Tag Archives: Pope

The Pope’s Encyclical

Constitutional lawyers who work on issues of equal rights are familiar with the concept of “disparate impact,” a term describing laws that are facially neutral but nevertheless have a very different effect upon citizens who are differently situated. Sometimes that different impact is intended; often it is not.

What brought that bit of “legalese” to mind was this recent headline in the New York Times: “Pope Francis to Explore Climate’s Impact on the World’s Poor.”

The article began by discussing a meeting between high-level representatives of the U.N. and the Pope:

Mr. Ban, the United Nations secretary general, had brought the leaders of all his major agencies to see Pope Francis, a show of organizational muscle and respect for a meeting between two global institutions that had sometimes shared a bumpy past but now had a mutual interest.

The agenda was poverty, and Francis inveighed against the “economy of exclusion” as he addressed Mr. Ban’s delegation at the Apostolic Palace. But in an informal meeting with Mr. Ban and his advisers, Francis shifted the discussion to the environment and how environmental degradation weighed heaviest on the poor.

The encyclical—which has since been formally issued–includes an economic critique of the way in which global capitalism, while unquestionably helping lift millions out of poverty, has also facilitated both the exploitation of nature and vast inequities among people—even people living in the same countries. That message makes the encyclical a distinctly political document, no matter how forcefully the Vatican insists that it is intended to be a statement of theology, not politics.

The ultimate effect of the Pope’s encyclical is as impossible to predict at this point as is the ultimate outcome of climate change, but the Pontiff has raised two issues that are seldom recognized in the heated debates over climate policy: the interrelated nature of the policy decisions we make and the social and economic systems we institutionalize; and the wildly disparate impact of those decisions and systems on those who are “differently situated,” as lawyers might put it.

The term “privilege” is usually connected to a descriptor like “white” or “male,” but we might also consider what privilege means for other kinds of diversity in the context of global climate change. We also tend to think of poverty as the absence of money and material goods, but poverty includes many other deficits, including an individual’s ability to withstand or recover from incidents of violent weather (Katrina, anyone?), to cope with economic changes and job losses linked to climate change, and eventually, the means to move away from newly uninhabitable locations.

Viewed in this way, “privilege” may mean having access to the resources needed to deal with economic and ecological upheavals, and “poverty” may describe those whose life choices are far more dramatically limited.

Whatever else the encyclical does or does not accomplish, it illuminates an underappreciated characteristic of inequality—susceptibility to disparate impact.


The Death of Satire?

A regular reader of this blog made an astute observation a few months ago; in response to a discussion of seemingly ridiculous behavior by some political figure or other, he noted that “Their reality has lapped our satire.”

No kidding.

I was scrolling through my Facebook page, and came across a quote attributed to Congressman Trent Franks, questioning the Pope’s grasp of the bible, and insisting that a proper reading of that text did not require helping the poor. In a sane age, I would have immediately concluded that the quote was fake, but then I remembered an incident I personally witnessed a few years ago, at a debate about same-sex marriage sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Two of us on the panel spoke in opposition to the (then pending) constitutional ban. Curt Smith from the Indiana Family Institute and someone whose name I don’t recall spoke in support. During the question and answer period, Rabbi Dennis Sasso quoted a passage from the bible as a reason to oppose the ban; Smith responded by telling the Rabbi that he’d misinterpreted the bible, and offering to send him some materials that “explain that passage properly.”

In my ethnic group, that’s called “chutzpah.” I’ve never forgotten it. So I suspended disbelief and googled the Trent Franks quote, which did turn out to be inaccurate. (Franks had suggested that the Pope should stay out of “politics.”)

The moral of this story is that it is getting increasingly difficult to tell whether a story is satirical or true. When state legislatures pass laws “protecting” pastors from performing same-sex marriages, or laws forbidding food stamp recipients from buying seafood; when Sarah Palin says things like “Paul Revere warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our guns,” when pretty much everything that comes out of the mouths of people like Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Louis Gohmert, Ben Carson and so many others sounds like a headline from the Onion, is it any wonder that we approach reports about even the most outrageous statements with a suspension of disbelief?

Actually, disbelief over accurate quotations threatens to become my permanent attitude….




Good for Pope Francis

Sometimes, it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it.

Recently, there was a small furor about Pope Francis’ restatement of the Catholic position on evolution:

The “Big Bang” and evolution are not only consistent with biblical teachings, Pope Francis told a Vatican gathering – they are essential to understanding God.

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything — but that is not so,” the pope told a plenary assembly of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The Pope’s pronouncement was not a departure; as I understand it, this has been Catholic doctrine for at least 50 years, but the Pope chose an arresting– and indeed, very significant– metaphor to make his point.

I’m not Catholic. For that matter, I’m not religious. But (unlike Catholic conservatives, who are evidently not happy campers) I really like this Pope. He seems to focus on what religion should be about: how people treat each other. His approach to doctrinal issues seems to be a process of engaging with ultimate meaning, and it’s far less rigid and legalistic than his predecessor’s. He’s been a breath of fresh air.

I have many friends who are deeply religious. Some are in the clergy. All of them respect science and accept evolution. All of them approach biblical passages and issues of ultimate concern alike with admirable modesty, looking for life lessons and trying to fathom the essence of moral behavior. None of them worship a cartoonish deity who issues unbending edicts, favors some nation-states (or sexual orientations, or football teams) over others, or otherwise behaves more like Superman (or a magician) than an all-knowing God.

Creating one’s God in one’s own image is really the ultimate blasphemy.

This Pope seems to get that.