Shorter Pope Francis: I’m All About That Bass

This is a wonderful opportunity for me to gain your attention through the use of an – admittedly terrible – pun, but now that I have done so, I hope the reader will indulge me and allow me to explain my choice of title a bit later in this post.

The release of the much-anticipated Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si” today did not disappoint. In it, as there should be, is plenty of material to make everyone feel uncomfortable, in the ways we live our lives and in the ways we treat one another. It also reveals both a weakness and a strength of the present Pontiff as a thinker and a writer.

While a significant portion of the document reads like a journal article assembled by a group of graduate students, the more interesting turns and jabs in the Encyclical are not what most of us expected – certainly not this scrivener, anyway. To not be able to anticipate, as one reads, how Pope Francis is going to reach some of the conclusions he does, many of which were quite surprising, makes this more readable for the average person than most papal encyclicals. What one comes away with is the impression that whatever his views on the environment, the economy, and human relationships, the Holy Father believes that the malaise we see at present comes not from a single political philosophy or economic practice, but rather from a particular attitude, one which has severely damaged Western civilization in particular: selfishness. This encyclical is perhaps the greatest indictment of the “Me” generation, and all of its policies and excesses on both the right AND the left, which we have seen to date.

While major news outlets are falling all over themselves to quote the Pope’s writing on those aspects of ecology which they themselves support, they will at the same time be ignoring those portions of the encyclical which directly attack their views. Take for example that sacred cow of the left, “reproductive health”, i.e., the right to poison oneself – and indeed everyone else’s water supply in the process – with artificial hormones and other chemicals, so that one does not have children, alongside the right to kill unwanted children if they are conceived. The Holy Father offers no quarter to those who attempt to justify such policies based on environmental arguments:

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Similarly, for those who believe that grinding up human embryos for pharmaceutical research, or aborting children who will be born with birth defects, are moral examples of the ends justifying the means:

117. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

Also:

120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.

And:

136. On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.

Admittedly I did not engage in an exact word or paragraph count, but as I was reading the Encyclical it struck me that Pope Francis – that supposedly permissive, squishy-on-morality pope – spent more time castigating moral relativism, abortion, contraception, and embryonic stem cell research, than he did addressing the issue of climate change. Oh, and Mr. Limbaugh, for your edification, should this find its way to your desk (emphasis mine):

144. A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.

So now, finally, I can explain my choice of title for this piece. Much to the annoyance of those of other tongues who try to learn it, the English language has many homographs, i.e., words which when written appear to be the same, but when spoken have completely different meanings and pronunciations. Some examples are “wind”, “project”, and “lead”. Such is also the case with the word “bass”, which has several meanings: I shall focus on two.

In the natural world of course a “bass” is a type of fish. Given his strident advocacy in this Encyclical about caring for God’s creation, the Holy Father is all about that fish. He is also all about the birds, and the flowers, and the trees, and those slimy “things which creep upon the earth” from the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

However “bass” is also the word we use to describe a deep and powerful voice, most often exhibited by men. We often associate it with men of significant socio-political stature, or who are advanced in years and wisdom, or even with God Himself. One can hardly imagine the voice of God the Father, when heard at the Baptism of Christ, as being that of a tenor in sotto voce, even though we can also recall the voice of God in that “still, small voice” heard by the Prophet Elijah.

Pope Francis himself does not have a particularly powerful speaking voice, in part due to his only having one lung. And yet some of the language which he employs in this encyclical is of a rather profound, basso profoundo, take-no-prisoners quality. It comes as quite a surprise from someone who has been characterized since the beginning of his papacy as some sort of mamby-pamby, soft-spoken NPR host.

Take a look here:

67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.…Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

He’s quoting the Book of Leviticus at the end there, for those who do not know the abbreviation. LEVITICUS. Not a light-hearted romp through salvation history, that book – which should make some of us – myself included – very, very nervous.

Or this example:

75. A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.

Now perhaps it is just my point of view, but this does not strike me exactly as touchy-feely, wishy-washy, your-truth-and-my-truth stuff. In fact it is almost an echo of the preceding quote: God is God, and you most emphatically are not. Start acting like it.

For me though, the best example of how Pope Francis really is all about that bass appears in Paragraph 229. I would not have expected such a statement from such a pope, particularly given how he has been portrayed by the media on both sides of the political aisle since his election. In its directness and lack of sophistication, it is not going to convince any of the Holy Father’s more intellectual naysayers. In its rejection of the kind of solipsism which has become the sine qua non of Western culture, and indeed in its outright chastisement of what has happened to that culture, it is the kind of statement which one sometimes wishes one’s bishops would have the courage to say, and yet so often we are left having to say it for ourselves, as lay people:

229. We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.

Someone observed on my Facebook wall this morning that J.R.R. Tolkien, the deeply Catholic author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, would have loved this Encyclical. I would add, so would Pope St. John Paul II, Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and many others, who devoted their lives to advocating compassionate care for the world they were born into, and the people who live in it. Like them, Pope Francis is right to draw attention especially to the oppressed and the unwanted.

Now I must confess, gentle reader: I am still not a fan of this Pope. I find him tacky, unfocused, overly pedestrian, and lacking in grace. Yet this encyclical is quite a worthy shot across the bow of the moral relativism we ALL espouse to justify our selfishness. You cannot make short-term profits on the backs of the poor, any more than you can save the whales while killing the babies, and thereafter morally justify your actions in the eyes of God. As quoted above, when our society is so corrupted and falling apart that everything is relative – the profit motive, sexual morality, and yes, creation itself – then we have a very serious problem as a species. If this Encyclical made you uncomfortable, as it did me, then good: now go off and do something about that.

