|Happy Birthday to our Planet's Protector.|
The pope’s recent 80th birthday
has left me thinking
has left me thinking
that our future may depend on his.
Shortly after Benedict XVI resigned in 2013 at the age of 80, I paid my (almost) annual visit to France to visit friends, among them Michel Pansard, who just happens to be the bishop of Chartres. Over dinner he expressed his conviction that Benedict was setting a precedent: that future popes might no longer serve for life, but would retire--presumably as he did, at 80 (this happens to be the age at which cardinals become ineligible to vote for pope).
It so happens Pope Francis and I share the same December 17 birthday, and this time it made me very aware of two things. First, at 80 he shows no signs of resigning his post. Second, he makes me envy his energy and endurance, for, even at 80, he remains one of the world’s most popular and dynamic leaders, and he has made himself the most visible spokesperson for a vision of the future that, in my view, is unrivaled by any political party or organization.
I can only hope to sustain his sort of enthusiasm when I am his age. But I confess the last year or so has challenged me to retain the kind of youthful spark I see in him. For the post-election season has left me both despirited and perplexed about our prospects as a people.
As someone prone to filtering current events through the lens of Catholicism’s social vision, I have never been fond of the Republican-Democratic duopoly of “politics as usual.” And since that politics evolved into neo-conservatism in the 1980s and neo-liberalism in the 1990s, I’ve liked it even less. Now our deeply flawed electoral system has awarded the presidency to the less popular of the two least popular candidates in our lifetime.
It is clear that Donald Trump (like Bernie Sanders) offered an alternative to such politics. But while “alternative” means “different,” it does not always mean “better.” And I admit that, as I survey the priorities of the Catholic vision in light of recent developments, I find myself not so much hoping for the best as fearing for our future.
I temper my judgments with the proviso that it is seldom clear if president-elect Trump means what he says. Those who took him literally but not seriously during the campaign were badly wrong; yet those who took him seriously but not literally are hard pressed to do more than guess what he will do. Since he has contradicted himself on nearly every public issue, he can only mean about half of what he says--but I seldom know which half. Keeping in mind that predictions about Trump are therefore often unreliable, let me briefly survey some main priorities of Catholic Social Teaching which, I remain convinced, offers the wisest contemporary vision for a better future. I’ll include climate change, economic justice, human rights, globalization, respect for life, and peace.
I was sadly disappointed that climate change received such scant attention in the electoral campaign. Trump called it a hoax, while Clinton called it real and requiring action--but neither one gave it much detail or attention. The topic never came up in the debates, and neither campaign sought to motivate voters over the issue.
Yet for me, this was the overriding issue--not just of the campaign, but of our time.
I say this not only because climate change can disastrously alter the future of our planet, but also because, as Pope Francis has brilliantly shown, climate change is the master key to unlocking most of our biggest social problems. Once we see how Francis connects the dots, it becomes hard to imagine resolving any of our major problems unless we address the environment. Let me number those dots:
Francis presents climate change as just one piece of a much bigger puzzle. He roots the problem in (1) runaway emissions (especially carbon and methane), which are generated by (2) our unsustainable reliance on fuels needed to power (3) a runaway capitalist system that (4) treats self-interest and greed as our most important social virtues. This system (5) despoils the global environment while generating not only (6) intolerable levels of pollution but also (7) intolerable levels of inequality. The result, he says will be a (8) progressive degrading of earth’s ecological systems which, while caused by the world’s wealthy, will (9) disproportionately affect the world’s poor. The effects include (10) mass migrations away from destitute and dangerous regions, especially those ravaged by violence, rising seas, or lack of fresh water. Such migrations are already being triggered by (11) the persistent terrorism in a world where resentful millions feel victimized by the power dynamics of post-colonial market systems--what Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.”
Connecting the dots allows the “big picture” to emerge: our status quo is already generating deep conflicts the will only get worse as the planet becomes less and less habitable. In this big picture, most of our biggest problems--inequality, the environment, refugees, terror, war--threaten to become intractable unless we act to change the very things that threaten the planet as well.
The solution to this massively dysfunctional global system, says Francis, is nothing less than a planetary ethical revolution that dethrones runaway capitalism as we know it and replaces it with a system that reflects more authentically humane values. He calls for an “integral ecology” that enables global development to be both humane and sustainable.
Thus at 80 Francis has positioned himself (and with him, the papacy) as the world’s most visible protector of the planet. This also makes the papacy the world’s strongest voice challenging us to face the future of humanity--and especially the future of humanity beyond the prevailing capitalist model.
The United States is the world’s #2 carbon emitting nation, and short of aggressive action our commitment to last year’s landmark Paris accord will falter, and our nation will remain a prime contributor to the degradation of what Francis calls “Our Common Home.”
In this light, dear reader, forgive me if I lament the early signs that the Trump administration may be unwilling to face this challenge. Its failure on this issue will condemn us to the ripple effects that Francis has already noted. Because of him, we’ve been forewarned, and we ignore him at our own peril—as well as the planet’s.
Next: Economic justice
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017