Christ: The Light of the American Nation, Part II (Laudato Si’)

We have to start by going back to the 90’s, and to the work that Pope St. John Paul II did to help us understand our continent and our heritage as Americans. 1992 marked the anniversary of…? Knights? In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Pope St. John Paul II visited the island of Hispaniola to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the first proclamation of the Gospel in the New World. In his homily, the pope addressed himself to all the sons and daughters of “America,” from Canada to Chile and Argentina. He referred to his brother bishops “of America.”

This 500th-anniversary gathering in Santo Domingo led to a special meeting of bishops in Rome–a Synod for America. The pope pointedly refused to separate North and South America in his convocation of the Synod. He refused to separate English- from Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking America. As the pope later wrote:

On the threshold of the third Christian millennium, the Church feels absolutely duty-bound to bring into still deeper spiritual union the peoples who compose this great continent and also, prompted by the religious mission which is proper to the Church, to stir among these peoples a spirit of solidarity. I asked [the bishops] to reflect on America as a single entity, by reason of all that is common to the peoples of the continent, including their shared Christian identity and their genuine attempt to strengthen the bonds of solidarity and communion between the different forms of the continent’s rich cultural heritage. The decision to speak of “America” in the singular was an attempt to express not only the unity which in some way already exists, but also to point to that closer bond which the peoples of the continent seek and which the Church wishes to foster as part of her own mission, as she works to promote the communion of all in the Lord. [Ecclesia in America 5]

The Synod for America took place in Rome in 1997. In 1999, the pope traveled to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City to celebrate the fruits of the meeting. He said in his homily:

Today in this Basilica of Guadalupe, the Marian heart of America, we thank God for the Special Assembly for America–a true Upper Room of ecclesial communion and collegial affection among all the Pastors from the north, center and south of the continent–shared with the Bishop of Rome as a fraternal experience of encounter with the risen Lord.

I have come here to place at the feet of the mestiza Virgin of Tepeyac, Star of the New World, the Apostolic Exhortation which incorporates the contributions and pastoral suggestions of that Synod, entrusting to the Mother and Queen of this continent the future of its evangelization…

[then addressing Our Lady of Guadalupe…]

O Lady and Mother of America! You know the paths followed by the first evangelizers of the New World, from Guanahani Island and Hispaniola to the Amazon forests and the Andean peaks, reaching to Tierra del Fuego in the south and to the Great Lakes and mountains of the north…

Dear brothers and sisters, we must rouse the consciences of men and women with the Gospel, in order to highlight their sublime vocation as children of God. This will inspire them to build a better America. As a matter of urgency, we must stir up a new springtime of holiness on the continent.

Then the pope went on to declare that, from then on, all the countries of America would celebrate Our Lady of Guadalupe’s feast day, on December 12.

Now, the pope mentioned the first evangelists of the New World. The intrepid and resourceful missionaries who learned the languages and customs of the natives of the continent; Christians so dashing and cosmopolitan in their ways, in fact, that they make James Bond look like a piker by comparison.

guadalupe

This is the way we Catholic citizens of any given nation come to know ourselves and understand our identity: by honoring our particular martyrs and saints. The USA has martyrs: the French Jesuit martyrs who evangelized the Hurons and Iroquis in the 17th century. Some died for the faith in Ontario; St. Isaac Jogues died in what is now New York State.

Pope John Paul II’s idea that the spiritual center of our continent lies in Mexico City may seem strange to us English speakers. But consider this:

Before the English came to settle Jamestown, here in what is now Virginia, Spanish-speaking Jesuits had already died for the faith on the very same spot. A native Kiskiak–possibly chief Powhatan’s brother–had embraced Christianity and had been baptized in Mexico City, then educated in Spain–all long before the name “Virginia” was ever applied to this part of the planet. Unfortunately, when this Kiskiak Christian returned home to the north bank of the James River with a group of Spanish Jesuits, he wound up reverting to paganism and betraying the missionaries, and they were all killed–46 years before the English arrived.

