I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.
The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.
Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.
The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.
And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.
It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.
The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.
I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.
It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear. They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”
Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”
But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”
In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.
People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.
None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.
For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.
But the way we say them matters.
Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?
What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?
This seems like such a simple quote. I was going to let it stand without commentary, but I realized that this is really the essence of the convictions of all Christians who are passionate about social justice. To be a Christian is to care, in a self-emptying, physical, sacrificial way, for others. And to recognize that the things we do now have ripples down through history, on generations not yet born.
This quote expresses why we have a responsibility to act on environmental issues, on racial issues, on issues of poverty and inequality–the whole range of questions that are the most uncomfortable to address, because they challenge cherished ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism.
As Catholics, I think we’re often in danger of putting ourselves in a bubble. The thing that strikes me most in Gaudium et Spes is the implicit idea that we’re supposed to be in the world, not isolated from it. It seems so obvious. Of course–how can we leaven the world if we don’t interact with it?
But another danger of the bubble is that we develop a combative, competitive view of ourselves vs. the world. THE WORLD is bad, nothing good can possibly come of it, all secular movements are inherently contrary to the Gospel, etc. We do this all the time.
Here, the bishops and Pope Paul VI urge the faithful to remember that even when the world doesn’t get it all right, the heart is often in the right place. To me, the lesson is: Rather than battling everything that comes out of the secular realm, we should look for what is of value, and find how to work in cooperation for the betterment of all. To me, that seems the best chance for true evangelization.
Look! It’s another one of those “no duh” quotes that we all think applies to someone else.
This is a sentiment that conservatives aim at liberals, with the assumption that only people who haven’t studied the faith properly could possibly hold such nonsensical ideas about redistribution of wealth, about mercy and tolerance; could possibly fail to see that things are either right or wrong, and any attempt to say otherwise equals relativism. (I know this, because that was me not that many years ago.)
But it’s also a sentiment that liberals aim at conservatives, with a hair-pulling level of frustration that people can’t see that Jesus was all about justice, and that money as an idol is behind many of the ideas held up as “traditional values” by conservatives. (And yes, I have to admit, this better represents where I stand now.)
Yesterday, I was reading a passage from Philippians, in which Paul took for granted that Christians living the faith would be united in thought and idea about how to view the world.
I don’t even know to deal with that. I know the Christian community was probably never as uniform as some Scripture passages make it sound, that division is an inescapable part of fallen humanity.
But where we are now–I started to try to lay it out, but the causes are too complex. There’s Steve Bannon going after the Pope, and confusing political ends with Godly ones. There’s the mishandling of the abuse crisis, which hits liberal and conservative bishops & priests alike. There’s clericalism and an inability to see outside “the way it’s always been done,” even though the world has changed around it and that model no longer works (i.e., we don’t have a glut of priests to do all the jobs in a parish, so you actually have to hire people to do work). There’s a passive laity, still thinking that our primary job is to show up and be done to, even though the mega churches have taught us that churches flourish best when everyone is involved.
All of these are examples of ways in which we, as believers, contribute to the flourishing of atheism. And it doesn’t fall on one side of the political spectrum–or of the left-right divide in the Church.
When we are nasty on Facebook, when we share emotion-heavy, but fact-questionable memes;
when we buy into stereotypes that Trump supporters are all uneducated rednecks or that people demanding just wages and just racial treatment are essentially lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps;
when we fail to recognize the ways in which our own privilege shapes our prejudices;
when we fail to recognize that we have prejudices at all;
when we make assumptions or pass judgment or don’t fact-check (or fallacy-check) whatever inflammatory argument suits our purposes–
In all these moments, we, as Christians, are part of what causes people to doubt the existence of God altogether.
By the time I got on Facebook the morning after Thanksgiving, it had already started.
There was the meme saying “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas! Share if you agree.” Another friend shared an article saying something like “the post-Christian America will be a meaner place.” And among liturgists, there was the discussion of “should we try to convince people not to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel before the 17th of December?”
Why are we wasting so much time and outrage on all the wrong things?
I have a lot to say about this, so for today, I’ll just address the first example.
Getting mad about “Merry Christmas” versus “happy holidays” is fight picking.
It doesn’t matter.
In fact, this supposed conflict doesn’t actually exist. Who is going around trying to force anyone not to say Merry Christmas?
True, some people (including lots of advertisers) have chosen to say “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas, out of a sense of respect for those who celebrate holidays other than Christmas. What’s wrong with basic, common courtesy? In what way is empathy and thoughtfulness for others contrary to Christianity?
(Breaking news: it’s not.)
Also: there’s no reason for Christians to object to the word “holiday.”
Further: In fact, there are multiple holidays (i.e., “holy days”) at this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s, yes. But even within Catholicism, there are many holy days that are important to different ethnic groups: St. Lucy in one part of the world, Guadalupe in another. For all of us, Mary, Mother of God. It is perfectly fine to say “happy holidays.” It is not contrary to our faith. In fact, that phrase originated with the Christian faith.
Plus, we need to be realistic. When people say “Merry Christmas,” they’re thinking about parties and presents and decorations and travel way more than they’re thinking about Jesus Christ. Even those of us who believe that Christ is the reason for the season spend way more bandwidth during it on things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Incarnation and salvation. The two terms are completely interchangeable.
