samedi, juillet 18, 2009

Love, Love, Love Revolution

My column from Lancaster -- taking a look at Benedict's latest (third) encyclical -- a challenge to those who seek to untie life ethics from social justice.

So, you say you want a revolution?
Reaction to the publication of Caritas in Veritate, the new encyclical from Pope Benedict XVI, was, predictably, both polarized and dramatic.
Although the 144-page document was deeply grounded in Roman Catholic theology, it was Benedict's call for a "true world political authority" and his critique of capitalism that got much attention in the media.
Conservative Catholic commentator George Weigel memorably said that "Love in Truth" resembled a "duck-billed platypus" (a strange amalgam of the true Benedict and liberal elements in the Vatican bureaucracy).
But as the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen pointed out, liberals were equally guilty of highlighting the parts that pleased them and ignoring the pontiff's consistent remarks about "life issues" like abortion and birth control.
As a Reuters Factbox shows, this encyclical, meant for a global audience, was indeed in a long tradition of papal teachings — in fact, it was in part a further explication of Pope Paul VI's Populorum Progressio, written more than 40 years ago.
But what would the papal teachings mean to American Christians in a country in which individualism is sometimes taken more seriously than godliness? Could Americans get their minds around the idea that a holistic concern for the dignity of the human person could involve both economic justice and concern for the vulnerable, like the elderly and the unborn?
As a religious journalist who spends a lot of time reading about our polarization on social and economic issues, I often wonder about our capacity to seek the "common good" and take a look at the larger picture.
So I decided to ask Monsignor Stuart Swetland of Maryland's Mount St. Mary's Seminary about the encyclical's moral and social roots.
"What some would call the 'social ethic' and the 'life ethic' (in Caritas in Veritate) flow from the same basic principle — the dignity of the human person," said Swetland, Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics. One example is the way the pope links protecting the environment to caring about human life and to human responsibility for stewardship of God's creation, Swetland said.
"It overcomes the left-right polemic so prevalent in America," he said. "It's a mistake to characterize the pope as right or left or center — this is the constant (moral and social) teaching of the church."
As well as offering the perspective that humans are made for more than just this life, the church articulates a "kingdom ethic" that shares the concerns of those in the secular world who wish to make the world a better place, he asserted.
"The message of Christ and his church is always countercultural," said the Rev. Peter Hahn, pastor of St. Leo the Great in Rohrerstown.
In the midst of the "individualist" ethic at the heart of the American experience, and the sin that makes us self-centered, said the priest, there is the "constant call of Christ and the church to serve each other."
One example? The "outsourcing" of American jobs, while difficult for Americans, presents opportunities for our brothers and sisters overseas, who also are children of God.
Hahn, who pastors a suburban church of approximately 1,800 families, said that he anticipated weaving the teachings of the encyclical into homilies, adult teachings, young adult ministries and opportunities for service.
Swetland, who is charged with teaching seminarians about the encyclical, confessed that "as I read it, I'm personally challenged as well. I recognize that I need to teach about all the aspects, not just the ones I like."
I know what he means, don't you?
Conservative or liberal, we all tend to "privilege" the portions of Scripture that suit our predilections — and either ignore or minimize some of the verses that make us a little uncomfortable.
As Benedict also points out, love not grounded in truth can become "nice feelings," added Swetland, while love untempered by charity (or caritas) can become legalism, he said.
Interestingly, the motto of Diocese of Harrisburg Bishop Kevin Rhoades is Veritatem in Caritate — truth in charity.
So is there anything new and revolutionary about Benedict's teaching?
No. It's the same old revolution.
It's been going for more than 2,000 years wherever there are women and men creating communities to help to build the Kingdom of God with prayer, witness, service and profoundly countercultural acts of love.
So ... you say you want a revolution?

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