlooking the unprecedented reduction in global poverty that characterizes our era. Things are not as bad for the poor as the Holy Father would have it. No need to prioritize the interests of the world’s poor majority.
In arguing that way, the columnist overlooked not only the deceptive reasoning behind World Bank poverty measurements. He also ignored the pope’s broadened definition of poverty to include unparalleled impoverishment of the natural environment.
In Douthat’s eyes, the pontiff also errs by downplaying and even rejecting the remedial capabilities of market dynamics and technological innovation. Who knows, he argues, they might be sufficient to solve what the pope describes as an unprecedented crisis. Let’s wait and see.
That’s the conservative position: keep doing what we’re doing; things aren’t as bad as they say; who knows, they might work out in the end.
In his own column, David Brooks takes up that thread not only reiterating that the pope’s negativity overlooks the unprecedented reduction in poverty brought about by market forces, but adding that countries made rich by those same forces are less polluted than their poorer counterparts.
If we followed the pope’s reasoning, Brooks says, we’d all aspire to be poor like St. Francis. And where would that leave us? There’d be no “Asian Miracle,” no technology-based American energy revolution as exemplified in fracking. And don’t worry about fracking, Brooks assures us: the government EPA and the conservative Breakthrough Institute have certified that it produces no widespread harm to water supplies and actually represents “a net environmental plus.”
Face it, Brooks contends: history shows that short-term pollution leads to long-term growth and affluence. Again, the best social programs are based on harnessed greed and self-interest. In the end Franciscan purity of heart stifles progress and wealth accumulation.
So which is better a society based on love and compassion or one based on greed and self-interest? Who should be our guide – someone like St. Francis or Donald Trump? That is the question. At root it is a spiritual question.
Pope Francis has his answer. New York Times and its columnists have theirs.
Each of us as individuals and all of us as a community must decide.
Readings for 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time: WIS 1:13-15; 2: 23-24; PS 30: 2, 4-6, 11-13; 2COR 8: 7, 9, 11-13-15; 2 TM 1: 10; MK 5: 21-43.
Today’s readings are about death. They contain claims that are absolutely astounding, challenging, and almost too good to be true – especially in the light of last week’s massacre of nine black church goers during a Bible Study class at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
There the twenty-one year old perpetrator, Dylann Roof, slaughtered the people with whom he had been discussing the Bible just moments before. He had to kill them, he told a survivor, because “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Immediately, the entire country responded with horror. Many vilified the shooter as they found out about his racist Facebook postings, his easy access to firearms, and his flaunting of the Confederate Battle Flag. They argued about whether he should be executed as a terrorist or as a hate crime killer.
South Carolina, Alabama and other states flying the Confederate Battle Flag talked about removing it from their State Houses. Some discussed honoring the victims by passing omnibus legislation to address South Carolina’s racist structures involving health care, voting rights, housing and education.
President Obama got more personal. He said racism is in our DNA – an inheritance from our past that is difficult to erase.
Surviving families went deeper still. They forgave Dylann Roof choking as they did so through their tears of mourning.
Others asked, “What have we become as a nation?”
It’s what human beings do in the face of brutality, violence and massacre. We blame; we soul-search. And sometimes forgive. Sometimes we even recognize complicity in the crime and resolve to change.
Those last reactions – forgiveness, soul-searching, and conversion – are justified by today’s readings. As I say, they address the astounding Judeo-Christian belief about death. Few of us can truly accept them. Once again: they seem too good to be true.
The first reading from the Jewish Testament’s Book of Wisdom startles us immediately by proclaiming: “God did not make death.” Instead he fashioned all things to have being. Specifically, human beings were formed imperishable by God. Death is experienced only by those who believe in the devil.
What? God did not make death? We are imperishable? Belief in death comes from the devil? Hold on; there’s more.
Today’s Alleluia verse becomes more specific still. It tells us to cheer up because “Christ has destroyed death” entirely. It has no reality at all.
Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus illustrates that truth. He equates death with mere sleep. There is nothing to cry about he tells those mourning the “tragic,” “premature” death of a 12 year old girl. She is merely sleeping. And then he grabs her by the hand and shows he’s right.
Do we really believe such statements? Is that Jesus story a child’s tale? Do we really believe that God did not make death? Do we believe that Christ has destroyed it? Is death no more than sleep? Is death a mere illusion – moving from one room to another?
