A year ago today, the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI paved the way for the unexpected Pope Francis revolution now shaking up the Catholic Church.
It’s an understatement to say a cerebral theologian more at home in the quiet of his study than on the global stage never became a defining figure in the way his predecessor did or his successor is quickly becoming. Many Catholics grateful that Pope Francis is emphasizing a more merciful and less doctrinaire vision of church had a hard time warming to Joseph Ratzinger, who as a cardinal made his most distinctive mark during his time at the Vatican’s doctrine office blowing the whistle on theologians, nuns and others deemed afoul of orthodoxy.
But the Benedict legacy often forgotten today amid the understandable euphoria over Pope Francis is a significant contribution to the Church’s social justice tradition. A pope largely viewed through the prism of popular media and culture as a staunch conservative for his opposition to gay marriage and abortion also trumpeted views to the left of most Democrats in Congress when it came to economic justice and the environment.
In his 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict denounced the “scandal of glaring inequalities” and called for a more just distribution of global wealth. A defining theme of Benedict’s papacy – especially after the 2008 global financial crisis – was an uncompromising critique of economic systems that subjugate the human person to the demands of profit. In his 2013 World Day of Peace message, he lamented “the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism.” Along with “terrorism” and “international crime,” the pope named unfettered markets as a threat to stability and peace.
You’re unlikely to hear that kind of talk even from most liberal politicians. While free-market fundamentalists lobby for greater deregulation of markets and corporations, the Vatican’s justice and peace council during the Benedict era called for a “minimum, shared body of rules to manage the global financial market” and a “world reserve fund” to support countries hard hit by the economic crisis. He was no Catholic outlier, of course, and just as Pope Francis today Benedict inherits and articulates anew a centuries-old Catholic social tradition that defends the rights of workers and puts human dignity at the center of just economic systems.
Benedict also earned the title of “Green Pope” for defining environmental stewardship in stark moral terms, and his frequent warnings about climate change. More than any of his predecessors, he articulated a clear theology behind what he calls the “covenant between human beings and the environment.” In his 2010 World Day of Peace message, Benedict asked: “Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifiers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions?”
These are bracing words for conservatives in position of power today who prefer denying the reality of climate change than proposing practical solutions. In 2011, the day before world leaders from 194 countries meet in Durban, South Africa to chart out next steps to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gases, Benedict urged the international community to “agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.”
Historians will debate the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI for centuries, but we should not overlook his unambiguous teachings when it came to economic and social justice. In the end, of course, Benedict may be best remembered for his unexpected departure and the still unknown ways that seismic decision could reshape the Catholic Church.
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Religious leaders and activists made an important impact on yesterday’s Democratic primary in Massachusetts for Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat.
There was one major difference between candidates Rep. Stephen Lynch and Rep. Ed Markey – Lynch initially favored construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, and Markey steadfastly opposed it.
In case you’re just joining us, the debate over the Keystone XL Pipeline has global consequences. If the pipeline is completed, vast Canadian reserves of dirty tar sands oil will hit the international market at a time when we need to be drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels in order to curb the most catastrophic effects of the climate change crisis. And that’s to say nothing of the inevitable toxic spills that will happen along the route from northern Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
Lynch’s early support for this disastrous project sparked a strong response from local and national faith leaders. The evangelical-led Good Steward Campaign joined forces with Catholics United, Sojourners, American Values Network, Interfaith Power and Light, 350.org and local nuns and activists to organize opposition, gather tens of thousands of petition signatures and publicly speak out against the pipeline. Lynch (who ultimately lost anyway) subsequently walked back his support for this environmentally catastrophic pipeline.
Keystone in particular, and climate in general, are flying somewhat under the radar right now but will take center stage sooner or later. The fact that faith leaders are gearing up and speaking out now bodes well as the debate goes forward.
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As we’ve noted before, the faith community has been working for years to put an end to mountaintop removal coal mining, a destructive practice that wreaks havoc on the environment and public health in the Appalachian region.
In Tennessee, activists have pushed for the passage of the Scenic Vistas Protection Act to restrict mountaintop removal in the state. Although the bill passed Tennessee’s Senate Environment Committee, its language was amended to weaken the implementation of the mountaintop removal ban.
