Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pope Francis Excommunicates the Italian Mafia: How Tight is Christianity?

As though a lamb going into a lion’s den, Pope Francis journeyed to Sibari in southern Italy on the Summer Solstice of 2014 to castigate the Italian mafia, and more specifically the Ndrangheta crime group, as an example of “the adoration of evil.”  He added that “(t)hose who in their lives follow this path of evil, as mafiosi do, are not in communion with God. They are excommunicated.”[1] Presumably so too are the mafia families in other European states, and in the American states as well. As laudable as such excommunicating is, the fact that such murderous thugs have regarded themselves as Catholics, and, more generally as Christian, points to a more profound need for reform within the religion itself. In this essay, I draw on The Godfather saga to present this argument.





[1] Reuters, “Pope Excommunicates Mafiosi,” The Huffington Post, June 21, 2014.

A Ukrainian Priest’s Divisive Politics: At What Religious Cost?

In Lviv, Ukraine, Rev. Addriy, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church rather than the Ukrainian affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church, said after a Mass in June 2014 that the European Union is an “empire of evil” defying the Word of God and spreading sins including homosexuality and pedophilia. The priest went on to characterize the Ukrainians who toppled President Viktor Yanukovych as “Godless deviants” and “fools . . . in the pay of hostile foreign powers.”[1] Being in the western part of the state, the eastern-looking priest was not exactly “preaching to the choir”—meaning he must have known that his message would not be well-received by his congregation. This disjunction illustrates a distinctly religious problem that can arise when clerics fly too far afield from the religious domain onto those of politics, economics, or even social problems.

The problem is multi-level. On the surface, attention to non-religious matters carries with it the opportunity cost of foregone attention to religion. To be sure, the priest spoke outside of Mass, and thus he did not detract from it directly. However, at a deeper level, he did diminish the religious value of his Masses. His own diminished stature or credibility in the political matter at hand put his religious role at risk as well.

Anger at an opposing political view inexorably puts distance in a religious relationship. The latter is not limited to new-found suspicion regarding sermons or homilies. The transcendent religious experience—communion with God in Christian terms—involves shifting attention from the external environment (i.e., what is going on around you) to an “inward” orientation to a reference point that inherently transcends the limits of cognition and perception. Feeling “safe” enough to risk shifting attention off what is going on in the worship context (e.g., the church) is essential to being wholly invested in the experience itself of yearning for that which is yearned for beyond the particular mask of eternity. Feeling that the person in the room who is in charge is in any sense a threat, or even just disliking him or her, thus detracts from the religious experience, and thus from the religion itself as an instrument thereof.

So, beyond the point that political ideology is of another domain than religion, the over-reaching can inadvertently sabotage or at least diminish the intensity of the religious experience possible in a given worship context. In other words, a dedicated context, sui generis to religious experience, is compromised as soon as stuff from other domains is brought in. The inherent sensitivity of religious experience, owing both to the intimacy in yearning for “the wholly other” that lies inherently beyond our reach and the giving up of attention to one’s immediate surroundings (i.e., what is going on in the church), is violated by the breaking in of stuff from our realm (e.g., politics, and even church business!).

In the case of Roman Catholicism, for example, the “presence” of the sacrificed or consecrated Christ in the Tabernacle on the altar sets a sanctuary apart as sacred space from the rest of the world. Whether or not such a presence is actually in the bread in the enclosure is not the point; rather, that Catholics treat the sanctuary as perpetually dedicated to religious activity facilitates their entering into religious experience as in communing with God after ingesting Christ in the Eucharist. A priest or lectern making announcements from the weekly bulletin, for example, as the congregants are intensely focused in transcendent yearning disturbs the sensitivity of the experience itself.

Interestingly, the “pure” or rarified sensitivity that is in religious experience intentionally devoid of stimuli that can dilute the sensitivity itself can carry over onto ensuing experience back in a person’s daily world of quotidian stimuli. That is the religious experience is in one sense a “sharpener” of a person’s sensitivity, which on return to the world can “carry over.” Although the heightened sensitivity to the ordinary doubtlessly fades as a person’s ordinary sensitivity level kicks back in amid its customary context, regular “religious exercise” may give its more finely-tuned sensitivity greater staying power, such that the “sensitivity weight-lifting” sessions may eventually not be necessary for this purpose.