Those who are Christians routinely claim say yes. We even go further. Our belief says that “death” is not the end. Instead it is the greatest, happiest moment in life. For with it, life does not end. It goes on in ways so magnificent, so full of peace and wisdom and joy as to make it difficult to describe and impossible to comprehend.
That’s the faith we claim. Again, it seems too good to be true.
But if that’s what we believe, our faith has practical consequences regarding Dylann Roof and others like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Richard Speck, and even Adolf Hitler. The conclusions are these (as inspired by Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God):
- All those killers did no harm or damage to the ones whose deaths they caused. The souls of those they killed were released from earthly bondage, like butterflies emerging from a cocoon.
- Their deaths are thought to be “untimely” only by those who believe that anything in God’s universe can happen when it is not supposed to. Given who God is, nothing can possibly be untimely.
- The people left behind mourn the dead only because they do not know the joy into which those souls entered.
- The killers themselves remain loved by God and will go to heaven, whatever that means. (There is no other place for them to go. Dante’s inferno was his creation, not God’s. To repeat the metaphor: death itself is the “devil’s” creation.)
- Their actions were mistakes, those of unevolved human beings. The proper faith-inspired response to them is not punishment, but God’s response: forgiveness, healing, correction, re-education, and eventual reintegration back into the fullness of life.
- None of them acted alone. Germany produced Adolf Hitler; millions thought he was right. South Carolina and the United States created Dylan Roof; many sympathize with his racism. We all bear responsibility for his actions. In a sense, we are all Dylann Roof. Killing innocents is killing innocents whether it’s in Charleston, Baghdad, Ferguson, or Guantanamo.
- In God’s perfect universe, the function of Dylann Roof, Dzhokhar Tsamaev, Richard Speck, and even Adolf Hitler is to force us to face who we are and what we want to become. We claim we live in the land of the free, home of the brave, in a democracy where all are equal. Some even hold that we are a Christian nation. Few of us admit subscribing to racism. But then a Dylan Roof forces us to look in the mirror and reassess. Suddenly Confederate Battle Flags come down and politicians are discussing omnibus legislation.
From a faith perspective, Dylann Roof has become our teacher. His lesson is the reverse of what Jesus, the Buddha, Krishna and Pope Francis have taught. The latter all reveal to us the splendid human beings every one of us (even Dylann Roof) can become. The former shows us where we are headed if we refuse to change course.
The op-ed is valuable since it offers a preview of the right-wing critiques of “Laudato Si’” (LS) that we’re likely to hear over the next few months. Let’s consider them one-by-one.
To begin with, the author is correct. Pope Francis’ encyclical does go far beyond climate change. It is brilliantly overwhelming in its breadth of scope which sees climate chaos as but one symptom indicating that the present world system is fundamentally unsustainable.
Other symptoms include deforestation and loss of wetlands (8), “water poverty” and infant mortality (28), species extinction (33), over-fishing (40), destruction of coral reefs (41), uncontrolled urbanization (44), food waste (50), the north’s “ecological debt” to the global south (51), debt crises in general (52), war (57), information manipulation (54), desertification (89), cruelty to animals (92), economic domination by unproductive financial interests (109), resource depletion (111), dangerous market-driven production of GMOs (134), secret negotiations of trade deals (135) and human anxiety, loss of purpose and of human community (110).
Additionally there are related problems of human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds, and the fur of endangered species . . . buying and selling of organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation. . . and the elimination of children because they are not what their parents wanted (123).
In the pope’s vision, all of these problems are interconnected. In fact, that’s the basic thesis underlying the Francis tour de force: EVERYTHING IS INTERCONNECTED (42, 117, 120, 137, etc.). At root what causes the problems are the unregulated nature of free markets, blind reliance on technological development, and excessive anthropocentrism (LS Chapter 3). Causes are rooted in “the lie” which denies that there are any limits to economic growth (106).
What are needed to combat such manifestations are radical changes in the ways humans live, produce and consume (23). Francis says we need a “bold cultural revolution” – a recovery of values and great goals that have been swept away by human “delusions of grandeur” (114).
Not surprisingly, the pope finds such values and goals embodied in the Judeo-Christian tradition, its teachings about divine ownership of creation, human stewardship of the same, and its unswerving reverence for all forms of life, from the least to the greatest (Chapter Two). All life forms, the pope teaches, from algae to human embryos and the planet itself have intrinsic worth. None of them should be treated as insensate instruments put on earth for human profit and pleasure.
