To begin, I apologize for not being with you last week to offer a reflection. I received a phone call from the Diocese of La Crosse a little over a week ago with the news I was being named a Dean (Vicar Forane). What does it me to be a Dean? Well, it really depends on what the Bishop needs us to do since each Diocese has different needs. My Bishop, Bishop Callahan, explained in his letter that he wants me to care for the well being of my brother priests in the area I live, field concerns from the people of God, oversee the Regis Catholic Schools system, and other tasks the Bishop may ask of me. In other words, to avoid the use of any snarky jokes, people both congratulated me and offered condolences upon news of my appointment!
All kidding aside, it is an honor to be named a Dean. It’s one of those honors we privately (and at times publicly) pray never comes to us as priests, but we also know is an inevitability (I thank God for term limits as a Dean). Do pray for me as I embrace this new ministerial role.
In addition to this news, something else has kept me away from writing: Covid-19. Thankfully, I have yet to bear the cross of this disease, but my home state of Wisconsin and the city I serve of Eau Claire are sadly becoming hotspots. I have had five Covid-19 funerals (and received a call this morning of another C-19 death while working on these final edits) and currently have a number of hospitalized parishioners. Given the unfortunate politicization of Covid-19 in the United States, even mentioning the subject can create deep divisions and anger. It is not my intent to anger any of you by sharing this, but only to offer a Pastor’s plea: This disease is real – stay safe and pray for those who suffer with this disease.
Of the many inflammatory topics that arise with Covid-19, there are two that need to be addressed that fits well with Fratelli Tutti: What are the roles of politics and the economy for a society? One reason why people in the United States are resistant to embrace all the suggested safety measures for Covid-19 is for economic reasons. Whether it be indefinite furloughs or a small business that no longer can survive, we need to be careful not to jump to presumptions about people who are fighting Covid-19 protocols. The reason for opposition might not be selfishness, but simply the human desire to care for their family’s fiscal needs. I, too, feel that tension. Thankfully, I have not had to lay off any of my parish staff. However, depending on how Covid-19 impacts the parishioners ability to support the parish, I may have to face hard decisions no pastor wishes to make.
This leads to the heart of my reflection for this week by starting with a foundational principle of Catholic Social Teaching: An economy is meant to serve the people, not the people serve the economy. A beautiful reflection of this principle was practiced by our Government when the Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) was enacted. It preserved a fundamental political philosophy of our and most other countries: If the government needs to hinder the employment of an individual or group of people for the sake of the common good, then it is also the government’s responsibility to provide for those peoples. Sadly, as our election approaches tomorrow, the discussion of a second round of this assistance has, similar to Covid-19, become politicized to the point of gridlock over ideological stances. Please pray for our country.
These kind of tensions were not lost on Pope Francis when exploring Fratelli Tutti.
7. As I was writing this letter, the Covid-19 pandemic unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities. Aside from the different ways that various countries responded to the crisis, their inability to work together became quite evident. For all our hyper-connectivity, we witnessed a fragmentation that made it more difficult to resolve problems that affect us all. Anyone who thinks that the only lesson to be learned was the need to improve what we were already doing, or to refine existing systems and regulations, is denying reality.
8. It is my desire that, in this our time, by acknowledging the dignity of each human person, we can contribute to the rebirth of a universal aspiration to fraternity. Fraternity between all men and women. “Here we have a splendid secret that shows us how to dream and to turn our life into a wonderful adventure. No one can face life in isolation… We need a community that supports and helps us, in which we can help one another to keep looking ahead. How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together”. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all. (Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis 7-8)
The masculine character of the word “fraternity” led some to initial confusion of who this document was directed toward. Needless to say, the inclusion of brothers and sisters in paragraph eight clarifies that all are called to a common kinship. Some have criticized Pope Francis for offering in this encyclical a theme that seems so basic and devoid of theological gravitas. However, speaking as a pastor, the tone makes complete sense when looking at the condition of our world. At least in the United States, we have culturally “de-evolved” in our sense of kinship with one another. The fundamental disposition of heart that all are created in God’s image and likeness is eroding into inflammatory divisiveness. We are in desperate need of seeing one another again as brothers and sisters with a common goal: To be the best version of the person God created us to be.
In other areas of the world, cultural divides are exacerbated by horrific economic conditions. In the historic interview of Pope Francis after his election as Pope, he cited the greatest challenges he saw in the Church.