Speaking of popes in America: two years ago, Pope Francis came and canonized Father Junipero Serra. Father Serra, who not only founded missions in Alta California (what we know as the state of California), but who also worked in the missions in Baja California also. (It was all New Spain then.)

Father Serra died on August 28, 1784. That happened to be the tenth birthday of a young girl in New York, Elizabeth Ann Bayley. That girl grew up to become…Mother Seton.

Pope Francis Shrine Immaculate Mass Junipero Serra
Father Junipero Serra canonization Mass (your humble servant is among the little heads to the lower-right)

It captivates me to think of these two founders of our Catholic institutions, on the two coasts of the United States, and how their lives overlapped like that by ten years. And both their saintly lives overlapped, of course, the lives of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Anyway, there are more American martyrs to venerate. Including six Knights of Columbus–Mexican Knights of Columbus, who died for the faith during the government’s brutal suppression of Catholicism and the Cristero War, in the 1920’s.

We could go on like this. But hopefully by now we have arrived at a point where we can begin to understand ourselves as “Americans” in the way that the Church understands the term. Our ancestors came to the “New World,” imagining it as an Eden where they could live in communion with God, practicing a pure Christianity, unburdened by the accumulated baggage of the human centuries. But now, 500 years since Columbus–we Americans inherit a particular accumulation of human baggage. We have to identify it and sort out. Let’s hear JP II:

Nowadays, in America as elsewhere in the world, a model of society appears to be emerging in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless: I am thinking here of unborn children, helpless victims of abortion; the elderly and incurably ill, subjected at times to euthanasia; and the many other people relegated to the margins of society by consumerism and materialism…

How much ecological abuse and destruction there is in many parts of America! It is enough to think of the uncontrolled emission of harmful gases or the dramatic phenomenon of forest fires, sometimes deliberately set by people driven by selfish interest. Devastations such as these could lead to the desertification of many parts of America, with the inevitable consequences of hunger and misery. [Ecclesia in America 63, 25]

“A consumerist and materialist model of society in which the powerful predominate,” and the defenseless people get crushed, along with the defenseless land.

Pope John Paul II called this “the culture of… death.” Pope Francis has other names for it: “the throwaway culture” or “the technocratic paradigm.”

If we think the battle in America involves Democrats vs. Republicans, we are only seeing the shallowest surface of our problems. The Church has assessed the conflict much more deeply. The enemy is not the Democrats or the Republicans; the enemy is the technocratic paradigm. And what we need to bring to the battle is not a political affiliation; what we need to bring is the Gospel. The Gospel of Creation, the Gospel of Life.

What exactly is the “technocratic paradigm?” Pope Francis analyzed it extensively in his encyclical Laudato Si’:

Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand.

Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational.

This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit. It is the false notion that an infinite quantity of energy and resources are available, that it is possible to renew them quickly, and that the negative effects of the exploitation of the natural order can be easily absorbed…

It has become counter-cultural to choose a lifestyle whose goals are even partly independent of technology, of its costs and its power to globalize and make us all the same. [Laudato Si’ 106, 108]

What is the moral code of the technocratic paradigm? It pretends to moral neutrality, as if it could stand above the ancient traditions of the world and judge them. But, in fact, the technocratic paradigm implies moral relativism. Again, the Holy Father:

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests.

It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.

In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.

We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided. [Laudato Si’ 123]

The answer to the technocratic paradigm is not tree-hugging, or imagining that mankind is just another species alongside the monkeys and the manta rays. Nor is it simply a matter of regulations and laws. The answer is the Gospel. Pope Francis writes:

The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world…

If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.

Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art, impressed upon things, whereby those things are moved to a determinate end. It is as if a shipbuilder were able to give timbers the wherewithal to move themselves to take the form of a ship. [quoting St. Thomas Aquinas]

The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God. (Laudato Si’ 75, 78, 80, 83)

Cover of English edition of Pope Francis' encyclical on environment

Let me leave you with Pope Francis’ joint statement with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. This statement really says it all:

The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground.” The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ. Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

However, “in the meantime”, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets–all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.

The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.

Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September. On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labor in vain if the Lord is not by our side, if prayer is not at the center of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.

We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew Holy Sepulchre

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