While in Rome last July our family experienced a “private” tour of the Sistine Chapel. Our daughter, Maggie, had arranged it for us. “Private” meant we were able to jump the line when the Vatican Museum opened at 8:00 a.m. So we and about a hundred other people had approximately an hour in the Chapel before the real crowds arrived. Our guide was a competent, vivacious, funny and energetic young Italian called Sara.
Before entering the museum Sara prepared us by showing printed images of what we were about to see. One was a Michelangelo detail of the creation of the sun and moon. One part showed a frontal human image of God creating the spheres of light. God is fully clothed as a 16th century gentleman.
Next to the frontal image is a view from behind. And God’s naked buttocks stand exposed. When Sara pointed that out with a reference to the two “moons” in the painting, everyone laughed at her joke.
However Eva, our six-year-old granddaughter would have none of it. She just frowned. She said emphatically with a pout, “I don’t think that’s funny.”
Now that was funny – and quite charming: Eva defending God’s dignity!
While visiting the French Riviera to visit a generous donor to Peggy’s Women and Gender Studies Program, we ended up in the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence designed by Henri Matisse. Our very warm host accompanied us there. Peggy and I were anxious to go, since experiencing the Matisse cut-out display at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) last winter.
A very able docent explained the chapel to our group of perhaps 30 people. The windows were very like the cut-outs we had admired in the MOMA..
The altar was made to resemble bread. Notice the painting of St. Dominic on the right.
The stations of the cross on the chapel’s back wall were spectacular – stark black and minimalist, each numbered.
Bright chasubles were displayed outside the chapel in a small museum.
We learned that during an illness, while in his 80s, Matisse had advertised for a young, pretty nurse to care for him. The woman who won the job was quite plain, but also served (the docent told us) as Matisse’s “chaste model.” She later became a Dominican nun. And Matisse designed, built and adorned the chapel in her honor.
It was our great honor to absorb it all.
For me it all raised questions about art. What is it really? What is the nature of beauty? What does Matisse have to teach us about that?
What do you think?
I’ve been off line for a while . . .
A week ago Peggy and I returned from almost three weeks in Europe. The two of us spent a couple of days in France, near Nice on the Cote d’Azur. Then it was on to Italy and Cinque Terre, where we had a marvelous time in Monterosso.
Next we travelled to Rome where we joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their four children – along with our son, Patrick, Peggy’s brother, Artie, his wife, Mary, and their three children, along with another niece. In all we were a group of 15 – 16 when a longtime friend of Maggie also joined us towards the end of our trip.
Our group spent three days in Rome. Afterwards we drove to Tuscany where we spent ten days in a villa in the little town of Panzano. (The photo above shows the villa where we stayed.) From there we did day trips to Florence and Pisa. But mostly we just enjoyed the unparalleled beauty, peace and quiet of the Chianti wine country.
Finally, Maggie and her family, Peggy and I spent three days on the beach on the island of Elba.
Throughout the magical days, we ate marvelous meals in restaurants of many kinds, as well as sumptuous repasts prepared by Maggie and Peggy at “home.”
It was all a wonderful experience.
But we’re all still recovering – I in more ways than one. Towards the end of our first day in Rome, I slipped and fell down three marble steps outside a restaurant where our large group ate its first meal together. I was wearing my Croc sandals and it had just rained. I felt like I was walking on ice. Just before I slipped, I was thinking, “I could easily fall down these stairs; I’d better be careful.” Before I knew it, I was flat on my back. I jumped up right away though claiming that I was ok. That wasn’t exactly true. Now, weeks later, my left shoulder is still sore, though the large black-and-blue mark that side of my body has finally disappeared. I’m still not able to do my morning exercise routine as normal. But I’m lucky I didn’t break anything.
If most of this sounds wonderful, it’s because it was.
However, it’s important to keep things in perspective.
Here’s an exchange I overheard in Cinque Terre. Hot and sweaty, we had just disembarked from the ferry that takes tourists past all of Cinque Terre’s five villages scattered along the mountainside.
Husband: Remind me again why we’re doing this.
Wife: Yeah, why are we doing this?
Husband (frustrated and testy): Because we need to see the five villages!
Wife: Can you tell one from the other?
Personally, I could relate to the couple’s weariness, frustration and touristic overload. That kind of sight-seeing is not at all my cup of tea. I prefer what Peggy and I ended up for the next two days – vegging on the beach under big umbrellas.
(Next Posting: Visiting the Matisse Chapel in Vence)
Recently, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, grabbed some headlines when she took on the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” crowd.
