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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reflections on the Pope's Letter

Pope Francis wrote a letter to humanity. It centers on our relation to the earth, our common home and the condition for human life, meaning, and action.

It is long, repetitive, and perhaps a bit sprawling as are many encyclicals which like judicial decisions want to provide precedents, a link to tradition, an explication of founding documents, and an interpretation to various publics. Nevertheless, it is a great addition to Catholic Social Teaching and to Universal Social Ethics. The letter is a radical critique as to how we have organized ourselves economically and politically and of the religious narrative and ethical principles we have used to so organize ourselves. It is a call not only to Christians to honor their sacred tradition, but also to all of us to achieve an "authentic humanism," the highest potential of human being and action.

In this post I would like to 1) summarize the letter, 2) indicate how he challenges me to rethink my own positions, 3) engage him in some dialogue, and 4) conclude.

I. What I hear Francis saying.

A look at the facts. Pope Francis is not promoting any scientific theory, philosophic school, or form of government. He just asks us to look at what is happening in the earth to our forests, our water, our oceans, our ecosystems, urban blight, the coral reefs, biodiversity, our climate and how that is linked to human activity towards so-called economic development. He asks us to consider the inequality within and among nations and the plight of the poor. Further he asks us to look at evidence of the breakdown of society and the loss of the quality of life. Most of all he asks us to see the linkages among poverty, social decline, environmental deterioration, and inequality.  And he tells us to quit denying what is happening or covering it over on behalf of our own selfish interests.

Our religious narrative. Francis criticizes the religious narrative that undergirds our economic and our current models of development. He calls upon his own Judeo-Christian tradition to consider the earth not as an object for exploitation, but a matter for awe; to see all human beings as brothers and sisters equal in dignity; to welcome the stranger and pass beyond narrow tribalism; to discover value in all living beings; to understand nature which precedes us who are not owners, but stewards of its resources; to believe in the connection between the care of the earth and human salvation. He contrasts this understanding with the interpretation that we dominate nature and other living beings by making them objects with which we can do anything that we want including to possess and destroy them.

The ethics of the human condition. Values influence all human behaviors including the exploitative development model of the dominant political economy. Francis suggests an ethic based on a different understanding of humankind that is accessible to all.  Human existence is constituted by relationships with God, with other people, with nature, and with oneself. He suggests that human persons exist in a world that conditions our existence as active subjects, not objective things; that we humans are co-creators not by conquering or exploiting each other and the earth but by interacting with each other and the earth. In short, he is promoting an ethic of partnership rather than that of domination, an ethic where cooperation replaces supremacy. He condemns our wasteful "throwaway culture," our dependence on weapons of destruction, the "anthropocentric fallacy" in which we believe in the primacy of individual control over the faith in the communal power that unites us all with nature, the "technocratic paradigm" that believes in unlimited progress through technology and the triumph of invisible market forces. Rather he asks us to replace those principles with those of organizing for the common good, faith in the ability to change, the value of labor, equality in the dignity of all persons, the integrity of human life, nature as a gift to all to be 
treasured in gratitude rather than fought over and individually possessed.

A call to dialogue and action. Pope Francis advocates no specific policies for reducing the causes of climate change and environmental deterioration. He advocates for immediate dialogue to fashion policies and new models of development in both urban, rural, national, and international settings. He advocates for a spiritual conversion to end the throwaway mentality, the demeaning and exclusion of the poor, and the breakdown of society. We do this by increasing our respect for all persons, for ecodiversity, for the interconnection of all things, for contemplation and awe of nature, for science, yes, but much more than science, and for optimism from faith in our ability to change. He praises the efforts of governments that are taking seriously the threat to human life and happiness through economically motivated destruction of the earth and its resources. He praises the efforts of locally organized popular movements and nongovernmental organizations that demonstrate both the problem and possible solutions. And he praises individuals, families, and neighborhoods that are doing what they can to support each other and the earth. (Here is a good summary.)

II. How Francis challenges me.

The encyclical made me reconsider my own positions and for that I am thankful.

The technocratic paradigm. I realize how susceptible I am to that technocratic mentality because of my admiration of science and technology. I need to continually remind myself that though science is the way to explain nature, we have other ways of knowing and appreciating nature especially through art, music, and contemplation; and that knowing nature is beyond analyzing and controlling it.

