Charity, the Environment, and Papal Faux Pas

Charity, the Environment, and Papal Faux Pas February 14, 2016
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License).
(St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225-1274. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License).

Today, I’d like to take a Lenten look back at an issue that has been with us for some time: opposition to the current pope. Over the course of his pontificate, Pope Francis has become an increasingly contentious figure, a fact only underscored by his recent work with the World Bank (a projection on the Vatican to raise awareness about the need for environmental stewardship). To some, this move represented the most aggressive assault on traditional values yet, because it combined disrespect for the sacred with an agenda seen as anti-Catholic and anti-free market. Witness one author’s unabashed disagreement with the actions of the Holy Father:

There is much dark and forbidding symbolism behind the event and the organizations sponsoring it that is bizarrely connected to pagan occult practices, the worship of nature, and human sacrifice through abortion and population control…The World Bank with its hands bloodied by abortion and population control has no place working with the Vatican on a show that allegedly will reveal to the world images of what Archbishop Fisichella called “mercy, of humanity.” This is simply sick and twisted.

I would argue, however, that this rhetoric oversteps its bounds, confusing a secular issue with a religious one, especially as regards the fundamental Christian question of stewardship. To be absolutely frank, the issue of environmental care has little to nothing to do with one’s belief in Global Warming. Genesis makes clear our duty to our planet, and it would be hard to imagine a theologically-valid line of thinking that could deny that pollution, the loss of habitable land, and, say, over-fishing have negatively impacted the global poor. At bottom, it needn’t be a question of global temperatures, but one of our calling as Christians. Smog is bad for lungs. Human beings and animals cannot prosper within their ecosystems when they cannot live in them. People cannot eat fish that have been farmed out of existence.

Further, any prizing of economic benefit over such protection is out of line with Magisterial teaching on the subject. I could quote Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo Anno, but I’d like to go further back and look to the Angelic Doctor himself, Aquinas. In his discussion of whether “stealing” is wrong when done out of necessity, he declares: “[W]hatever anyone has in superabundance is due under the natural law to the poor for their succour. Hence Ambrose says…’It is the hungry man’s bread that you detain; the naked man’s cloak that you store away; the poor man’s ransom and freedom that is in the money which you bury in the ground.’”

The economic clearly does not take precedence over the communal, nor over our obligation to the common good produced from the duty of stewardship.Some, regardless, of the light-display itself see a fundamental problem with the Vatican’s decision to partner with the World Bank, a decidedly pro-choice organization. This contention must lead to Donatism. By its logic, we would be unable to work in soup kitchens with pro-choice liberal Protestants, hold prayer services with Muslims, or generally partner with any organization that did not exactly mirror Catholic teaching. From the Apostles and the Pharisees to the Crusaders working with Muslims to Pope Benedict’s exhorting peace alongside Hindus, the Church has never fully separated itself from groups with which it disagrees. Agreeing to come together for a common cause is not an endorsement of every position held by another organization.

Such open condemnation of the Holy Father’s policy seems, to me, best explained by a highly illuminating, piece by Jeff Mirus. He contends that many, especially American Catholics of a conservative bent, have some legitimate reason for discomfort under Francis (as, say, their ideological opposites did under Benedict), but that open hatred and constant stalking of the Pope’s every move are uncharitable manifestations of malice, and, therefore, of the Devil.

At the same time, there is a right way and a wrong way for a Catholic to respond to his fears. Any type of hypercriticism, hysteria or panic—especially when accompanied by accusations which go beyond a strict and necessary construction of the evidence—is, as I have already noted, not of God. This sort of anxiety, and the quick (and even petty) trigger finger that goes with it, always comes from the Devil. What comes from the Holy Spirit is interior peace, joy, generosity, and trust in God.

In other words, we must be careful not to let our discomforts (a given in the very diverse Church of Christ) manifest themselves as paranoid conjectures. The lightshow might be gaudy; we might bristle at its projecting images onto a holy place, but such uneasiness needn’t (and shouldn’t) manifest itself in talk of child sacrifice, pagan gods, and conspiracy. Fiat ergo lux.

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