Sunday, August 23, 2015

Laudato Si': Care for our Common Home

Dubbed the "climate change encyclical",  Laudato Si' is really about relationships.

In Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis calls the world to rethink and transform the “outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”

From the first page, this encyclical hooked me with its straightforward and direct language, occasionally surprising me with its bluntness, such as when Francis described the world as resembling a “pile of filth”, or criticized politicians for lacking “breadth of vision.” Other times, the language is more poetic, particularly when the pope praises the beauty of creation.

In Laudato Si’, Francis attempts to gather the thought of the universal church on the connection between the environment and social issues. Not only does he refer to the teachings of his predecessors, Francis makes numerous references to statements on the environment from Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. He also devotes several paragraphs to the teaching of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. 

Although it has been dubbed “the climate change encyclical”, the discussion on climate change is only a small portion of Laudato Si’.  Those who focus on the pope’s comments on climate change miss the point. This encyclical is about three key relationships – humanity’s relationship with God, with the created world, and with one another – and it reflects on the problems existing within the web of these relationships.

At the root of the environmental crisis, says Francis, is a “misguided anthropocentrism” that places human beings at the center. In our hubris, we have fallen prey to “unrestrained delusions of grandeur”. We seek mastery over nature instead of respecting it as a sacred gift. We are turning ““a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness” into something that “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”. 

Francis talks about the utilitarian mindset that leads us to treat others with disregard, valuing them only in so far as they are useful to us. We are more interested in convenience and consumption, economics and power than in the intrinsic dignity of the human person and nature. In the theology of this encyclical, our lifestyle and mindset blind us to the destruction of the environment and deafen us to the cries of the poor.

Francis cautions that if we continue to see ourselves as independent from others and as separate from nature, our attempts to heal the environment will be piecemeal at best. Healing the environment requires healing the other two key relationships; “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb”.  A true ecological approach is therefore always a social approach; “it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.  

Less we feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the reality of the challenges facing humanity, the encyclical offers hope.  Human beings have the capacity to transform the present environmental and social crisis, but it will require a change of heart and attitude.  We will do well to heed an ancient lesson common in religious traditions,  ‘less is more’, and to cultivate a spirit of moderation that is happy with fewer goods even if it is contrary to today’s culture of consumption and waste.

From developing enforceable international environmental polices to small individual actions, everyone has a part to play in caring for our common home.  We renew the social fabric, break down indifference, and forge a shared identity, says Francis, when we promote the common good and defend the environment.  “Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society.” 

Laudato Si’ challenges us, individually and collectively, to confront the environmental crisis and to resolve the inequalities of human society. The future hangs in the balance of our response.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Euphemisms: making lies sound truthful

Someone challenged my use of the term “physician assisted dying”, describing it as mealy mouthed. I had used the term while commenting on the Carter decision, which deals with assisted suicide. In retrospect, my choice of language was a bit wimpy. I was doing what people have been doing for millennia, opting for the politically correct language of a euphemism instead of speaking plainly.

Euphemisms help us avoid taboo and painful topics
Euphemisms have been around at least since biblical times when to uncover a man’s foot was an idiom for making sexual advances. Today, as in the 10th century, people “sleep together”, and everyone knows the intention behind an invitation for a “nightcap”.  

In classical times, “curled up”,  “gone to sleep”, or “on a journey” were euphemisms for death. Now, we “pass away”, “pass on”, or “go to a better place”. Depending on the circumstances, we might even experience a “negative patient outcome.”

The human body and its functions are a rich source of euphemism. The English language has over 2500 words for the body’s “private parts” and numerous phrases to describe natural functions; “pees and poos” are those unspeakable things we do when we “go to the bathroom.”  And before it was polite to say that a woman was pregnant, or for a pregnant woman to proudly display her “condition”, she was “with child”, “in the family way”, or (my personal favorite dating from Victorian times) had “a bun in the oven”.

While some euphemisms help us navigate our way around embarrassing, painful or taboo subjects, others help us save face or elevate our position. Corporations that want to bolster their bottom line “downsize” and respected managers get “the golden handshake”.  Someone who is unemployed is “between jobs” or “making a career change.”   Secretaries and janitors have gone the way of the dinosaurs with “administrative assistants” and “sanitation engineers” stepping into fill the void.  Perhaps one day, “pedagogical mentors” will replace teachers.

They fool us into thinking we are enlightened
Then there are those euphemisms that fool us into thinking we are clever and enlightened. “Monogam-ish”, a term recently coined by sex columnist Dan Savage, falls into this category. To be monogam-ish is to be mostly faithful to your partner, while embracing the occasional affair as a normal and healthy part of a committed relationship.  The media, quick to pick up on any idea that is remotely trendy, encouraged debate on the validity of monogamy for our time and invited people to describe their experience of being monogam-ish.  But if we are to be truthful, monogam-ish is nothing other than plain old-fashioned infidelity once we remove the smokescreen of language.

Equally dangerous are those mealy mouthed phrases that sugarcoat the unpalatable and disguise inconvenient truths. “Collateral damage” sanitizes the loss of human life, and “enhanced interrogation techniques” masks torture.