The anthropocentric fallacy. Likewise I can easily fall (and at times do fall) into a type of humanism that undermines transcendence. I am a "constructivist" in epistemology. I believe 
that humans come to terms with their environment by constructing models or symbols. In 
that belief, it is important to recognize that, although individual creativity and innovation is essential, we do that symbol making collectively, not individually. It is important to recognize that our constructs are not reality but in a dialogue with nature. Moreover, it is most important that we never have the last word, that our explanations are as good as the questions we ask, that all our models are to be transcended. As Francis says, "we are not God."

The ethics of integrity. I have named my own ethics such, but Francis reminds me how vital is the notion of integrity. He speak of the "integrity of life," of an "integral ecology," of economics in the service of a "more integral and integrating vision," of authentic development as an "integral improvement in the quality of human life," of respect for the human person endowed with inalienable rights ordered to "his or her integral development." Integrity is the union among polarities. It is the whole that gives meaning to the parts. What Francis is teaching here is relationships, the interconnectedness of every thing, the holding in tension of opposites, and a commitment to the whole beyond each of the parts. This is so different from the contemporary ethic of a rugged individualism over the common good, of consumerism over spiritual detachment from things, of look-see objectivism over inter-subjective pursuit of truth, and, I would add, of a conservative over progressive mind-set.

My progressivism. I consider myself a progressive ethically and politically. But Francis warns me of a destructive “myth of progress” that I should avoid. This myth sustains the belief in invisible market forces through the privatization and control of natural resources including land, water, forests, air, climate, and human labor. This is the myth I heard as a child from our electric company that “progress is our most important product” and that “every day in every way things get better and better.” It measures progress by material wealth, profit margins, and GDP. Those who deserve it through hard work, family inheritance, good genes, and shrewd investment achieve this progress. However, the progressive I choose to be is one who has faith in the transcendence of human thought and action through participation in community. Just as Francis speaks of an authentic humanism, I shall commit to an authentic progressivism that has faith that we can solve our problems together and that we can do better personally and collectively.

III. Where I want to engage Francis in dialogue.

Transcendence and faith.  I appreciate that Francis draws on his Catholic Christian tradition to speak to all humanity, even those who belong to other religious traditions. I also appreciate that faith pushes us beyond narcissistic individual self-achievement. But I suggest that his message can be relevant to those of us considered “postmodern” whose belief systems do not include supernatural beings, realms, revelations, or institutions, nor immortal souls, divinities, and God. This is not to say that there is no role for religious communities or that those of us who do science are not religious. However we who participate in no organized religion or have let go of the beliefs of those religions, can still have the faith that surpasses conventional or convenient truths. We embrace our transcendence by a continual critique of all the objects of human knowledge, by not getting attached to things, and by openness to a future for all people who now and are yet to live.

Feminine Principle. I laud Francis for his inclusive language and his reference to Earth and Nature as Mother. I laud him for showing the connection of the abuse of women and children, including human trafficking, with our exploitation of nature. However, I suggest that he more strongly affirm the equality and freedom of women within all institutions that demean or suppress them including his own institution.

Overpopulation and birth control. I agree that the focus on overpopulation should not be used to distract us from the more root causes of poverty and environmental degradation. But I suggest that overpopulation is a major factor to be addressed, that birth control is a means to address it, and that the distinction between “artificial” and “natural” birth control is gratuitous. I also agree that abortion is violence and so cannot be justified, that is, be included within a just human social order. But any intervention into the human body including surgery is violence and so is any physical act of defense including war. But while violence cannot be justified, it may be necessary to those who choose to use it to ward off an immanent and specific threat. And who are we to judge a woman’s sense of threat of an unwanted pregnancy and the necessity to choose an abortion? Who are we to deny society's responsibility to accommodate her choice.

IV. Conclusion

I read a comment on the letter that indicates that the letter of Pope Francis will be a hard read for Americans. The author cites a study that demonstrates how “cultural cognition,” using a scale measuring hierarchy vs. populism and individualism vs. communitarianism, influences one’s acceptance of expert findings. Since the author characterizes Pope Francis as a hierarchical communitarian while most Americans are individualistic populists, they will find it difficult to accept his reasoning. Other comments have charged Pope Francis of condemning modernism, rolling back progress, espousing socialism, and opposing the free market. I think that this is all nonsense.

