Five Highlights of the Pope’s New Encyclical

Today at Roman noon, Pope Francis publicly released his new encyclical, Laudato Si’, named for a line in the thirteenth-century Canticle of the Sun by St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake. An Italian-language draft was leaked online Tuesday, but now the official version is out in several languages. After working my way through the leaked draft these last two days (and just now, the official English text), I thought I’d share five things I think are worth noticing.


1. The basics of an encyclical and how to read one. Of the many formal documents popes customarily publish, the encyclical is relatively high on the authoritative scale. Laudato Si’ marks the third big publication of Francis’s papacy (the first being the encyclical Lumen Fidei and the second, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium). Like all Vatican documents, the encyclical is a conservative genre in that it presents itself as a continuation of–rather than a break from–previous papal teaching. An encyclical will never flatly state, “Here is a new teaching.” It will say, “As my predecessors have consistently taught…” An encyclical, then, is not a straightforward, stand-alone document but should be seen as part of a larger conversation constituted by other papal publications of the last several decades. And so reading Laudato Si’ carefully means reading between the lines, looking for coded language and conspicuous silences. Does the encyclical echo or avoid topics that are currently popular among the hierarchy? Does it cite texts that have been ignored or maligned in recent years? When it references previous popes, which aspects of their teaching does it highlight? Does it use buzzwords? If so, does it use them in the same way previous authors have, or does it retain the language while shifting the content?

2. Virtually nothing on homosexuality, and relatively little on gender and sexuality in general. Pope Benedict XVI famously spent a large portion of his 2012 Christmas address to the curia decrying gay marriage and gender constructivism as a type of environmental degradation. He spoke often of “human ecology,” arguing for a fundamental link between respect for the natural world and respect for human nature–in particular, maleness and femaleness, understood as immutable, given categories that are violated by things such as homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. This was the at the center of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body,” and Benedict rarely mentioned ecological issues without also mentioning the dangers of deviation from the gender binary. Laudato Si’, by contrast, never once explicitly mentions homosexuality. That is a silence that speaks volumes. Paragraph 155 mentions Benedict XVI’s concept of “human ecology,” speaks of vaguely of accepting one’s own body, including its maleness or femaleness, and not “cancel[ling] out sexual difference because [one] no longer knows how to confront it”…and then it stops, with no further clarification. End of paragraph, end of chapter.

This is not to say that Pope Francis’s thought is not patriarchal or heteronormative. Many of his remarks show that it quite obviously is, and he is certainly no fan of what he calls “gender ideology.” Nor has he given any indication that he approves of abortion or artificial contraception. But it is also fairly clear to me that these things, while they are deep-seated enough that they find their way into his off-the-cuff remarks every month, are not the primary driving force in his thought. They’re there, but they’re simply are not his priorities, either practically or theologically. And that is saying something, because they were the priorities of the previous two popes, and they remain the priorities of many of the bishops appointed by them. As Francis said in his September 2013 interview,

We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching ofthe church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.

Several conservative commentators realized, rightly, that Francis’s remarks in that interview were strikingly unlike his predecessors’, and that a change in emphasis was a change in some real sense. For John Paul II and Benedict XVI, opposition to contraception, abortion, and same-sex activity was a totalizing discourse, of either utmost importance or no importance at all, growing out of the first principles of their theological anthropology and thus part of the architecture of the rest of their thought. It was the sine qua non of Catholic moral theology and could never be repeated too frequently. Laudato Si’, on the other hand, devotes one brief paragraph to abortion (120) but largely gets on without it. And contraception is never mentioned–not even in the paragraph on overpopulation (50). Again, this is a rather loud silence. This is what the development of church teaching, at this level, looks like in action.

3. The view from the peripheries is central. There is another shifting of frameworks in Laudato Si”s consistent linking of care for the environment with care for the poor, since the poor are the ones who suffer most from environmental degradation (25, 49, and 51, for instance). It is their experience that Francis places at the center of his discussion, and this is a deliberate move. It’s not simply that he wants to include the experience of poor in theological reflection, giving them a seat at the table as if theirs were just one more perspective to enrich the conversation. No, Francis has said before that seeing reality accurately requires an epistemic privileging of marginal perspectives:

Great changes in history were realized when reality was seen not from the center but rather from the periphery. It is a hermeneutical question: reality is understood only when it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything. Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches. (Nov 29, 2013, “Wake Up the World”)

This, I think, is one of the most significant and novel contributions of the new encyclical. One hopes that this epistemology will gain a foothold in hierarchical teaching.

4. The authority of local bishops’ conferences. This shunning of centralism comes through in the encyclical’s numerous citations of documents from national episcopal conferences. The footnotes cite the bishops of Southern Africa, Australia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Japan, Brazil, Paraguay, the US, New Zealand, Mexico, the Philippines, Bolivia, Germany, the Patagonia-Comahue region of Argentina, Canada, Japan, the Dominican Republic, and Portugal. Ecclesiologically speaking, we can see this as part of Pope Francis’s commitment to collegiality–that is, a model where the magisterial authority of bishops worldwide is almost as high, in ordinary circumstances, as that of the bishop of Rome.

