Pontiff’s ‘grand message’: Pope Francis calls for spiritual and environmental revolution

Pope Francis, Creative commons photo
Pope Francis, Creative Commons photo

In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis may succeed in ways that the earnest scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have not. The world’s foremost climate experts have issued a series of ever more urgent reports about looming ecological catastrophe if we don’t mitigate human-induced climate change. Those reports are factual and credible, yet astute political observers tell us that most people act — and vote — on the basis of deeply held values rather than facts. Continue reading Pontiff’s ‘grand message’: Pope Francis calls for spiritual and environmental revolution

Pope Francis’ second anniversary

Pope Francis, Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2013
Pope Francis, Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013

Fascination with Pope Francis continues as he approaches on March 13 the second anniversary of his election. The New York Review of Books carried a cover story on him recently and he also featured prominently in an article in Harper’s magazine. Time magazine named Francis as its Person of the Year in 2013 and early in 2014 Rolling Stone magazine published a lengthy cover story titled Pope Francis: The Times They Are A-Changin’.

The white smoke had hardly cleared after his election when Francis appeared on the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, not to lay down the law as his two immediate predecessors were fond of doing, but rather to ask the people assembled to pray for him. Soon after, he returned in person to the hotel where he had been staying during the conclave to pay his bill. He has eschewed the papal Mercedes limousine for a Ford Focus to ferry him around in Rome and he lives in a guest house for clergy adjacent to St. Peter’s Basilica rather than occupying the papal apartments. He even uses his land line to make cold calls to people, including some of his critics.

The pope’s behaviour has been deeply disturbing to some traditionalists among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics who fear that he will undermine the power and prestige of his office. On the other hand, many liberal Catholics dare to hope that change and reform may be in the air but wonder if the pope’s gestures are perhaps a triumph of style over substance. That argument misses the point, according to Father Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit and long-time observer of the papacy. “In the Catholic church, style is substance,” Reese told Rolling Stone. “We are a church of symbols.”

Francis, beneath his folksy exterior, is a highly focused individual who is attempting to do many things in the years remaining to him — he is 78 years old and lost one lung to an infection as a young man in his native Argentina. Several of his priorities stand out. He wants to move the institutional church and its clergy, including bishops, away from a mindset of privilege to one of service to the world, and particularly to the poor. It is for this reason that the symbolism embedded in his simple lifestyle is so potent.

Secondly, he wants to shift away from the monarchical papacy, where all wisdom and authority are vested in the bishop of Rome. Francis is scrupulous in avoiding any criticism of his predecessors but the message in his contrasting style is clear. He wants to share in decision making with the church’s 5,000 bishops. That is what the world’s bishops called for during Vatican II in the 1960s but Francis agrees that has not happened.

Francis is also especially concerned about the plight of the poor and marginalized in society. As the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was known for his solitary pastoral visits to people in the slums. To get there, he rode by subway to the end of the line and then trudged in his orthopaedic shoes along muddy and garbage strewn roads. He asked people there to pray for him too.

In November 2013, Francis devoted much of his first major written teaching (called an exhortation) to an unflinching criticism of unfettered market capitalism, describing it as “an economy of exclusion and inequality” based on the “idolatry of money.” Francis is also preparing an encyclical on climate change for release in 2015. In late 2014, he convened a meeting of Latin American and Asian landless peasants and other social movements. He told them: “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 pope’s economic and environmental critique has predictably annoyed economic conservatives. Peter Foster, a National Post columnist, dismisses Francis as an “economically challenged” progressive. “Obedience to the pope on contraception remains a controversial moral issue,” Foster writes. “Obedience on the climate agenda would be outright immoral.”

If economic conservatives are surprised by what Francis is saying about the economy, they should not be. Popes have been criticizing capitalism’s excesses since the time of Leo XIII in 1891 and both John Paul II and even Pope Benedict made similar exhortations.

Despite being kind, pastoral and economically progressive, however, Francis remains doctrinally conservative. There will, for example, be no ordination of women on his watch. “The church has spoken and said no . . . that door is closed,” he said in a news scrum in 2013.

In an otherwise exemplary address to the European Parliament in late 2014, the pope described Europe as becoming “a grandmother no longer fertile and vibrant.” That was a tone deaf remark from the leader of a church whose most fervent supporters are often older women.

Unfortunately, the  pope appears to remain obstinately out of touch when it comes to his understanding of women beyond the role of nurturer and mother. He fails to see that the equality of women, too, is an issue of fundamental justice and inextricably linked to questions such as poverty, inequality and violence.