On Douthat’s analysis, such reflections might be all well and good. However, they represent only one viewpoint. And this brings us to the right-wing arguments against the pope’s analysis that we can anticipate over the next months. They have to do with papal negativism, the success of the market in eliminating poverty, the Catholic approach to overpopulation, and the capacity of future technological development to solve the planet’s problems.
For starters, Douthat calls the pope’s approach “catastrophism.” The other viewpoint – evidently Douthat’s own – he terms “dynamism.”
Dynamists are far more optimistic than the pope. They believe that the market and technological advances will possibly head off what the pope sees as inevitable catastrophe especially for the world’s poor absent that earlier-mentioned bold Cultural Revolution.
Coming from his dynamic perspective, Douthat argues that (1) poverty is diminishing world-wide, (2) overpopulation (spurred by the Catholic vision of marriage and fecundity) plays an important role in the problems the pope enumerates, and (3) who knows, the pope could be wrong: technology and the market just might automatically solve the world’s problems.
On the pope’s holistic analysis, each of such conservative arguments fails miserably.
The first (that world poverty is diminishing) is questionable on two counts.
First off, Douthat’s thesis is based on a World Bank study showing that “extreme poverty” as opposed to normal poverty is diminishing. (Normal poverty is defined as an income of $2.00 per day.)
While it’s true that incomes among the world’s poorest have risen from .87 cents per day in 1981 to $1.25 in 2005, the number of people living in normal poverty has remained unchanged over that same period. Moreover, the number of humans living in the “unspeakable conditions” of normal poverty would actually have risen sharply over the same period were it not for the economic development of China, whose improvement cannot be explained by unfettered markets as championed by neo-liberal apologists.
Secondly, Douthat’s approach to poverty misses the pope’s point about including the devastation of the natural environment in definitions of poverty. Given the earlier cited list of problems addressed in the pope’s encyclical, it is impossible to argue that world poverty is diminishing. As he puts it so delicately, humans are turning the planet into a pile of filth (21). Impoverishing nature means growth in world poverty.
Douthat’s second defense of the “dynamic” vs. the “catastrophic” approach – the one about population – is similarly short-sighted. The pope addresses it head-on. In effect he admits that there are too many people in the world – but not the ones Douthat has in mind.
Douthat is thinking about the masses in the global south. By contrast, Pope Francis’ focus is on the global north – the United States and Europe. His implication is that there are indeed too many people. But they are Americans and Europeans whose ecological footprint is far more devastating than the footprint of the poor living in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. The world cannot sustain people living the lifestyle of Americans and Europeans.
The pope writes: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption” (50).
Additionally, Douthat does not address the good economic reasons the world’s impoverished have for contributing to the population pressures the columnist finds so disturbing. Simply put, those reasons center around the absence of social services and benefits Americans and Europeans take for granted, but which conservatives continually rail against.
The impoverished need large families because their economies remain largely agrarian, and each additional child represents another field hand. They need children to provide additional income where jobs provide no government-mandated living wage. They need many children to insure that at least one will survive to care for them in their waning years. They need family members to replace them as income-earners where the government provides no workers’ compensation for injuries sustained on the job, or where there is no government-provided health care.
In short, Americans and Europeans have small families because of urbanization and the government “programs” representing their countries’ “social wage.” Absent income supplements like adequate minimum wages, social security, and health care, large families make complete sense. Or as Barry Commoner put it in 1976, poverty breeds overpopulation and not the other way around.
As for Douthat’s final Pollyanna expression of faith in undirected markets and technology, they are just that “Pollyanna.” Surprisingly (especially for a Republican), they represent a refusal to accept Pope Francis’ call for what GOP members claim to prize so highly – personal responsibility.
Like the interconnectedness of all reality, the call to responsibility is a recurring theme in “Laudato Si’” (e.g. 64, 67, 78, 105, 118).
Moreover, Douthat’s simplistic approach to technology fails to deal with Pope Francis’ key point that technologies are not neutral. Their development and use is largely controlled by the world’s rich and powerful. Francis writes: “We have to accept that technological products are not neutral for they create a framework . . . dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups” (107).
In effect, then, placing hopes in technological development equates with naïve surrender to the very people principally responsible for our planet’s “unprecedented situation” (17).
In the end, Ross Douthat’s loaded categories “Catastrophists” vs. “Dynamists” are misleading. More accurate classifications would be “Ecologists” vs. “Atomists.” Pope Francis is an ecologist. He sees the interrelatedness of all reality and the interrelatedness of all reality with Ultimate Reality. His approach is holistic.