Applied interpersonally in a person’s daily life, the greater, “microscopic” sensitivity gained through religious experience is commonly known as compassion. In fact, this byproduct is typically misclassified as religious rather than ethical in nature, and this error in turn can invite or provide an opening for interlarding content from the world such as social issues (e.g. abortion, poverty, social justice) into the worship context. In the case of Unitarian Universalism, especially when its humanist movement reached its zenith in the 1970s in the United States, social structures based on the ideology of egalitarianism are regarded as sacred. Such self-ideology as sacred can be interpreted in religious terms as a manifestation of self-idolatry, which snuffs out or blocks outright transcendent spiritual or religious experience.

Therefore, sensitivity not only pertains to transcendent religious experience devoid of interfering external stimuli, but is a byproduct known as compassion that is of value in the world. Though not religious itself, the ethical principle of what Adam Smith calls “fellow-feeling” in his Theory of Moral Sentiments can itself thwart the sort of invective inflicted by the Ukrainian priest on his disheartened flock. “Do not cause your brother to stumble,” Paul advises in one of his letters to a congregation just a few decades after his Lord’s crucifixion.  If a cleric is not sufficiently careful in this regard, we can assume that he or she has little regard for the value of others’ religious experience, and even such experience itself, relative to more “worldly” agendas.

It is ironic, to say the least, to find religious functionaries and even institutions oblivious to what is conducive to a religious experience that is transcendent in nature. Both in being of value in itself and for one of its byproducts, intense dedicated yearning for that which inherently lies beyond the limits of human perception and cognition may actually receive scant attention in most religious services. Even where the rites are conducive to such experience, clerics may tend to treat the ritual as an end in itself rather than as preparatory. In how many Masses, for example, is the experience of communing with God after the Eucharistic ritual treated as the high point, or core, of the Mass? 

In this photo, furnished by the U.S. Defense Department, a bishop consecrates the bread into the body of Christ. Is this moment of the sacrifice of Christ in the Mass its high point even if so in terms of the Eucharistic rite? Behind the priest is the tabernacle, in which previously consecrated pieces are stored. They make the room into "sacred space" continuously rather than merely during a Mass. 

Instead, the priest-centric consecration of the bread and wine is said to by the pinnacle, and the Mass itself is typically quickly ended as soon as the priest finishes washing the dishes. Unlike any experience oriented to the external stimuli of a priest holding up the consecrated species, which admittedly can be quite meaningful to a Catholic, the communing experience following the ritual transcends even the worshipper’s immediate environment and thus is more conducive to isolating the eternal (by transcending the external) and then sensing that of the eternal back in the person’s daily life, including in other people. This sensitivity is more finely tuned to them, and thus to the subtle indications of their suffering; and I suppose the experience of yearning transfers over in a way in the motivation to relieve the suffering. However, the heightened sensitivity itself may also furnish the motivation. 

In terms of liturgy generally, religious ritual can be thought of as preparation, rather than as the whole of a religious service—distinctly religious experience being the immediate objective; as the referent is both by definition and experientially inherently “beyond,” the intensity can be put on the yearning itself, especially if the religionist is willing in true humility to transcend even the given mask of eternity to the raw numinous experience itself. Put another way, the yearning itself, or communing, can extend beyond the human reception of divine revelation into our familiar categories of thoughts and images. To the detriment of such "pure" religious experience wherein the immanence of transcendence demands a heightened sensitivity, the divisive Ukrainian priest had other treasures in mind, and therein in all probability his heart and god could also be found.




[1] Andrew Higgins, “Ukrainian Church Faces Obscure Pro-Russia Revolt in its Own Ranks,” The New York Times, June 21, 2014.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On the Theology of the Eucharist: Beyond Historical Divisions

According to a survey led by a sociologist at Catholic University and published in The National Catholic Reporter, forty percent of 1,442 American Catholic adults said "you can be a good Catholic without believing that in Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ—a core doctrine of Catholicism.” A reporter opines that this “could reflect the decline in Mass attendance. The survey finds it’s fallen from 44% attending at least once a week in 1987 to 31% in 2011, while those who attend less than monthly rose from 26% to 47%. When asked why they don’t go to Mass more often, 40% say they are simply not very religious.”[1] What does it mean to say that someone is or is not religious? Looking back at the history of religion, a neutral party might half-joke that the adjective refers to the proclivity to spar over puerile theological distinctions as if Creation itself hung in the balance. In this essay, I illustrate how such a distinction bearing on the Eucharist (i.e., Holy Communion) can be diffused of its alleged historical significance as warranting Christian division under the taskmaster of (cognitive) uniformity as a placeholder for unity.

