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Monday, February 27, 2012

"The covenant between me and you and every living creature"

In the first reading at Mass yesterday – the first Sunday of Lent – Catholics were reminded of Noah. This was followed by St. Peter’s epistle, which expanded the flood imagery with the promises of baptism. Both readings then contrasted wonderfully with the Gospel’s scene in the desert. As I was listening to these texts, each echoed a subject that of late has been the focus of much discussion: the place of man within creation.
God said to Noah and to his sons with him:
"See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
God added: "This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you
and every living creature with you:
I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign
of the covenant between me and the earth.
When I bring clouds over the earth,
and the bow appears in the clouds,
I will recall the covenant I have made
between me and you and all living beings,
so that the waters shall never again become a flood
to destroy all mortal beings." (Gen. 9:8-15)
There’s a lot going on here, but the common theme in God’s promise to Noah is that He will forevermore safeguard earth and all living beings from His just judgment. Indeed, Genesis doesn't limit God’s promise exclusively to the human race, but “to every living creature.” This makes sense since, in the beginning, God found all that He had made to be “very good.” (Of course, we’ll see echoes of all this in the psalms of creation and, ultimately, in the promise of a new Heaven and a new Earth in John’s Apocalypse.)

What have been revealed to us in Scripture, then, are balancing forces that teach us what God is up to by granting us “dominion” over creation (Gen. 1:28-29). This is helpful. Exactly what man’s dominant place is within the scheme of earthly resources (living or otherwise) has been debated for some time, especially since the coming of the Age of Industry. Of late, it’s been highlighted in the presidential races here in America.

One comment reported recently by former Senator Rick Santorum especially caught my attention: “Unlike the earth, we're intelligent and we can actually manage things."

I think I know what he means by this, but the theologian and environmental regulator in me have something to add.

Ages ago, I had it explained to me (and I do forget who said this, for which I apologize) that the theology and anthropology of the meaning of dominion in Genesis is more akin to a parent-child relationship than it is to a master-slave relationship. Following the metaphor, we humans are to be wise and care for creation, but we are not beholden to it. We are to put it to use for the good of the human family, but not assault it for our whims and pleasure.

Better yet, in the language of love, we are to embrace it and allow it to seek our good, as we seek its good. This may seem to be odd language when speaking of man’s relation with the rest of creation. But it sounds consistent with what has been revealed to us about God:
"See, I am now establishing my covenant with you
and your descendants after you
and with every living creature that was with you:
all the birds, and the various tame and wild animals
that were with you and came out of the ark.
I will establish my covenant with you,
that never again shall all bodily creatures be destroyed
by the waters of a flood;
there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth."
Simply put, if God holds a covenant with all living creatures, and we are made in His image, shouldn't we also seek a covenant with earth’s ecological bounty? And if so, how far do our responsibilities go to protect it?

Here we come to another point: Just because God will not devastate the earth does not imply that He would not allow us to do so. Thanks to our free will, we may take too much and pollute too much and waste too much and, thus, destroy a great many bodily creatures – plant, animal, and human. Sure, we probably will not obliterate all life on earth, but we certainly may leave our mark. We are, after all, sinners.

And here we come back to Senator Santorum’s statement that “we're intelligent and we can actually manage things.”

Yes, we can manage things, but we can also be very poor at it, which is why I have a job. Yes, many of us do care about conserving the goods of nature, but then there are others that don’t, no matter what their intelligence. Which is why I have a job. Greed, after all, is sometimes a stronger force than our wits.

Thus, we do well to remember that it is not our intelligence that makes us good stewards, but our intellect elevated and emboldened by the grace of God. It is not our minds that foster good decision making, but our redeemed hearts. It is God, not us, that alone can claim a perfect covenant with the great good of the natural order. We consumers, regulators, scientists, politicians, and chief executive officers need to work very hard at managing things at all – sinners that we are.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent 2012: Life, brotherhood, and communion

The good is whatever gives, protects and promotes life, brotherhood and communion.  Pope Benedict XVI. 2012 Lenten Message.

The Holy Father's Lenten Message for 2012 is a must read, and I pray that many of the faithful will hear some of it from the pulpit or read it in their parish bulletins or web sites. As usual, his words astound. I encourage you to read the message in its entirety.

I was particularly struck with the urgency with which he connected caring for our neighbor with two related issues that are dear to him – unity and love. Moreover, it is telling how his words speak so deeply to events here at home in America and within the pro-life world.

