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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The pontiff’s Christmas challenge

When the pope speaks, environmentalists await with eager expectation for any mention of pollution or protecting nature. I know I do. These are, after all, topics that Pope Benedict XVI has become known for mentioning.

In his December 21st Christmas speech to cardinals and leaders of Vatican offices, the Holy Father did mention the environment—but not in a way that some in the eco-protection world may have appreciated.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has routinely linked human nature with ecological laws—as he did in the master quote of this blog, taken from his 2009 letter to the Church Caritas in Veritate. The link that the Holy Father speaks of between our duties toward the environment and toward the human person allows dialogue from one side of that equation to the other. This not only makes ecology a moral issue—one that Catholic social teaching can elevate to matters of human dignity—it also makes ecology a teaching tool for what it means to be human.

And so in his speech to Vatican officials, the pontiff directly linked ecology to the vital importance of the family, which has been distorted in modern cultures by a great many human desires.
Man and woman as created realities, as the nature of the human being, no longer exist. Man calls his nature into question. From now on he is merely spirit and will. The manipulation of nature, which we deplore today where our environment is concerned, now becomes man’s fundamental choice where he himself is concerned. From now on there is only the abstract human being, who chooses for himself what his nature is to be. [Emphasis added.]
What does this imply? Simply put: Anyone who will defend the environment from those who would break the laws of nature must also defend humanity against those who would violate the natural laws of mankind—albeit in ways that popular culture may not acknowledge as a breaking of anything.

Reacting to this speech, many in the mainstream media assaulted the Holy Father and Catholicism in general for what they saw as a specific attack on gay marriage—and thus, on homosexuals. Such is the simplicity of many in the media. In fact, Pope Benedict’s words soared above—although certainly illuminated—specific issues like the redefinition of marriage. In his words, “[t]he defense of the family is about man himself. And it becomes clear that when God is denied, human dignity also disappears. Whoever defends God is defending man.”

Indeed, the Holy Father has profound concerns, more than has been attributed by many commentators: 
[I]t became clear that the question of the family is not just about a particular social construct, but about man himself—about what he is and what it takes to be authentically human. The challenges involved are manifold. First of all there is the question of the human capacity to make a commitment or to avoid commitment. Can one bind oneself for a lifetime? Does this correspond to man’s nature? Does it not contradict his freedom and the scope of his self-realization? Does man become himself by living for himself alone and only entering into relationships with others when he can break them off again at any time? Is lifelong commitment antithetical to freedom? Is commitment also worth suffering for? Man’s refusal to make any commitment—which is becoming increasingly widespread as a result of a false understanding of freedom and self-realization as well as the desire to escape suffering—means that man remains closed in on himself and keeps his “I” ultimately for himself, without really rising above it. Yet only in self-giving does man find himself, and only by opening himself to the other, to others, to children, to the family, only by letting himself be changed through suffering, does he discover the breadth of his humanity. When such commitment is repudiated, the key figures of human existence likewise vanish: father, mother, child—essential elements of the experience of being human are lost.
These words are illuminated by his homily on Christmas Eve. In it, he urges us to allow God to be present in our lives and our world so that, when open to He that is the ultimate other, we can then be open to, and thus be in proper relation with, our neighbors. The problem is that our relation with God is too often threatened by the noise of modern lifestyles.  
The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the “God hypothesis” becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so “full” of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger. By reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn, we have come to see how much we need to listen to Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Paul speaks of renewal, the opening up of our intellect (nous), of the whole way we view the world and ourselves. The conversion that we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality.
This phrase—our relationship with reality—is one that the pontiff also used in his 2011 speech before Germany’s parliament, when he spoke of the nascent Green Party members questioning the reality of a world that was destroying the natural environment. Having linked man and the environment, the Holy Father can call into question modernity’s relation with reality as it destroys the human environment—most especially the family.

Hence the challenge for us all—and here I will speak specifically of Catholic ecologists: We must first and foremost bring God to our world of ecological protection so that, in our own way, we may make the truth incarnate in conversations about life and laws. As we exhort the world to consume less and live in proper relation to nature we must also exhort the world to quench different desires that lead to the consumption of each other—of a moral and sexual license that has cast aside the place of the family, so much so that in the United Kingdom, for instance, the tenth most popular wish for Christmas is a dad.

Clearly, when so many young people wish for an intact family something is broken within our cultures and, more deeply, within the nature of man. But as Christians proclaim, it is because of this brokenness that the Word became flesh, pitched His tent among ours, and—remaining among us—reorients the human heart. The challenge for us is in how we respond and if we allow him room in our lives.

Here we reflect on scripture—specifically on the second reading of the Midnight Mass. These words precede the proclamation of the Good News of the birth of Christ—of God’s presence made visible to those on whom his favor rests. This passage is as much an anthem for Catholic ecologists as it is a foundation of Pope Benedict XVI’s Christmas challenge.
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.  (Titus 2:11-14)
May we choose to be true Christmas people! May we carry the crosses needed to commit our lives to others—as our Savior did for us. This Christmas and always, may we be eager to do what is good, trusting always that in choosing the path of Christ and remaining in communion with His Church, we will have access to His grace—His True Presence among us. Then we can then find the good, embrace it, and offer it to those we love—which, ultimately, must be the global family of the entire human species.

Having said all this, we may listen anew to this familiar Christmas hymn and ponder its weighty, beautiful Christmas challenge:

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