The Rev. Gradye Parsons – currently serving as the highest elected official in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – wrote an impassioned editorial in the Tennessean yesterday, advocating for the Scenic Vistas Protection Act in its original form from the perspective of his Christian faith. As he puts it, opposing mountaintop removal is a matter of deep moral urgency:
“As a son of Tennessee and as a Christian, protecting God’s Creation is not merely environmentalism to me. It is a matter of faith. The book of Genesis teaches us that when God looked out at the created world, God saw that ‘it was very good.’ Furthermore, the psalmist tells us ‘the earth is Lord’s and all that is in it.’ We are called by our faith to care responsibly for the world that our Creator has made, and to do justice for our neighbors. Mountaintop removal, by damaging God’s creation and the well-being of our brothers and sisters, runs contrary to our Christian obligation to each other and to our environment.”
Rev. Parsons points out that the Presbyterian Church (USA) formally condemned mountaintop removal in 2006. At least five other national Christian denominations have also passed resolutions against the practice. It’s encouraging to see the faith community unite on important environmental issues, especially when those issues are articulated in clear moral terms.
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Nearly two years after the largest oil spill in American history, Gulf Coast residents are still struggling to recover from Deepwater Horizon’s devastating impact on the ecosystem and their livelihoods, which were largely dependent on the now-devastated tourism and fishing industries.
With an eye toward ending the cycle of devastation that has become all too familiar in the Gulf Coast, over 140 faith leaders (including FPL’s own Executive Director, Jennifer Butler) called on Senators Reid and McConnell to pass the RESTORE Act and return a sense of economic self-sufficiency to the people of the Gulf Coast
From the letter:
As faith leaders, almost two years after the largest oil spill in our nation’s history, we continue to lament lost jobs and food security, and the on-going physical and mental health challenges facing so many of our brothers and sisters across America’s Gulf Coast. God’s creation groans from the oil and chemical contaminants that still permeate the beaches, wetlands and waters upon which so many rely for survival. Now more than ever, we need the leadership of the U.S. Congress to ensure that Gulf Coast communities, economies and God’s creation do not undertake this recovery unaided. We are writing in support of the legislation before the U.S. Senate, the RESTORE Act, S. 1400, a bipartisan response which we believe is rooted in the values of peace, economic fairness, and stewardship of creation.
We urge you to do what is best for the Gulf Coast – and for all Americans – by working to guarantee that the oil spill response effort is comprehensive, effective, and just, meeting the needs of those suffering today while laying a foundation for long-term restoration and renewal.
While BP reached a settlement with for some individuals and businesses for economic losses and medical claims last Friday, there is still a need to hold BP responsible for the environmental destruction left in the wake of 4.9 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf. Although Clean Water Act fines are expected to total over $21 billion, that money can only be directed for ecosystem restoration if Congress passes the RESTORE Act.
This bill is a unique opportunity to empower state and regional agencies to restore the Gulf’s economy and ecosystem. No matter how much faith communities advocate for justice in the Gulf, without the passage of critical legislation struggling communities will once again be denied justice.
Photo Credit: LA Lassie/Flickr
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The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) has been an outspoken and prophetic advocate for common-sense environmental regulations, especially measures that would curb toxic mercury emissions which can be extremely harmful to a developing fetus.
They’ve been running a major campaign to urge Members of Congress to support these regulations as a way of protecting both God’s creation and human lives. According to Alexei Laushkin of EEN, “We believe protecting the unborn from mercury poisoning is a consistent pro-life position.”
Unfortunately, some on the Religious Right would rather stand with partisans decrying “big government” than stand up for children and pregnant women when it comes to mercury emissions. According to The Hill, several dozen Religious Right organizations are challenging EEN’s campaign, saying “most environmental causes promoted as pro-life involve little threat to human life itself, and no intent to kill anyone.”
The article goes on to point out that “mercury harms the nervous systems of children exposed in the womb and can impair learning and early development, among other harms associated with emissions of the toxic substance, according to EPA.”
It’s sadly all too predictable to see Religious Right figures clamoring to defend conservative ideology and score partisan points, even at the expense of the lives they claim to defend. I’m glad to see EEN standing strong in the face of this cynical criticism.
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