“A climate deal Francis would approve?”: New from OSV

My new article for Our Sunday Visitor considers the question, “Would Pope Francis approve of the U.N. climate deal brokered in Paris last month?” My work on this one was particularly interesting and enjoyable.

That’s probably because the initial reaction of most folks — including me — would probably be, “Of course he would.” But the ways the deal differs from (and even ignores) Francis’s approach are as interesting as the ways the two are aligned.

The whole thing is here. Have a look.


Exxon banks on global warming — while pretending it’s a hoax

So, this first installment of an important, ongoing series of reports from the L.A. Times makes it clear: Externally, Exxon was denying the realistic possibility of global warming since at least 1990 (and millions of people, including myself for a while, were duped by the charade), while internally it was basing extensive plans, calculations, and projections on its reality.
Aren’t we all fools?
And how — my conservative friends — are those who continue to support it, in the face of massive evidence, any better than Planned Parenthood and those who support its work?

U.S. exceptionalism indeed

Catholics in many countries have been receptive to Laudato Si, “but the United States was one of the exceptions.” That’s the word from who I would presume to be Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, since this article describes the speaker as “the cardinal who delivered Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment.”

Of course, it comes down to politics (since American Catholics prove repeatedly that they put far more faith in their political party’s platform than they do in any catechism or pope). The article notes: “The partisan divide over how to respond to carbon emissions contributing to climate change continues, making it more difficult for the pope’s message to resonate with Americans, said Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.”

The full article is here.

In OSV: Living Laudato Si

osvWhen it comes to the doctrine and theology of the Catholic Church, there’s always plenty to say and to learn about from academic, theoretical point of view. But what is both most beautiful and most challenging is always the living of it. That’s where “the rubber meets the road,” where the world is made better, where lives are changed and enriched, where grace and salvation is received and experienced.

So it was a joy to take on the task of preparing a set of articles for Our Sunday Visitor on the theme of “Living Laudato Si” — Laudato Si, of course, being Pope Francis’s recently released encyclical letter on our call to care for the created world. I chose to approach the task from four important directions:

  • What might it mean to live Laudato Si in one’s family life?
  • How about in the life of a typical American Catholic parish?
  • What does the encyclical offer to the spiritual lives of Catholics?
  • And finally, what is this concept of consumerism that is so prominent in the Pope’s teaching, and what does it mean to each of us?

These are questions addressed by the four articles that make up the “In Focus” section of the brand new issue of OSV.

And I’d also point out a couple of other important Laudato Si-related articles in the same issue. Be sure to check out Brian Fraga’s article “Is Clean Power Plan Compatible with Laudato Si?” and also Matthew Bunson’s “Pill’s Pitfalls Create Contraceptive Conundrum.” (Someone had fun creating that latter headline.)

You can find all these articles here — the link is to a .pdf that contains the entire new issue.

And as a side note, it’s good to see what amounts to coverage of OSV’s coverage of the encyclical from Mark Silk at Religion News Service this morning. “If you want to know how an encyclical like Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ works its way through the Catholic Church,” Silk writes, “take a look at the latest number of Our Sunday Visitor, the venerable weekly newspaper for the church’s American rank and file.”

I gotta say, it’s a great thrill to play a little part in helping Francis’s remarkable new encyclical “work its way through the Catholic Church.”

Laudato Si: “Everything is connected”

In a book on Catholic social teaching that I wrote some time ago, I included a whole chapter on care for the environment. In it, I pointed out that Pope Benedict was sometimes called the Green Pope, thanks to his frequent teaching and even practical action on the topic. But, I said, church teaching in this area was surely in its infancy and “[p]robably one day, not long from now, Pope Benedict’s greenness will appear pale compared to that of a successor, and Catholic social teaching on the environment will develop rapidly.”

Ironically, that book was published the same month that Pope Francis was elected (the manuscript having been completed, of course, nearly a year earlier). I can’t help noting that I even suggested in my book a title for the environmental encyclical that would one day come: Sollicitudo Dei Mundis, “Care for God’s World.” For what it’s worth, this is not too far from the subtitle of Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s new encyclical on our responsibility to care for the environment.

Keeping up with the avalanche of commentary on the document — positive and negative, insightful and inane — would be nearly a full time job. This is a gratifying fact if the point of an encyclical is to make people aware of church teaching.

