Monthly Archives: July 2015

Maybe what’s wrong with us is we watch the wrong scoreboard.

You probably wouldn’t think that the answer to the challenge of Pope Francis’ encyclical would be found in Bhutan. (In part because, you, like me, couldn’t find Bhutan without Google.)

One of the reflections I’ve had on reading Laudato Si’ is that maybe our problem as a society is that we focus on the wrong stuff. We watch the wrong scoreboard.  We value things that aren’t all that valuable, in the bigger picture.

From Francis’ perspective (and I would argue, from Jesus’, too) this is undoubtedly true.  We invest an inordinate amount of attention on those who have wealth — individuals and countries — and overlook those who have little.  This, even though so many — of all faiths and no faith at all — have found that some of the happiest and most fulfilled are not those with plenty, but those the world would call poor.

This is not to say that being poor is in itself good.  Critics rightly note that the motif of the “blessed poor” tends to be propagated by people who don’t seem so much driven by a desire to become poor themselves but by the desire to feel less bad about not helping the poor out of their poverty.

But maybe we drive toward wealth, excessive, non-satisfying and destructive levels of wealth, because we are valuing it disproportionately.

What if, instead of measuring personal wealth or gross national product we instead valued gross national happiness?  At least that’s the question raised by the ruler of Bhutan, who unveiled a “Gross National Happiness” index and set about to measure his country by metrics that pertain to it.

(I didn’t know this until I heard a TED talk by Chip Conley about it. Just so you don’t think I’m more erudite than I am.)

It’s worth thinking about. (Here’s a link to a paper about the GNH from the Bhutanese.  You can Google a world ranking, too.)

Here are the domains they measure:

Psychological Wellbeing – Life satisfaction and Emotional balance (positive and negative emotions) and Spirituality

Health – Self-reported health status, Healthy days, Long-term disability,  Mental health

Education – Literacy, Educational qualification, Knowledge, Values

Culture – Language, Artisan skills, Socio-cultural participation, Driglam Namzha (sort of a Bhutanese manners)

Time Use – Working hours and Sleeping hours

Good Governance – Political participation, Political freedom, Service delivery, Government performance

Community Vitality – Social support, Community relationships, Family, Victim of crime

Ecological Diversity and Resilience- Pollution, Environmental responsibility, Wildlife, Urban issues

Living Standards- Household income, Assets, Housing quality

As a scorecard, it is at least more balanced.  If we spent more time valuing this set of measures rather than focusing on those with crass wealth, would we be in a better place?


How broke is it? If the world is conquering absolute poverty, is Laudato Si too harsh?

I haven’t seen a thoughtful conservative response to Laudato Si’. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been any; in fact, I’d welcome the chance to read any you’ve seen.

Here’s one worth trying on, though.  Pope Francis focuses heavily, and rightly, on the plight of the poor; this isn’t new — it’s in keeping with the history of Catholic social thought.  But his premise is that the poor are dehumanized, devalued, and being left behind.

But look, a conservative could argue, at the Millennium Development Goals.  In 2000, the United Nations launched a set of 8 measurable goals to reduce poverty in all its forms by 2015 – things like halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, halving the number of people lacking access to clean water and sanitation, reducing chronic hunger and child malnutrition, and others.  Perhaps surprisingly, many of the most sweeping and ambitious goals were not only met, but met early.

As we head toward the finish line, several world leaders are declaring that the eradication of extreme poverty is in sight. And what has driven this move toward the positive? Primarily, many would argue, this is a story about trade-fueled economic growth, not a revamped world system. While the opening of China and continued development of India are the primary reasons these numbers plummeted, progress appeared almost across the globe, and, if growth continues as a reasonably strong clip, the end really does seem to be in sight, with the primary sticking point being sub-Saharan Africa.

So, a capitalist defender might argue, if free trade has done more to lift the poorest of the poor out of extreme poverty, an area in which centrally planned economy not only had no success but may have been an active part of the problem, isn’t it worth the tradeoff of higher inequality? In other words, is it better for all of us to be better off, unevenly, than for all of us to be more equally worse off?

The knee-jerk reaction is to say you can have it both ways – that growth does not have to be partnered with greed. I’m not sure there’s a strong body of evidence that this alternative exists, though.

Let me suggest that the question of whether we can expect a more just system than this, or whether free market capitalism is our best hope for prosperity for all, is at least at one level of question of theology, and specifically theological anthropology — how we understand humankind from the perspective of God’s story.