Meanwhile, Douthat is an atomist. In his op-ed nothing seems to be connected. He can’t see the relative meaninglessness of the categories “extreme poverty” contrasted with the unspeakable conditions of normal poverty. He’s oblivious to the fact that Americans and Europeans represent the planet’s true excess population. His faith in blind markets and future technological developments are slices of pie in the sky.
Pope Francis would say it is out of line with our culture’s best insights and values. It is entirely irresponsible.
Readings for 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JB 38: 1, 8-11; PS 107: 23-26, 28-31; 2COR 5: 14-17; LK 7:16; MK 4: 35-41.
Thursday Pope Francis published his long-awaited encyclical on the environment and climate change. The document is called Praised Be: on the Care of Our Common Home (PB).
Today’s liturgy of the word is perfectly synchronized with the encyclical’s release. Its elements emphasize God’s sovereignty over nature, its overwhelming beauty and might, the power of Christ-Consciousness to save from nature’s fury, and the new order of God’s Kingdom proclaimed and embodied in the Master from Galilee. Moreover, in articulating today’s themes, the humble Pope Francis distinguishes himself as a “great prophet,” in whom “God has visited his people” – the refrain in today’s Alleluia Verse.
Begin by considering the readings; afterwards we’ll turn to the encyclical and to Pope Francis’ prophetic status.
In our first reading, God speaks to Job sitting on a dung hill like the “pile of filth” into which, the pope says humans are turning the earth (PB 21). Like us, Job is trying desperately to figure out why bad things are happening to his world. Significantly, the Divine One speaks out of a storm and declares God’s sovereignty over nature – its seas with its threatening waves, the sky with its dark clouds, storms with their winds, thunder and lightning.
That theme of God’s sovereignty over nature is picked up in today’s responsorial which emphasizes the fearful might of the world’s oceans. Psalm 107 calls the sea an “abyss” – a threatening black hole. It is the work of the Lord who on the one hand causes storms to arise, but on the other restores calm to the waves and brings relieved travelers back to safe haven. Again, it is God, not humans who controls nature – a major theme of Praised Be.
Then in today’s Gospel selection Jesus calms the sea when it threatens to sink the boat he and his friends are using to travel to the “other shore.”
It’s the identity of Jesus’ followers as “Other Christs” called to do what Jesus did that is emphasized in today’s reading from Second Corinthians. There the apostle identifies Jesus as the herald of a completely new reality. The old order is no longer relevant, Paul says; it has entirely passed away. It’s that reality that followers of Jesus’ Way are to embody and usher in.
All of the themes in today’s liturgy of the word find echo in Pope Francis’ encyclical. Consider them one-by-one:
- God’s Sovereignty over nature: Here Francis bluntly states that the pervasive understanding that God gave humans power of dominion or destruction over the earth “is not a correct interpretation of the Bible” (67). According to Francis, God denies any pretense of absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23).
- Nature’s overwhelming beauty and might: The very title of the pope’s encyclical reflects this point. “Laudato Si” are the first words of a prayer composed by Francis’ namesake, the great Italian mystic, Francis of Assisi, identified by the pope as the patron of ecology (10). Of St. Francis the pope writes, “Like it happens when we fall in love with someone, every time that Francis looked at the sun, the moon, the smallest animals, his reaction was to sing, sharing in the glory of all the other creatures. . . he entered into communication with all of creation.” At the same time the Pope Francis argues that today’s climate chaos with its fearful storms, droughts, and extreme temperatures represents the earth protesting against “the violence that exists in the human heart, wounded by sin.”
- The power of Christ-consciousness to save us from nature’s fury: St. Francis, the pope notes, was a mystic like Jesus of Nazareth (98). He had Christ-consciousness. It allowed him, like Jesus, to speak to elements that most humans understand as impersonal (98). So like Jesus speaking to the wind and waves in today’s Gospel, Francis conversed with animals and regarded the sun as his brother and the moon as his sister. Only the adoption of such sensitivity and reverence, the pope says, can restore balance to our planet (11).
- The new reality to which we are called: “An economic and technological development that does not leave the world a better place and with an integral superior quality of life cannot be considered progress” (194). So Francis proposes a new model beyond the worship of the “free market.” Its exact shape must be worked out through a process of international dialog (180). However it necessarily includes an international body with legislative power to control excesses of production and consumption connected with unfettered capitalism.”