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Turning Trash Into Treasure

Regular readers know that for some years now, I have advocated what might in some corners be considered acts of public littering. Back at the Fortress, I keep a bag full of the odds and ends which accumulate in the lives of active Catholics.  These include the myriad of newsletters, booklets, etc., which always seem to find their way into your hands or mailbox. I try to remember to stuff a couple of these things in my pockets when I head out, and then keep my eyes peeled for an opportune time and place to leave these things where someone might come across them.

Not being naïve, I suspect that most of the time these things end up in the trash, unread.  This is not like a castaway putting a message in a bottle complete with contact information, so that at some future point the sender learns his message has been received and understood. For that matter, nor is it like a blog post or podcast, where feedback, retweets, and reposts let you know that you have a struck a chord with someone else.

Today, however, was not “most of the time”.

This morning on the way in to work, I left a copy of the song sheet from Sunday Mass underneath my seat on the bus. When I got up to head to the door shortly before my stop, a rather dirty, emaciated woman in a disheveled wig, moved toward my abandoned seat. As she sat down she spotted the paper, and picked up.

From behind my sunglasses I was able to watch her unfold the sheet and read the top.  My parish prints the Introit, i.e. the selection from the Psalms that is sung before Mass begins, on the top of the Sunday song sheet. For this past Sunday, the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, the selection happened to be from Psalm 27 (known to my musical readers as the “Exaudi, Domine”):

Exaudi, Domine, vocem meam, qua clamavi ad te. Adiutor meus esto, ne derelinquas me, neque despicias me, Deus salutaris meus.

O Lord, hear my voice, for I have called to you; be my help. Do not abandon or forsake me, O God, my Savior!

The woman read the Introit slowly, and smiled a wide smile, one marked by many missing teeth. She then looked skyward and did a big fist-pump, like one might do when scoring a winning cross-court shot. After which she carefully folded the sheet in half, opened the shoulder bag she was carrying, and tucked the sheet inside.

Now: the reader will please take pains to note that this really has nothing to do with me.  I did not type the song sheet, let alone write the Psalm. I also do not know whether the woman in question was rejoicing because the words printed on the paper meant something to her, or whether she was simply happy to find a piece of paper. I like to think the former. Yet the fact that I was given the incredibly rare opportunity to witness this moment made me realize two important things.

First, adopting a policy of constructive littering is a good thing. Even if the message ends up in the recycle bin, as it would have anyway in your home or office, why not give those handouts and church bulletins a second chance at a useful life? Doesn’t it make sense to at least put it out for someone else to examine, before it returns to the vat of wood pulp from whence it came?

Second, and more importantly, we need to get on board with the idea that we have to cooperate with God’s Will, not ignore or rail against it. While instinctively we all know this to be true, we forget it so often that it bears repeating: God can work through anyone. I am the greatest of sinners, and yet for some reason I was permitted to act as His instrument, to reach someone who desperately needed to hear from Him today. This is both incredibly humbling, in that it makes me realize what a selfish turd I am, and yet at the same time it is deeply edifying, to see the Holy Spirit reaching the life of someone else, who so desperately needs encouragement, through my almost casual action.

Even if you don’t live in a big city, gentle reader, take public transportation, or get out very much, consider the possibility of engaging in sensible acts of vandalism such as this, when you can. Please do not go tagging graffiti about God on other people’s property, or carving “St. Michael the Archangel kicks arse!” on the back of your seat on an airplane: I’m not going to represent you in court on that one. Yet from amidst the clutter you accumulate in your spiritual life, I urge you to find ways to turn what you might now consider trash, into a treasure for someone else.

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Back to Earth

I’m writing this from several thousand feet over the State of Georgia, on my way back to DC after the 2015 Catholic New Media Celebration (CNMC). No, I am not sporting a cape and tights as I do so. While this will not be a particularly lengthy post, it is an important one for me, in that it marks my return to regular blogging following the past two months of hiatus. And before continuing I want to once again thank all of my readers for their gracious expressions of kindness following the death of my Mother.

There will be some fairly substantial changes afoot here in the coming months. I cannot yet provide a timetable, but I would ask that you keep your eyes peeled so that, as the saying goes, you will not find yourselves caught asleep at the switch. These changes should allow those of you who appreciate reading my fitful scribblings to do so in a better-framed context. My goal is to build upon the last substantial changes I made two years ago, in order to make the perusal of my writing a more user-friendly experience with respect to content, design, and accessibility.

For those of you who have never attended, I should explain that the CNMC is the perfect venue for a media producer looking to step up his game or tweak what he is already producing. It was refreshing to be encouraged to examine my content with a more critical – if not to say jaundiced, á la (Florence) King – eye. Even if, as it turned out, some of the presenters happened to make digs at me during their presentations. You know who you are (Greg Willits and Maria Johnson), and you’re going on a list.

While there was a great deal to process coming out of this CNMC, both personally and professionally, perhaps the most important takeaway was the notion that it’s time to pick up and start again where I had left off: a bit sadder, but hopefully also a bit wiser than I was before I stopped. I hope that your gracious patronage and engagement, gentle reader, will continue as it has lo these (nearly 7) years now. God bless you!

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Somewhere Over Georgia