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
Sister Chittister’s point is well-taken. Being truly pro-life means joining reluctant mothers in the sacrifices they routinely make to see that their children are fed, properly housed and educated. So claiming to be pro-life while campaigning against food stamps, universal health care, Head Start, and subsidized housing is disingenuous to say the least. It also seems incompatible with defunding Planned Parenthood, our nation’s largest provider of sex education – probably the most effective, non-intrusive birth control measure of all.
And it’s significant that such reminders come from a woman. Women after all are the ones who primarily bear the burden imposed by the narrow pro-birth demands made mostly by men. Women alone are capable of bringing unwanted pregnancies to term. They are the ones who usually end up raising children as single parents.
Meanwhile, it is primarily men who insist that women fulfill responsibilities men themselves cannot fulfill on the one hand, and can easily evade on the other. The men include most prominently celibate Catholic clergy and an overwhelmingly male U.S. Congress. In biblical terms they are (to use Jesus’ words) “experts in the law” who “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and which the “experts” themselves “will not lift one finger” to lighten (LK 11:46). It’s no wonder so many women see pro-birthers as militants in a war against women.
But it’s even worse than that. If abortion is the crime they allege, pro-birthers are criminal accessories. They are co-abortionists. This is because their anti-life policies which deny reluctant mothers sex education, good jobs, decent wages, maternity leave, free child care, programs like Head Start, and subsidized food and housing create an anti-life culture. And that in turn drives desperate women to terminate unwanted pregnancies that will effectively impoverish them.
If lawmakers and religious leaders really care about life and want fewer abortions, they need to create a pro-life culture that invites bringing pregnancies to term. Most obviously, this means that it’s unjust for women to be left holding the bag. In particular it means:
- Recognizing that the absolute prohibition of abortion endorsed by many Christians is not universally accepted.
- Realizing that abortion as already restricted (to the first two trimesters) by the Roe v. Wade decision is about as much restriction as possible in such a pluralistic context.
- In that light, having Christians adopt a prophetic, persuasive approach to limiting abortions rather than a legal coercive one.
- This means that committed Christians would themselves refuse to abort unwanted fetuses, that they would support others in following suit, and (above all) that they’d promote pro-life measures across the board including anti-poverty legislation, but also advocating war resistance, elimination of capital punishment, and strict environmental protection legislation.
- Supporting sex education programs like those offered by Planned Parenthood.
- Changing the patriarchal teaching of the Catholic Church about birth control.
This is the last installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. It attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.” This third part addresses the meaning and centrality of that option.
In his critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it (reviewed in Part Two of this series), Pope Francis called explicitly for “structural change” in the world economy. He said, “Let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change.”
But what “structural change” does the pope have in mind?
Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ offer the answer. Their “preferential option for the poor” provides the guiding principle and turns the present economic order exactly on its head. This implies that if the present order is possible, so is its opposite.
That is to say that the present neo-liberal order is structured according to a “preferential option for the rich.” Its sponsoring question is how can we make sure that the banks, corporations, and 1% prosper? Economists explain such concern by various “trickle-down theories.” If priority is accorded the welfare of the rich, the theorists say, the wealth produced will trickle down creating a “rising tide that lifts all boats.” [The pope rejects such theories out-of-hand as historically disproven. In “Evangelii Gaudium” he even calls them homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59).]
By way of contrast, the pope’s “preferential option for the poor” begins at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?
Laudato Si’ goes even further. It expands moral concern beyond human beings to all forms of life. It asks how we can insure the survival of the planet in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.
None of this means abandoning market dynamics altogether.
It does mean, however, controlling them according to the principle some have expressed in the words, “as much market as possible and as much planning as necessary.” This means maximizing market forces, but controlling them as necessitated by prioritization of the needs of the poor including the environment – once again by the preferential option for the poor.
In practice this entails at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces.
Impossible you say? Not at all. To repeat: if economies can be structured according to a preferential option for the rich, they can be restructured to prioritize the needs and rights of the poor and the environment.
That’s the Global South hope and conviction Laudato Si’ embodies: another world is indeed possible.
Will Laudato Si’ have its desired effect? That, of course remains to the seen. However, it undeniably has in Pope Francis a powerful proponent.
That is, despite remaining Stalinist skepticism, Pope Francis might well be the most powerful man in the world. Certainly, he is the planet’s most influential moral leader. What empower him, of course, are not the military divisions in which Josef Stalin placed confidence, but his extraordinary consciousness of the unity of all creation expressed repeatedly in his every pronouncement and especially in his recent encyclical. What sets him apart from the Obamas and Putins of the world is his equally unusual courage, compassion, charisma, and credibility.
