Politics and the pope

It all seemed so easy for so long.

Back in the days of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, ideologues thought they knew their allies and their enemies and what our popes would say when they entered the public square. Now it’s anyone’s guess what will happen on any particular day or after any particular press conference with Pope Francis and an open mic.

Some see the confusion that can follow the pontiff's candid words as a precursor to the Apocalypse. Others, like me, see it as a blessing.

Or, better yet, as the work of the Spirit.

“Francis, like any pope worth his salt, is troubling the lazy binary categories of secular American politics,” said Dr. Charles Camosy when I asked him about the recent ideological wailing and gnashing of teeth in the United States. Camosy, an associate professor of theology at Fordham University, is known for his desire to move Catholic conversations away from categories like right, left, liberal, and conservative.

“Many assume that [Pope Francis's] forthcoming encyclical on ecology—which, according to one consultant, was named Domus communis in at least one point in the drafting process—is assumed by many to be ‘liberal.’ But I have little doubt that it will also contain provisions that will confound the inadequate political categories we Americans have available to us.”

Camosy's point is a crucial one. American political categories (and those in other nations) have proven themselves inadequate for today’s global issues—like environmental protection. They are also divisive. And yet people remain attached to them.

Take, for instance, Maureen Mullarkey’s acidic tirade at First Things where she expresses more than a little concern with Pope Francis’s talk of climate change. (She’s at her most delicate when she writes that “Francis sullies his office by using demagogic formulations to bully the populace into reflexive climate action with no more substantive guide than theologized propaganda.”)

Then there’s this short commentary on contraception at Crux by Margery Eagan (“The news that Pope Francis has strongly defended the Church’s ban on artificial birth control left me, in a word, devastated. I had hoped for so much more from this man.”)

“This is a bit over simplistic, but liberal Catholics are used to disagreeing with the Pope. Conservatives really feel uneasy about disagreeing.” David Cloutier

Bridging climate and contraception is Maureen Fielder at the National Catholic Reporter, who pleads for Pope Francis to see that climate change requires us to “look at contraception through a new lens.” (The real shockers of Fielder’s piece come in the comments. One received lots of up votes for defining cognitive dissonance as “writing an environmental encyclical while opposing access to birth control.”)

Dr. David Cloutier, a theologian at Mount St. Mary's University, observes that a twist in this new era of Francis is that those who had traditionally supported the pontiffs now find themselves in a tough spot.

“This is a bit over simplistic, but liberal Catholics are used to disagreeing with the Pope. Conservatives really feel uneasy about disagreeing.”

What seems odd to some veteran papal observers, however, is that there is so much consternation over what Francis is saying on the major issues when in fact he is consistent with his predecessors.

“John Paul was quite outspoken on economics and on life issues," Cloutier said. "As we know, Benedict had no problem taking clear stands on both these issues. I guess the question in my mind would be: does Francis somehow bring these stands together in a way that is more persuasive?”

During his trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis put aside prepared remarks to a gathering of youth. As is often the case, he instead spoke off the cuff and from the heart. But his prepared, undelivered comments stressed ecological protection and had this important line: “We need to see, with the eyes of faith, the beauty of God’s saving plan, the link between the natural environment and the dignity of the human person.” (Elsewhere, Francis has made this point with the term "a culture of waste," that is, a culture that is quick to discard people as well as resources like food.)

These words echo the observation made by Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate: “Our duties towards the environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the environment, and damages society.”

This link is an important one because it challenges ideologues on both ends of the political spectrum. Indeed, this link—this challenge—is an opportunity for encouraging unity. It reminds us that the basis of all Church teachings is a call to holiness. We are called to virtue over vice, and for that we need God's grace.

"For me, the key word used by the Holy Father is 'responsible,'" said Rob Sisson, the Executive Director of ConservAmerica, a group of conservation minded Republicans, conservatives, and independents. "Whether it is in the context of being parents or stewards of Creation, we have a moral duty to be responsible."

In other words, whether the pope and the Church speak on climate change, ecology, or natural family planning, they are speaking about human choices to overcome our various desires and instead act for a greater good. But his message is getting lost in the bitter reactions of late that pass for conversation.

“The key move would be for some set of American bishops to get out in front of this,” Cloutier said, “and try to present a vision to American Catholics that made sense of both of these things.”

Cloutier and others worry that if bishops and pastors don’t explain to their flocks the link between human life issues and ecological ones, other less-sympathetic voices will control the message. “Because without [the engagement of the bishops], the fact is the mainstream media will drive the understanding, and it will tend to reinforce the polarity, because that’s just how they frame issues most of the time.”

Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., the number two at the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, agrees. In an interview with Catholic Ecology in November, he stressed the need for parishes, dioceses, schools, and universities to prepare now so that local churches will be ready to “piggy back on that initial burst of [media] energy when it’s released.”

With the pope expecting his eco-encyclical to be finished in March and distributed after translations in June or July, the next five or six months are crucial. As Camosy noted above and as Pope Francis has demonstrated in eco-statements to date, the encyclical will rightly challenge sacred cows of both the right and the left. That means that what you and I do to prepare for the encyclical’s release will not only help our brothers and sisters to appreciate their role in protecting creation, but also in affirming and ensuring unity within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Much more on all that to come …

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.