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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#463: Will France’s Future Be in a Peaceful Europe?

The outcome of this month’s French Presidential Elections may depend on how much voters link peace on their continent with the "Idea of Europe.”
The 11 candidates for French President. Only the top 2 will survive to Round 2.
 Signs of our troubled times were present everywhere during my recent trip through France.  In Nice, we visited the Promenade des Anglais, where so many died in a terror truck attack during Bastille Day celebrations last July.  Returning to Paris, riding the RER train between Port Royal and Luxembourg, I could not forget that this was the very train which Algerian terrorists had lethally bombed, between these very two stations, in both 1995 and 1996.  Two days later, walking through the Montparnasse Cemetery, we came upon the grave of one victim of the Charlie Hebdo shootings of January 2015. Next day we walked the Champs Elysees just one week before the latest attack killed a policeman.

It’s no surprise that the terrorism of recent years will be a major factor in this weekend’s French elections.  French citizens have reacted not only to the violence itself, but to the questions it raises about many pressing public issues: immigration, open borders, unemployment, free trade, religious integration, national identity, equality, globalization, and even the very idea of Europe.

Of course the French are not alone.  Brexit and the election of Donald Trump both represented responses to the same questions.  I decided it would be timely to ask French people about the situation as they see it.

I interviewed more than a dozen people in six different locations: retired couples, former small business people, a pharmacist, a notary, artists, young professionals.  I heard many differing ideas, but on one question--the idea of Europe--there was near consensus.  And this consensus should be of interest to Americans in general, and especially to American Catholics.

I began describing my own perspective.  As a student in Paris in the late 1960s, I was tutored by several people instrumental in promoting the young “Common Market,” which eventually became the European Union.  The consistent message to me was that the movement underway in the 1960s to create an economic union did not have, as its primary goal, the advancement of prosperity or the enhanced wealth of any particular class.  Rather, the notion was that economic union, using free trade to promote greater prosperity, was but the preamble to a second movement toward political confederation.  And the goal of political confederation was peace in Europe.

It may be difficult for Americans to appreciate what this goal meant to post-War Europeans. They had just endured the second of two major continental conflicts that caused tens of millions of deaths, decimated whole generations, and left entire national economies in ruins.

But that was not all.

These wars were seen by Europeans as merely the latest episode in a centuries-long history of repeated and recurring warfare among the nations of Western Europe.  No European could remember an extended period peace--in fact, no European going back a dozen generations had any such memory.

So the “idea of Europe” was nothing less than a massive project to eliminate war on the European continent.  This at a time when the continent itself was still divided by an “Iron Curtain” symbolic of both the war just concluded and the Cold War currently underway.  Realists would have said the project was impossible.  Only visionaries would believe in it.

I asked my interviewees if, in fact, this had been the popular understanding of what was going, on beginning with the treaty of Rome in 1957, whose anniversary was just celebrated last month.  Most of my interviewees are either old enough to remember this history, or had read about it in school.

All of them, except for one retired businessman, emphatically agreed with the key notions that (1) the Common Market’s trade union was simply an economic preparation for political federation and (2) the ultimate goal of federation was peace itself.

One person cited Winston Churchill’s opinion that the future would bring a “United States of Europe.” (This reminded me of my own seminar-related field trip to Common Market headquarters in Brussels in 1969, where I expressed the hope of returning in 20 years to find just such a United States of Europe). 

Another person responded by saying, “But of course it was always about ‘Jamais Plus’…” (”Never More”). She was citing the slogan of the post-WWI French pacifist anti-militarist movement. Pope Pius VI made the slogan famous in his 1965 address to the UN General Assembly, when he cried out, in French, “Never more--war never again!”

All this implied that, for supporters of this idea of Europe, many economic and political concerns became secondary.  They knew, for example, that free trade would lead to labor dislocations as the old protectionist systems fell away and businesses and their workers were forced to compete directly across borders.  They knew as well that a political confederation could not be accomplished without some sacrifice of national sovereignty.  Those who studied US history, for example, knew that the question of states’ rights has been controversial since the adoption of the US Constitution created the Federal government. 