In providing such clear direction, Pope Francis’ encyclical solidifies his identity as a “great prophet.” As it turns out, he is the only world leader capable of turning the planet around. His power combines the exact virtues required for such a herculean task:
- Consciousness: Pope Francis’ consciousness is unique. Virtually alone among world leaders, he sees climate change, poverty, morality and spirituality as inextricably interconnected.
- Courage: Among his peers, Francis’ courage is unparalleled. By comparison the “leader of the free world” (not to mention climate change denialists) looks like a timid child bowing and scraping before the world’s wealthy few – indecisive about Keystone XL and arctic drilling. Moreover, the pope intends to take his message of interconnection directly to the lion’s den. He will speak not only to the United Nations, but will confront a U.S. Congress largely hostile to his position on climate chaos.
- Credibility: As a scientist with an advanced degree in chemistry and as titular head of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, Francis has access to the world’s finest scientific minds. He has done his homework. He addresses not just climate change, but problems undeniably caused by human activity – “water poverty,” food waste, waste in general, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, human trafficking, income gaps between the global north and south, the rampant elimination of innumerable species, and war.
- Charisma: The world loves Pope Francis. No other world leader more widely admired or more capable of influencing people regardless of nationality or creed. It is interesting to see Catholic politicians like Jeb Bush, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan, John Boehner, and Bobby Jindal speak condescendingly about a religious leader’s forays into fields “beyond his expertise” – as if they were better informed and could out-Catholic the pope. This is a battle they cannot win.
- Constituency: Pope Francis is the leader of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. There are more than 70 million Catholics in the United States – not to mention the millions of non-Catholics who admire the pope. Can you imagine what would happen world-wide (politically and environmentally) if even a small percentage of them took the pope’s words to heart? What if they radically changed their behavior (and voting) patterns to save the planet for future generations and prevent the poor from suffering the worst effects of industry-induced environmental degradation?
Praised Be leaves none of us off the hook. Rather the virtues just enumerated provide guidelines for each of us. As Paul’s “other Christs” and as humans in general (62) we are called to “Franciscan”:
- Consciousness: Each of us can become expert. Just reading Praised Be will take us a long way in that direction. Do your part for the planet; read the encyclical now. It is the best, most comprehensive and accessible text available on the most important issue facing our world. (Good supplemental reading is This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.
- Courage and credibility: Good information breeds these qualities. Like the pope we all need to fearlessly confront our uninformed, misinforming, head-in-the-sand politicians and demand that they serve us, our planet, children and grandchildren. Enough of letting them confuse us with their obfuscations.
- Charisma: Few in the world can claim anything like Pope Francis’ charisma. But his fearless outspoken truth-telling is contagious and can infect us all by association. We must follow his example and use our innate talents to spread the message of Praised Be.
- Constituency: Whether Catholic or not each of us needs to join Pope Francis’ constituency. In my own parish, our Peace and Social Justice Committee plans to buy copies of his encyclical for every parishioner over the age of 16. Beginning in September (about the time of the pope’s visit to the U.S.) we’ll initiate a parish-wide study of the encyclical. We’ll gather to watch Francis’ speeches to the U.N. and our Congress. Praised Be provides a foundation for turning every Catholic Church into a peace and social justice dynamo.
Again, today’s Alleluia Verse proclaims “A great prophet has risen in our midst. God has visited his people.” Today Pope Francis is that prophet. That’s why we should listen to him and follow his example.
Tomorrow Pope Francis will publish his much-anticipated encyclical on climate change and the environment. Here’s a hilarious and prophetically accurate preview of the film version coming to a theater near you! Don’t miss it!
Of course you’ ve read about the prison break at Clinton Correctional near the Canadian border. Everyone in the neighborhood is alarmed; the governor’s declared a state of emergency. The hills and forests around Clinton are crawling with police, and bloodhounds. Helicopters search from above. Few of us will admit we’re rooting for the escapees. Here’s my admission:
The Saga of Richard Matt and David Sweat
From Clinton prison
There is no escape.
That’s what they say;
It’s the tale of the tape
Walls are thirty feet high
Twenty-four inches thick;
The guards are all psychos
Every one of them’s sick.
But don’t tell that to Ricky Matt
Or to David Sweat,
‘Cause laughter and derision
Are all that you’ll get.
You see, they’re real smart
And they’ve got power tools.
And besides that they know
All their watchers are fools.
