A new year is a time to rethink, reset, and recommit. 2014 was a year of transition, where the foundation of a new economy laid in 2013 put grew into the structure that will shelter us in the coming years. But there is more to life than just the economy – and indeed as a reflection of values an economy needs solid direction and purpose.
Enter the need for real leadership, as shown at least in the West by Pope Francis. He has been a consistent champion of the poor and the ravages of a selfish world looking out only for wealth. Beyond that, he is now positioning the Catholic Church to be an advocate for a world that takes care of all of creation. The message is perfectly consistent yet so life changing that it’s hard for many to absorb. But it’s perfect for the new year.
The encyclical that is coming shortly is expected to deliver in typically blunt language the calling to the faithful to preserve creation. Back in May, he told the crowd assembled in Rome that we must “Safeguard Creation, because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”
That sounds like the caretaker St Francis of Assisi, his namesake, so there is a tremendous consistency. But Pope Francis would never leave it at that. He continued:
“Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude.”
Many on the political right in the US are livid at these statements and the coming encyclical that will spell out the details. They have already been angered by this active Pope and his call for economic justice and even his efforts to restore US relations with Cuba. Another issue that separates the Church from the US right is going to be a serious problem for them.
This reminds me of the scene in “Life of Brian” where the crowd at the back of the Sermon on the Mount gets the message from Jesus horribly wrong:
“Did he say ‘blessed are the cheesemakers’?
“It’s not to be taken literally – it refers to all manufacturers of dairy products.”
In how many ways is everyone missing the point? Let’s count them.
First of all, Pope Francis is a Jesuit. He is steeped in the assertion of Francis Xavier that we become closer to God when we understand His creation. To a Jesuit, faith comes from both the heart and the head.
Second, this is far from the first time a consistent philosophy has been mistaken by a worldly view that can only digest part of the new perspective. In Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II outlined the Church’s stand against abortion – but also against capital punishment and war. The last two are often glossed over.
Lastly, a strong belief in preserving creation is very consistent with a concern for the welfare of all people and the more equitable distribution of the fruits of industrialization. Many poor people throughout the world have to live with environmental disasters which we in the developed world would never tolerate. As Francis said to a meeting with landless peasants in Latin America last October:
“An economic system centred on the god of money needs to plunder nature to sustain the frenetic rhythm of consumption that is inherent to it. The system continues unchanged, since what dominates are the dynamics of an economy and a finance that are lacking in ethics. It is no longer man who commands, but money. Cash commands. The monopolising of lands, deforestation, the appropriation of water, inadequate agro-toxics are some of the evils that tear man from the land of his birth. Climate change, the loss of biodiversity and deforestation are already showing their devastating effects in the great cataclysms we witness.”
In the developed world, the new encyclical will likely be greeted with a rousing debate about the Church’s proper role in fighting climate change. Again, that will miss the point. That will only be one small part of the argument, however.
What Pope Francis will give us is a logical and passionate expansion of the guiding principles for a Godly person – a good Catholic. It will be consistent with a view that we, as guardians of Creation, have obligations that reach beyond our own comfort and riches.
Will the point be utterly missed? Yes, at first. But the more we can restate what Pope Francis is teaching the more we can shift the perspective that frames today’s political debates away from the silly left-right dynamic that describes nothing useful and towards a healthy debate about the kind of world we will share more closely than ever with each passing year.
Leadership, as we need it now, starts with this clarity no matter how difficult it is to change perspective. But an evolving and more intimately connected world needs nothing less. Let us all hope that this is what defines 2015 more than anything else.