As I’ve been posting about recently, we’ve seen schism between those who see life issues as only abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research and others, like the Holy Father, who dare to expand the matter of life to the ecological systems that keep humanity breathing, fed, and happily hydrated. While I understand why my brothers and sisters devoted to ending abortion, etc., wish to keep the wagons circled tightly around a few specific and wantonly deadly issues, I shudder at the lack of loving dialogue that one often finds in needless debates about what is and what is not a pro-life issue.

We also hear voices – most often in the political world – that criticize the science of climate change, and this also brings bickering rather than dialogue.

Enter the Holy Father, who reminds us that there is a Christian way to disagree, and it is rooted in love and a dedication to the truth. 
Scripture tells us that even “the upright falls seven times” (Prov 24:16); all of us are weak and imperfect (cf. 1 Jn 1:8). It is a great service, then, to help others and allow them to help us, so that we can be open to the whole truth about ourselves, improve our lives and walk more uprightly in the Lord’s ways. There will always be a need for a gaze which loves and admonishes, which knows and understands, which discerns and forgives (cf. Lk 22:61), as God has done and continues to do with each of us. 
In other words, since none of us are perfect, each of us needs each other.

Let this Lent, then, be a time of love and dialogue between those who seek Christ’s truths, a search that is related in many ways to understanding how our sinful natures and overconsumption is damaging the goodness and unity of God’s creation. 

As the Holy Father teaches:
 The Lord’s disciples, united with him through the Eucharist, live in a fellowship that binds them one to another as members of a single body. This means that the other is part of me, and that his or her life, his or her salvation, concern my own life and salvation. Here we touch upon a profound aspect of communion: our existence is related to that of others, for better or for worse. Both our sins and our acts of love have a social dimension. This reciprocity is seen in the Church, the mystical body of Christ: the community constantly does penance and asks for the forgiveness of the sins of its members, but also unfailingly rejoices in the examples of virtue and charity present in her midst. As Saint Paul says: “Each part should be equally concerned for all the others” (1 Cor 12:25), for we all form one body. Acts of charity towards our brothers and sisters – as expressed by almsgiving, a practice which, together with prayer and fasting, is typical of Lent – is rooted in this common belonging. Christians can also express their membership in the one body which is the Church through concrete concern for the poorest of the poor. Concern for one another likewise means acknowledging the good that the Lord is doing in others and giving thanks for the wonders of grace that Almighty God in his goodness continuously accomplishes in his children. When Christians perceive the Holy Spirit at work in others, they cannot but rejoice and give glory to the heavenly Father (cf. Mt 5:16).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The ecology of contact

Recent gospel readings remind us of a peculiar trait in Christ’s ministry to the sick: When healing them, he touched them.

Of course, such touching of the sick would have been unheard of among the Jews of Jesus’ day. It was a violation of the Law of Moses. It was a radical departure from what the Nation of Israel knew of love of neighbor. It was, therefore, subversive and dangerous.

Yet it was, and is, the way of Christ.

The Holy Father calls this to mind beautifully in his February 12th Angelus, to people standing in the chilly Roman air of St. Peter’s Square:
While Jesus was going about the villages of Galilee preaching, a leper came up and besought him: “If you will, you can make me clean”. Jesus did not shun contact with that man; on the contrary, impelled by deep participation in his condition, he stretched out his hand and touched the man — overcoming the legal prohibition — and said to him: “I will; be clean.” 
That gesture and those words of Christ contain the whole history of salvation, they embody God’s will to heal us, to purify us from the illness that disfigures us and ruins our relationships. In that contact between Jesus’ hand and the leper, every barrier between God and human impurity, between the Sacred and its opposite, was pulled down. This was not of course in order to deny evil and its negative power, but to demonstrate that God’s love is stronger than all illness, even in its most contagious and horrible form. Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, he made himself “a leper” so that we might be cleansed. 
A splendid existential comment on this Gospel is the well known experience of St Francis of Assisi, which he sums up at the beginning of his Testament: “This is how the Lord gave me, Brother Francis, the power to do penance. When I was in sin the sight of lepers was too bitter for me. And the Lord himself led me among them, and I pitied and helped them. And when I left them I discovered that what had seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness in my soul and body. And shortly afterward I rose and left the world.” 
In those lepers whom Francis met when he was still “in sin” — as he says — Jesus was present; and when Francis approached one of them, overcoming his own disgust, he embraced him, Jesus healed him from his “leprosy”, namely, from his pride, and converted him to love of God. This is Christ’s victory which is our profound healing and our resurrection to new life! 
Dear friends, let us turn in prayer to the Virgin Mary, whom we celebrated yesterday commemorating her Apparitions in Lourdes. Our Lady gave St. Bernadette an ever timely message: the invitation to prayer and penance. Through his Mother it is always Jesus who comes to meet us to set us free from every sickness of body and of soul. Let us allow ourselves to be touched and cleansed by him and to treat our brethren with compassion!
For Catholic ecologists, the presence of St. Francis in the Holy Father’s words are especially meaningful. Here we remember that the patron of the environment was a lover of people – especially the poor and sick. Indeed, St. Francis lived the Gospel by remembering that human contact has a purpose beyond the superficial pleasures that the world so often celebrates. For disciples of Christ, and all those of good will that seek the eternal truth, human contact is a physical acknowledgement and foretaste of the promised communion of Heaven.