5. Unambiguous affirmation of anthropogenic global warming. Finally, the encyclical pulls no punches when it comes to affirming the scientific consensus on climate change: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. … a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity” (23). This will be particularly hard to swallow for some American Catholics, as will the encyclical’s blunt words for the free market: “Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals. Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations” (190)?

Jesus’s Other Teachings on the Family

This morning the Instrumentum Laboris for the October 2014 Extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops was released (topic: The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization). You can read it here. The first three paragraphs cover “The Biblical Teaching on the Family” and cite, respectively, Genesis, the gospels, and the epistles. But Paragraph 2 mentions only the wedding at Cana (John 2), Jesus as the Bridegroom (John 3:29), and Jesus’s prohibition of divorce (Matt 19) to show that “the Church’s proclamation on the family finds its foundation in the life and preaching of Jesus, who lived and grew up in the family of Nazareth.” There are many other passages that show Jesus’s commitment to the biological family. Such as:

Matt 23:9
“And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.”

Mark 3:32–35 (repeated in Matt 12:47–50 and Luke 8:20–21)
“And a crowd was sitting around him and said to him, ‘Your mother and brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mothers and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.'”

Luke 14:26
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Matt 10:34–36 (repeated in Luke 12:51–53)
“Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s enemies [will be] those of his own household.”

Matt 10:37
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Luke 2:48–49
“And when they saw him, they were shocked. And his mother said to him, ‘Son, why did you treat us like this? Look, your father and I have been desperately searching for you.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my father’s house?'”

Luke 9:59–62 (repeated in Matt 8:21–22)
“But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ But he said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another person said, ‘I’ll follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those in my house.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'”




“Gay or Asian?” Race, Masculinity, and the UCSB Shooting

[Third edit: When I wrote this post day before yesterday, I was unaware that the use of the term “hapa” by non-native-Hawaiians was contested. But in the last 48 hours, I’ve learned that the term is a product of a specific historical situation of colonization, and many native Hawaiians understandably object to its use by non-native-Hawaiians. Thanks especially to the commenter Leah, for steering me toward this eye-opening article, which I definitely recommend to all our readers. Now that I’ve learned this, I’ve decided to do a strikethrough of the word “hapa” in the post, leaving it there as an invitation to others to reflect on issues of language, power, and identity.]

The first I heard of the UCSB shooting was on Saturday, when I saw a Facebook reference to a “massacre” in Isla Vista. I’m from northern California, went to college at a UC in SoCal, and so I know that Isla Vista is the town right next to UC Santa Barbara. I googled “Santa Barbara killings,” fully expecting to see a photo of a white male suspect pop up–“massacre” is a word our media tends to reserve for white men. At first, there were no faces, just headlines and pictures of cop cars. One of the hits on Google News used the word “drive-by,” which made me cock my head–“drive-by,” at least in California, is usually reserved for non-whites. I clicked the next link, which spoke of “mass murder”–OK, this must be a white guy, I thought as I scrolled through the story.

And it was a white guy. Sort of.

Before seeing his name, the number killed, his age, I saw his picture. And I heard myself say out loud, “What the fu–? He’s hapamixed?”

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Four Thoughts on Harvard’s [Cancelled] Black Mass

Before it was cancelled around 5 p.m. yesterday, the Cultural Studies Club of the Harvard Extension School was scheduled to stage a “reenactment” of a black mass in a pub in the basement of Memorial Hall on Harvard’s campus. The club stated that “misinterpretations about the nature of the event were harming perceptions about Harvard and adversely impacting the student community,” and as of now, it seems unclear where, or if, the reenactment will actually take place. I am not a scholar of Satanist movements (though here are some people who are), so I have no coherent treatise to offer. Instead, here are the four thoughts that have been knocking around in my head for the past few days.


(1.)  Nobody knows what the planned reenactment would have consisted of because nobody knows what “the black mass” itself consists of. There is no central, Satanist Congregation for Divine Worship that publishes ritual rubrics, no Satanist Pope who is the “custodian” of the liturgy. Sure, Anton LaVey published a handful of books and founded what he called the “Church of Satan,” but there is no universally-recognized, set text of “the black mass” that we could sit down and pick apart, nor is there any universally-recognized leader of satanism. As Professor Joseph Laycock noted in a Religion Dispatches essay yesterday, “It’s doubtful that true black masses ever occurred and the only recorded incidents of black masses were improvised ceremonies performed by libertines. Still, everyone weighing in on the controversy seems quite certain about how a proper black mass is performed and what it symbolizes.” Instead, “black mass” seems to have originally been a Christian label for suspected blasphemous rituals that suspected blasphemers carried out (and Christians have been imagining and fearing such activity for ever). Those who felt discriminated against by the church then adopted the label (along with the label “satanist”) as a sort of satirical protest against the authority claims of Christianity. It’s somewhat akin to modern women calling themselves “witches” or “crones” as a protest against patriarchy. This is why the organizer of the Harvard event wrote that Catholic opponents “seem terribly disappointed that this event is not all about them, to the point that they refuse to accept it.”

