Last week I joined with folks around the world in “connecting the dots” on global climate change. Here’s a video from the worldwide event and a photo of our little “connect the dots” group at Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C. Check out Climate Dots.
Lent is an opportunity to right-size our relationships with our neighbors. Today, less than one-fifth of the world’s people have more than four-fifths of the global wealth, but the poorest billion have less than one-fiftieth, according to the U.S. Catholic bishops. The most affluent fifth control 80 percent of world trade, savings, and investment.
Sometimes we who live in the “affluent fifth” feel immediately uncomfortable or guilty at reading this information. But our faith gives us the opportunity at Lent to think creatively about our balance in the world–and to act in new ways with our time, money, possessions. We are invited to refresh our hearts through prayer and scripture. We can lay down the burdens accumulated in an over-sated society. We can fast and rest; sing ancient songs; draw closer to God. Lent is an invitation.
“Over a few short generations,” observes Alan Durning, “we in the affluent fifth of humanity have become car drivers, television watchers, mall shoppers, and throwaway buyers.” But many in our culture are concerned about the prevalence of greed, selfishness and conspicuous consumption, which seem to be crowding out meaningful family, community and spiritual values. We fail to think about the damaging consequences of our lifestyle for the future of our children – and our planet.
The 10th commandment is straightforward: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” And Jesus was often blunt about over-consuming and attachment to material goods: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19)
Christian simplicity is not frugality for the sake of penny-pinching or deprivation. Rather, we want to become aware of how our personal choices and spending habits are connected to the issues of global poverty and care for creation. Our faith motivates us to develop life-styles that respect the limitations of our planetary resources and protect the creation for the future of our children. The hallmark of such a life-style is not greedy accumulation, but compassionate sharing, and heartfelt contentment. That is the abundant life which Jesus promised.–From Lent 4.5 on Christian Simplicity
I say he wrote it to you because Charity in Truth, his third encyclical, isn’t just for Catholics. It’s addressed to “all people of good will.”
I call it a love letter because the opening word is caritas—love. And because any social change worth its salt must spring from love and pursue love as its ultimate goal.
The media says this encyclical is about globalization, international development, transnational governance, and the financial crisis. It’s about all those things. It’s also about fostering sensitivity to life, healthy sexuality, human ecology, and the way technology reveals our human aspirations. But its bookends are love.
If you’ve watched your 401(k) plummet in the last two years or sweated to make your mortgage payment, then there is something in Charity in Truth for you. If you wonder what good it does to dump billions of dollars in aid money to developing countries while we’ve got 9.7 percent unemployment at home, there’s something for you. If you want to know why labor unions are important and why they have to change, or why families are the building blocks of society, or why happiness is sometimes confused with material prosperity, pick it up. The pope is writing you a love letter because his heart breaks at the burdens you carry. He wants your life and struggles to have meaning.
Charity in Truth is about the relationship of economies to human dignity. “Grave imbalances are produced,” the pope writes, “when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.” The marketplace, he says, cannot become a sphere where the strong subdue the weak. In fact, it must be a yeasty mix of the fair exchange of goods and services, judicious redistribution of wealth in service of social justice, and an unexpected dash of profligate generosity. In this kind of economy, businesses that are solely responsible to their investors have limited social value and should be in the minority.
You’ll find mention of the fair trade movement, microfinance and microcredit, the sins of predatory lending and speculative finance, the temptation of aid agencies toward poverty pimping (my language, not his), the “grammar of nature” that teaches us how not to exploit our environment, and a proposal for a “worldwide redistribution of energy resources.”
Some commentators wrongly portray the pope as promoting “one world government.” Don’t be fooled. Christian Zionists have been raising this specter for years as a way to demonize Catholics and Jews. I clarify this to keep focused on the actual point: Trickle-down economics within nation-states is dead. If we are going to direct capital markets toward a global common good, then reform of international financial institutions is mandatory.
You don’t have to agree with what the pope writes. There are sections that will genuinely irk political conservatives and liberals. But Charity in Truth prompts the right questions and opens up a conversation that American Christians, in particular, need to have. We’ve been deadlocked so long in a Religious Right-Secular Left battle that it has warped our brains. This fight has deprived us of a culture that fosters self-knowledge, teaches ethics and values as tools for making personal, professional, and political decisions, and nurtures interiority, soul-making, and reflection.
Charity in Truth is a love letter reminding us that openness to God opens us to one another. Our lives are made for joy and our work for fulfillment and shared satisfaction.