This is why we see contact among the living and the dead throughout the natural order. From biological reproduction to affectionate hugs to the consoling holding of hands, the human person mirrors the greater ecological world, which thrives by bringing the bounty of biota in contact with itself, with the elements of water and air, with fertile soils and even the arid sands of deserts.

At its core, ecology is the sum of all contact. It is a sacramental sign of what it means to be together in communion with, and made in the image and likeness of, the Triune God.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Church and state: life and the physics of the Gospel

What should the state do when an archbishop complains about government policies?

According to many in America today, the Church should be silent. This is the refrain we hear over and again when discussing federally mandated insurance for artificial contraception and abortifacients.

But one wonders if this refrain is being sung – and if so, by whom – about an archbishop in the Philippines who has been a harsh critic of his government's environmental practices, especially related to mining.

Here’s some of a report from, a Philippine publication: 
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY—The highest official of the Roman Catholic Church here has reiterated his call early Monday night for a moratorium on mining activities even as he hit claims that mining has not contributed to the devastation wrought by Typhoon Sendong last December.
Mayor Vicente Emano said that he had issued “special permits” to mine several hectares in the city’s hinterlands and had not suspended these operations despite snowballing calls for him to halt theses operations. Most members of the City Council here have supported the mayor’s stance.
“I admit I have granted special permits; the law allows me to do that. But [the mining operations] must not destroy the ecology,” Emano said, adding that he will only order the stop of all mining operations in the city if a study conducted immediately “shows that mining operations have destroyed the environment.”
“Only then will we immediately order the cancellation of the permits,” he said.
Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ, DD, a long and staunch defender of the environment, has repeatedly called for a stop to all mining operations in the city and in the country and has scored the seeming “business as usual” stance of city government officials following the devastation caused by Sendong.
“It is unconscionable for city officials to adopt a ‘business as usual’ attitude for mining permits to continue,” Ledesma said in his homily during the early Monday night Eucharistic celebration at the St. Augustine Metropolitan Cathedral marking the opening of the “DCM and Bishops’ Forum on Typhoon Sendong and its challenges for Mindanao” as well as a thanksgiving celebration for the 60th anniversary of the archdiocese. 
I would imagine that many on the eco-left would praise the archbishop for his moxie. But here in America, many on the left are excoriating the Church for its fight against artificial birth control mandates and other “progressive” government activities.

Some would rightfully say that the issues of mining and contraceptive coverage are wildly different. But they also have much in common. Both have adherents that speak of freedom and the livelihoods of those who have little. Both have detractors who claim that no good can justify an evil. To this, the adherents of both issues tell us that there really are no evils, and that in such matter detractors like the Church should mind their manners and say nothing.

I do not wish to oversimplify complex matters. Chemically induced abortions and contraception are deeply pastoral matters that affect people in drastic, intricate, and permanent ways. Much can be said of the balance between jobs, the public well-being, and the protection of the natural world.

But there is this simple point: Those who disagree with the Church on a particular matter would rather she be silent and not speak against dearly held views, whereas those who agree with the Church delight when she finds her voice.

Here, we should call to mind an issue we can all agree on: the desegregation of schools. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans was ahead of the national curve as he fought to desegregate Catholic schools – that is, as he sought to realign the cultural views of his flock with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This fight escalated until he had no choice but to declare as excommunicate a number of local officials for their resistance to Church teachings. Was that a wanton entrance into secular affairs by the Church, or was it just the right thing to do?

No one should underestimate the Gospel’s power to inconvenience, and to do so in differing ways. Indeed, the truths of the Gospel are like the physical laws that saturate the cosmos. They do not appear only when called. They simply exist, and we must adapt to them.

