Around the Web

Check out these recent articles from around the web:

Family values hypocrisy by EJ Dionne: “Politicians talk about family values but do almost nothing to help families. They talk about parental responsibility but do almost nothing to help parents. They talk about self-sufficiency but do precious little to make self-sufficiency a reality for those who must struggle hardest to achieve it.”

Ideas From a Manger By Ross Douthat: “The secular picture, meanwhile, seems to have the rigor of the scientific method behind it. But it actually suffers from a deeper intellectual incoherence than either of its rivals, because its cosmology does not harmonize at all with its moral picture.”

The Case for Accomodating Nursing Mothers by Beth Haile: “Women who want to nurse shouldn’t feel like they are sacrificing their careers or a robust feminism if they choose to do so.”

Preparing a generation of ‘Francis bishops’ by John Allen, NCR: “If those postulates are correct, we can draw some early conclusions about what a ‘Francis bishop’ looks like — ideological moderates with the broad support of their fellow bishops and a real commitment to the social Gospel.”

Love my neighbour as myself? I don’t think so by Mathew Block, First Things: “The idea that poverty is someone else’s concern—that I bear no personal responsibility in caring for my neighbours—is a regrettable consequence of self-centered North American individualism: If it doesn’t impact me directly, then it’s not my problem.”

New Delhi: archbishop, priests and nuns arrested during peaceful demonstration by Asia News: “Police in New Delhi arrested Archbishop Anil JT Couto, as well as priests and nuns from his diocese, during a peaceful march for the rights of Dalit Christians and Muslims.”

The Bipartisan Pre-K Push by Conor Williams: “The debate over public early childhood programs isn’t going away anytime soon, so we owe it to ourselves to make sure that expansions of these programs are designed with both kids and their parents in mind.”

In Remembrance: Reading the Christmas Letters of Jean Bethke Elshtain (1941-2013) by John D. Carlson, Religion & Politics: “Elshtain’s Augustinian preoccupation with the limits of politics necessarily implies that there are other heights and hopes, other surges and swells, of human life that no polity can create—and that only morally deficient polities seek to destroy. What is so theologically revealing about the limits of politics is the capacious room left open for so much else: for life’s abundant ‘goodness that overflows the boundaries of the self and invites all to join in.’”

Eating Salt Together: The Real Life of a Home by John A. Cuddeback, Family Studies: “Home—the very word should resonate with feelings of warmth, belonging, togetherness. It should be the most reliable place of real personal intimacy, the surest antidote to the great bane of human existence: loneliness. But more and more, it is not.”

Capitol Exhortations by John Carr: “House Republicans are seeking major cuts in food stamps over reductions in agricultural subsidies, practicing priority for the rich and well-connected. Until the pope’s challenge, Washington had been silent about pervasive poverty and its structural causes, with apparent acceptance of high joblessness, stagnant wages and destructive pressures on families.”

Catholic education reflects shift from North to South by John Allen: “Of the 1.2 billion baptized Roman Catholics on the planet today, two-thirds live outside the West, a share that’s expected to reach three-quarters by mid-century. While Catholic populations in Europe decline, sub-Saharan Africa’s Catholics shot up by almost 7,000 percent in the 20th century and continue to grow. According to Vatican statistics released Thursday, the same broad trajectory runs through the enterprise of Catholic education.”

Political Strife in South Sudan Sets Off Ethnic Violence by NY Times: “After President Salva Kiir announced that his government had headed off a coup attempt by his former vice president last week, South Sudan was tossed into uncertainty and upheaval. Hundreds are believed to have been killed in the capital, Juba, with thousands more fleeing into the bush to escape the violence.”

Response to Samuel Gregg’s criticism of Evangelii Gaudium by Morning’s Minion, Vox Nova: “A whole political movement continues push for tax cuts for the rich combined with a weaker social safety net for the poor. The only justification for these policies is that they will “trickle down” in the form of growth and jobs. They have not. They never will. They lead to an economy of exclusion. The pope understands all of this, but I’m not sure Samuel Gregg does.”

Advent, Counterculture, and Prayer by Jennifer Owens, Daily Theology: “As a culture, we suffer from this consumerism, this compulsive desire to acquire more than we need that leaves the economically poor without enough and, ironically, leaves us feeling empty, the more we acquire.  It comes from a place of insecurity, of fear that we will not be seen as ‘good enough’ in the eyes of the world if we don’t have the right ‘stuff’ in life.”

Quote(s) of the Day

Three from Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga:

“The Church decidedly bets on living the globalization of mercy and solidarity.”