The same challenge would be true for Europe--except that Europe is not a continent of English speaking citizens from similar backgrounds and cultures, like the US at its founding.  Few places on earth cram as many different languages, cultures, peoples, and histories into the small space of Europe. 

But if this makes European unity especially challenging, it is precisely why building peace in Europe required deliberate institutions: so many people crammed so close together cannot coexist peaceably by accident.

But coexist peaceably is exactly Western Europe HAS done since World War II.  For more than 70 years, no Western European nation has battled another.  Such peace is nearly without precedent in the last 1000 years.

Almost all of my interviewees agree that such peace was the product of the idea of Europe, and the one who disagreed could not explain peace any other way.

But interestingly, my interviewees all pointed out that the younger generation--those under 35, the strongest supporters of the far right’s Marine Le Pen--is not even conscious of this accomplishment.  My interviewees were unanimous: young people simply cannot imagine Germans fighting French or Dutch fighting Spanish or Italians fighting anybody. 

When I ask why, the response was unanimous: young people simply take peace in Europe for granted.  I was reminded of the John Sebastian singing “Younger Generations”: “All I’ve learned my kid assumes.” The postwar generation of Europeans had to learn how to construct peace; their grandchildren enjoy it as a given, and are ready to scrap the structure that made it possible.

So then I posed the question to my interviewees: doesn’t this mean that the idea of Europe was a success?  The response was unanimous: absolutely.  The idea of Europe is a success. It has brought peace.

As a test, I offered an analogy with the experience of the Christian world since Vatican Council II.  The ecumenical movement, reaching full speed in the 1960s, aimed to end conflict and hostility among the various Christian churches (Which, in Europe and especially in France, included several scandalous “Wars of Religion”).
I noted that in my youth we tended to think of “the Catholic religion” and “the Protestant religion” as if we had inherited two different belief traditions.  And often the isolation and hostility across denominational lines even infected family relations. 

But today, thanks to the ecumenical movement, baptized Christians have a different sense of identity: I belong to the Catholic Church, but my religion is Christianity--and I share that religion with Protestants. Thus I am a Christian  of the Catholic variety.  My identity is changed.

They found my analogy fit their experience—one older gentleman could even remember how in boyhood his Catholic playmates would attack and insult the Protestant kids in the neighborhood.  He could not imagine that sort of conflict happening today.  (I recall two Boston examples: Nat Hentoff describing the Catholic gangs from South Boston attacking his Jewish playmates on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, and a Catholic priest who in boyhood always referred “Jew Hill Avenue.”)

Has something like this happened to the political identity of Europeans, I asked?  Do French people now think of themselves as “Europeans of the French variety,” enjoying common bonds with other Europeans?

“Of course!” my interviewees replied (again with one exception). “Our identity is not what it once was.”

The interesting part of the analogy for me is that both examples confirm the same point: creating a wider identity enhances bonds that promote Peaceable relations, whereas tightly defined identities and boundaries do the opposite.

This is important in France, which tends to have a very tight definition of what it means to be French.  Many French at some level still agree that “France is for the French”--which can mean that France is not for Jews, not for Arabs, not for Muslims, or for gays, not for anyone who does not assimilate smoothly into the mainstream of French Life.  In short, France is not designed to be a fully pluralist culture.  My interviewees were shocked to know, as they approach their own elections this Sunday, that American ballots are often multilingual.

During my stay I also watched the televised presidential debate, which included all 11 candidates. One the section concerned the question of Europe itself.  Three of the candidates, including far right politician Marine Le Pen, want out of Europe (“Frexit”). The other eight all want to stay.  This was not a surprise, nor was it surprising that not a single one of the eight defended the European Union as it currently operates.  All of these eight called for a variety of reforms that would make the European Union more democratic, more accountable to its national members, more committed to economic equality, lest technocratic and bureaucratic, fairer to workers and poor member-states, etc. 

