Archive - June 2015

Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si
Pope Francis Changes the Conversation on Climate Change
Dignitatis Humanae at 50
The Prospects for Islamic Democracy: Good and Bad News
Edge of Extinction

Towards Muslim Engagement with Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, Latin for “Praise Be”, was released Thursday, June 18, which was also the first day of Ramadan for many Muslims. Ramadan is a month of fasting that fosters growth in God-consciousness and compassion for the needy. While fasting for Ramadan, I have been devoting time to reading Laudato Si, and find much there that fills me with great hope. Although Pope Francis leads the world’s Roman Catholics, his message is meant for all; while the trends in ecological destruction are grim, the document resounds with a positive ethic of compassion, justice, and spiritual awakening. Our unsustainable course towards catastrophic climate change demands urgent individual and collective changes in consciousness and behavior. As the highest profile religious appeal for addressing the greatest collective action challenge of our time, Laudato Si is a potentially game-changing step.

Important themes of Laudato Si will resonate with many Muslims. Praise is central to how nature and the cosmos are presented in the Islamic tradition, with humanity as part of nature’s fabric, in a position of stewardship. As Joseph Lumbard has described in “An Islamic Response to Pope Francis’ Encyclical”:

“Among the world scriptures, the Quran provides a unique resource for building a new ecological paradigm. Grounded in the Abrahamic tradition, it presents a harmonious view of nature reminiscent of the Far East. In the Quran, “whatsoever is the heavens and on the earth glorifies God” (59:1; 61:1; 62:1; 64:1). “The stars and the trees prostrate” (55:6), “the thunder hymns His praise” (13:13), and “unto God prostrates whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the beasts” (22:18). In these and many other verses, the whole of creation is presented as a Divine symphony, for “there is no thing, save that it hymns His praise, though you do not understand their praise. Truly He is Clement, Forgiving” (Q 17:44).”.

Love is mentioned over 70 times in Laudato Si. Highlighting love is more likely to inspire change than an approach focused purely on cost benefit calculations. A Common Word Between Us, the path-breaking, authoritative Islamic teaching to promote cooperation between Muslims and Christians for the common good, centers on the commandments of love of God and love of neighbor. Together, these affirmations can support significant civic initiatives for environmental protection across religious and community lines.

This much-needed positive motivation does not mean that we can ignore the costs of inaction. As the Common Word document also asserts, a failure to work together threatens our worldly well-being. Laudato Si points boldly and clearly to the human sources of climate change. This captures an emerging moral consensus that the status quo is a path to disaster. Averting collective catastrophe and thus serving the common good requires collective action at many levels.

Laudato Si emphasizes acute sensitivity to debt, inequality, and poverty, and suggests differentiated responsibilities based on wealth and ability. Compassion and justice require voice for the most vulnerable and marginalized- those often left voiceless, who stand to suffer the most from climate change, while having contributed the least to the problem. The social and environmental dimensions cannot be considered in isolation, but should be treated integrally as a complex joint crisis. These social justice concerns will surely find many receptive Muslim audiences.

Laudato Si also questions consumerism, and challenges us to imagine a different way of living. Driven by human consumption and production, we face staggering loss of biodiversity – the rate of extinction in the 20th century was up to 100 times higher than it would have been without man’s impact, and pollination by bees could be lost within three human generations. Aside from the ethical problem that we are the species causing the loss of so many other species, we are also undermining our own well-being by “sawing off the limb we are sitting on”.

We have just experienced the warmest May on record, after the warmest start to a year on record, and we are headed towards making 2015 the warmest year on record. This March, we reached the 400 parts per million mark of carbon concentration in the atmosphere; 350 ppm is considered safe and 450ppm dangerous. Climate change exacerbates water crises, further straining water-stressed societies in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere, placing many people at serious risk. To the ethical and spiritual motivations for changing course, we can add pragmatic worldly self-interest: we are all downstream.

The upcoming international climate summit is one avenue for seeking change. But the problem cannot be treated as a matter for the top-level negotiators only. Without getting into specific policy debates, even if the summit succeeds in binding commitments to decarbonize, civic monitoring and action will still be needed to fulfill those commitments. Irrespective of the outcome of the summit, local initiatives will matter, particularly when linked by information networks and the trust that others are taking responsibility. The complex and changing problems favor a multi-scale approach, which encourages experimental efforts at multiple levels, and helps to assess the costs and benefits of particular strategies.

While technological innovations hold important promise- and investment in renewable energy is needed as part of progressive elimination of fossil fuels- there remains a need for institutions to ensure appropriate use. Diverse social ecological contexts require diverse institutional arrangements. Laudato Si also references the principle of subsidiarity, which promotes local autonomy appropriate to capabilities. Together, these factors suggest that collective actions are needed at many levels to generate the institutions for sustaining our commons.