The Catholic doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is called transubstantiation. It is the belief that the substance, or essence, of the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. The term “substance” can be misleading. It does not refer to what we moderns understand as chemical or physical material or matter; rather, the notion of substance here is that of Aristotle, who distinguishes it from accidents, or the qualities/attributes of something. The accidents include something’s physical or chemical material as well as other qualities. The real presence in transubstantiation is the Aristotelian notion of “substance” (or essence) applied theologically rather than metaphysically. The body and blood having a real (theologically!) presence in the Eucharist are of Christ’s post-ascension, resurrected body.

Lest one object that Jesus resurrected asks for a fish and thus has a physical dimension, it is the post-ascension resurrected body and applied theologically. In other words, the real presence is real theologically. We tend to think of “real” metaphysically as in terms of reality, and this in turn in terms of real substance as matter. We have almost lost the ability to think in terms of theological essence. I contend that the theological essence from applying the Aristotelian notion of substance (or essence) theologically to the Eucharist as real presence is virtually the same as the Reformed spiritual presence. The Lutheran consubstantiation—that the Aristotelian substance or essence applied theologically is real presence coheres with the “substance” or essence of bread and wine remaining. My point is that all three views contain a spiritual (or “real” theologically) presence, in contrast to Zwingli’s view of communion as a symbol.

To grasp Aristotle’s notion of substance and how it may apply to theological concepts, consider the following analogy. For a person to say that the house (or apartment) he or she grew up in was his or her home is to say that the “substance” or essence of the house changed to, or included, being home. It makes no sense to say that the presence of home is a material substance even though home is really present as felt. Materially, the house may be made of wood and/or brick, but this is almost beside the point. At some point after a couple moves into a physical house, it becomes home. The “substance” or essence changes (or is added to)—the difference with respect to whether the essence changes or is added to doesn’t really matter if one’s focus is on home. So what it is also still a house? My point is that home has its own sort of real presence, and it doesn’t make any sense to speak of it in terms of other domains, such as materials science. This doesn’t mean that the presence of home is any less real. Anyone who has had one's house or apartment broken into and trashed knows that the "substance/essence" or real presence of home can be wiped out in a day. The difference between the house being one's home and being the house in which one lives is unmistakeable and thus the distinction is taken as real in a certain, non-metaphysical sense. So too, the presence of the body and blood of Christ is taken as real in a spiritual or religious sense.

I suspect that real presence and spiritual presence refer essentially to the same thing, given that Christ is present “bodily” in a distinctly religious or theological sense, rather than in a metaphysical or empirical sense. The bottom line may be that for a disciple of Jesus, home is really (i.e., religious sense) present at the table. In other words, the essence is that of being home, just as Jesus feels at home going alone to pray on a mountain. Being a child of God is to be home where God is felt to be. Religious, or transcendent, experience is really present for such a person. Ultimately, I think the real presence at the Eucharist is precisely such an experience. In it, the Kingdom of God within is experienced as truly present. One is part of the body of Christ. In other words, the body that is ingested is distinctly (and delimited as) theological in nature, and thus spiritually present—and no less real (in a religious rather than metaphysical sense). Ultimately, home is felt as really present as a matter of the heart, rather than being a place or material substance that could be bottled.

If I am on the right track in tracing the distinctly spiritual real presence of the body of Christ to its roots in a distinctly religious experience, then at least some of the arguments or fighting between the Reformed, Catholic and Lutheran sects historically was based on  mere misunderstandings. Take, as another example, the doctrine of justification by faith (solo fides). The Catholic position does not deny this, or interlard works or the efficacy of the sacraments as additional requirements for justification. Rather, taking communion is part of the process of sanctification, which follows justification.