But it was crystal clear that all eight made a critical distinction between the actual functioning of the European Union and the idea of Europe that it embodies.  Much as we Catholics say that we profess loyalty to a sinful Church, all eight of these candidates found flaws in the European Union but remained firmly committed to the idea of Europe. To use a US analogy: they proposed changes akin to constitutional amendments, rather than proposing to scrap the Constitution itself.

On Sunday’s election, it is likely that Marine Le Pen and one of these eight will finish among the top two candidates in the first round.  It is generally expected that whoever goes through to the second round against Le Pen will gather the others’ votes and become president.   If so, the new French presidential election will reaffirm the idea of Europe as something supported by the vast majority of French people.

It’s worth noting that the Roman Catholic Church has been a longtime supporter of the idea of Europe.  All the French clergy I know are champions of the European Union despite its flaws, since they truly see it as the vehicle for peace.

Young French voters may not even realize, when they vote, that their choice either supports or rejects the vision of the postwar generation who believed that a peaceful future could only be built on international cooperation, beginning with economic union and moving to political federation.  As Americans, we should be flattered that their elders took the United States as a model.  If we are skeptical, we might ask ourselves: “Why should Europe not enjoy the benefits of federation that we have enjoyed?”  And as Catholics, we can see that what they have accomplished in the last 60 years is much like what our Church, and our sister churches, have accomplished by pursuing unity amid all our flaws
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, March 2, 2017

#462: How to Judge Trump? By His Fruits You Will Know Him


Pope Francis on Trump: "Wait and see"

Everyone knows we are divided, and no one thinks that’s good. But we seem at a loss for a solution. Can the Catholic Vision help? How?

 Sometimes teachers learn more than they teach!

Recently I conducted a session for adults preparing to join the Roman Catholic Church.  An important question surfaced: are Catholic Social Teachings just general principles without much practical direction, or do they include specific actions to implement those principles--or are they someplace in between?

The question would be important anytime, since the answer determines how relevant Catholic Social Teaching  (CST) is to our daily experience of the society and the culture we inhabit.  But the question is especially urgent now, when Americans are divided into two equally unhappy camps.

One camp is convinced that America is in grave danger from terrorists, illegal immigrants, refugees, rampant crime, lost jobs, unfair trade deals, the media, and the power of establishment elites.  The other camp is equally convinced that America is endangered by a dishonest, incompetent, paranoid administration that is bent on conning the public and curtailing our rights and protections to achieve its mission of self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.

Observing these two unhappy camps locked in a power struggle, I recall a key theme from Vatican II (1962-1965): that the Catholic Church must position itself as a public source of wisdom, to help steer power away from evil and toward good.

This begs the question: can Catholic Social Teaching do that job? Can it provide the wisdom we need to steer this current power struggle in the US toward good results?

Pope Francis has been speaking to this question quite a lot recently. His comments focus on two notions of great practical value for people of faith.

Notion #1: “Wait and See.” One thing both unhappy camps share is inflated rhetoric.  One side invents its own facts: immigrants are pouring in, refugees import terror, crime is soaring, joblessness stems from free trade and regulation.  The other side spins hypothetical horror scenes of mass deportations, treasonous collusion, police state tactics.  Such rhetoric fuels the conflict but provides little basis for resolving it.

Francis prefers to wait for concrete facts.  In his January 22 interview with the Spanish newspaper  El Pais, when asked about of his own opinion of the new American president, Pope Francis avoided both alarmism and cheerleading.  He suggested, rightly I think, the prudence of basing any response on actual events rather than invented fears or anticipated outrages:

I think that we must wait and see. I don't like to get ahead of myself nor judge people prematurely. We will see how he acts, what he does, and then I will have an opinion. But being afraid or rejoicing beforehand because of something that might happen is, in my view, quite unwise. It would be like prophets predicting calamities or windfalls that will not be either. We will see. We will see what he does and will judge. Christianity always rests on the specific, either a position is specific or it is not Christianity.

…We need specifics. And from the specific we can draw consequences. We lose sense of the concrete. The other day, a thinker was telling me that this world is so upside down that it needs a fixed point. And those fixed points stem from the concrete. What did you do, what did you decide, how do you move. That is what I prefer to wait and see.