I do believe that facts are interpreted according to one's values, interests, and ideology which is why Francis clarifies his values, interests, and theology. He is clearly seeing the world from the point of view of los menos, the "least of these," the poor and the excluded which is why he is not taking a hierarchical viewpoint. Moreover, he understands that the unique, dignified, creative individual does not exist in opposition to, but because of, the community of persons in which individuality emerges. He doesn't condemn progress or modernism, but redefines it and shows what it can be. He doesn't condemn markets but urges that they be free and accessible to all rather than rigged to help the wealthy and powerful. 

Yes, certain Americans and their political parties, economic institutions, and their media will find it difficult to accept the social ethics of Francis, especially those who measure their value by private wealth, who accept the throwaway culture because it contributes to their wealth, who are captured by the ideas of American exceptionalism and individualism, and who trump the public good with private goods and subordinate the politics of the polis to the liberal economy. But I know that is not me and not the people I meet and deal with daily, not the people I worship and work with, not the people in the neighborhoods who welcome strangers and love their family and neighbors. Thanks, Pope Francis, for reminding us of our better selves. Now we must act.

(Soon to come: favorite quotes from the letter.)


Dan Coffey said...


Now I have to pick it up and begin to read again.

I stopped not very far in because there was no science. I thought the Encyclical was therefore of not much use or relevance.

Your commentary fits the small part that I read. I think I should read the whole thing to see if it says enough to use in the attempt to be able to make human activity synergistic with the rest of the world to move us forward to something better and not bust a use without adequate cost measures approach to life.

Dan Coffey

Al Fritsch said...

From Al Fritsch

Dear Rollie,

This article is well thought out and written. I certainly know where you are coming from and find that you highlight the good of having a spiritual leader of a highly visible religious institution speak in the name of struggling humanity. You see the value of integrity and thus it is your stated goal in your own reflections. The integrity of which Francis speaks is one where the poor are part of establishing a healthy world -- and not the afterthought of plutocrats who control the wealth of the world in their own greedy manner.

Obviously we differ in where you engage Francis in dialog. Overpopulation is an issue of the 1970s and one that needs being addressed especially by an overpopulating Moslem and not Christian world (just look at the stats). But what can we do in this regard? The major issue is always overconsumption as I said in 1974. Curb autos and not so much people and resources would be in greater balance. Who is to stop driving privileges among 3-car families -- and now 600 million Chinese rushing to join the auto ranks and leaving their bikes at home?

My greatest difference with you is the statement: "the distinction between 'artificial' and 'natural' birth control is gratuitous'." Horse feathers! Do you say the same about organic versus corporate food production or fossil fuel and renewables? I have been helpless at the thoughtless manner in which people use chemicals in their bodies; it's part of the decadence of our civilization. These BC chemicals (some of the most powerful ever consumed) can play a long time havoc to individuals and social structures. That applies to over consumed OTC drugs as well as illegal varieties. Natural means are highly championed by environmentally-conscious homesteaders perhaps more than by practicing Catholic but deserve greater support all the more today because the method is well worth championing as an alternative to Big Drug Corporations. If you care to simplify lifestyles as Pope Francis calls for, then for heavens sake think "natural" in foods, building materials, community relations, clothing, and a hundred different applications. As Francis said elsewhere we should not multiply like rabbits.

The abortion question haunts us all, you and me. Violence is already in our world where someone feels the terrible burden of raising a child without proper support. The violence of billionaires allowed to thrive in a world of a billion destitute and 51% young black unemployment along side of that terrible prison system (where I tried to bring relief for two decades) is all around us. A little more violence in a young girls's decisions does not justify any of it. Every child coming into the world deserves community support and not individualistic destruction -- and support groups harboring hidden racial bias.

Really we agree for the most part about Pope Francis. A little long perhaps but he had much to say in which I am in 100% agreement. Now to carry on the struggle within church structures by the climate change deniers who are striving hard to destroy my weak Earth Healing efforts. I wish I had your prayers in this struggle for in times it looks like they will continue the status quo and slash the vitality of this planet. Thanks for your writing and I do hope to have a chance to chat in the near future. Al Fritsch, SJ

Lenoe Dowling said...

thanks for your thoughtful response and analysis of the encyclical -- we can gain much by study and reflection on the encyclical and paying attention to what it says about our role as pilgrims on this earth. lenore