I know there are those that see free market capitalism as divinely inspired, but it’s hard for me to find the seeds of the prosperity gospel in the actual gospels in which a poor, decidedly un-market-oriented Jesus focused on the impoverished and outcast.  That said, there is a long and strong tradition that roots the “best-caseness” of capitalism in a radical understanding of human sin. We are irrevocably broken, this theology holds, so much so that any attempt to build a system that draws on a positive creation of a common good is doomed to become another Tower of Babel, another testimony to the depths of human depravity. The best we can hope for, by this thinking, is to steer our worst instincts toward some indirect common good.  In that understanding, a free market system takes greed and makes it modestly less irredeemable by steering it toward economic growth that helps others. This is the sort of argument that Reinhold Niebuhr promoted.  It isn’t very warm and fuzzy, but there is something to be said for its track record in comparison to utopian visions.

This may be wrong, but I associate this worldview with its elevated sense of humanity’s fallenness, with Calvinist Protestantism. I would think, especially with this pope, that there is a stubbornly hopeful counterargument to be made based on a theology that posits that God’s love affects us not only in redemption but in remembered creation. Sin is real, pernicious, and ever-present, yes.  But God’s power transcends the power of evil not only in the cross but in the very act of Creation, which sin mars but does not destroy.  If original sin does not thoroughly wipe out original good, there is hope for a loving society that looks more like the Christian community in Acts 4:32 (“The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.”) and less nasty, brutish and short. Contemporary evidence to the contrary.

Little things matter.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis outlines several daunting challenges of modern life: pollution, climate change, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity, decline of human life, breakdown of society, global inequality. That’s a lot. 

Dig a little on just one of these, like this one, is enough to leave you thinking we are, well, in bad shape.

So it’s valuable and important to note that Francis believes that not only can we work with God to pull this out, but that little things matter. He argues — plenty — for action at the international policy level. But he also rattles off stuff that we can individually make a difference. “There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions.”

His list from 211 and 213 (and I would love to see an app developed that helps you decide how best to act to fight these multiple challenges):

  • Use less heating (and air)
  • Wear warmer clothes (or cooler)
  • Avoiding the use of paper and plastic
  • Reducing water consumption
  • Separating refuse
  • Cooking only what can reasonably be consumed
  • Showing care for other living beings
  • Using public transport or car-pooling
  • Planting trees
  • Turning off unnecessary lights
  • Keep things clean
  • Ask without demanding
  • Say thank you
  • Don’t be greedy
  • Ask forgiveness

Dare you to use that as your examination of conscience when you next go to confession.

What progressives may not like about Pope Francis

If anyone’s interested, I can outline the argument that I think American economic conservatives can and perhaps should make about Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis’ social teaching in general. (I have some thoughts about the argument religious conservatives could have made about marriage equality, too, believe it or not.)

But until someone asks, here is the part of the pope’s encyclical that conservatives will love and liberals not love. (Other than par. 155, which looks like a slam on Caitlyn Jenner thrown in as a non sequitur into a section on livable communities.)

I’m talking about the pope’s continued full-throated defense of life, which some of my friends, even without reading the encyclical, knew to fault him for. Francis argues especially in par. 50 that some have argued that the connection between environmental problems and the poor is not the theological point I made in my last post but that, bluntly, we have too many poor people making demands on our resources and we need to get behind population control in order to fix it.

Nonsense, Francis responds. The Creator who Loves wants us to be responsible and thoughtful in wielding the power of procreation, yes, but to pin our ecological problems on “too many poor” is to objectify those who have less than us as being less valuable. The poor may be less valuable to us; they are no less valuable to God, and that is to our shame. To promote population control as the answer to problems created primarily by First-World consumerism is to misundertsand not only the present circumstance but also God Himself.

Well, OK, maybe that’s not the most comforting point for economic conservatives. But pro-lifers will find some comfort here, right?  

The genius of Laudato Si’ should make us all uncomfortable

 When U.S. presidential candidate Jeb Bush initially distanced himself from Laudato Si, he raised some eyebrows not only by doing so, but on the grounds he took: “Mr Bush, who is a convert to Catholicism, said: “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.”

I will leave for others to discuss the degree to which Gov. Bush has been consistent on this point, but what struck some people was that he saw this encyclical as “economic policy.” 

Jeb was right. At least on that point. I can do a lot of posts on why Catholics should listen to the Church on economic issues, and how the Church can and should engage non-Catholics on economic issues. But Governor Bush is absolutely right that this is an economic document.

What is overlooked by the most casual observers is that Pope Francis makes an essential part of his encyclical the idea that care for the poor and care for creation are inextricably connected.

I would argue that he does this on three levels: practical, psychosocial, and theological.

(Quick note: For those who have suffered through my earlier posts on Evangelii Gaudium, Im not planning to go through and quote extensively to support this and other arguments. I’d welcome you to read the encyclical itself and let me know if I’ve done it justice.)

