Musings of a Wayward Catholic

do908-laudato-siThose of you who follow my blog know that every so often I come back to issues of Church and faith. Over the years I’ve developed my own eclectic brand of spirituality, but my Catholic roots remain strong. In many ways I continue to take pride in what I consider the best of the Catholic tradition: service to those in need, commitment to establishing a just and peaceful society, compassion and love for one’s neighbor, and openness to an evolving understanding of scripture, which the Catholic Church aptly calls the Living Word of God. 

As a young girl attending Catholic grade school, I tried to be flawless in my devotion even though I was decidedly progressive in my thoughts. I entertained many fantasies about the future of my beloved Church. For example, I dared to imagine that one day I would witness the ordination of women into the priesthood. While women have become ministers in other denominations, the Catholic male hierarchy remains as entrenched as it was in my youth, committed to its millennial, decidedly sexist choke-hold on religious authority.

But I digress. The point is, as a girl I had some crazy ideas as to what Catholicism might look like at the beginning of the third millennium (crazy in the sense of innocent, not unreasonable). Yet I never never imagined that one day I might find myself defending the Pope against conservative members of the Republican Party. Catholicism and Republicanism went hand-in-hand in my family. You simply couldn’t have one without the other. And that they would ever be in disagreement was inconceivable.

Last week, that reality was turned upside down. Pope Francis released his much-anticipated encyclical Laudato si’.  Suddenly the conservative movement, which has been digging themselves into a hole through blind insistence on stamping down the science behind our understanding of climate change, felt like they’d been hung out to dry by one of the most important figures of religious moral authority in the world.

I must say, that was a refreshing change.

I fear, though, that in the race to declare themselves “for” or “against” the Pope’s encyclical, very few people actually read what he wrote. And as often happens, the core message was misrepresented by people on both sides of the debate.

Laudato si’ is not really about global climate change. True, Pope Francis mentions this along with a long (and rather depressing) list of maladies affecting our planet.  But his true message runs so much deeper than a single environmental challenge or the politics that plague it.

Pope Francis’s message is about the moral dimensions of human activity. He urges us to remember our compassion for each other and for the planet on which we depend. He invites us to a dialogue across every imaginable – and imaginary – boundary we have created: political, economic, religious, environmental, social, technological, even artistic.

Throughout the encyclical, the Pope painstakingly demonstrates how his arguments are firmly grounded in the faith and theological traditions of the Church. There is nothing new here. He simply brings a rich body of teaching together in one document, and invites us to reflect and act upon the consequences of our most fundamental responsibilities toward all of Creation.

It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who spoke out against the encyclical last week actually read it. There may be some points of argument that certain readers would take issue with, but to claim the Pope doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or has no authority to speak on these matters, indicates ignorance regarding the contents of the encyclical, or worse, a complete lack of moral sensibility and compassion. Certainly anyone who holds the fundamental tenets of Christianity and the Catholic tradition dear cannot turn his or her back on the central message so eloquently delivered in Laudato si’. 

Before you listen any further to the media debates, I encourage you to read the Pope’s encyclical for yourself. I believe it may be the single most important religious document of this century, and it deserves everyone’s attention.

Laudato si’ can be read on line or downloaded for free from the Vatican web site. I’ve seen it mentioned that the encyclical runs 200 pages; but my pdf copy is only 84 pages long. (I don’t know where the 200 number comes from, but I worry that the reputed length has discouraged a lot of people from going to the original source material and forming an educated opinion of their own.) The encyclical is very well written; the language very accessible. It inspires us, in the way that only the best of sermons can, by calling everyone to a higher standard for living as a community on this beautiful and unique planet we come home.

Read it. Think about it. And then, let’s talk. Just as Pope Francis has invited us to do.

 

On the Relentless Erosion of Hope

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Me on the Iron Throne at ConQuesT in Kansas City, Missouri. My color scheme was inspired by my new favorite book, “The Night Circus.”

A lot of people are talking about Game of Thrones right now, so I guess I’ll add my voice to the clamor.