The public response to Trump’s travel ban is a perfect illustration of “specific” action.  The very day the government began detaining immigrants, green card holders, even those with visas, protesters thronged airports, vast crowds filled city squares, and the courts acted swiftly to halt the ban. This fits rather neatly with Francis’ advice.  Rather than jump to conclusions, we should respond to results. 

But this leaves open the question: on what basis do we judge the results?

Notion #2: The Relevance of Catholic Social Teaching.  Of course, specific responses presume preparation.  They require the ability to mobilize people who are ready to act and who know when the time for action has arrived.  Pope Benedict XVI famously said that the Church cannot stand on the sidelines in the fight for justice--but to arbitrate any contest, one must master the rules. So in many recent statements, Pope Francis has been demonstrating how Catholic Social Teaching (CST) can provide practical rules for the conflicts we face.

Such practical teaching must avoid two extremes.  If CST offers only general principles, arguing about how they apply might lead to endless debate that frustrates rather than promotes action.  But if CST attempts to dictate specific policies or actions, people may argue that the Church is stepping beyond its expertise into technical areas where its competence is suspect.  In short, if the Church wants CST to provide practical wisdom, then it must go beyond theoretical platitudes but avoid technical solutions.

And here Francis guides us, for in comment after comment he makes it clear that CST offers something different.  CST offers neither mere principles nor specific solutions; instead, it offers concrete criteria for judging actions that we or others take to solve problems.

This makes CST highly pragmatic.  Instead of obsessing over hypotheticals, it focuses on actual results.  Instead of claiming to provide concrete solutions, CST provides clear criteria for evaluating concrete solutions.  It’s not enough to take actions that achieve results; those results must fit CST criteria or be rejected. In this sense, the gospel message is radically pragmatic: we need not argue about rhetoric or theories, but ask rather which theories are working or not working. Thus CST cannot dictate solutions, but it can judge them.

And this helps us to prepare to act, because we can formulate the criteria in advance of any particular action.  Francis has demonstrated this over and over.  Examples abound:

Asked by El Pais about populism that carries a message of “xenophobia and hatred toward the foreigner,” the pope replied:

Crises provoke fear, alarm. In my opinion, the most obvious example of European populism is Germany in 1933. After (Paul von) Hindenburg, after the crisis of 1930, Germany is broken, it needs to get up, to find its identity, a leader, someone capable of restoring its character…“Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let’s defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other peoples who may rob us of our identity.” And that is a very serious thing…No country has the right to deprive its citizens of the possibility of talking with their neighbors.

The use of “savior” here is key, since it implies that for Christians such a politics is idolatry—as clear a criterion as any in our faith!

Asked about the treatment of refugees and other religion, the pope was equally concrete:
You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian. You cannot be a Christian without practicing the Beatitudes. You cannot be a Christian without doing what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25.

Matthew chapter 25 is Jesus’ injunction to help the needy by such works of mercy as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and welcoming the stranger. The pope went on:

It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help…If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.

So if criterion #1 is idolatry, #2 is hypocrisy.

In mid-February Francis sent a letter to a meeting of popular movements in California to express his view of popular resistance movements:
It makes me very happy to see you working together towards social justice…because it builds bridges between peoples and individuals. These are bridges that can overcome the walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance…For some time, the crisis of the prevailing paradigm has confronted us. I am speaking of a system that causes enormous suffering to the human family, simultaneously assaulting people’s dignity and our Common Home in order to sustain the invisible tyranny of money that only guarantees the privileges of a few.

These are signs of the times that we need to recognise in order to act.…The grave danger is to disown our neighbours. When we do so, we deny their humanity and our own humanity without realising it; we deny ourselves, and we deny the most important Commandments of Jesus. Herein lies the danger, dehumanisation.

Criterion # 3: Disowning the neighbor leads to dehumanization.