Muslims can and should engage substantively with Laudato Si. In keeping with stewardship, it is time to make positive changes where possible, to redouble our efforts as civic artisans in our communities, and to build broad solidarity for meaningful national and global commitments for the collective good.

Pope Francis Changes the Conversation on Climate Change

Pope Francis is changing the conversation on climate change from fear to love in his new environmental encyclical, addressed to all people, and one of the highest forms of church teaching for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. Francis calls us home, to love our neighbors and our common home, our gift from God. Yes, he calls us to energy conversion, but from energies of despair and denial to God’s sustainable energy of generous love and sharing. Climate change is not about polar bears vs. profits. He challenges both the left and the right, calling us all  in a new direction, beyond fear and paralysis to love and agency, from indifference and greed to global solidarity. The encyclical is not an “ecobummer,” as Francis reminds us that we are “created for love,” and that God’s ” love constantly impels us to find new ways forward,” to build “a civilization of love.”  A positive way out of the ecological impasse? As the encyclical is titled, “Praised be!”

Francis reminds us that we are neither spectators to an environmental train wreck, nor powerless to change course. He repeatedly reminds us of our God-given agency, both our complicity in environmental degradation, but also, more importantly, our ability to change course. He calls, as all Popes do, for all hands on deck, for greater international institutional capacity, greater corporate accountability, and greater local and individual action. This call to action using all our institutions is both a practical and a moral matter. When the challenges are this urgent, we have to use all available tools, and work through, reform, strengthen, expand and improve many institutions:  states, existing and new international institutions, civil society partnerships, more ethically oriented businesses, churches and individuals– all have a role, and no one is off the hook. This wide invitation to act is also a moral matter, as we all are called to use our agency and God-given gifts for the common good.

Pope Francis, as he always does, calls for respectful and effective dialogue among the local, national and international actors. He urges us to listen to and amplify local voices, which can “make all the difference” particularly when international politics are log jammed. Some of the most loving and effective responses to creation care arise at the local level, due to a sense of “responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love,” and concern for what we will “leave to our children and grandchildren.”

This creative community love is in the DNA of all effective environmental protection. For example, when I was a toddler growing up in Buffalo, New York, Lake Erie was dead. The massive great lake, one of the largest in the world, was so badly polluted that people could not swim in the lake, huge fish kills were common, and the Cuyahoga River, feeding into the lake, caught fire. Big industries used the lake as a dump. While all were impacted, the poor (who did not create the crisis) were hit hardest, who used the lake for food, drink, and exercise. The rich could opt out of the crisis, through private swim clubs, imported fish and bottled water.  Growing up, my mother told me how mothers concerned about the health risk to their families organized in “Housewives Against Pollution.”  They successfully lobbied for environmental protection measures, which eventually became state law, industry standards, and international law, and the health of the lake rebounded.  When Pope Francis notes that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival” and that community engagement “makes all the difference,” I think of these busy mothers, engaging in politics out of love for their children and communities.

Pope Francis acknowledges the serious self-destruction we have done to our common home and our relationships, but his message is optimistic. He likens environmental protection to falling in love. Our abilities to creatively love, to join in the circle of God’s love, can heal our self-destruction.  In contrast, the public debate on climate change is marked by fear. The latest reports by climate scientists and climate deniers do not mention “love” once. For Pope Francis, love is central to environmental protection; he discusses love 71 times.  Francis reminds us that we are not alone on our journey home. Our Creator does not abandon us, but constantly invites us to join His project of love. We “still have the capacity of collaborating to build our common home.” It is never too late to do the right thing. God still invites us to love, and to come home to respect, protect, and share his bountiful garden. “Praise be!”

Dignitatis Humanae at 50

This coming December 7th, the Catholic Church will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty.

Of all of the Council’s teachings, Dignitatis Humanae evoked the hottest debate and broke most sharply with the past.  A great enthusiast for the document, I recall sharing my interest with my Protestant grandmother: “Well, it was about time,” she shot back tartly.

Why indeed did the Catholic Church take so long to embrace a principle that Protestants had discovered three centuries earlier and that Enlightenment philosophers had proclaimed two centuries earlier?

The Enlightenment was part of the problem.  While Rousseau and the Jacobins who launched the French Revolution pushed for religious freedom for the individual, they brooked no sympathy for the institutions of the Catholic Church — the purveyor of inquisitions and purges and a siphon of loyalties that should now be directed towards the state, as they saw it.  So, they forced Catholics to swear loyalty to a Church without the Pope, exiled and beheaded priests and nuns, and carried out what was perhaps the first modern genocide against Catholics in the Vendee region.  Throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century, liberal republican legatees of the Revolution continued to advocate for a state management of religion that curtailed the powers of the Church.