I get frustrated about such nonsensical manufactured crises because they are part of a completely unnecessary culture war, and because they take up too much bandwidth that is needed for things that actually matter. Getting angry because someone says “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” distracts us from focusing on the things we ought to be caring about—the real issues that God cares about.
Of course, questions of violence, poverty, suffering, abuse of power, and injustice in the world are a lot harder to deal with. But substituting manufactured crises does damage to us as individual followers of Jesus, because whatever time we waste on this nonsense, we’re not devoting to the things that matter. And it does damage to the Church as a whole, because why would anybody take us seriously when we’re howling with outrage over persecutions that don’t even exist?
When people try to turn this into a culture war, they are picking fights for the sake of causing division. At this time of year above all others, we should not accept that. When you see those memes, just scroll on past. God will not send you to hell for not sharing. I promise.
Here’s an interesting one. There’s a section in Evangelii Gaudium focused on the need to offer to others the same religious freedoms we expect for ourselves–particularly in regards to Islam. But the pope puts this cautionary stamp on it, too. This will resonate with many who lean right politically. It’s worth some real soul-searching on both sides of the question of religious freedom as to what that really means, and what the cost is, and to whom. Because religious freedom has to include both sides of the coin: freedom *from* religion and freedom *to* practice one’s beliefs. It’s inevitable that those two freedoms will come into conflict at various points. So we have to take great care in discerning how to respect one side without suppressing the other.
Many of us who are religious view our own concerns higher than the concerns of those without faith. But if we want to convert the “nones,” we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to force something down their throat that pushes them away. We need to live in such a way that others say, “Hey, what do you have that I don’t? I want some of that. How do I get it?” We witness by implicit invitation, in other words–but we also have to recognize that others are not obligated to respond to that invitation. That’s how God approaches all of us, and if we want to image Him in the world, we have to do the same.
So–that being the case, how *do* we ensure that the rights of religious people are respected, without trampling the rights of those who choose not to espouse faith?
I have no answers, only–as always–underscoring that hot-button questions like prayer at public events and services for weddings are less straightforward than we, the faithful, would like them to be.
Most ideas work in theory (i.e., in a perfect world). The question is, how do they interact when they bump into reality?
Take the idea of small government and low taxes: we should all be responsible for our own lives and fix our own problems. It makes perfect sense. In theory.
But here’s an example that shows things aren’t so straightforward when ideas butt up against reality.
For years, my daughter required extremely expensive orthotics to try to correct the “pronation” of her feet resulting from low muscle tone and loose ligaments. This is very common for people with Down syndrome. And when I say expensive, I mean $2000-$5000 per pair. Now, we never had to pay that bill, for two reasons: 1) we have great public insurance through my husband’s work, and 2) the county where we live has a dedicated tax to fund benefits for people with disabilities. Between those two realities, we were covered. Yay for us.
But what about the vast majority of people who have neither of those advantages? They just have to figure out how to pay $2-5000 for a pair of shoes, because individuals, unlike doctors’ offices and hospitals, aren’t allowed to negotiate lower rates with insurers.
It’s a heavy burden, and it’s only one example among many, where disability is concerned. Therapies are expensive, too. OT, PT, Speech. Heart surgery. Gastrointestinal surgery. The need for adult supervision long past the age it would normally be necessary.
You can see how easy it would be to receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and be overwhelmed by the financial burden of raising this child. How easily these realities–which simply ARE; you can’t argue them away because they’re inconvenient–can be used to justify terminating a pregnancy. The burden is real.
This was one of the first realities that made it clear to me that the idea of small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility is not necessarily conducive to a culture of life. Sometimes, in fact, it will push us the opposite direction. This example shows how a centralized, universal health care system could, in fact, support a culture of life.
Countless Church documents over the years have stressed that government is meant to be a force for good. That it has a real role in making God’s justice manifest on earth. For generations, popes have been saying this.
But the modern counter-argument is that individuals and private charity can meet this need without requiring government intervention. So let’s take a look at how that idea plays out in reality.
First: outside of the families directly impacted, who even knows this need exists? (Did you?) How is the knowledge of that need going to reach the individuals and charities who might be able to meet said need?
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone does learn of the need, and creates an organization to meet it. The likelihood that they’re going to create a big charity with a wide reach is extremely low; the need is too specific. So at best, they’ll probably set up a charity that deals with their particular region. Yay for the kids in that region, but what about those in the next region over?
Best case scenario, someone else hears about it and sets up an organization there, too. Which means now we have two organizations, with two different leadership, doing the same job, competing for the same pot of charitable money. And meanwhile, the people three regions over still aren’t getting any help at all.
On the other hand, if this need were acknowledged and met through a publicly-funded entity–whether that’s something like the system in place in my county, or through a “Medicare for all” kind of national system–then we are actually being MORE efficient, because we have one administration, one funding stream, and one source.
Plus, we as a society are standing up and saying–with our pocketbooks–why yes, in fact, children with disabilities DO have value, they DO a right to be here, and to live fully.
It’s human nature to want to simplify the world, but the Gospel call has to be lived out in a messy reality. If we want to make any headway at all, we’re going to have to recognize that our ideas have to be “worked out,” as Pope Francis says, in the context of an immutable reality. That means being willing to listen to and learn from those impacted by any given issue, and to compromise with those who have different ideas on how to address the same problems.