In January, I attended an international gathering of Catholic bishops in Lisbon, Portugal. I was the only American. The majority came from Africa and Latin America. Upon learning that I was from Iowa, which conducts the first caucuses, the bishops stressed how important U.S. elections are, how they establish a worldwide direction for pursuing peace, grappling with widespread hunger and poverty and the huge migrations of peoples, especially those fleeing Iraq and Syria.
They were astounded at the tenor of our political discourse. Had we Americans not heard of Pope Francis? What did we think he means when he affirms, “We are one human family. We are all brothers and sisters”?
We Americans are called to incorporate our values and beliefs into the political process in a manner that reflects what best serves humanity. But our convictions do not find a readily comfortable home in either major party. We must engage. But how?
Pope Francis has emphasized three principal dimensions of our life together that must be addressed if we are to be concerned about human life and living out Gospel values: creation, peace and economy.
Creation. In his address to the United Nations, Pope Francis declared, “The common home of all men and women must continue to rise on the foundations of a right understanding of universal fraternity and respect for the sacredness of every human life, of every man and every woman, the poor, the elderly, children, the infirm, the unborn, the unemployed, the abandoned, those considered disposable because they are only considered as part of a statistic. This common home of all men and women must also be built on the understanding of a certain sacredness of human nature.”
Pope Francis focused global attention on the environment with his encyclical “Laudato Si’” (“On Care for Our Common Home”). It is a clarion call for universal action to reverse ailing Mother Earth’s health condition. Evidence abounds: pollution and waste, widespread experience of radical climate variation, reduction of safe water and loss of biodiversity. More distressing is the impact on human life—where the poor suffer intolerably and societies and cultures are unraveling.
At the heart of this environmental disruption is climate change, and the scientific consensus is that it’s for real. The pope asserts that this change with its destructive results is caused by human action.
“Environmental conversion” is required, preserving that which gives life: air, water, fertile soil. We can do so by being responsible in our own situation but also by advocating policies that characterize us as grateful “stewards,” so that all God created so lovingly thrives.
We are called to be attentive to the three billion people who are suffering and are left behind in a proportionate sharing of God’s providence. They represent what Pope Francis terms the “throwaway culture.” One of the ways their lives can be enhanced is by reversing the suffering emanating from environmental degradation. We must also provide future generations with a home that will be habitable, preserving the wonder of God’s goodness. At the White House last year, Pope Francis said: “Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem that can no longer be left to a future generation. When it comes to the care of our ‘common home,’ we are living at a critical moment of history.”
Let me at this point brag about my home state, Iowa. Iowans have been especially blessed and inspired by leaders exercising conscientious stewardship. Farmers are committed to leaving the soil and the water, for which they are responsible, in much better shape than when they inherited it. Wind power has taken off in Iowa. We are now producing more such energy per capita than any other state; 30 percent of our power comes from this source. Right behind is the installation of solar panels, especially in rural areas.
This creates work for people like Justin Doyle, a Catholic engineer in Des Moines, who is practical and committed to healthy economic development. He transforms old buildings through renovation and the installation of solar energy, which is sustainable and very economical operationally. Renewable energy so produced in one of his midsize renovated industrial office buildings is 8 percent beyond the facility’s needs.
Individual action in climate change needs to evolve to embrace political consensus. That is where progress will be achieved for the common good. As Pope Francis insists, “Unless citizens control power—natural, regional and municipal—it will not be possible to control damage to the environment.”
The Vatican has intervened on the international level, advocating at the Paris Conference for the Environment. In doing so, it emphasizes that all the world needs to be on the same page and committed to those policies and actions intended for the beneficial global outcome of all.
Peace. It is the notion of one human family that has driven the vision of Pope Francis to overcome separation and bring people to the peace table. It is this same vision that has led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to advocate for renewing diplomatic relationships with Cuba and reaching agreement with Iran on its nuclear capability. Diplomacy, negotiation and most important, as Pope Francis insists, dialogue are far better than hostility and separation.
Divisions of people create fear and negativity and shroud the goodness in every human heart. The Berlin Wall, for instance, perpetuated the artificial separation of two peoples, creating tension and political conflict—a cold war. Aware of that history, as Pope Francis recently said, we do not need more walls. A wall between Mexico and the United States would speak loudly of our inability to resolve issues like immigration, our country’s insatiable appetite for drugs, the ensuing corruption and violence and the unraveling of education in Latin America.
In his visit to the Central African Republic, the pope raised the consequential role of weapons merchants who do lucrative business in supplying death machines to opposing military factions that do not have the common good at heart. In addition, the world still faces the specter of nuclear weapons that could evaporate Mother Earth. These threats to our humanity demand Christian as well as common-sense responses.
When I reflect on Christians seeking peace, I recall a U.N. official from Benin who was in charge of trying to bring peace to Côte d’Ivoire after its recent civil war. He demonstrated convictions and values at the heart of our Christian ethic: forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, dialogue, new beginnings, letting go of sentiments of hatred. When I expressed admiration for his putting into practice his convictions, he simply replied, “I am a Catholic, and my faith compels me to such action expressing the love of Christ.”
Economy. “What are we going to do about the poor?” Pope Francis asked in response to an invitation to the Davos conference on economic activity in January. His position is well grounded in the Gospels, in the cultural heritage of South America and in the Catholic Church’s “preferential option for the poor.”
He urged Congress to “keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty. They too need to be given hope. The fight against poverty must be fought consistently and on many fronts, especially in its causes.” He added: “It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy that seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable.”
As we engage these issues, we identify with David as he battled Goliath. There are 62 billionaires in the world who have the total wealth of 3.6 billion people, approximately half the world’s inhabitants, combined. Furthermore, the lack of education, joblessness, hunger, malnutrition, poor health and inadequate housing, lack of proper sanitation, corruption, poor government, etc. that the poor endure seem almost insurmountable. But our Christian convictions tell us we should engage without hesitation or fear.
It is frustrating, then, that our options for advancing the common good are so limited in the current political environment. Neither party advocates the entirety of our Christian ethic. But our response must be practical, pursued through a party or candidate with whom, from our perspective, we can attain much of what is at stake for the common good. It is also necessary to transcend partisan limitations and join in common cause. In so doing, we pursue that path, enlightened by the Gospel, which recognizes the inherent value of each human person and renders to that person the life and dignity to which he or she is entitled as a child of God.