A somewhat shorter version of this piece appeared on my blog for the United Church Observer on February 26, 2015.

Father Gustavo Gutiérrez receives honorary degree

Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez receives honorary doctorate
Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez (centre) receives honorary doctorate from Saint Paul University in Ottawa

Saint Paul University in Ottawa has conferred an honorary doctorate on the Peruvian theologian Father Gustavo Gutiérrez during a November 7 ceremony in the university’s chapel. Rector Dr. Chantal Beauvais said that the degree is the university’s way of showing “profound gratitude to Father Gutierrez and to recognize his contribution to Catholic theology. We are celebrating a contemporary witness to something that we value – reflection in action.”

Fr. Gutiérrez was born in 1928 in Lima, Peru and is regarded as one of the key founders of liberation theology — which focuses upon the emancipation of the poor and the oppressed. Latin American bishops later described this focus as the “preferential option for the poor.”

As a child and adolescent, Gutiérrez was frequently ill but he went on to studies in literature and medicine. Later he shifted to studying psychology and philosophy in Switzerland and France, where he also obtained a doctorate in theology. He was ordained in 1959 and later taught at the Catholic University in Lima, but he also spent much of his time living and working as a parish priest among the poor in that city.

A Theology of Liberation

His seminal book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971), outlines his description of the Christian witness as an act of loving solidarity with the poor as well as a protest against their poverty. That poverty, he says is the result of unjust and sinful social structures.

Fr. Gutiérrez and other liberation theologians came under papal investigation and in some cases censure for their views. His joining the Dominican order in 1988 was likely his way of seeking a degree of institutional protection from that group against his detractors.

Blessed are the poor

In her remarks, Dr. Beauvais added that Fr. Gutiérrez “has articulated the impact that theology should have upon our lives. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the oppressed, not in some future utopian society but in the here and now. It’s all about walking the talk and for that we need a particular kind of spiritual intelligence.”

Fr. Gutiérrez, speaking mainly in French, thanked the university and said that the central preoccupation of his life and work has been to answer one question – how do we tell the poor that God loves them?” He said that it is important to place the kingdom of God within human history.

Fr. Gutiérrez now teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

No rock star

During the conferring of his honorary degree in Ottawa Fr. Gutiérrez was wearing dark glasses. Dr. Beauvais joked that he is not a rock star, but rather that he is recovering from recent surgery to his eyes.

Canadians on the Camino de Santiago

Canadians on the Camino de Santiago
Canadians on the Camino de Santiago

For most of September and into early October my wife Martha and I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I had planned to post occasionally to my Pulpit and Politics blog but found that Facebook presented an easier format in which I could write while on the move, so I made multiple Facebook posts instead. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will find much that is familiar in the following piece about the Camino.

29 days of walking

We flew into Madrid on September 2 and two days later took a train to Pamplona, a city near the Pyrenees and not far from the border with France. We were on the Camino for 29 days and walked about 25 kilometres a day, 650 kilometres in all. We hiked through four Spanish provinces whose topography includes two mountain ranges, the meseta, or high plain that covers much of the Iberian Peninsula, and finally through the rocky, green hills of Galicia to our destination in Santiago de Compostela.

Saint James — Santiago

The Camino is also called the way of Saint James and falls within the ancient pilgrimage tradition of the Catholic Church. It is claimed that James made his way to Spain, where he proselytized among pagan tribes before returning to Jerusalem where he was martyred. It is claimed, as well, that his followers took the body of James back to Spain and that his tomb and relics were later discovered near Santiago in the year 834.

The Camino became a hugely popular pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, when in contrast to today it could be a dangerous trip to make. Later it fell into disuse (more or less) and later still it was rehabilitated. Today about 200,000 people walk some or all of the Camino each year. Does that mean there is a new, widespread commitment to the Church? I suspect not. A new interest in some sort of spirituality? Perhaps.

Seeking meaning

We did meet people who were searching in a specifically religious sense. A young American, for example, was trying to decide whether to continue his studies for the priesthood. We also met a German priest trying to decide whether to remain a priest or to leave. But we met a larger number of people who were not necessarily religious but who were either searching or were unhappy and unfulfilled in their work and in some cases, their relationships.

We spent some of our walking time with a young German woman who was traveling on her own. She had approached us one evening and asked if she could join us for dinner because she did not like to eat alone. She has two young daughters, aged six and eight, and a partner, but she had left them for six weeks to walk the Camino. She was vaguely dissatisfied and searching for something.

