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In Laudato Si’: On Care For Our Common Home, Pope Francis calls the world to rethink and transform the “outdated criteria which continue to rule the world.”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