And what about “physician assisted dying”, the term for which I opted?  At one time, we talked about  “mercy killing”, and more recently, “assisted suicide”.  But since we have no appetite for state sanctioned murder, we have found increasingly more complex ways to describe a questionable action. “Medical aid in dying” and “physician assisted dying” are easier to tolerate than terms that point towards killing. As with military terminology that camouflages the truth, these terms desensitize us to the reality of what we are doing. 

Like the Emperor's new clothes, they swindle our conscience
Some euphemisms are like the emperor’s new clothes, swindling our conscience and obscuring the truth.  So while indirect speech allows us to talk politely about awkward, embarrassing or painful subjects, sometimes it is, to quote George Orwell, designed to “make lies sound truthful, murder respectful and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Vanier discovered the art of being human through the disabled

Vanier found a hidden world of anguish
At the end of a steep hill in the neighbourhood where I grew up, there stood a house shrouded in mystery. Adults whispered about a “retarded” child who lived there and who was confined to a room. They argued about whether or not his parents should put him in a “home”.

I was both fascinated and afraid when I passed by the house. I had no context for the comments I overheard. I wondered about the boy, about his appearance, how he spent his day, was he lonely, and would he hurt me if he came out of the house.

That was in the mid 1960’s around the time that Jean Vanier, the 2015 Templeton Prize winner, visited an asylum, a “home”, in Trosly, France.  It was the house of my neighbourhood on a grand scale and he was as ignorant of it as were the people in my neighbourhood.  


He discovered a hidden world of anguish, shame and hopelessness, a place where intellectually disabled people were shut away from sight. So, he took action, inviting two of the men who had no family to live with him. Their mutually transformative experience of living as peers - eating, doing chores and, sometimes, fighting - gradually began to attract others.

This was the humble beginning of L’Arche, a unique organization of 147 communities around the globe that fosters the mutual transformation of all its members – whether able or disabled.  Emphasizing our common humanity, L’Arche is a sign of hope for the world, demonstrating that people of different cultures, religions and  abilities can live together in peace. 

The liberating experience of L'Arche embraces vulnerability
Vanier’s experience in that first L’Arche community was liberating.  Freed from the culture of success where people are valued for their abilities and achievements, Vanier discovered what it means to be fully human.  In Vanier’s experience and thought, to be fully human means to discover that each individual is a treasured part of the human family; before being a Christian or a Jew, before being an American or a Russian, before having visible or invisible disabilities, we are a person. 

When Vanier speaks of what it means to be fully human, he embraces the vulnerability that many of us try to hide. For Vanier, the story of every individual is the discovery of one’s fragility; we are born, grow and die in weakness.

Living with vulnerable people has taught him that the cry of the disabled for love is the common cry of every person. It is a cry that echoes the heart of God. When people are loved for who they are, not for what they can do, the spirit soars and they can enter more deeply into relationship. “To become fully human is to let down the barriers, to open up and to discover that every person is beautiful. Under all the jobs and responsibilities, there is you.” 

Vanier made a lasting impression in a small town
I first heard of Vanier in the 1970’s.  My late mother-in-law, who was instrumental in bringing Vanier to our diocese to give a retreat, said of him,  “He preached the gospel by the way he lived.”  He made a deep and lasting impression on her, as he did on other individuals who attended that retreat, and who, despite the passing of decades, still speak about him with great clarity.

One woman, who told me of her retreat experience, said the content of the retreat was secondary to Vanier himself. He opened up a God of love to her with his gentle manner and the love in his eyes.  Listening to Vanier, she said all these years later, “was like sitting as a child at the feet of the Master”, adding, “he could have said anything and reached me.”

Another individual described Vanier to me saying, “He is the most authentic person I have ever met. His commitment to the gospel was remarkable and he was living it beautifully.”  

Posing a tough question
The Templeton Prize, valued at approximately US $1.7 million, honors an individual who has made an extraordinary contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.  While it is clear that Vanier’s Christian faith and love of Jesus is at the basis of his lived theology, he is not pushy about creed.  When asked what he would say to a person who does not believe in God, Vanier replied, “Do you believe in love? You don’t need to believe in God. God is love. The important thing is not belief - but can you grow in love?”

That may be the tougher question.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Loyola decision protects religious freedom

"Church and state can work together for the common good"

In 2008, as part of the continued secularization of the Quebec school system, the province adopted a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) Program to replace religious education in schools. A statutory provision gives Quebec’s Minister responsible for education the discretionary ability to grant an exemption from the ERC program if a school offers an alternative, equivalent program. Loyola, a private Catholic high school run by the Jesuit order for over a century, applied for and was denied an exemption because the proposed program would be taught from a Catholic standpoint and not from a neutral position.

The objectives of the ERC program are the “recognition of others” and the “pursuit of the common good”.  Through the program’s three components - world religions and religious culture, ethics, and dialogue - students are expected to develop attitudes of openness, diversity, tolerance and respect. They are to learn the skills necessary for engaging in respectful dialogue with others who hold differing views. Loyola had no quarrel with the goals and competencies of the provincially mandated ERC program but wanted to teach from the Catholic perspective that animates the school.