The Church’s slowness to come around to religious freedom was not mere reaction, though.  Its ideal of Church-state relations continued to be that derived from the Middle Ages: a close partnership in which Church and state worked together to fashion a thoroughly Christian society.  The Church would direct its members’ loyalty towards the state.  The state would not only guard the privileges of the Church but would actively promote Catholic culture, customs, morals, and beliefs.   And, centuries after the heretic’s pyre and medieval torture chambers had disappeared, the Church still taught that it could, in principle, where possible, legally restrict non-Catholic expression of religious faith.  Even as late as the 1950’s, the Pope and top cardinals espoused this doctrine.

How did the Church go from this stance to its declaration that all people enjoy the human right of religious freedom?

First, Catholic intellectuals, including John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Heinrich Rommen, and John Courtney Murray, did the hard intellectual work of laying the groundwork for a genuinely Catholic doctrine of religious liberty, one that explained why people and communities of every religion had the right to express and practice their faith, but that also was rooted in philosophical and theological commitments friendly to Catholic beliefs.  Their ideas at once broke with medieval politics and avoided the pitfalls of Enlightenment individualism.  The key was human dignity — the dignity of the human person as one who searches for and potentially embraces religious truth.

Second, in the West, regimes that were hostile to religious freedom eventually became liberal democracies friendly to religious freedom, thus convincing the Church that it could flourish and operate in a democratic context.  This did not happen until the close of World War II.  Indeed, upon closer inspection it turns out to be an anachronism to say that the rest of the world had arrived at religious freedom while the Church remained behind.  The fascist and communist regimes that arose in the 1920s and 1930s were among the harshest deniers of religious freedom in the history of the world, while regimes like that of Mexico in the 1920s also suppressed religious freedom sharply.  Even Protestant rulers like Bismarck were imprisoning Jesuit priests in the late 19th century.  After World War II however, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy all sprouted liberal democratic constitutions with fairly robust religious freedom.  Catholic statesmen like Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer served as great political leaders during this period.

Third, by the time of the Second Vatican Council, new and serious threats to religious freedom had emerged, especially where the Church lived under Communism, as it did in Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and China.  Such regimes exceeded Jacobinist restriction and replaced it with totalitarian eradication.  One of the most eloquent advocates of religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council was Polish Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II.  In places like Poland, religious freedom meant the Church’s survival.

Fourth was the United States.  There, the Church lived under liberal democracy but had a very different experience than it did in liberal republican Europe.  It flourished in an environment of freedom created by the First Amendment’s religious liberty clause.  Doubtless, anti-Catholicism was directed at Catholics, sometimes in the form of violence and discrimination.  By and large, though, the Church grew and could flourish in practicing its faith.  While the lesson came slowly perhaps, the United States taught the Catholic Church that freedom and faith could co-exist in practice.

This coming December, a major conference in Rome will commemorate Dignitatis Humanae by looking at how Christian communities around the world respond to persecution.  The very idea of the conference reflects a new reality for the Catholic Church fifty years after the Council.  In countries spanning from China to India to Pakistan, Catholics are now the persecuted rather than the persecuting.  Even in advanced liberal democracies, they are experiencing new restrictions.  What does Dignitatis Humanae mean now, then?

Edge of Extinction

A few weeks ago, I participated in an event at the American Enterprise Institute called “Edge of Extinction: The Eradication of Ethnic and Religious Minorities in Iraq.” (Video and a description of the event are here.) Our panel discussion was headlined by former longtime-congressman Frank Wolf, whose new group, 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, recently traveled to Iraq and published a report of its findings. The report (which can be downloaded here) covers both the world-historical scope of the tragedy, including the destruction of ancient communities of Christians and others, and the acute suffering of the victims of ISIS’s unimaginable barbarism. It tells of virgins being sold for twenty dollars and of women being separated by eye color so that their ravagers can select according to their preferences.

The report contains recommendations for protecting and restoring these communities of religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq, and they are all worthy of consideration. But, as I said in my remarks, the sad reality is that very few of these people are going home. We have the military capability to defeat ISIS but probably not the political will. If so, the best we can hope for is successful resettlement. That is to say, the damage can be mitigated, but, in many respects, it is irreversible. So, for us, it is another hard lesson from history about evil, genocide, and the precariousness of religious freedom and human rights.

© Daniel Philpott The views expressed in this forum are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Daniel Philpott, CCHR, or the University of Notre Dame.