A good bit of the conversation has been about the Pope’s acceptance of the scientific consensus that climate change is a reality and that it is caused in large part by human activity (that is to say, by that portion of humanity living in the West). Many “conservatives” have labored to point out that one needn’t accept this assertion as Gospel in order to be “a good Catholic,” and there can be no question that’s true.

But there’s more to the document than that, of course, and most of its contents – and certainly the heart of its contents – fall very much within the Pope’s job description.

If there is an overarching theme to the encyclical – a leitmotif, if you will – it is surely that all people are call to “a deep sense of communion with the rest of nature” (91). “Everything is related,” Francis writes, “and we human beings are united as brothers and sisters on a wonderful pilgrimage, woven together by the love God has for each of his creatures and which also united us in fond affection with brother sun, sister moon, brother river, and mother earth” (92). Again and again the Pope insists that “everything is connected.” It is an assertion that can be found no less than eleven times in the document.

This is a spiritual and moral assertion. It is also absolutely consistent with and nourished by modern science. Anyone who knows the work of American theologian Elizabeth Johnson could not but be reminded of it while reading Laudato Si.

“[W]e share with all other living creatures on our planet a common ancestry,” Johnson has written. “Bacteria, pine trees, blueberries, horses, the great gray whales – we are all genetic kin in the great community of life.” Since the first time reading it, I have been moved and awed by the fact that our blood (and the blood of the rest of earth’s animals) is red because of the iron it contains – iron that was produced billions of years ago in great galactic explosions and condensed in the crust of our planet as it formed and from which we emerged.

These are scientific facts, yes. But just like the scientific fact that an unborn fetus has a distinct, individual, and entirely human genetic make-up from her mother has moral implications, so do these facts and many more related to the nature of nature (of which we are a part) and what is currently happening to it (and therefore also to us). Francis has pointed this out to us in a document that is well worth our time and indeed our embrace.


West Virginia gets redder

This new article at The Daily Beast on West Virginia politics is as true as true can be. I saw the shift that Michael Tomasky describes here happening first hand during my two years there, and clearly it has continued to gain strength since my departure in 2011. It’s sad in many ways, because it represents a state full of people in a precarious situation turning their backs on their own best interests, at the behest of a few powerful (and rich) voices.

Tomasky writes:

So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.


The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.

The southern part of the state, which is where I lived, is indeed in real trouble, and the people do indeed know it. And yet, rather than looking around them, looking to the horizon where new opportunities and untried options may await, most local and regional leaders have chosen to hunker down, to circle the wagons, the demand faithfulness to the status quo, and to paint those who wish to think bigger as traitors.

In a word, that means pledging fealty to King Coal. Loyalty to the coal industry is the one thing necessary, the sine qua non of politics and culture. And it will condemn the state and its people to (even greater) irrelevance a generation from now, unless something changes.

Tomasky’s entire article, here, is worth a look.

Review: Charles Camosy’s For Love of Animals

There was a lotcamosy of commentary over the weekend — from the insightful to the goofy — about appointment of Bishop Blase Cupich to be the next Archbishop of Chicago. Probably the best thing anyone had to say so far has been Charles Camosy, in a post at the Catholic Moral Theology blog (which is one the sharpest and most worthwhile sites in the Catholic blogosphere). Here, though, I want to turn my attention to Camosy’s book, For Love of Animals: Christian Ethics, Consistent Action (Franciscan Communications, 2014), a good and challenging read.  

Camosy is a fine writer who has a keen ability to transcend the political posturing of conservative/liberal, traditionalist/progressive. He is an academic theologian who has managed to offer his thinking in clear, engaging, and accessible prose that a non-academic would have no trouble understanding and enjoying. Through the course of reading this book, I have recommended it to my wife and my teenaged kids — not something I could do with most theology I read, even the books that are “supposed” to be written for a popular audience. Kudos to Camosy on this.

Camosy’s point is to get us to think through the moral issues related to our treatment of animals today. We eat them, of course. And we eat them in staggeringly huge amounts. We expect access to chicken, beef, ham, bacon, eggs, etc, to be easy and cheap. It was not always like this. There’s a reason, after all, that the Friday act of penance the Church called upon Catholics to make was abstaining from meat: a meal with meat was a bit of an extravagance, a somewhat costly treat. Camosy wants to make us aware of the moral compromises we’re all pulled into in order to make our chicken and beef so readily available.