They’ve got homies inside
Who hear noises at night
But they just don’t say nothin’
Their mouths are shut tight.
There are friendlies outside
Awaiting in cars
While Davey and Ricky
Break through concrete and bars.
Crawl through heating ducts and plumbing trails
(The journey seemed miles)
Then emerge from a manhole
Can you imagine the smiles?
But they’re killers, you say
And the saying is fair
But they’re no worse than Zimmerman
George Bush or Blair
Who still walk our streets
And give speeches for pay
And will never see jail
For even a day.
These guys have done hard time
Years in the Max
Where guards treat them like dirt
That’s just the facts.
Dave and Rick will be caught
And thrown into “the hole”
Where daytime’s like night;
They’re both black as coal.
But their tale will be told
It just can’t be denied
Like “Cool Hand Luke,” “Shawshank,”
“Bonnie and Clyde.”
Sweat and Matt give us hope
That we all can escape
From a system where jailers
Torture and rape.
Where they watch us like vultures
And control us by fear
These fugitives announce
Our deliverance is near.
Their whole saga supports
The conclusion I’ve reached
The securest of systems
All can be breached!
As Austin Ivereigh has pointed out, the Catholic Church finally has a reformer pope. More than 500 years after Martin Luther, Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG) has called for radical change – for conversion “which cannot leave things as they presently are” (JG 25).
Yet, as far as I can see, nothing has changed since the publication of the Exhortation a year and a half ago.
Such immobility was illustrated at a fundamental level last week when our church of St. Clare’s in Berea Kentucky was visited by our new bishop, John Stowe. The event showed how easily even we who are elders – who have learned so much from long years of experience – submit to our juniors rolling over abjectly and allowing those who are “children” by comparison to make us obedient and submissive.
Bishop Stowe, it turns out, is a very nice man – a Franciscan, educated by Jesuits, well-spoken, experienced, and smart. He holds a Master’s degree in theology. He is 49 years old, unmarried, of course, and has no children.
The bishop was born in 1966 – the year I was ordained as a priest in the Society of St. Columban.
That means I could easily have baptized him as an infant. On the occasion of that baptism, his parents (contemporaries of mine) would have shown me deference. They might even have asked me to hear their confessions.
Yet introspection makes it clear that their deference would have been completely undue, unearned, and demeaning to them as adults. Honest self-reflection makes me admit that advice given to them in the confessional would have been uninformed to say the least.
After all, at the time of Bishop Stowe’s birth, his parents obviously knew much more about life than I did. To that point, I had been sheltered from adulthood’s most important aspects: from meaningful contact with women, from household responsibilities, and world affairs. (In my day seminarians weren’t even allowed to watch TV news or read the daily paper.) Yet I was supposed to hear the confessions of married people and advise them!
Such expectations, I now realize, came from three highly questionable sources: (1) from the supposed status of the Bible as the revealed word of God valid for all time, (2) from the infallible teaching authority claimed the Roman Catholic Church, and (3) from related Catholic beliefs about the priesthood transforming men (not women!) into “other Christs.”
Well, it turns out that each of the supports holding up that three-legged stool of church authority has collapsed. To wit:
- Even if the Bible is inspired, all mainstream scholars recognize that its author(s) made many factual errors. But even in errors’ absence, the book has been contradictorily interpreted again and again – literally beyond belief.
- A principal misinterpretation concerns the founding of the church (Catholic or Protestant). Again, mainstream scholarship agrees that Jesus remained a good Jew to the end of his life and had no intention of founding any church or new religion.
- And this, of course, means that the entire Catholic sacramental system (including Confession and Holy Orders) is a fiction. As Martin Luther recognized so clearly, “priests” have no powers beyond those conferred in Baptism and earned in the eyes of the community.
All of that brings me back to Bishop Stowe. Yes, he seems to be a nice man. But why the deference beyond the demands of politeness? More specifically, why do elders end up taking orders from such juniors who are arguably ignorant concerning life’s most important matters? Why allow celibate men without families or even sustained experience of the opposite sex to advise (even oblige and threaten) us in related matters?
It just doesn’t make sense.
None of this is an argument for leaving the church (though I completely understand drawing that conclusion). It is however to say that it’s high time for Catholics to follow the example of their Protestant sisters and brothers in seizing control of their church. We church elders have to own our authority – if we have earned it. In doing so, we’d be following the implied directions of the pope!
In short, it’s time to trade in the truth of authority for the authority of truth – and hard-won experience.