We liked her and felt somewhat parental about it. She even spent one night sleeping on our floor when we had a hotel room and she could not find any accommodation. She was also with us on our last day in Santiago, standing in the same lineup as we waited to pick up a certificate indicating that we had completed the walk. She was in tears when we said goodbye. We wish her well.

My motives

I was asked along the trail and by some of my followers on Facebook what my motivation was for walking the Camino. My reasons were not overtly spiritual or religious and I was not seeking any divine guidance or assistance.

I retired from my day job in June, although not from writing. Martha is quite recently retired, too, so we looked on this walk as a kind of marker. However, her reasons for walking the Camino may well vary from mine and I make no claim to speak for her.

Pilgrim masses

We did attend 10 or a dozen of the pilgrim (peregrino) masses held, usually in the evening, in churches along the way. I found them meaningful and even moving at times. I was raised as a Catholic and remain a cultural Catholic, familiar with the mass and other of the Church’s rituals. I have fond recall of my high school education in a Catholic boarding school and have many friends within the Catholic and other churches. But if you were to ask if I believe in the phrases recited in the Apostles’ Creed, I would for the most part have to say that I think not.

So why did I walk the Camino? It interested me as a project. I also want in retirement to be intentional about fitness. And I had both the time to go and the money to pay my way.

Pilgrims and privilege

I believe that some pilgrims overlook their privilege. They are often self-conscious about their identity as seekers on the Camino. But most people on the planet do not have the luxury of making such a journey to contemplate their lives and futures. Yet they, too, are seekers after meaning and often the divine.

All about people

One Scripture reading that occurred several times during the pilgrim masses we attended was that of Christ falling into step with two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus after his tomb had been found empty. For a long while they talked to him without recognizing him.

In their brief sermons at pilgrim masses, some of the priests used this story to talk about the importance of recognizing the divine in each person that we meet. I really like this idea and wish that I practiced it more often.

So, that’s where I will leave the Camino — with the lovely people who we met, both pilgrims and Spaniards, most of the latter serving our needs for a price it is true, but doing it with patience and grace.

Pacifism and Remembrance Day 2013

Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia
Pacifist Fr. Daniel Berrigan being arrested, Wikipedia

A friend and I taught a night course at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality in 2012 about Christian pacifism. Had you asked me when I began if I was a pacifist, likely I would have said no. If you asked me today, I might well say yes. At the least, it has become very difficult to convince me of the wisdom of any military intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq or potentially against Iran. Wars are seldom undertaken for the right reasons and they almost always have consequences far more bloody and destructive than predicted. It is not the war makers but the victims who are left to bury their dead and comfort the homeless, the wounded, the mentally scarred and to clean up the landscapes made dangerous or uninhabitable from land mines, defoliants, or nuclear materials.

Justifying war

Frequently, wars are rationalized in the name of national self-interest, where political leaders think their nation’s needs, real or perceived are all the justification they require to wage war. Then there is the holy war, where one group thinks itself divinely ordained to destroy God’s enemies – as they define them. Of course, everyone thinks that God is on their side.

During the First World War a Roman Catholic cardinal in France published a pamphlet insisting that his country’s war was just. Within a few months, Catholics in Germany answered with a pamphlet of their own saying that it was their war that was just – and a German Catholic cardinal wrote the introduction to this piece.

There is also the Rambo effect, where war and killing are considered essential to how certain men assert their masculinity. How often do we see that in news, documentaries and especially in movies?

History of pacifism

Pacifists oppose war and the taking of human life but beyond that most pacifists are committed to nonviolence in their personal lives as well. That includes an attempt to cultivate tolerance, patience, mercy, and forgiveness. It is a good way to live.

Pacifism the West began with Christianity. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Christ says that the “peacemakers” are blessed. The early church was pacifist. There are those in today’s churches – and I have heard them – who deny this and who prefer a counter narrative about Christ’s tipping over tables and chasing moneylenders from the temple. I would refer them to a book called A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church, whose authors say that the word peace occurs 235 times in the New Testament.

Christians were persecuted in those early years because they refused to serve in the Roman army. But in the Edict of Milan in 313 AD Emperor Constantine decreed that Christianity would be tolerated and later, on his deathbed, he converted. By 480 AD you had to be a Christian to serve in the army. You might say that is where the church became a part of the Establishment – a position it occupied for centuries and to a great extent still does today.

Varieties of pacifism

There is not just a one-size-fits-all pacifism, but rather a diverse set of approaches that exist along a spectrum. For example there is what one Anabaptist scholar calls the pacifism of the “virtuous minority” – a group of people who believe that they have been called by God to live peacefully. They live non-resistance, which means that they will not get involved in violent conflict, but they do not necessarily say that the state cannot do so – as long as they are not part of the violence. Some Mennonites, but certainly not all, fit this category.