His concerns, as I read it, are rooted in two points. First, we fail in general to recognize the moral value of animals, practicing a “speciesism” by thinking and acting like humanity sits at the pinnacle of God’s created world and all living things below us exist to serve our needs. Second, through the large-scale factory farm systems that have developed in order to provide cheap meat to millions of people daily, we treat billions of chickens, cows, and pigs in brutal and unconscionable ways: not just killing them, but raising them and killing them in ways that involve great pain and suffering.

Nonhuman persons?

On the first point, Camosy readily acknowledges the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “it is legitimate to use animals for food and clothing.” He is quick to point out that it also says “it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”

On the dignity of animals, though, I wonder if Camosy goes too far. He warns us of “speciesism,” which he describes (though I don’t think ever quite defines) as discriminating among various kinds of animals based personal, cultural, and biological biases. We in the West, for example, are comfortable eating pigs but not dogs, he notes, even though pigs are at least as smart and social as dogs. “[I]f it is an injustice to treat dogs with cruel violence,” he writes, “then it is also an injustice to create pigs with cruel violence.”

Camosy even considers the possibility that some animals (like primates, dolphins, and octopi) ought to be considered “nonhuman persons,” based on their intelligence and self-awareness. But if the line for personhood is not to be drawn at the boundaries of the human race, how is drawing the line anywhere else any better? Isn’t drawing it at any particularal level of intelligence, for example, simply arbitrary and another example of speciesism? And if animals really do have personhood and rights similar to human persons, how can we ever justify eating them in any situtation?

I say this well aware of Camosy’s cogent reminder that there was a time when racist and sexist biases made talk of the human dignity and equality of all people sound foreign and a little bizarre to many. I can’t be sure that one day my skepticism about speciesism will not sound just as tragic to the ears of most folks. We need to be aware that we’re never fully aware of the sway held over our minds and hearts by unrecognized biases, ignorance, and sin. (As Camosy writes: “‘What water?’ said the fish.”)

A structure of sin

If I was not quite convinced of this line of Camosy’s thinking, I was quite struck and troubled by the effectiveness with which he made his other primary point — that the factory farming that is practiced on a very wide scale in order to produce meat in the quantities and at the prices necessary to sustain our carniverous appetites is an evil system. Indeed, it is a good example of the structures of sin and injustice that Catholic social teaching condemns repeatedly and forcefully.

No reader will enjoy — but all should read — Camosy’s descriptions of the way we breed, house, feed, and kill chickens, turkeys, pigs, and more. It’s hard to see how any reader, even the most dedicated meat-lover, would not be forced at least to think twice before ordering wings at a restaurant or even picking up a package of checken breasts at the local grocery store.

As Camosy points out, it need not be a question of personhood or assigning the same rights to animals as to people. All that is necessary to recognize the immorality of the factory farm system is the Catechism’s teaching that we ought to be kind to animals. The Church’s teaching about the sinfulness of consumerism — so prominent in Pope Francis’s thinking — lends further support. Even if Camosy’s book did not convince me that complete vegetarianism is called for, it certainly has made me uncomfortable that my and my family’s diets and shopping contribute to supporting a structural injustice of our society.

‘Ruled by our relationship with Jesus’

One insightful and interesting aspect of Camosy’s approach is the way he points out connections between the way we treat animals and other important moral issues. Without ever trying to equate these issues with one another or suggest that they are of equal gravity, he convincingly cites abortion, consumerism, violence, and racism as relevant to the conversation.

And make no mistake, Camosy is not easily dismissed as the mealy-mouthed sort of “liberal” we might unthinkingly associate with vegetarianism. He makes his opposition to abortion and embryonic stem cell research clear, for instance (and explains why his opposition to killing animals flows from the very same principles that leads him to oppose these other actions as evil). In fact, he rejects any loyalty on the part of Catholics to a particular political agenda. I love this passage of his:

Authentic Christian commitment transcends the inadequate liberal/conservative binary categories of our secular political culture. True Christians are ruled by our relationship with Jesus. What this relationship demands of us cannot possibly be made to fit into the categories of secular American politics. Indeed, we should be skeptical of those who call themselves Christians but fit neatly into secular political categories. Most likely they have secular politics — and not their relationship with Jesus Christ — as the most important thing in their lives.

To know how unique and interesting a writer Camosy is, one need only note that the follow-up to this book on animals rights will be a book on abortion (that will, I have no doubt, treat with great seriousness the right to life of the unborn child and Catholic doctrine on the topic). There are not a lot of writers with a pair of books like that on their CV! I shall be looking forward to that new one, because it promises to be another insightful, compelling, and deeply Catholic read.