Also, the Catholic position does not maintain that the sacrifice of the Mass substitutes for Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, as one Reformed historical document claims. Indeed, Catholic priests say that their ordination enables them to share in Christ’s sacrifice, rather than substitute for it. After centuries of misunderstanding rolling over the division from generation to generation without any thought or reflection, perhaps we can finally step back and marvel: So much for the vanity that presumes human disagreements to have any real significance!

Perhaps most unfortunate of all, the sheer intransigence of apparent historical differences can block perceptual opportunities. For example, given their doctrine of spiritual presence, which at the very least is a presence in a religious sense, Reformed churches could conceivably have provide the spiritual presence of Christ in chapels to be adored under the specie of consecrated bread. The assumed spiritual presence could serve as an anchor making possible a sustained presence of intense religious or transcendent experience isolated as though a precipitate of ongoing practice. Out of such practice naturally comes a distinctly spiritual sensitivity, which in relation to other people we feel as compassion. In the context of such a religious core, theological disagreement itself is naturally relegated or sidelined as extraneous just as one does not pay so much attention to the materials of one’s house if it is also one’s home.

Who would willingly go from the warmth of a hearth into a cold room unless to pick a fight? And what does it matter anyway what the fight is about to the persons staying near the hearth? I suspect that the Catholics who view themselves as “not very religious” have simply not been shown to the hearth, even in Church; to them, it is a cold room guarded by too many control-freaks (who themselves know not the hearth). Who could blame people for resisting the cold—yet if they are given a taste of warmth would they want it? I think this depends on the person. Perhaps a church is in essence (or ought to be in practice) delimited by experiencing a distinctive warmth.




1. Cathy L. Grossman, “Survey: U.S. Catholics’ Religious Identity Slips,” USA Today, October 25, 2011. 

The Eucharist as Transcendent Experience

Taking a swipe at a core tenet of Catholicism, Bill Keller of the New York Times writes, “Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” I contend that the editor’s characterization of consecration represents a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Such misunderstandings have been worse; in the early years of the Church, some pagans were under the impression that the Christians were meeting on Sundays to eat babies. Indeed, phrases such as “eat my body” may in fact be inherently prone to being misunderstood.

Generally speaking, religion may have a tendency to flirt with the literal, or empirical, even at the expense of that which is distinctly religious in nature. Hence Keller’s point that every institutional religion has baggage may be correct even if his interpretation of the Eucharist is erroneous. It should be of no surprise that religion is hardly immune to the vaunted pretentions of the human mind even to that which is beyond the limits of its cognition and perception. Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to be relatively circumspect in how firmly we impose our religious beliefs as if they were established knowledge.

Regarding the Eucharist, Keller’s use of “actual flesh” is misleading, for both actual and flesh point to an empirical basis or connotation. When we moderns typically say actual, we mean that something actually exists, which is to say that it is the case empirically in the world in which we live (i.e., based in the human domain). Keller’s use of flesh confirms his usage of actual, for flesh is indeed found descriptively in the world, as in, The wolf ate the lamb’s flesh. In German, the word for meat is Fleisch. To be blunt, a priest does not turn a wafer into meat. I’m not sure whether changing something from one food group to another would constitute a miracle anyway. This allusion to food groups is apt, for my approach stresses the utility of delimiting categories. I assume that the various realms, such empirical, metaphysical, and theological, are qualitatively different and distinct.

I contend that the Eucharist involves the application of a theological concept through social contract as pertaining to an empirical object. This is not to say that the empirical realm is that of theology.  Van Rad makes this point in his text, History of Israel. A faith narrative, such as the covenantal relationship between Jehovah and the Hebrews is not comprised of bare historical facts, even if Biblical allusions to history are used for theological purposes and given a theological meaning. The meaning gleaned from the faith narrative does not establish or confirm historical facts. Nor are theological meanings scientific concepts; the two domains are distinct, and thus have their own respective criteria. Whereas history and science are confined within the empirical domain, which is in principle within the limits of human cognition and perception, theological meaning is transcendent in nature, meaning that our ideas and sensual impressions fail inherently to go the distance with respect to religion.