Brothers Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, both Jesuit priests, and Dr. Martin Luther King occupied a more radical end of the pacifist spectrum. The Berrigans, who were arrested many times, poured their own blood on draft files to protest against the American war against Viet Nam.

Beyond Christian pacifism, there is the pacifism of Gandhi or of many Buddhists, to mention just two religiously-based varieties. Many pacifists are secular.  Óscar Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987, is someone whose pacifism is born more out of a political than of a religious conviction. Costa Rica, by the way, decided to abolish its army in 1949 after a disastrous civil war, although the country does have a police force.

Who are the realists?

People who consider themselves realists, and this includes many of our political and military leaders, believe pacifists are fuzzy-headed idealists. They believe it would be dangerous folly if no one was prepared to fight, or at least to support war making. But it is actually those leaders who are lacking in realism. Their promises of wars to end wars have not come to pass and they are entirely unrealistic about what can actually be achieved by conflict.

Pacifism is not the chosen position of the majority but it does remain a respectable minority position, and more so all of the time.


Climate change and Canadian churches

Climate change: adding an ethical perspective
Climate change: adding an ethical perspective

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its most recent report. The blue ribbon group of scientists concluded that is 95 percent certain that global warming is occurring, that it is caused mainly by our burning of fossil fuels, and that we will see more violent weather and rising sea levels as a result. Scientists never talk about absolute certainties, but clearly, they are as confident in their predictions about climate change as they are that cigarettes cause cancer.

The cigarette analogy is appropriate here. For years, some people insisted that there was no proof that cigarettes caused cancer. But as it turned out, some self-proclaimed experts and front groups were financed by the tobacco industry, itself, just as some of the climate change deniers are financed by the carbon industry today.

As for the rest of the climate skeptics, they simply won’t believe the scientists no matter how much proof of global warming they provide.

In Canada, as Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes, the government is part of the problem. The Conservative caucus contains a “disproportionate number” of individuals who believe that climate change is not occurring, or if it is, that the causes are natural events and not human behaviour. Those MPs are representative of their political base — many of whom also deny climate change and its effects on our cities, towns, farms and oceans.

As Simpson points out, the government made no effort to provide a reasoned response to the IPCC report. Rather, it issued a brief news release praising its own efforts and making partisan attacks on other political parties. The government’s own figures, however, indicate that Canada is far behind in its promise to reduce greenhouse gases by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. The Conservatives are also committed to rapid development of the carbon-polluting oil sands in Alberta, which will make it impossible for Canada to keep even the modest environmental promises it has made.

The complex issue of climate change is an especially challenging one for our political and economic system. Politicians think in terms of years — usually four — rather than in centuries or millennia. Similarly, corporate executives tend to think of the next quarterly or annual report to shareholders.

In October 2011, more than 60 faith community leaders signed a document called the Canadian Interfaith Call for Leadership and Action on Climate Change.  Those leaders called on Ottawa to support an international agreement aimed at limiting global warming. But unfortunately, we walked away from that (Kyoto) agreement later in 2011. The leaders also called for national carbon emission targets, a national renewable energy strategy and the provision of public funds to assist the poorest countries in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Indeed, people of religious faith have a chance to influence the global warming debate in a way that respects creation and its inhabitants, especially the poor; and in a manner that takes the long-term view of our existence. After all, it’s something that our politicians have seemed incapable of doing.

This article appeared in the United Church Observer on October, 10, 2013.


Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis and the Argentine generals
Pope Francis and the Argentine generals

Pope Francis has completed his first days in office. Much has been made of his frugal lifestyle, his apparent simplicity and his sense of humour. Those are admirable traits and it is also refreshing to hear a religious leader talking about solidarity with the poor rather than the prosperity gospel preached by so many. On the other hand, virtually every knowledgeable commentator cautions that we should not expect changes to the hierarchy’s conservative doctrinal positions on matters such as birth control, the ordination of women or of married men. Francis may prove to be a humble man and a pastoral leader, but the substance of the message likely will not change as much as the manner of its delivery. The media has gone overboard in covering the selection and installation of a new pope. It is great television – the backdrops of St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican, the suspense, the white smoke, the pope’s first appearance on the balcony. But now at least some journalists and commentators are getting down to work, as they should, to tell us more about the man who has been elevated to this position of prominence and power. Continue reading Pope Francis and the Argentine generals