“In practice, the hyperventilation of the economy has produced great amounts of money, fruit of the erosion of governmental regulation and a symptom of the failure of materialism. But, as a result, there is always a particular category of victim: ‘the poor.’ Jesus of Nazareth made a warning that should be heeded by all the powers: civil and religious, democratic, monarchic, socialist, of any type: ‘You know that those who are considered the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave.’ (Mark 10: 41; Matthew 20: 25).”

“There is no doubt that doctrinal argument is important, but people will be attracted by the humanity of Christians, those who live by the faith, who live in a human way, who irradiate the joy of living, the consistency in their behavior.”

Around the Web (Part 2: Pope Francis Articles)

Check out these recent articles about Pope Francis from around the web:

Pastor, Prophet, Pope by Stephen Schneck , Sojourners: “Catholics around the world are transfixed by Pope Francis. We love his simplicity of life, his humble faith, his welcoming attitude to all, and his way of being Christian in the contemporary world that takes its bearings from the poor.”

Pope denounces ‘poison’ of consumerism in ‘society based on profit’ by Francis X. Rocca, CNS: “Pope Francis denounced consumerism as a poison that threatens true happiness, which comes from membership in the church.”

Dispatches from the Outer Banks by John Carr, America: “His description of ‘missionary discipleship’ (the new ‘new evangelization’), his call for a church close to the people that is tender and merciful, and his specific warnings against four kinds of destructive ideology are previews of themes to come. Likewise his visit to the people who live in the Varginha slum was a model of humble solidarity with the poor and a stark challenge to those in power.”

Pope Francis is unsettling – and dividing – the Catholic right by David Gibson, RNS: “But in a few short months, Pope Francis has upended that dynamic, alienating many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives.”

Boston’s O’Malley: Pope prefers to talk love, not abortion by Joshua J. McElwee, NCR: “I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion,” (Cardinal Sean O’Malley) continued. “We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world.”

Jesuit head: Pope a ‘brother among brothers’ Joshua J. McElwee, NCR: “Members of Pope Francis’ religious order, the Jesuits, were ‘deeply touched’ by a special Mass celebrated for them by the pope July 31 and see the pontiff as a ‘brother among brothers,’ the global head of the order says in a special letter marking the occasion.”

A pope who ‘hates hypocrisy – he really hates it’ by Rick DelVecchio, Catholic San Francisco: “He’s a world leader who hates greed, hypocrisy, abuse of power and the cultural flattening of globalization, drives the cheapest car available, shuns fancy clothes, makes his own phone calls, believes global warming is a real threat, thinks that being without a job is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and is orthodox in doctrine but pragmatic to the point of disregarding the rules in how he makes decisions. He’s Pope Francis as sketched by Jesuit Father Thomas Reese…”

Pope Francis on Consumerism, Environmental Ecology, and Human Ecology

Since his election to the papacy, Pope Francis has made the care of God’s good gift of Creation one of the central themes of his pontificate. This is in a certain sense not surprising, given both the environmental legacy of his papal predecessors—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John II, in particular—and his choice of the name Francis.  The pope explained that one of the reasons he chose the name Francis was to recall the environmental ethic of St. Francis of Assisi and to lift up this central element of the Church’s tradition.

Yesterday, however, Pope Francis recognized World Environment Day at his weekly audience with some of his most insightful and prophetic words to date on the Christian vocation to “cultivate and care for” creation (Genesis 2:15), as he discussed the way in which the “culture of waste” harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology.” This is a powerful and challenging message for all people of faith and goodwill, especially those of us living comfortably in the so-called Global North.

In his weekly address, Pope Francis reflected on the second creation story of Genesis and explained:

“[T]he verb ‘to cultivate’ reminds me of the care that the farmer has for his land so that it bear fruit, and it is shared: how much attention, passion and dedication! Cultivating and caring for creation is God’s indication given to each one of us not only at the beginning of history; it is part of His project; it means nurturing the world with responsibility and transforming it into a garden, a habitable place for everyone.”

Although this is the responsibility to which God calls all people of faith and goodwill, Pope Francis went on to observe that this vocation is often compromised by an insatiable overconsumption of material goods and the “culture of waste” that has risen around the world. The pope observed:

“[W]e are often driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation; we do not ‘care’ for [creation], we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a free gift that we must care for. We are losing the attitude of wonder, contemplation, listening to creation; thus we are no longer able to read what Benedict XVI calls ‘the rhythm of the love story of God and man.’ Why does this happen? Why do we think and live in a horizontal manner, we have moved away from God, we no longer read His signs.”

In addition to recognizing that overconsumption harms “environmental ecology,” Pope Francis called attention to the fact that materialism also compromises “human ecology.” The Pope said:

“Men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the ‘culture of waste’….Yet these things become the norm: that some homeless people die of cold on the streets is not news. In contrast, a ten point drop on the stock markets of some cities is a tragedy. A person dying is not news, but if the stock markets drop ten points it is a tragedy! Thus people are disposed of, as if they were trash.”

