The Common Factor

A month ago the SBC website posted an article by me in which I wrote: “Money is not evil. We all need it. What is evil is putting it at the center of the life of the society and men making the acquisition of it a main purpose of their life, as if our lives haven’t higher purpose.”

My language was mild. That of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s Vicar on Earth, Pope Francis, was less so when on July 9 he addressed an international conference of grass-roots organizations in Bolivia. He quoted St. Basil the Great, Doctor of the Church, when he spoke of “the unfettered pursuit of money” as producing “the stink of what Basil of Caesarea called ‘the dung of the devil’.”

Francis’ quotation of St. Basil was striking, used as we are to post-Vatican II popes seldom citing persons or documents predating the Council itself, but this observation is extraneous to the point I want to register here.

It is that the Pope and I could be seen as justified, if I may presume to bracket myself with him, by the cover article of the July 10 issue of Newsweek: “The Love Vote: How Corporate America Propelled Same-Sex Marriage”.

The article reported how no fewer than 379 top U.S. companies joined on to the “friend of the court” brief prepared by lawyers working on behalf of same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. The companies “included behemoths of retail (Wal-Mart), finance (JPMorgan) and sports (the New England Patriots).”

Why did Big Money get behind same-sex marriage? “We want everybody to shop at Wal-Mart,” the giant retailer’s CEO explained.

Actually, when he said it he was explaining to Newsweek why Wal-Mart had stopped selling Confederate Battle-Flag merchandise, but he would have offered the same explanation for the corporation’s support of same-sex marriage. As a subhead of Newsweek’s article put it: “Big Corporations are taking the lead on social issues ranging from gay marriage to the Confederate flag.”

As I’ll put it: The stink of the devil’s dung ranges all across American life today.

The Nation, a liberal publication so far left that it wouldn’t want to credit corporate America with any development it sees as positive, had its own editorial take on the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision: “Chief Justice Roberts closed his dissent on Obergefell by acknowledging that many would celebrate the decision, but that they should ‘not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it’.

He’s wrong. If constitutional law is understood as an evolving doctrine rather than the dead hand of the past, we should celebrate not just the decision, but the Constitution itself.”

What should really be understood is that since President Obama’s likely successor, Hillary Clinton, won’t be naming to the Supreme Court anyone who looks to the “dead hand of the past,” the country’s judiciary from now on will be doing with the Constitution what the executive and legislative branches of government have done for years: making it up as they go along.

As for the virtual ban that has now been imposed on the public display of the Battle Flag, we won’t dwell on it here. It is enough to say that in banning the flag, not simply is the racist oppression it is alleged to represent repudiated. We also jettison history, which is to say the past. The trouble is that history isn’t simply a record of dates and events. The past is also where we find wisdom. But who needs that any more than the Old South’s agricultural way of life and resistance to the concentration of political power in a central government as long as Apple and Samsung keep producing new iterations of their smartphones and new subdivisions keep being built where farmland used to exist, subdivisions and strip malls with their attendant highways and parking lots to accommodate the new automobiles of the people who will live in the subdivisions, all of which is needed in order to continue to grow the economy?

To speak as I just did is to summarize the social vision of liberalism’s right wing called conservatism, not that conservatives really have a social vision. They can’t have because society doesn’t exist for them, not society as the Church speaks of it in her social teaching. One of the leading conservatives of recent time, Margaret Thatcher, was explicit on this point when she famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

Of course in his fallen nature every one of these individuals wants it all — all of the consumer goods marketed with the promise that they will provide for him greater comfort and convenience and more entertainment. Big Money, which finds its political home in the U.S. in the Republican Party, will be happy to furnish it since the sales will produce still more money, which is what is meant by “growing” the economy.

Other results are produced by the exaltation of the individual. For instance, I haven’t been in rainy Seattle for years but hear they’ve had dust storms on account of land on the other side of the Pacific in China being over-grazed in order to produce cashmere sweaters for Wal-Mart that an average individual can afford. This is an example of what environmentalists call interconnectedness.

Another result was the fatuous criticism of Laudato Si heard from conservative Republican presidential aspirant (and Catholic convert) Jeb Bush: “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people.”

How would Bush measure “better”? One suspects Bush (and other conservatives like him) would answer: “Being nice to everybody.”

When Bush and other conservatives rushed to microphones, Twitter or email to denounce Laudato Si, neither he nor they could have had time to read the document. It would be impossible unless they dropped everything else they were doing. They spoke as they did on the basis of being told by aides or reading in a news summary that the subject of the encyclical was climate change, and to them talk of climate change is part of an environmentalist conspiracy to regulate the unfettered pursuit of money by “growing” the economy.

The subject of Laudato Si is not climate change, though climate is discussed in it. Were it the only subject, conservative criticism of the document could be justified because there are some experts who disagree with the majority of experts who have concluded that climate change is real and at least partially caused by human activity. It’s like psychiatrists at a criminal trial disagreeing as to whether the defendant is really insane.

To me, reading the encyclical is like reading (albeit in Vaticanese) E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, the essays and books of Wendell Berry, and even the Southern Agrarians (if anybody still remembers them). I could cite passage after passage to justify that statement and probably shall in future. One example is where Francis writes of the need to “promote an economy which favors productive diversity” like “small-scale food production systems…be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing.”

Don’t think the Pope has forgotten city-dwellers. He writes of the need to develop “those common areas, visual landmarks and urban landscapes which increase our sense of belonging, of rootedness, of ‘feeling at home’ within a city which includes us and brings us together.” Precisely such notions lay behind the design of Central Park in New York City. How many newer cities, ones built around the automobile, include such places?

What has any of this to do with religion, you may ask. You sound like Jeb Bush, or anybody else today who thinks religion and the moral choices it requires have nothing to do with how men live and act when doing something other than pray in church.

Regarding technology, I suspect the Pope may have stronger feelings than he expresses about our machines, but he knows, as do we all, that genie can’t be put back in the bottle, though perhaps it can be kept from escaping the building. He certainly would not depend on technology to solve the problems created by technology. Be wary, he tells us, of those who speak in terms of either “nonchalant resignation or blind obedience to technological solutions.” If he refers to artificial intelligence anywhere in the encyclical, I missed it. Even Bill Gates and Elon Musk are warning us of the potential deadliness of AI, but no encyclical can say everything.

As it is, Laudato Si is the most important encyclical promulgated by a pope since Humanae Vitae in 1968. Many who are not Catholic will find it valuable because more explicitly than they have done, and certainly with more authority, it adds a moral dimension to the environmentalist cause. My fear is that among Catholics it will suffer the same fate as Humanae Vitae. After all, the majority of Catholic couples went right on practicing life prevention (a.k.a. birth control) after its promulgation. How many are likely to leave their cars at home and take a bus to work because a pope recommends it?

One more thought before I conclude. Those who harbor obvious hostility to Pope Francis whatever he says or does often assert that he must be influenced by Marxism. The conservative Rush Limbaugh said it when Laudato Si was published. Evidently the reason is that the Pope speaks so often of the poor, the jobless poor and the working poor. I surmise the critics have not spent much time, if any at all, reading the social encyclicals. The very first, Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, the foundational document of subsequent papal social teaching, specifically addressed “the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.”

In these lines I have gone from the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex “marriage” to the suppression of the Battle Flag to conservative criticism of Laudato Si. There is a common factor that links these disparate subjects. Call it an environmental link. It is the stink of the devil’s dung, that which arises from the unfettered pursuit of money – plain old greed.