The Court found that the minister failed to proportionately balance the objectives of the ERC program and the religious freedom of the individuals of Loyola’s faith-based community. The minister erred in her presumption that the ERC program could only be taught from a secular, neutral stance. Loyola’s version of the curriculum could achieve the goals and the competencies of the ERC program.

While the justices of the Court ruled unanimously in Loyola’s favor, they were split 4-3 on the remedy. The majority referred the matter back to the Minister for reconsideration, while the minority recommended that Loyola be allowed to proceed with its proposed program.

In the majority decision, Justice Abella writes, “Preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism, the core of its identity, in any part of the program from its own perspective, does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with the values underlying religious freedom.”

At the same time, the decision reaffirms the role of the state in administering education in religious schools. The state does not have “to abandon its objectives by accepting a program that frames the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of a school’s own religion.”

Writing for the minority, Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Moldaver did not see a problem with the discussion of ethics occurring through Loyola’s Catholic lens. “Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective. Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way. Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.”  To prevent them from doing so would render Loyola’s teachers “mute.”

I welcome the Supreme Court decision from my perspective as a Catholic who supports faith-based schools and the rights of individuals who choose those schools. I welcome it, too, as a former teacher with experience in both the Catholic and public school systems, and as a Canadian who values the freedoms of our secular democracy. 

Lauded as a victory for religious freedom, in my view, this decision strikes a balance between religion and secularism. On one hand, the Court affirms the legitimacy of the state in prescribing and regulating curriculum in religious schools. State oversight helps to prevent religious indoctrination and the intolerance that accompanies it. On the other hand, the decision protects freedom of religion. A religious school may teach from the perspective of its tradition and doctrines provided its beliefs or practices do not “conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”

At a time in Canadian history when the courts are frequently asked to rule on cases that pit religion and secularism, Loyola serves as a reminder that church and state can work together for the common good.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Pastor Lee: A man with a mission

Disabled son inspires drop box for abandoned babies
Pastor Lee Jong-rak of Seoul, South Korea is a man with a mission. The documentary film The Drop Box tells his story. 

In  2009, after a mother left her baby on his doorstep one cold night, Lee created a system to safely receive abandoned babies.  He installed a drop box equipped with a bell on the side of his home. The sign above the drop box reads, “Please don’t throw away unwanted babies. Please bring them here.”   It is a message reminiscent of the words of Mother Theresa who said “…please don’t destroy the child, we will take the child”, while speaking about abortion in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since its installation, Lee and his wife, Chun-Ja, have received six hundred babies. They have either adopted or become guardians of fifteen abandoned disabled babies.

A source of controversy
Lee’s drop box has been a source of both praise and controversy. Some critics think the drop box enables mothers to abandon their baby, while others think it interferes with social programs that provide counseling for mothers, making them aware of other options and of the consequences of abandonment for both mother and child. There are concerns about the anonymity of the drop box; children without birth records do not officially exist and are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

Lee’s drop box, like many other well-intentioned charitable works, is indeed a band-aid solution to a social problem. This, however, does not invalidate its important role in preserving lives.  To draw an analogy between the story of the child who throws one starfish back into the ocean when there is an entire beach of starfish that she cannot save, Lee’s drop box makes a difference to those babies whose mothers choose the drop box over abandoning them on the street where the possibility of death is very real.

Faith is at the heart of Lee's story
Faith is at the heart of Lee’s story. He clearly feels that God has called him to this task, a task that he executes selflessly, without counting the cost. Lee suffers from sleep deprivation, diabetes and high blood pressure. Then, there is the emotional toll of his ministry, which comes through poignantly when Lee talks about Hannah, who was born with brain damage and died unexpectedly at age six. Lee’s lingering sense of loss is palpable, as is his concern about the future of his children when he can no longer care for them.

The inspiration for Lee’s drop box came from his son, a severely disabled twenty-six year old who was hospitalized for fourteen years. Lee admits that accepting his son was difficult and prompted serious existential questions. “Why did God give me this child? I wasn’t grateful for this baby.”  Through his struggle to find answers, Lee came to see in his son the preciousness of each human life. He named him Eun-man, which means “full of God’s grace.” 

Lee’s devotion to the disabled reminded me of the work of Jean Vanier, who founded the first L’Arche community for developmentally challenged adults over 50 years ago.   Vanier, who sees and accepts imperfections as part of being human, has said, “The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives.” 

This may be the purpose that Lee alludes to when he describes Eun-man as his teacher, and when he says of the disabled babies that others would throw away, “They’re not the unnecessary ones in the world. God sent them here with a purpose.” 

A critical message for our time

Mother Theresa, Jean Vanier and Pastor Lee have a message that is critically important for our time: every life has value and purpose. As a society, we struggle with this message. It contradicts the parallels we draw between human dignity and quality of life with bodily vigor and intellectual vitality.

Vanier wrote in Becoming Human, “As soon as we start judging people instead of welcoming them as they are – with their sometimes hidden beauty, as well as their more frequently visible weaknesses – we are reducing life, not fostering it.” 

In the process, we reduce our own humanity.