Within the last two weeks some journals headlined the pope's opposition to the Dakota Access pipeline being constructed through US tribal lands. Actually, the pope never mentioned the pipeline. But he offered a clear criterion for addressing that case, when he told representatives of indigenous peoples at a U.N. agricultural meeting that the key issue facing them is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.
Francis at the Conference on indigenous peoples in Rome
Indigenous people, he said, have a right to their ancestral lands. And this provides a clear rule for action:

In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail…Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.

Finally, when Francis takes on the “Trickle Down Theory” for reducing economic inequality (see CrossCurrents #461), he does not talk about equality of OPPORTUNITY--he talks about the actual results of economic structures that, whatever the theory on paper, in practice LEAVE millions excluded from prosperity. We may argue about why this happens, and who is responsible, and how to solve the problem--but we may NOT deny that it is a problem that plagues most third-world countries as well as our own.

The preferential option for the poor is a matter of principle for Catholic Social Teaching, and no system that results in massive inequality can be justified by any theory. The pope believes the current model has had ample opportunity to prove itself, and has failed. So it is folly to expect suddenly better results if we cling to what Francis calls "the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system." He believes it is time to give “equal opportunity” to another model.

Thus, on issue after issue, this pope advises that we “wait and see” but also prepare ourselves with clear standards for judging what actually happens. And for THAT job, Catholic Social Teaching provides a valuable legacy.

"By their fruits you will know them...."—and By His Fruits You Will know Him.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

#461: Making our Future Great Again—2: Trump’s “Trickle Down” Is No Magic Solution


At 80, Francis remains one of the world’s most popular and dynamic leaders, the most visible spokesperson for a vision of the future unrivaled by any political party or organization. I’m surveying the priorities of the Catholic vision in light of a post-election season that has left me both dispirited and perplexed about our prospects as a people. The topic this time: Economic Justice.
Pope Francis Meeting With Workers

Economic Justice

The Trump campaign clearly exploited the discontent of many working class voters (especially white voters) who feel left behind by the globalizing and automation of our economy. 

The economic dislocations brought by globalization, deindustrialization, and automation have been a long time coming. The challenge was already a topic of my economics studies in the late 1960s. Early on, it also touched my own family.

My father worked at General Electric from 39 years, and by the early 1970s he was president of his local engineering union. America’s jet engine was invented at the River Works plant in Lynn Massachusetts, which since World War II had been producing aircraft engines 24 hours a day.

But as the Vietnam War wound down in the 1970s, defense contracts shrunk and GE began laying off workers—including many members of my father’s union.  As citizen, my father wanted the war to end, but as union president, he was concerned about the welfare of his fellow workers.

Years later, my younger brother also worked at the River Works but was eventually laid off, caught by the continuing general decline of GE’s manufacturing business. At one point, thanks largely to GE’s presence, the New England region as a whole had employed 33,675 jet engine workers--27.8 percent of total US aircraft engine employment. By the mid-1980s, the River Works employment stood at 13,000. But the 1990s brought a drastic downturn, and by 2016 the plant employed a mere 2,850.

Ironically, in 2016, GE decided to move its world headquarters to Boston’s Fort Point Channel, where it will continue to expand its operations in the “internet of things.”  Decades after Ronald Reagan promoted GE’s Manufacturing prowess in television ads (“We Bring Good Things To Life!”), GE’s future lies, not on the assembly line, but in the cloud.

GE’s journey echoes the general US trend away from manufacturing—a trend that has left middle-class incomes falling for 40 years and opened a massive wealth inequality gap.



Trump’s Solution

Now Trump promises to restore jobs and reduce inequality in four ways: (1) penalizing U.S. companies who attempt to outsource jobs, (2) penalizing foreign imports with new tariffs, (3) investing “trillions” on America’s badly degraded infrastructure, and (4) reducing taxes across the board to stimulate job-producing growth,

The first action (1) may protect some jobs, though I believe (along with many economists) that most such jobs are gone forever. Tariffs and protectionist policies (2) risk trade wars wall as international tensions in an era when all economics--markets, corporations, and government policies--have become increasingly international.  For example, the European Union, for all its flaws, made free trade the cornerstone of its vision to bring peace to Europe after generations of war by encouraging nations to become packers rather than rivals.  And for more than 60 years it has worked.  I doubt the U.S. can simply return to a more isolated posture.

