I am starting to write this blog on Thursday September 24th, two days after Pope Francis’ arrival to the United States, and the day after Yom-Kippur, The Day of Atonement; the holiest day of the year in Judaism. I am a Jew, which is reason enough for me to start a discussion with the Pope’s visit and the role of religion in shaping global events. Today Pope Francis delivered his address to a joint session of Congress. As usual, this blog will be posted this coming Tuesday, two days after the Pope’s scheduled departure from the US.
This week will be overwhelming dominated by events that have the potential to shake the world. In addition to the Pope’s visit to the United States, President Xi of China will be attending the opening of the United Nations’ 70th session in New York, along with approximately 150 other world leaders. The UN is expected to vote to formally adopt a global sustainable development agenda that will serve as a foundation for the upcoming Paris meeting on climate change this December. To cap it all off, Speaker John Boehner just made a sudden announcement that he will soon resign.
The Pope is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. President Xi is the leader of a nation of 1.4 billion people. Each number represents close to 20% of the world’s population with very little overlap. Together they represent close to 40% of the global population. If humanity is in need of major global change, what these two leaders say and do is important.
If they call upon their followers to take immediate action, there are obviously major differences in their ability to enforce such action. One has a large army and police force to manually implement action, while the other has the moral authority of being traditionally considered a successor to Saint Peter to whom Jesus gave the keys to heaven. I will focus this blog on Pope Francis.
When it comes to my own religion, I fast during Yom Kippur, but I don’t go to pray in a synagogue. I observe all the Jewish holidays – most of them with my family, but I don’t follow many of the dogmas of the Jewish religion in my daily life, such as those pertaining to food restrictions and driving and working on Saturdays. Many orthodox rabbis would not consider me to be a “real” Jew. To them, I am a “soft” Jew, even though during the Holocaust the Nazis marked me as a Jew by murdering most of my family.
Similarly, many of the 1.2 billion Catholics are “soft” Catholics. They go to Church as often as they wish. They obey certain parts of the Catholic dogma and ignore others such as those regarding birth control and abortion.
The Pope made two key speeches during his visit that contained strong language focused on global issues that are directly or indirectly related to climate change. His first – to the US Congress – was delivered in English, while his second – to the United Nations – was in Spanish. I will use Al Jazeera’s translation to quote some segments below.
This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development
How much progress has been made in this area in so many parts of the world! How much has been done in these first years of the third millennium to raise people out of extreme poverty! I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done, and that in times of crisis and economic hardship a spirit of global solidarity must not be lost. At the same time I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty and hunger must be fought constantly and on many fronts, especially in its causes. I know that many Americans today, as in the past, are working to deal with this problem.
It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. “Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good” (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home” (ibid., 3). “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all” (ibid., 14).
In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a “culture of care” (ibid., 231) and “an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature” (ibid., 139). “We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology” (ibid., 112); “to devise intelligent ways of… developing and limiting our power” (ibid., 78); and to put technology “at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral” (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead
First, it must be stated that a true “right of the environment” does exist, for two reasons. First, because we human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it, since the environment itself entails ethical limits which human activity must acknowledge and respect. Man, for all his remarkable gifts, which “are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology” (Laudato Si’, 81), is at the same time a part of these spheres. He possesses a body shaped by physical, chemical and biological elements, and can only survive and develop if the ecological environment is favourable. Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity.
Second, because every creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorised to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good (cf. ibid.).
The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action.
The dramatic reality this whole situation of exclusion and inequality, with its evident effects, has led me, in union with the entire Christian people and many others, to take stock of my grave responsibility in this regard and to speak out, together with all those who are seeking urgently-needed and effective solutions. The adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the World Summit, which opens today, is an important sign of hope. I am similarly confident that the Paris Conference on Climatic Change will secure fundamental and effective agreements.
The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man: “man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature” (BENEDICT XVI, Address to the Bundestag, 22 September 2011, cited in Laudato Si’, 6).
Creation is compromised “where we ourselves have the final word… The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognise any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves” (ID. Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, 6 August 2008, cited ibid.). Consequently, the defence of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman (cf. Laudato Si’, 155), and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions (cf. ibid., 123, 136).
The present time invites us to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society, so as to bear fruit in significant and positive historical events (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 223). We cannot permit ourselves to postpone “certain agendas” for the future. The future demands of us critical and global decisions in the face of world-wide conflicts which increase the number of the excluded and those in need.
The picture below shows the Pope speaking to Congress. Behind the Pope are the two co-chairs of this joint session of Congress, Speaker Boehner and Vice-President Biden in his role as President of the Senate.
Figure 1 – Pope Francis in Congress
Both are practicing Catholics. Speaker Boehner is a Republican while VP Biden is a Democrat. The two disagree on almost everything, a feeling that especially applies to the issue of abortion. Pope Francis referred to that matter peripherally when he said, “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Vice President Biden supports Federal law following the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, which gives a woman the right to choose with some restrictions. Speaker Boehner wants to ban all abortion in the country. On this subject, the Catholic Church, with the Pope’s support, agrees with Speaker Boehner.
Here is Vice President Biden’s explanation of how he reconciles his religious beliefs with his political stance:
Vice President Joe Biden, a Roman Catholic, said that while he accepts the Church’s position that life begins at conception, he will not share his position with others who do not have the same beliefs.
“I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God fearing people that have a different view,” Biden told Father Matt Malone, S.J., editor in chief of America magazine, in an interview published on Monday.
Speaker Boehner has made the announcement that he will resign from Congress at the end of October. Whether his resignation is connected to the conflict between the Pope’s recent teachings and his own religious and political beliefs remains to be determined. Certainly, he – along with many other Republican elected officials – has expressed strong disagreement with and disapproval of the Pope’s continued messages on climate change and other global issues.
In the next month or two, with the advantage of extra time to reflect and react, I will try to remove some of the pageantry from the discussion of this week’s events and try to examine some of the key actions and consequences that result.