Neither is theology essentially metaphysics, for otherwise, religion would be none other than philosophy. Put another way, meaning is not reality itself. People who characterize the Trinity as real are making a metaphysical rather than a religious claim. The latter has to do with the unfathomable mystery behind the notion of a triune god, rather than any metaphysical claim that the three persons exist in reality itself. Put another way, if God is the condition or source of existence, then God cannot be existence itself—much less some empirical object existing. Neither does God as conceived theologically reduce to Kant’s “things in themselves.” God is not “the Real.” Yet neither is the transcendent limited to Kant’s phenomenal realm of appearances. Religious meaning is of its own, distinct, realm—yet how elusive it must truly be, for all the rush to cover it over with leaves from other fields. If I am indeed on to something here, we would hardly recognize the distinctly religious terrain for all we have interlarded on top of it. Put another way, our theological gardens tend to end up looking a lot like ourselves.

In terms of the Eucharist, Catholics maintain that the body and blood of Christ are really present theologically under the empirical “species” of bread and wine. In Catholicism, the real presence is a theological concept called transubstantiation. That it is applied to empirical objects—bread and wine—does not mean that the religious meaning is empirical in nature. The religious term refers to another theological concept—that of resurrected body—rather than to the empirical concept of “actual flesh.”

In a nutshell, Bill Keller has Jesus’ earthly body rather than his resurrected body in mind. To think of a resurrected body on the basis of a physical body is to reduce theology to physiology or biology. The resurrected Jesus walking through a door and asking for something to eat anticipates the tendency to liken what we don’t understand to things that are familiar. Theological meaning is distinct, rather than reducing to any of the empirical sciences, yet for centuries Christians insisted on being buried so their physical bones would be available to be resurrected.

Augustine writes that the relation between the Father and the Son should not be thought of in terms of the relationship between dads and sons. By implication, the Son as a theological concept is qualitatively different—meaning not just in degree—from what we know of what it means to be a son from our observations of sons in our midst. Christians forget Jesus’s reminder, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Mt 11:27). It is all too natural to reduce begotten to made by clothing the transcendent in familiar clothes.

Resurrected body does not apply empirically; rather, it is a theological meaning that is situated in a faith narrative rather than a historical account. This is the point that Keller so vitally misses in his essay. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not actual flesh. Nor is the real presence metaphysical in nature. The empirical species of bread and wine as like posts around which the Catholic believer can swing around, as it were, in the transition from the empirical realm of the everyday to a distinctly transcendental experience that transcends even the posts themselves. A major pitfall to watch out for is slighting the experience in favor of holding onto the posts. There is even a risk that some of the unsatisfied religious meaning gets transferred onto the empirical signs themselves, thus making them into idols without realizing it. The mistaken assumption is then that a sustained, intense focus on the empirical objects enhances rather than takes away from religious experience. In actuality, the religious domain, which is inherently transcendental, has been confiscated with more familiar experience within the limits of human cognition and perception. All the while, the Kingdom of God is within, as though smiling at these artificial edifices we create to edify and bemuse ourselves.

I contend that the bottom line on the real presence is the theologically-felt experience of transformation or sanctification that can be induced by applying the theological concept to the bread and wine via ritual. The religious experience is not exhausted by the symbols on the surface; religionists merely use them, and the associated ritual, as prep. Crassly put, they put people in the mood. Sustained, concentrated transcending as an experience that is really present (though not reality!) does not just happen after a person steps into a church from a busy day, hence the rites and posts to follow along the way. The point is the experience, felt as really present (and thus eternal rather than of time and space)—the artifices along the way are just so, rather than religious objects to be held as though they were ends in themselves, which is to say, idols.

Source:

Bill Keller, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” New York Times, August 25, 2011.


Pope Francis on Youth Unemployment, War, and the Idolatry of Money

It is not often that the global economy’s military-industrial complex is tied to youth unemployment and, moreover, to the idolatry of money. Yet this is precisely the thread woven by the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. While the pope’s comments risk a certain overreach from the theological to the terrain of international political economy, which proffers its own body of knowledge, it can also be said that having a transcendent referent as one’s focus enables a person to make subtle taken-for-granted assumptions in our economic, social, and political systems transparent. In articulating an economic (and related political) center and giving it a distinctly theological interpretation stemming from the Biblical passage, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,”[1] the Roman pope provides the world with a way to do political economy from a distinctly religious vantage-point.

