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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday and the "pro-creation" eucharistic Church

A Washington Post guest commentary by Christiana Z. Peppard, Ph.D lauds the laudable eco-comments by Pope Francis. In doing so, she seems to miss the point about the Eucharist—the core of the Catholic faith—and what it means for you and me.

Given that I write this on Holy Thursday—and I’ve just come from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper (and a few churches on the way home to stop in and pray a bit)—I’d like to respond to Dr. Peppard in hopes that  she is not making the mistake that many others seem to be making in these early days of the pontificate of Pope Francis.

Dr. Peppard, an Assistant Professor of Theology, Science and Ethics at Fordham University,  applauds Pope Francis for his early and direct mentioning of caring for the poor and environmental protection. But Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to make such statements. His two predecessors have quite the eco-record and have made at least a handful of statements about confronting poverty. But there are more than words at play here. Like many others, Dr. Peppard’s excitement is heightened by the pontiff’s public actions, which are profoundly moving.

She writes: 
Certainly, the Bible is rife with injunctions to care for the poor, and Catholic social teaching insists on the theological and ethical imperative known as the “preferential option for the poor.” But has any pope ever talked the talk while walking the walk? Enter Francis, who has decided to not live in the papal apartment (he will live in the Vatican guesthouse), who has eschewed highly filigreed garments, and who has constantly spoken of humility and poverty. Might this papacy be less about pontifical pomp and theological rhetoric than about attention to concrete circumstance? That would be theology as praxis: where the word of God hits the ground, and keeps walking.
 She continues, 
[I]t’s not enormously surprising that at his first press conference, Pope Francis mused, “These days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we?”
No, we don’t—neither as an economically-driven global society, nor as a Catholic institution. Sure, Vatican City pledged to become the first carbon-neutral country; but first-world folks in pews, especially in the United States, are unused to heeding this message.
Yet Francis inherits a legacy of Catholic social teaching that links economic globalization, environmental degradation, and poverty. Even the recondite Benedict XVI wrote about environmental degradation and its deleterious impacts on the lives of the poor. Along with the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, he considered access to clean air and fresh water as “right-to-life issues.” Moreover, he insisted that commodification of such essential “goods of creation” is unjust. Here’s the upshot: In the 21st century, papal pro-creation involves the preferential option for the poor and a critique of excessive pursuit of profit. There is a strong set of Catholic teaching in which the rhetoric of pro-creation is not reducible to the prohibition of prophylaxis.
As it turns out, these social and economic teachings have existed since the 1960s, though they are often minimized or referred to as the church’s best-kept secrets—especially in the United States. Think about it: When was the last time you heard a Catholic invoke the “right to life”—and proceed to expound on the importance of clean, fresh water? (Well, never.)
Never? Not at all? Not by, oh, Pope Benedict, as in the quote from Caritas in Veritate that tops this blog, or in other statements, like this one, this one, or this one?  Not by the United States bishops, who list the environment as a human life issue? Not by a host of dioceses, parishes, and everyday practicing Catholics? Not by saints from centuries past?

Moreover, is it accurate to say that “first-world folks in pews, especially in the United States, are unused to heeding this message” [of environmental protection]? We are?

In fairness, Dr. Peppard notes that the Church possesses “a legacy of Catholic social teaching that links economic globalization, environmental degradation, and poverty.” I would emphasize this. The Church has been pro-creation throughout its history—from fighting heresies like Marcionism (which rejected Hebrew Scriptures and thus the revelation of God’s creation as being “very good”) and Gnosticism (which considered the created world as evil), as well as their modern forms.

Paramount in this discussion is, of course, the Eucharist. It is this “sacrament most holy” that, through the actions of a priest, transubstantiate bread and wine—and all the earth, water, and sunlight that allows wheat and grapes to become bread and wine—into the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior. Indeed, the entire liturgy of the Mass (especially the Mass of the Lord’s Supper) is rooted in the mingling of natural events, material reality, and supernatural will. It is for this reason—this sacramental nature of the Church—that Catholics throughout the centuries have taken seriously the dignity of the created order.

It is not until recently—at least in ecclesial terms—that man’s activity has become a global threat to the created order. As chronicled in this blog and elsewhere, the Church has responded accordingly. And as Pope Francis shows us, the Church will continue to do so in ways that we can only imagine.

But for voices like Dr. Peppard (and she is most certainly not alone), Francis seems like a rupture in Church history. She even wonders if this new pope will be “revolutionary.”

Let’s be clear: Francis is not a revolutionary. He is not ushering in a new Church. Rather, he’s living eternal Church teachings in his own vibrant, loving way—one that makes for much more accessible visuals in this age of visual news. In this regard, he far outdoes Benedict XVI and even gives a youthful Bl. John Paul II a run for his money.

I would describe the differences between Pope Francis and the pope emeritus this way: Pope Benedict very often stressed the Liturgy of the Altar and the sacramental grace of God as a means to “love in the present,” as he wrote in an early doctoral work. Pope Francis presupposes sacramental grace to stress and encourage the vital liturgies of charity performed by both priests and laity in the everyday world. Certainly, neither Pope Francis nor Benedict XVI would deny the existence of and the need for both sacramental grace and the human response to it.

Indeed, the Sacrifices at the Altar are meant for the people, who in turn go in to the world to transform the world, and thus protect it. From the Last Supper onward, Christians have known that it is God’s grace that makes possible the work of the Church. But in modern times, many people (even some Catholics) assume that we can go into the world to transform it without this grace—that one does not need “theological rhetoric” to right wrongs, feed the poor, and clean up Superfund sites.

For well-meaning voices like Dr. Peppard, I would caution that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are, as the latter noted when they met at Castle Gandolfo, brothers. They may emphasize different elements of what it means to be Catholic, but they do not dismiss the fullness of Catholic sacramental theology.

These brothers both know that without the Eucharist, there is no hope of overcoming the ills of the age.

In other words, they both know that we need a proper understanding of theological language and logic—of study and exhortations—if we are to be authentically a people in proper relation to the altar. Otherwise, we will fail to adequately (if at all) confront the evils of the age—like poverty, ecosystem destruction, cultural greed, loneliness, despair, and all forms of violence against human dignity, most especially abortion.

I understand why Pope Francis excites so many people (like me). But I also understand that at his heart, he, like his predecessors, is a priest of Jesus Christ—men who we pray for and thank this Holy Thursday. For without them, the world would have no access to the Sacrament of Charity—our Lord and God—Who alone takes away the sins of the world.

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