The Holy Father called particular attention to the way in which the “culture of waste” disposes of excess food when many around the world are starving, and declared, “We should all remember, however, that throwing food away is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry!”

In response to the human and ecological challenges posed by rampant overconsumption and habitual disposal, Pope Francis recognizes that the interrelated challenges of protecting “human ecology” and caring for “environmental ecology” in the face of systemic overconsumption are “not just a matter of economics, but of ethics and anthropology.” Given this observation, the Holy Father concluded by asking “all to make a serious commitment to respect and protect creation, to be attentive to every person, to counter the culture of waste and disposable, to promote a culture of solidarity and of encounter.”

In light of this message, there are several ways in which Catholic millennials—particularly those of us in the United States—might respond to this call:

Distinguish Between “Consumption” and “Consumerism”: Humans are undeniably corporeal and, as such, require a certain amount of material goods. Although the consumption of resources is thus necessary—and even natural, according to Aquinas (ST II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2, ad. 2)—the proper consumption of resources is distinct from the principle of consumerism that drives much of modern economics. In her book The Story of Stuff: How our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, our Communities, and our Health–and a Vision for Change–which builds on the original short online documentary The Story of Stuff— Annie Leonard describes this distinction, saying:

“While consumption means acquiring and using goods and services to meet one’s needs, consumerism is the particular relationship to consumption in which we seek to meet our emotional and social needs through shopping, and we define and demonstrate our self-worth through the Stuff we own.  And overconsumption is when we take far more resources than we need and than the planet can sustain…. Consumerism is about excess” (129).

Connect the Dots between Consumerism and Environmental Degradation: Although we might not think about it when we purchase things at the store, consumerism is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation. This is because the resources needed to sustain a consumerist society must be extracted, transported, processed, and disposed of at rate that is having disastrous impacts on both the planet and our climate. This is particularly challenging for us as Americans, given how much we consume.  The Scientific American reports that although the we make up only 5 percent of the world’s population, “the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper.” At this rate, another Scientific American piece points out, five earths would be needed for everyone in the world to live an average American lifestyle.

Highlight the Connection between Creation Care and Protecting Human Life and Dignity: Pope Francis’ observation that consumerism harms both “environmental ecology” and “human ecology” builds on the Church’s repeated affirmations that the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity is intrinsically dependent upon the care of all creation. In view of this, Catholic millennials might help more Catholics resist consumerism by not only highlighting how this ethic harms the environment, but also by pointing out that human life and dignity cannot be fully protected without a safe and livable environment.

Embrace the Virtues of Prudence and Temperance: The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes virtues as “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith” (no. 1804). The Church traditionally recognizes four cardinal human virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, no. 1805-9), and attention to prudence and temperance is particularly germane to addressing consumerism. Prudence is the application of “practical reason” to a particular situation in order “to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (no. 1806), while temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (no. 1809). As such, these two virtues can help people of faith and goodwill to thoughtfully discern and live by patterns of consumption that neither cause widespread environmental degradation nor compromise the Catholic commitment to protecting human life and dignity.

Imagine a New System: The world’s economy is largely premised on the assumption that endless economic growth fueled by insatiable consumerism is both possible and desirable. However, today’s message from Pope Francis—which is consistent with the Church’s long social tradition—questions both of these suppositions and calls for an alternative vision that values “human ecology” and “environmental ecology” over the endless acquisition of material goods. Towards this end, Catholic millennials have an opportunity to re-imagine what a sociopolitical and economic system that is more consistent with the Church’s authentic teaching might look like. Pope John Paul II offered a prophetic starting point for this vision in his encyclical Centesimus annus, and this framework could serve as an important starting point from which people of faith and good will might read the “signs of the times” and discern how we might create an economy that better cares for creation and protects human life and dignity:

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards ‘having’ rather than ‘being’, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.It is therefore necessary to create life-styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments (no. 36).

Would Jesus Own an iPhone?

On a retreat with college students earlier this year, we collected everyone’s cell phones as a way for students to disconnect from all they left behind and to be present to the group during our time together.

When I looked in the plastic bag that held all the phones, I had a hard time believing my eyes.  Out of roughly 30 phones we collected, all but 3 were iPhones (and 2 of those were Droids).  My phone, the kind that can make calls and send texts and not much else, was the only one that wasn’t a smartphone.  It made me think: Am I really that out of touch?

Earlier this week, Apple announced the release of iPhone 5. Since the announcement, the whole world has gone nuts.

I also thought – as we were on a retreat – if Jesus were to join us for the weekend, would he have dropped an iPhone in that bag?  He had a flair for being not only for the people but of the people and with the people.  Would that include looking to get his hands on the new iPhone 5 recently revealed by Apple?