“At the center of all economic systems must be man, man and woman,” the pope asserts; “everything else must be in service to this man.[2] In itself, this claim is not religious in nature. Rather, the tone is philosophical, reminiscent perhaps of Kant’s “kingdom of ends” in which morality means respecting rational beings as objective ends in themselves, rather than only using them as means. For Kant, a lack of goodwill, due to pathology, lies behind the lack of adequate respect that would otherwise put people first—hence the need for public legal justice. This is not to say that Kant secularizes the matter completely; any rational creature is an end in itself “by virtue of the autonomy of his freedom he is the subject of the moral law, which is holy.”[3]  Using reason, the rational being is an assigner of value; such a being thus has absolute value (hence deserving to be treated as an end in itself, rather than merely a means to someone else’s agenda). Now a rational being is uniquely free to subject himself to his own law, which, given the necessity that lies in reason itself, binds him.  “The moral law is holy (inviolable),” Kant writes; “the humanity in his person must be holy to him.”[4] For Kant, the humanity is the rational nature, which makes the moral law sacred because reason cannot be bent out of sheer caprice. Put another way, rational beings have absolute value in that we use reason to hold ourselves as if by necessity (though freely) to that which we assign value to.

Pope Francis can be read as substituting love for reason—that men and women are made out of love, and thus inherently to be loved rather than used as mere means. Here we can discern glimpses of Leibniz’s claim that human beings are due love as a matter of justice as per the extent of being or existence that we have, and Augustine’s emphasis on caritas, or human love that can be sublimated to love of God.

Whereas Kant points to pathological self-love as thwarting the respect due beings of love, Pope Francis argues in terms similar to Aquina’s misordered concupiscence—placing a lower good above a higher one. “(W)e have put money at the center, the god of money,” the pope claims. “We have fallen into a sin of idolatry, the idolatry of money.”[5] Where your treasure is, there may be found your heart. In this case, money, which Aristotle calls barren metal, has come to be loved rather than other people, not to mention God, which as Augustine stresses, is love itself. The basic problem, in other words, is warped priorities.

Not surprisingly, greed is not far away, lying behind money as a god at the center of all. “The economy is moved by the ambition of having more.”[6] That ambition is an end in itself, so no amount of money is ever enough. Interestingly, we can distinguish ever-lasting here from the eternal; whereas love cuts through time in having value, greed is of infinite, or unlimited, desire. Value that cuts through time, such as holds with love, gets expunged by the all-consuming god of money. Put in Kantian terms, people are treated as mere means rather than also as ends in themselves.

It is no wonder that the young and old are tossed to the wayside because of their relatively low utility. Regarding youth unemployment, the pope had this to say. “(W)e are discarding an entire generation to maintain an economic system that can’t hold up anymore, a system that to survive must make war, as the great empires have always done.”[7] The system, being designed to funnel money, must be protected, and it is no accident that the people-as-means, or human resources, attribute so easily translates into an economy of war. Rather than being at the center, the human being is reduced to collateral damage, or targeted outright.

Because “a Third World War can’t be done, they make [regional] wars,” the pope explains.[8] This involves the production and sale of weapons, which sorts out “the balance sheets of the idolatrous economies, the great world economies that sacrifice man at the feet of the idol of money.”[9] Here the pope explicitly relates making money an idol of inviolable worth and sacrificing people as if they are worthless. Barren metal, in other words, is put over beings capable of holding themselves to a moral law and of loving themselves and others—even those who would sacrifice them on an altar of gold. Not unexpectedly, an international political economy oriented to sustaining an arms trade divides economies—even sorting them reductively along the lines of weapons production and consumption. The United States is a “superpower,” whereas Africa has value only in as much as it has the wherewithal to purchase weapons and sustain its intestine squabbles.

Once held up as a coming cacophony of diversity “like a polyhedron, all united but each preserving its particularity, its wealth, its identity,” globalization has become impoverished, “a sphere in which all points are equidistant from the center” whose sheer gravity “takes away the wealth of diversity of thought and therefore the wealth of a dialogue between peoples.”[10] That is to say, the reductionistic, weapons-oriented organizing principle of the global military-industrial complex saps globalization of its many differences, essentially nullifying this sort of wealth in favor of a more banal form in which the dark hole of a bank vault functions as a god with a suffocating embrace.