The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more. They have been crushed by the present. You tell me: can you live crushed under the weight of the present? Without a memory of the past and without the desire to look ahead to the future by building something, a future, a family? Can you go on like this? This, to me, is the most urgent problem that the Church is facing. (Pope Francis, The Pope: How the Church Will Change, La Repubblica)
Some found this quote by Pope Francis confusing, wondering why he didn’t touch on socially hot button topics like abortion. However, his answer reminded me of an interview I heard by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga right after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. In the interview, he spoke of the extreme poverty in Central and South America which leaves the youth largely unemployed and in danger of being swept up into the drug cartels. This interview, combined with Pope Francis’ insight into the most desperate needs of our world, made me wonder if I had become overly Eurocentric in my presumptions of the greatest issues facing our global community. I invite you to watch the interview below.
Cardinal Maradiaga’s reflection on the struggles of youth in Honduras reminded me of Pope Francis’ criticism of western culture in regard to migration. The presumption of many is that the United States is the land of opportunity for the downtrodden and forgotten. However, as Cardinal Maradiaga rightly points out, many Central and South American youth who do immigrate to the United States find that they trade one set of problems for a new set of problems. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my homeland and am proud to be a United States citizen. However, that pride must also be tempered with humility, acknowledging our country’s brokenness. While reading Pope Francis’ reflection on human dignity at the boarders, that tension was revisited.
AN ABSENCE OF HUMAN DIGNITY ON THE BORDERS
37. Certain populist political regimes, as well as certain liberal economic approaches, maintain that an influx of migrants is to be prevented at all costs. Arguments are also made for the propriety of limiting aid to poor countries, so that they can hit rock bottom and find themselves forced to take austerity measures. One fails to realize that behind such statements, abstract and hard to support, great numbers of lives are at stake. Many migrants have fled from war, persecution and natural catastrophes. Others, rightly, “are seeking opportunities for themselves and their families. They dream of a better future and they want to create the conditions for achieving it”.
38. Sadly, some “are attracted by Western culture, sometimes with unrealistic expectations that expose them to grave disappointments. Unscrupulous traffickers, frequently linked to drug cartels or arms cartels, exploit the weakness of migrants, who too often experience violence, trafficking, psychological and physical abuse and untold sufferings on their journey”. Those who emigrate “experience separation from their place of origin, and often a cultural and religious uprooting as well. Fragmentation is also felt by the communities they leave behind, which lose their most vigorous and enterprising elements, and by families, especially when one or both of the parents migrates, leaving the children in the country of origin”. For this reason, “there is also a need to reaffirm the right not to emigrate, that is, to remain in one’s homeland”.
39. Then too, “in some host countries, migration causes fear and alarm, often fomented and exploited for political purposes. This can lead to a xenophobic mentality, as people close in on themselves, and it needs to be addressed decisively”. Migrants are not seen as entitled like others to participate in the life of society, and it is forgotten that they possess the same intrinsic dignity as any person. Hence they ought to be “agents in their own redemption”. No one will ever openly deny that they are human beings, yet in practice, by our decisions and the way we treat them, we can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human. For Christians, this way of thinking and acting is unacceptable, since it sets certain political preferences above deep convictions of our faith: the inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love.
40. “Migrations, more than ever before, will play a pivotal role in the future of our world”. At present, however, migration is affected by the “loss of that sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters on which every civil society is based”. Europe, for example, seriously risks taking this path. Nonetheless, “aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, it has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to assure assistance and acceptance to migrants”.
41. I realize that some people are hesitant and fearful with regard to migrants. I consider this part of our natural instinct of self-defence. Yet it is also true that an individual and a people are only fruitful and productive if they are able to develop a creative openness to others. I ask everyone to move beyond those primal reactions because “there is a problem when doubts and fears condition our way of thinking and acting to the point of making us intolerant, closed and perhaps even – without realizing it – racist. In this way, fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other”. (Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, 37-41)
When contemplating Cardinal Maradiaga’s and Pope Francis’ reflections as a whole, we begin to understand why the pontiff is calling for a new vision of what it means to share a common kinship as global citizens. As I mentioned in my first reflection on Fratelli Tutti, if Laudato Si’ was a call to care for our physical environment, Fratelli Tutti is a call to care for our social, political, economic, emotional, and spiritual environment.
It is important to understand Pope Francis’ critique of the world before we reflect on his call for a new political and economic vision that is rooted in human dignity. Having reflected on Pope Francis’ concerns, let us reflect on how the pontiff proposes we address these issues in the public square.
The politics we need
177. Here I would once more observe that “politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy”. Although misuse of power, corruption, disregard for law and inefficiency must clearly be rejected, “economics without politics cannot be justified, since this would make it impossible to favour other ways of handling the various aspects of the present crisis”. Instead, “what is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis”. In other words, a “healthy politics… capable of reforming and coordinating institutions, promoting best practices and overcoming undue pressure and bureaucratic inertia”. We cannot expect economics to do this, nor can we allow economics to take over the real power of the state.