In my mind, the iPhone belongs in an ambiguous category between a “want” and a “superfluity.”  For the past several years, when it was time for me to upgrade my phone, I just got whatever phone was free from my wireless provider. Sure, I thought it would be nice to have a phone that could do other things like check the weather, the score of my favorite team, or send an email in a pinch.  But in addition to having to pay extra for a smartphone itself, I’d also have to commit to a mandatory data plan that would add an extra $30-40 per month to my cell phone bill.

That kind of expense – to say nothing of the status symbol it represents – seemed more than I could justify.

I’m not saying the iPhone is evil or that it’s inappropriate for anyone to own one.  But I’m not so sure it’s something everyone needs (in contrast to the messages implied by Apple’s entertaining ads and the buzz generated by Wednesday’s announcement of the iPhone 5).

I understand that it’s easy to get sucked into such excitement.  We are bombarded with messages, both subtle and less so, that train us to think that we will only be happy if we have what everyone else seems to have and that we both need and deserve these luxuries.  The nature of such technologies is to create a hedonic treadmill through planned obsolescence: these gadgets generate strong feelings of desire, attachment, and yes, deep satisfaction – until newer versions come out.  Then it’s like a game of hot-potato, where we can’t wait to dump the old version in favor of the newest.

I can’t help but wonder if we should be discussing more chaste ways of using technologies like iPhones.  This hilarious parody of the newly-launched iPhone 5 hints that something bigger is at play in all this.

William Cavanaugh writes in Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, that the problem isn’t so much that we’re too attached to material goods, but that we’re cultivating habits of detachment (33-47).  In other words, we’re developing disordered relationships with material goods, consuming them and disposing of them without more carefully considering the consequences (for ourselves, for the kinds of demand this creates and the way that shapes the market to produce more goods for us to needlessly consume, and perhaps most especially the effects on the environment, where increasing amounts of the earth are being filled with skeletons of old computers, phones, and other digital devices).  In fact, psychologists like Sherry Turkle at MIT point to the way in which this rapid consumption of goods is changing our relationships, and distorting the way we see other people.  Instead of these technologies generating greater communication and connectivity alone, they are in fact producing new and troubling trends of isolation, alienation, and anxiety among their users, as well (for more about this, see Turkle’s most recent book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other).

Of course, there is a lot of good generated by the iPhone and other digital technology products.  I am sure it is an excellent tool for connectivity and communication.  I know priests and other men in formation who have taken a vow of poverty who have one (like this guy), and they refer to it as an “essential ministerial aid.”  And I’m aware of the innovation, job creation, and economic stimulus that result from products like these (some think the new iPhone 5 could save the U.S. economy).  On the other hand, we should not turn a blind eye to how these goods are produced; there are serious questions about how Apple gets the materials for these gadgets and the conditions of its workers in assembling its products abroad.

Full disclosure: I am due for a phone upgrade this week.  When I consider the new phone options, I am intrigued by the ways I could be more time-efficient if I had a smartphone to check and respond to email on the go, access the internet for whatever information I suddenly think I need, and make use of the growing number of apps.  I am also attracted by the ways the phone could provide increased connectivity when I’m away from my family, like being able to video conference with my wife and son before our little guy goes to bed.

As I contemplate whether or not the iPhone is a prudential consumer purchase (and lifestyle?) for me, I keep coming back to the same question: Would Jesus buy an iPhone?

Not that I can really compare myself and my daily actions with Jesus and his works.  Nor could I really know whether he would or wouldn’t make such a purchase.  But I am left to ponder what, if any, should be the Christian moral norm for the good and right use of digital technology.  After all, there are a lot of people and organizations working with those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, and poor who could do a whole lot of good with the money I’d be spending for a new phone and month cell phone and data plan.  It’s easier to look out at society and lament the increasing wealth gap, the abundant luxuries of the 1%, the misappropriation of our nation’s budget, the cultural priorities that seem so out of whack (like billions of dollars spent on sports stadiums, but that’s for another post) than to reflect critically in my own life and see where I am rationalizing more comfort and convenience than I need – and in so doing, perhaps turning a blind eye to ways I could help others who are actually “in need.”  I wrote earlier about living a lifestyle of solidarity and I’m just not sure how an iPhone fits into that vision of solidarity.

Oh, and the students on retreat?  They positively gushed about having the weekend free from being tethered to their phones, interrupted by text alerts, and anxious about what they were missing on Facebook or Twitter.  But the students who were most enthused about the days being technology-free were also the same ones I saw later in the week glued to their phones walking to class (and even in class) or pulling them out in the elevator to avoid a second’s worth of silence and inactivity.

These are hard habits to break.  All the more reason we should be thinking more about where such habits might be taking us.