Step (3) might happen two ways. We might use tax money to create public jobs as we did during the New Deal, when FDR crated public works projects that put people to work in massive numbers. Or, we might see tax money going to corporations and wait for them to create jobs. Trump proposes the latter, which is the point of step (4)--reducing taxes across the board, for rich and poor, to produce jobs.

This presumes the working of “trickle down economics”: money at the top builds business, so the economy grows, and the wealth produced trickles down to those at the bottom. But Catholic Social Teaching, and Pope Francis in particular, reject outright this theory as a fraud.



The Catholic View

As Francis wrote in his very first major document, the 2013 apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

Notice the term “sacralized,” which means “treated as something sacred.” Francis is saying we will fail to build economic justice if we turn the “prevailing economic system” (capitalist market economics) into something sacred—that is, into an idol. Francis even cites the classic Biblical image for idolatry:

The worship of the ancient golden calf has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

In a 2015 speech in Bogota, Colombia, Francis returned to the “idol” image:

Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home.

Same people might claim that Francis is merely voicing a personal opinion, which Catholics can take or leave--or worse, he is spouting Marxist theories! But in an interview with an Italian newspaper, he rightly insisted that he speaks as the voice of Catholic Social Doctrine:

There is nothing in the Exhortation that cannot be found in the social Doctrine of the Church. I wasn’t speaking from a technical point of view, what I was trying to do was to give a picture of what is going on. The only specific quote I used was the one regarding the ‘trickle-down theories’ which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and social inclusiveness in the world. The promise was that when the glass was full, it would overflow, benefitting the poor. But what happens instead, is that when the glass is full, it magically gets bigger nothing ever comes out for the poor. This was the only reference to a specific theory. I was not, I repeat, speaking from a technical point of view but according to the Church’s social doctrine. This does not mean being a Marxist.

In his 2015 encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si,” Francis returned to the same theme, saying free  markets cannot work magic:

 Some circles maintain that current economics and technology will solve all environmental problems, and argue, in popular and non-technical terms, that the problems of global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth…Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.

Some have tried to blunt the force of this critique, but even conservative Catholic commentators have conceded that Francis is setting a standard for all Catholics. Patrick Brennan made this clear while reviewing The Joy of the Gospel for National Review, the journal founded by the famous Catholic conservative William F. Buckley:

The pope’s discussion…is about how Catholics should respond to the overwhelming changes that have come to the world “in our time,” which have made many richer and more secure, but left many impoverished and suffering. Those…changes, as free marketeers would surely agree, are not the product of command-and-control economics, but of free markets. The pope is arguing that freer markets haven’t so far brought us a properly just, caring society, and “in our time,” society has in many ways grown coarser, crueler, and more violent — so Catholics cannot advocate free markets per se. Some proponents of free markets may take issue with that sentiment; most would not.

So here is where we stand: Our new president is proposing to “fix” our economy, produce jobs, reduce inequality, and repair our infrastructure--all by reducing taxes across the board, thus freeing the corporate sector to spend more in a way that will benefit all. Unless he proposes something else to accompany this policy, he is clearly counting on the free market to solve all our problems without major government efforts (aside from tax reform and reduction).

There is no escaping the obvious conclusion: Trump believes the very “magical view” of free markets that Pope Francis (and Catholic Social Doctrine with him) rejects. In my view, the outcome is predictable: as long as we continue to idolize free markets and reject public action to redistribute income, the economic division in our culture will continue to fester and grow. A better future requires us to recognize that inequality can only be solved by redistributing wealth, not by adding to wealth at all levels. And only those who idolize free markets believe that they alone can do that.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017

#460: Making Our Future Great Again: Connecting the Climate Dots



Happy Birthday to our Planet's Protector.
The pope’s recent 80th birthday 
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.

Climate Change

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