And so, just as no one should debate a physicist about the laws of gravity when one’s mishandled tea cup shatters on the floor – or debate an ecologist when toxins poison your liver or the countryside yonder – so it is unhelpful to debate a bishop when he simply states that the laws of the human cosmos cannot be violated without causing harm, and that it is wrong to force people to bring about the damage.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"That they may be brought to perfection as one"

It’s always depressing to watch Christians fight – especially those so dedicated to the Gospel of Life. But today was a day when the forces of division won small battles in the war for love, unity, and life.

As reported in the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN),
Today during an Energy & Commerce hearing that covered the health impacts of mercury on the unborn Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill) challenged Rev. Mitch Hescox, President & CEO, of the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) on his pro-life views.
"The life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself," said Rep. Shimkus.
EEN’s blog also refers to a statement of the Cornwall Alliance, which made a staunch defense of maintaining the purity of what it means to be pro-life. The Alliance is not pleased about any association of mercury poisoning with issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research. Here’s some of their statement:
Consequently, calling mercury pollution and similar environmental causes pro-life obscures the meaning of pro-life. And thanking politicians with 100% pro-abortion voting records (even some who support partial-birth abortion) for their “pro-life” position because they supported restrictions on mercury emissions, while rebuking some with 100% pro-life voting records because they opposed or didn’t support the new restrictions, as EEN’s campaign did, will confuse voters, divide the pro-life vote, and postpone the end of abortion on demand in America.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore environmental risks. It does mean they should not be portrayed as pro-life. Genuinely pro-life people will usually desire to reduce other risks as well—guided by cost/benefit analysis. But to call those issues “pro-life” is to obscure the meaning of the term. 
Two fundamental principles distinguish truly pro-life issues (like abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem cell research) from environmental issues. First and foremost, truly pro-life issues are issues of actual life and death, while environmental issues tend to be matters of health. Second, truly pro-life issues address actual intent to kill innocent people, whether the unborn, the gravely ill, or the aged, while environmental issues do not. [Emphasis original]
If environmental advocates still want to support mercury-emission reductions or other environmental causes, let them do so honestly and above board. But they should not promote those causes under the pro-life banner. That is at best badly misinformed, at worst dishonest.
We call on environmentalists to cease portraying such causes as pro-life and join us in working diligently to reduce and end abortion on demand in the United States, which every year kills about 1.2 million babies, amounting to over 54 million in the 39 years since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
News of this statement was picked up by The Hill, and the reader commentary below the story shows just how damaging all this is to the credibility of those who defend human life.

As I’ve stated often in this blog and in my columns – and as Pope Benedict XVI states in Caritas in Veritate, words which hover at the top of this blog – there is a link between human life and the environment. To be clear: a link is not an equivalency, but it is a relationship – and relationships are the infrastructure of what it means to be Christian.

Let this point also be clear: The slaughter of the unborn, which we euphemistically call abortion, is a symptom and an effect of our cultural cooperation with evil. Our shared goal, then, is to change the cultural acceptance of this cooperation. And so, if it takes a certain rational approach to change the hearts of some, and another rational approach to change the hearts of others, and a third, fourth, and fifth rational approach to change the hearts of many others, who would be against this? Is there but one way to preach the Gospel? Does not St. Paul remind us that there are many parts to the body, all with their own God-given gifts?
Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the holy Spirit. There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another the expression of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit; to another mighty deeds; to another prophecy; to another discernment of spirits; to another varieties of tongues; to another interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes. (1 Corinthians 12:3-11)
Anti-abortion advocates can help their cause by allowing others, if this is their calling, to work for both human life and ecological ends, and to do so under the same titular umbrella. Indeed, there are many goods that can come from the dialogue between issues such as abortion and the public health implications of ecology. Here's one: When a person includes particular ecological issues in their definition of pro-life advocacy, they incarnationally mix among those whose more narrow ecological concerns can then become a path to conversion – to an adoption of the Gospel of Life and, thus, to become as convinced as anyone of the evil of murdering unborn children. Ecology, then, is not an enemy in the war against abortion. It is a weapon and a tool, one which we cast aside at our peril, and the peril of many, many unborn souls.

And so, shall we scatter, each in our own tribe, to the delight of our enemy? Or shall we come together and support the unique good works of each other?

In the hopes of the latter, I contacted the Cornwall Alliance this evening and thanked them for the good work that they do, without mentioning our differences, and offered my help as applicable. I here do the same for the folks at EEN. I make such offers in hope that in Christian fellowship, we can all do our share in defeating the forces of darkness and division with the words of Christ:
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. (John 17:20-21).