Beware the military industrial complex. U.S. President Eisenhower delivered this starkly public warning as he embraced some free speech in his farewell address in 1960. It is dangerous to have so much financial and related political interest lined up on the side of war. This is hardly unknown, yet we tolerate it because the interests of capital have beguiled us into supposing that they have labor’s back. In other words, we have been made to fear the onslaught of mass unemployment that would ensue from a structural realignment off the weapons trade. 

In his interview in 2014, Pope Francis takes a more subtler look at what is really at stake. Whereas historically religion and then morality operated as viable constraints on the profit motive, the god of money seems to have a relatively free hand as of the early twenty-first century at least; correspondingly, people are secondary, and thus expendable, in the system designed and inhabited by the same. Money has come to be regarded as an absolute, with the worth of persons being defined exclusively according to its measure. Put another way, the unit of measurement has become an end in itself—inviolable, and thus an idol—while the measurers—the assigners of value—have come to accept their place as mere means, or human resources. 

Living in the “system”— an artifice entirely changeable even in its basic contours—many people just assume that the constantly-felt subterranean, subtly existential instability or uncertainty is a necessary part of life. Life means being expendable. Life means that money rules. From a transcendental referent point, a spiritual person can see the world differently—atypically—and thus make transparent our systems’ basic premises. Once recognized, they can be changed; the changers can take back their innate power to set the priorities for the systems, whether they are social, economic, or political in nature, and to see to it that the designs are in sync with those priorities. Where our treasures are, there too are our gods.




[1] Luke 12:34; Matthew 6:21. Not being in Mark, the source is likely the book of Q (which stands for Quelle, or “source” in German), a book of Jesus sayings hypothesized to have been a source used by the writers of Luke and Matthew.
[3] Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
[4] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Catholic Social Ethics:The Free Market as an Idol

In June of 2014, Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga, a “prince” of the Roman Catholic Church, of the free-market system as “a new idol” that increases inequalities of wealth and excludes the poor.[1] Pope Francis had already claimed that personal charity is not sufficient as a remedy—that solidarity with the poor necessitates, in the Cardinal’s words, “dealing with the structural causes of poverty and injustice.”[2] As theorized by Thomas Piketty, that structure includes a tendency under typical circumstances for the rate of return on capital to exceed the growth rate in incomes (and GNP). Faith in the market’s invisible hand and people’s charitable giving do not suffice to counter this tilt. Indeed, Catholic social ethics would have it that faith in perfect competition as an ideal is tantamount to idolatry that operates at the expense particularly of the down-trodden and poor.

We might postulate more generally that idolatry is a faith that operates at the expense of compassion, or is impotent to amass any. If a faith that transcends the limits of human conception and perception sensitizes a person to existence itself, and thus to the plight of others who suffer, then a faith fixed on a phenomenon in the world we have created could be expected to come up short with respect to intensifying compassion.

It is only fair to ask, therefore, whether the insufficiency of the free market and charity risk turning government into a savior?  That is to say, might such a faith in government turn out to be yet another form of idolatry? If so, would not the promised compassion be illusionary in the end? Even in a theocracy, government is not transcendent; rather, it is quite of the earthly kingdom even if presumed to be informed from on high.





[1] David Gibson, “Cartinal Maradiaga Slams Free Market Libertarianism: ‘This Economy Kills’,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014.
[2] Ibid.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Flock of Leaders: Leadership as Influence

Leadership is influence. This is the definition that the pastor of an evangelical Christian mega-church enunciated in a sermon that took up nearly the entire service on the Sunday morning of my visit. Parents, teachers, students, and artists—all and many others—the cashiers at Walmart—are leaders, according to the pastor. “You need to get over the hurdle,” he charged, “of thinking that leadership only applies to kings and people on stages.” As influence, leadership applies to virtually anyone—all of us. Populism was the real message. “A kingdom is actually any place of influence,” he added. Everyone is a king in his or her own kingdom by virtue of simply having influence.