178. In the face of many petty forms of politics focused on immediate interests, I would repeat that “true statecraft is manifest when, in difficult times, we uphold high principles and think of the long-term common good. Political powers do not find it easy to assume this duty in the work of nation-building”, much less in forging a common project for the human family, now and in the future. Thinking of those who will come after us does not serve electoral purposes, yet it is what authentic justice demands. As the Bishops of Portugal have taught, the earth “is lent to each generation, to be handed on to the generation that follows”.
179. Global society is suffering from grave structural deficiencies that cannot be resolved by piecemeal solutions or quick fixes. Much needs to change, through fundamental reform and major renewal. Only a healthy politics, involving the most diverse sectors and skills, is capable of overseeing this process. An economy that is an integral part of a political, social, cultural and popular programme directed to the common good could pave the way for “different possibilities which do not involve stifling human creativity and its ideals of progress, but rather directing that energy along new channels”.
180. Recognizing that all people are our brothers and sisters, and seeking forms of social friendship that include everyone, is not merely utopian. It demands a decisive commitment to devising effective means to this end. Any effort along these lines becomes a noble exercise of charity. For whereas individuals can help others in need, when they join together in initiating social processes of fraternity and justice for all, they enter the “field of charity at its most vast, namely political charity”. This entails working for a social and political order whose soul is social charity. Once more, I appeal for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good”.
181. Every commitment inspired by the Church’s social doctrine is “derived from charity, which according to the teaching of Jesus is the synthesis of the entire Law (cf. Mt 22:36-40)”. This means acknowledging that “love, overflowing with small gestures of mutual care, is also civic and political, and it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”. For this reason, charity finds expression not only in close and intimate relationships but also in “macro-relationships: social, economic and political”.
182. This political charity is born of a social awareness that transcends every individualistic mindset: “‘Social charity makes us love the common good’, it makes us effectively seek the good of all people, considered not only as individuals or private persons, but also in the social dimension that unites them”. Each of us is fully a person when we are part of a people; at the same time, there are no peoples without respect for the individuality of each person. “People” and “person” are correlative terms. Nonetheless, there are attempts nowadays to reduce persons to isolated individuals easily manipulated by powers pursuing spurious interests. Good politics will seek ways of building communities at every level of social life, in order to recalibrate and reorient globalization and thus avoid its disruptive effects.
This section begs a simple, but powerful question: Are we a people bound together, despite our differences, in a common vision of all being God’s children or are we a collection of individual persons, finding meaning through a narrow narcissism of satisfying individual wants and desires?
Some of you may be screaming at the computer, “Enough politics, this is a site about faith and science!” First, my apologies if any sensitivities were rubbed. As I shared in the past, these reflections on Fratelli Tutti are meant to share with our readers, both Catholic and Non-Catholic, what is going on in the Church, seeking to further promote a spirit of charitable dialogue. Fear not, I will get back to more explicit faith and science topics in the near future!
However, I would also argue that this piece is precisely about faith and science. How? Through our Faith and Astronomy Worship we have held over the years, one of my constant takeaways is that both faith and science require community. The same tensions mentioned by Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti run through the blood of every person, meaning they are also baggage in the realms of faith and science. The key question is whether or not we confront our biases to try to move toward an understanding of what is true, good, and beautiful or do we pull away from community with a false sense of security to protect our biases. Through faith, we confront our biases by grounding our lives in Scripture, Tradition, and the lived reality of a communal faith. The scientific community confronts biases by exploring common data, engaging in the process of examining, reexamine, and examining again and again as a community to achieve a deeper understanding of our world. Are both faith and science pristine explorations that are devoid of prejudice, professional jealousies, clashing world views, and personal motivations that may be contrary to the end goal? Absolutely not! Faith and Science are pursued by humans, meaning the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity can and will seep into both. At the same time, is it ultimately trust that these communities are committed to something beyond themselves that help people transcend their brokenness to achieve a deeper sense of truth? Absolutely!
These thoughts lead me to a final thought – Is it really politics and economics that we struggle to speak of with civility and respect, or are we losing the ability to speak of what it means to be truly human – both in the best of who we are and the worst of who we are? Whatever it may be, including deeper insights than what I can offer, let us embrace our common humanity in both its glory and its brokenness. Let us transcend the struggles we face this day and strive for a common kinship of dignity and love. A kinship that emerges when we discover (or rediscover) the beauty that all are created in God’s image and likeness, worthy of love, dignity, and respect, and are sojourners on this good Earth to bring out the best of each other, not affirm the worst in each other.
Next week, I will conclude my reflections on Fratelli Tutti by reflecting on what I consider the heart of this encyclical – Pope Francis’ reflection on the Good Samaritan.