Practical: Francis makes the point that, on climate change, the poor are disproportionately affected. While you and I in the West may think of waterfront property as the provenance of the rich, Francis makes the point overtly that the poor live in areas directly affected by sea level rise and desertification – the majority of our megacities and a quarter of the world’s population live near the coast. If sea level rise puts Bangladesh underwater, as some scientists think is inevitable, 100 million people will be displaced, and the vast majority are poor. 

Indirectly (except maybe in par. 25), Francis makes the very practical point that disruptions of any kind, including climate, hit hardest the poor, who lack the resources – financial and social – to weather the storm (literally, in some respects). So practically, harm to the environment is harm to the poor.

Psychosocial: I’m open to a better term for this. More thoroughly than the practical, Francis argues that the way we treat the world around us is an indicator of how we treat the poor, and vice versa. I am not a criminologist (I’m not a lot of things), but I know in our area when a teenager was convicted of assaulting a llama (OK, I live in Florida, this stuff happens), the local authorities made a point that intentional cruelty to animals is often a precursor to serious sociopathic having like serial killing. On a simpler level, how we treat that which can’t fight back extends from non-human to human and back.

Theological: Maybe the most central point to make here is that how we treat the poor, and how we treat “our common home,” reflects our understanding of God and God’s relationship to that which he created. Building on Saint John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body (which, if I’d needed to learn WordPress 20 years ago, I’d have blogged on) and a long Christian tradition, Francis starts with the assertion that our God of Love is first and foremost a Creator who creates out of love in order to love all that He has created. This may sound like mushiness.

But if we were created by and for a God who loves all that He has created in order that we can participate in that act of love and act of creation, then that has implications. Francis counters this understanding with an instrumental one, in which the world around us (and, let’s face it, all but a few of the people around us) are instruments for us to bend toward our will. When Francis rails against an anthropocentric understanding, it is this instrumentalism. If we profess God the Creator and Lover, then we cannot be the center of the universe. Which means that we cannot evaluate the world solely or even primarily about how we can benefit from manipulating it.

This is a big deal wrapped in small words. If we believe that God made all of this out of Love, not only for us but for the rest of it, then we better treat it – both the natural world and the people we don’t have a direct emotional investment in – as something God loves as much as He loves us. If we choose to treat the people around us or, Francis says, the natural world that is our home and theirs, as a resource, an object, rather than a beloved and a fellow subject, then we are making a statement about how much we really believe in God.

Francis’ predecssors since Leo XIII have made variations of this point about other people. The ways in which Francis extends this thinking to our common home are fascinating to watch and reminiscent of his papal namesake.

Digression into “How Children Succeed”

There’s at least one other big point to make about Laudato Si’, about the linkage of the poor and the environment, which will wait for another night, because I wanted to post something else instead. I recently heard Paul Tough and picked up his book How Children Succeed, which is not directly related to my day job or my hobby, but which I found fascinating nonetheless. By all means buy it if you care about children, education, one particular child, or just interesting reporting.

Tough’s thesis is that what makes for successful students isn’t IQ but “non-cognitive skills” (which is a way of saying “character” without triggering culture wars). And one of the frameworks he takes, from a charter school called KIPP, was particularly intriguing to me, identifying 7 traits:

  1. Optimism
  2. Zest
  3. Grit
  4. Curiosity
  5. Social intelligence
  6. Gratitude
  7. Self-Control

If you are a TED fan, you make have seen Angela Duckworth’s short talk on Grit (he draws on Duckworth a lot, and I won’t link to her great talk here only because I think Tough’s book is more complete and better than her fine talk. And that you don’t have the grit to read the book if you can watch a 6 minute discussion of grit). And, yes, as I think of my own life and the future of my 11-year old, grit is the trait that most jumps out as a deficit.

But I raise this lists and encourage you to read this book for two separate and unrelated reasons.

First, can’t we as Christians claim this list, different than it is from the “good, compliant manners” school of character traits, as our own? Is there anything more zesty and optimistic than joy? Is there anything more grateful than mercy? Doesn’t Paul expound on endurance and perseverance (which are just bigger words for grit), name self-control as a fruit of the Spirit, and eloquently expound upon social intelligence in describing how he became all things to all people to effectively deliver the Good News? And it is hard to hear Jesus reflect on the lilies of the field, or inquire into the lives and wants of those who seek his healing, without thinking he was more curious than many.

And the second point is contra Tough, who subscribes to the notion that our personalities are pretty well set after high school. Aren’t these characteristics worth a report card for us adults? And for our society? I have seen too many elders go south on optimism, and I guarantee that zest has cost us more in life, liveliness, and health expenses than obesity.