(2.)  In response to concerns raised by Catholics, the club stated that the event would not include a consecrated host but would instead be a “historical re-enactment of a black mass ceremony that has a narrator providing historical context and background.” If that’s the case, then how would this event have been so different from, say, reading aloud from the Greek Magical Papyri in a college class? Or pretending to perform a typical Greek or Roman sacrifice in a graduate seminar? Many early Christians believed that performing such rites was nothing more than interaction with demons. Why isn’t the Archdiocese of Boston warning students that this behavior, which happens routinely in Religious Studies programs and divinity schools, “places participants dangerously close to destructive works of evil“?

(3.)  I was surprised by how quickly people jumped on the “If we were Jews/Blacks/Pick-Your-Token, everyone would be defending us” train. Geez, Catholics, are we sure we want to go there? Professor Francis Clooney, S.J., for instance, asked in a Harvard Crimson editorial, “And what’s next? The endeavor ‘to learn and experience the history of different cultural practices’ might in another year lead to historical reenactments of anti-Semitic or racist ceremonies familiar from Western history or parodies that trivialize Native American heritage or other revivals of cultural and religious insult.” I suppose I would be more sympathetic to his argument if, you know, the Roman Catholic Church hadn’t been responsible for a good portion of that anti-Jewish and anti-Native history. Or if Catholics did not enjoy a privileged place in American society today. Or if “satanists” even had enough institutional continuity that they could have persecuted Catholics the way the Catholic Church persecuted heretics and heathen. Or if the oppression of Jews and Native Americans were something that we had collectively “gotten over” as Christians, such that we could now invoke it as a shaming device to show how civilized we are. I mean really, this is as bad as white conservatives comparing abortion to slavery. It’s an easy analogy that seems to pack a lot of punch, but it also packs a tremendous amount of ignorance about exactly who has wielded power over whom, and arrogance about who gets to profit linguistically from other people’s trauma.

(4.)  I can’t wait for The Onion to pick this up.



Let This Skinny Woman Be: Race and the BMI

Score. My own institution made Jezebel’s headlines yet again this evening: “Yale Threatens to Kick Woman Out of School for Being Too Skinny.” Said woman is Frances Chan, and according to a Huffington Post essay that she herself wrote last month, she is a 5’2″, 92-pound, 20 year-old undergrad whom the university’s health services decided was dangerously underweight. She writes:

In the past three weeks alone, I have spent ten hours at Yale Health, our student health center. Since December, I have had weekly weigh-ins and urine tests, three blood tests, appointments with a mental health counselor and a nutritionist, and even an EKG done to test my heart. My heart was fine — as it always has been — and so was the rest of my body.

Apart from her BMI (Body Mass Index) score, there was no basis for the university’s freak-out, as Chan explains:

I’ve always been small. I’ve been 5’2” and 90 pounds since high school, but it has never led to any illnesses related to low weight or malnutrition. My mom was the same; my whole family is skinny. We all enjoy Mom’s fabulous cooking, which included Taiwanese beef noodle soup, tricolor pasta, strawberry cheesecake, and cream puffs, none of which make the Weight Watchers shortlist. I just don’t gain weight easily.

FRANCES (if I may), I FEEL YOU. I can’t convey how much reading this story made my blood boil, as I myself have been on the receiving end of similar scolding for my skinniness.

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Pope Francis: see reality “not from the center but rather from the periphery”

This evening my Facebook feed lit up with the headlines, “Pope: Church must not turn priests into ‘little monsters'” and “Pope Francis warns priests can be ‘little monsters’ if not trained properly.” The news stories concern a “conversation” Pope Francis apparently had with a large group of religious superiors general back on November 29, 2013, and they are peppered with heartening remarks like: “We must form their hearts. Otherwise we are creating little monsters. And then these little monsters mold the people of God. This really gives me goose bumps” and “The ghost to fight against is the image of religious life understood as an escape or hiding place in face of an ‘external’ difficult and complex world.” Continue reading

Reading “The Jews” in the Sunday Readings

Last year at a wedding, I was chatting with a guy at my table about what I do (Religious Studies, specifically New Testament). The conversation turned, as it usually does, to whether I myself practiced any religion. When I said that yes, I was Catholic, he said, “Oh, you must get really annoyed at bad homilies, since exegesis is your thing.” I automatically started to say yes, but then I caught myself, because of all the things that inspire less than charitable thoughts in me on any given Sunday–and there are many–biblical interpretation is rarely one of them. In my experience, bad homilies–say for instance ones that are homophobic or offensive to women–happen not because a priest is bad at historical criticism, but because he is homophobic and sexist in general. Continue reading