Additionally, the pope has surpassing constituency. He heads a community of 1.2 billion followers. And this does not even count the untold millions of non-Catholics who admire him and his thought leadership.
With such support, the powerful message of Laudato Si’, and his plans to bring that message to the U.N. and U.S. Congress in September, as well as to influence the Climate Summit in Paris next September, who knows what changes will result? Who knows how he will influence the U.S. general elections in 2016?
In other words, Francis may stand on the brink of surpassing the stature of Leo XIII and John Paul II in terms of changing the world.
Defenders of the old order are already shaking in their boots.
This is the second installment in a three-part series on Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si’. Overall, the series attempts to place in historical perspective what might well be the most important document yet produced in the 21st century. It also tries to explain the meaning and centrality of the encyclical’s guiding principle, its “preferential option for the poor.” This second part addresses Pope Francis’ critique of capitalism-as-we-know-it.
Pope Francis’ Critique of Capitalism
The first entry in this series on Laudato Si contextualized the significance of its author’s origins in the Global South. It argued that till Francis, Catholic social teaching had largely focused on Western and Eastern Europe. The social pronouncements of Italian popes were largely concerned with the problems of Western Europe and the threatened loss of the working class to the allures of socialism and communism. Beginning with Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the Italians set the stage for the introduction of Europe’s extensive welfare state.
With the election of a Polish and subsequently of a German pope, papal focus shifted to Eastern Europe and the dethroning of communism there. Pope John Paul II and his right hand man, Josef Ratzinger (later to become Benedict XVI) cooperated with the Reagan administration (and specifically with the CIA’s William Casey) in facilitating the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With that demise achieved, it appeared to most that capitalism had won a definitive victory. Corporate globalization stood virtually unchallenged.
However, all of this changed with the ascent of Argentina’s Jorge Bergoglio to the papal throne in 2013. As the first pope from Latin America, Pope Francis has repeatedly called capitalism’s “final victory” into question. No longer focusing on Europe (western or eastern), he shifted focus to the Global South, to the poverty colonialism and unfettered capitalism had caused there.
He focused on connections between deregulated markets and the rape of the Earth Mother indigenous Catholics of the Andes called Pachamama. Without apology, he espoused a “preferential option for the poor,” and spoke clearly about the rejection of the neoliberal globalized order lionized by the corporate elite.
Such sentiments were nowhere more clearly expressed than in the speeches delivered by Pope Francis during his summer “homecoming” trip to Latin America. In written form, they were evident in his landmark encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ and in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.
Addressing the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Francis traced today’s global problems back to their origins in European colonialism beginning in 1492. But he also identified new forms of colonialism exercised through corporations, loan agencies, “free trade” treaties, and imposition of “austerity measures.”
Such actors and policies subordinate states to outside powers which also exercise control through misguided policies ostensibly aimed at controlling drug trafficking, political corruption, and terrorism. More subtly, external powers colonize, destroy local cultures and foster cultural uniformity through communications monopolies, which the pope described as “ideological colonialism.”
“Let us say NO to forms of colonialism old and new,” he said.
The pope was completely outspoken. He went on to criticize capitalism-as-we-know-it as “an invisible thread” connecting problems of world poverty, worker exploitation, landlessness among farmers, homelessness, and destruction of the natural environment. That system imposes the mentality of profit at any price without concern for its impact on displaced peasants and workers or for its destructive effects on “Mother Earth.”
This is indeed capitalism-as-we-know-it.
The system, he said “is by now intolerable: farm workers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable.”
Though some have criticized the pope for stepping outside his area of competence, his condemnation of the reigning economic system is specifically biblical, theological, and moral.
Like the prophets of the Jewish Testament, he identifies “the existing system” with idolatry, the most serious of biblical sins. In his strongest condemnation yet, Francis quoted the 4th century sage, Basil of Caesarea, calling today’s capitalism “the dung of the devil” – i.e. the excrement of evil personified. Stronger language can hardly be imagined.
Theologically, Francis echoed Latin America’s liberation theology speaking Christian faith as “revolutionary,” because it challenges “the tyranny of Mammon.” The existing system, the pope said, “runs counter to the plan of Jesus.” He said the system now in place and Jesus’ hoped-for Kingdom of God have different aims.
Morally, then, the pope called working against capitalism-as-we-know-it – “working for just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor” – a “moral obligation.” For Christians, he said, “it is a commandment.” Here the pope echoed what he said in “Evangelii Gaudium,” where he identified the struggle for social justice and participation in political life as “a moral obligation that is “inescapable.”
(Next installment: the “other world” Francis sees as possible)