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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Caesar decrees, Christ saves: Good news for Catholic ecologists

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus 
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, 
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Luke 2:1-2

Caesar Augustus could never have imagined what you and I take for granted: a child born in a subjugated corner of his empire would build a kingdom that would outlast Rome—and every empire after. The glad tidings preached and lived by this child would bring to human existence a strength and a meaning that no human governance could offer. 

Christ came as a ruler unlike any other: He came with infinite power and in utter humility. He came to challenge the way we humans go about our business. Christians proclaim that these truths should illuminate every human activity—including how we seek to coexist with the rest of creation, an endeavor that of late has taken on increasingly political overtones.

And this brings us to good news: Since the birth of Christ, every Christmas has been a political event. 

Yes, in some ways we witness this in the perennial charges of state-sponsored proselytization when public school students dare sing Christmas hymns, or in lawsuits against the placement of Christian imagery on public property. In more volatile areas, Christmas—and Christianity in general—comes with fiery and lethal persecution. 

For some of us, it may seem that these anti-Christian sentiments are a new reality. But, as we know from the Gospels and Church history, Christianity has more often than not been an unwelcome stranger in a dark and frightened world.

Jesus and the Centurion by Paolo Veronese (1528 - 1588)
Luke squarely places the coming of the Son of God within the regulatory activities of the greatest empire of his age—indeed, of any known to his world. Mark does likewise, briefly and rather subversively. Their shared point was simple: Peace on earth, justice, and the proper ordering of human and cosmic affairs come only from our willing to be elevated by the presence of God—the divine author of nature’s laws and thus the true author of the just laws of man.

None of this means that Christ came to discourage human governance. He came to baptize it—along with all human activity—because he came to baptize us.

This Christian proclamation is one that Catholics must never forget, no matter what our vocations. It is a truth that Catholics engaged in ecological issues must especially embrace and live.

In his first encyclical, God is Love, Benedict XVI taught us about the blending of divine love and human governance. In doing so he reminded us of the place of the Christian disciple in matters of worldly activity. These words are particularly important for those who seek a purely political solution to our ecological ills.

In part, Benedict XVI wrote that
[j]ustice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics. Politics is more than a mere mechanism for defining the rules of public life: its origin and its goal are found in justice, which by its very nature has to do with ethics. The State must inevitably face the question of how justice can be achieved here and now. But this presupposes an even more radical question: what is justice? The problem is one of practical reason; but if reason is to be exercised properly, it must undergo constant purification, since it can never be completely free of the danger of a certain ethical blindness caused by the dazzling effect of power and special interests.
Here politics and faith meet. Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God—an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God's standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly. This is where Catholic social doctrine has its place: it has no intention of giving the Church power over the State. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.
Further along, he adds that
[t]he Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.
Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such. There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help. There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable. The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ.
Pope Francis has already echoed and built upon these words and will continue to do so. In his exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel," Francis quotes his predecessor’s words from God is Love, adding that 
[a]ll Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.
For our purposes, this means that Catholics engaging in ecological policy must first be concerned with the conversion of hearts and the salvation of souls. And these ends come only from an encounter with the loving heart of Jesus Christ, as Pope Francis put it.

What all this is saying is that the primary task of the ecologically minded is not stirring social upheaval. Yes, there are times to peacefully protest (as with the annual March for Life in Washington D.C.) and to add our voices to local and national legislative hearings. We are to engage the political process. But we cannot seek to do good by doing harm, which some political activities can encourage and justify. Like Christ—who did not break into human history in Caesar’s palace with an army of angels around him, but as a naked infant born in a manger—anyone who seeks to save mankind from ecologically damaging lifestyles must work with patience, charity, and humility. Indeed, we must embrace the virtues taught and demonstrated by Christ.

But it is human to want to resist this—the path of the cross. And yet the ways of God are not the ways of Caesar, or you, or me. God's ways are infinitely good, right, just, and true. Christ lost on the day of his state-sponsored execution. But in allowing this loss He baptized it and won eternity for humanity—and for all creation.

And so it must be for us.

After all, Christmas is about the salvation that comes from humility. From trust. It is about the small, sacrificial ways in which God’s grace appears, when allowed to—sacramentally and otherwise. It is about God’s victory over man’s vices. It is about the Word made flesh—the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Few today know any words or songs of praise to Caesar Augustus. But centuries before Christ’s birth, the Hebrew people were already singing in praise of the coming of the King of kings. We hear these words, in part, in Psalm 96, which millions of Christians sing at Midnight Mass—words that remind us of what should be a joyful, peaceful relationship between God, nature, and the human race.
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
They shall exult before the LORD, for he comes;
for he comes to rule the earth.
He shall rule the world with justice
and the peoples with his constancy.
R. Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Wishing you all a blessed Christmas.


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post, Bill! Merry Christmas. Hodie Christus natus est.


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