Heads up: there will be NO spoilers in this blog post. At least, no season five spoilers. Everything season one through four is fair game.

I’ve found myself going through the same transition during season five that I went through when I read book four of A Song of Ice and Fire. The story has ceased to surprise me. For several episodes now, everything that has happened I’ve seen coming. This despite the fact that I never read book five. And by all accounts, the HBO series is beginning to diverge from the book series anyway.

Yet there is one thing the HBO and book series hold in common: the hopelessness of hope. As the story progresses, the formula becomes increasingly clear and rigid. The heroic, noble, innocent, and likable are destined to be corrupted or, failing that, will die terrible and often demeaning deaths. The perverse, self-centered, cruel, and ruthless will survive and triumph. This is why for the past several episodes, pretty much every time something “terrible” has happened, I’ve just rolled my eyes and said, “Yup, I saw that coming too.”

I ran up against the same wall in book four. I realized I knew well ahead of time who was going to die or suffer, because by then I understood the profile of Martin’s victims, and he never altered that profile. If he had let one – just one – of those characters live, then I could have said, “Wow! That was a surprise.”

Now, I don’t want to come down on George R.R. Martin. I have great admiration for his work, and nothing, nothing can take away the amazing experience of reading those first three books in this classic series. He will forever be an icon in my eyes. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reflecting on Martin’s legacy, it’s the importance of wrapping up a series before the reader figures out the formula. Or, if you’re going to continue a series indefinitely, try to switch out the formula once in a while, just to shake things up a bit.

I’ve also learned about the importance of hope, love, and compassion in story telling. All of these are in scarce supply in Martin’s world, and yet they are essential threads for any epic tale. Hope is what drives us to work toward a better future, to demand more of ourselves and others when confronting difficult times. Love and compassion are tools of transformation, capable of breaking down barriers and bridging any abyss that divides us. Hope, love, and compassion are what fuel our sense of agency in this world, the conviction that through individual actions and a sense of community, we can make a positive difference.

In Westeros, love and compassion have minimal significance. As a result, hope is inexorably eroded as the story progresses. There is a perverse genius behind this vision, a genius that can hold the reader’s attention for a long time. To the point where I suspect that what has kept most of us going into season five is not any hope inherent to the world of Westeros, but our own stubborn belief that somehow this whole mess will be turned on its head and the honorable will, at last, inherit the kingdom.

In all honesty, I don’t see that happening, simply because I don’t see any evidence that Martin is interested in or willing to switch up his formula. So here are my predictions as to where it will all lead. We can come back in a few years to see if I was right:

All of our favorite characters who are still standing are destined for miserable and demeaning deaths. Dany will be eaten by her dragons (it’s been clear for a long time she has no control over them anyway), but not before she’s been brought down from her pedestal as a woman of power and degraded under someone else’s whims. I don’t know what’s in store for Tyrion, but I’m certain he will die and that it will be an awful death. Sansa and Arya will go the same route as their parents and brother(s), and knowing HBO, we will likely be subjected to multiple rape and/or torture scenes before they are at last released from their misery. And so on. Sam, Gilly, Brienne, and everyone else you might label as basically a nice person is headed for the chopping block.

Once everyone we actually care about is dead, the White Walkers will sweep down from the north and kill all the perverts and torturers who remain. Then Dany’s dragons, having no humans left to eat, will roast the White Walkers and their undead army. The final scene will be three dragons, alone and triumphant over the snow-covered ruins of King’s Landing.

GoT will either end this way, or it won’t end at all.

In truth, I expect the latter is more likely. As the series goes on, our heroes become more scattered, more weakened, and depressingly, more dead. Perhaps in his evil genius, Martin has created a world that is simply an endless cycle of hopeless cruelty. Perhaps he has no intention of crafting the classic denouement or bringing any of it to a final resolution. Given the history, the pattern, and the formula, I can totally see this happening.

But, man. Wouldn’t it be nice if Martin could surprise us just one more time?