Bishop Howard Hubbard reflections on Pope Francis visit

Ian Pajer-Rogers |

photo by Lori Semprevio/Flickr

Bishop Hubbard made these remarks at an event hosted by Faith for a Fair New York.

I am so pleased to participate in this discussion about Pope Francis’ visit to the United States and how we who are involved in the labor and religion movement and the promotion of social justice can continue to promote his vision at the local, national and international levels.

I was privileged to be with Pope Francis both in Washington, DC when he met with the US bishops at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and later at the Shrine Basilica at the Catholic University of America where he celebrated the first canonization ever conducted in the United States, that of Juniper Serra, the 16th Century founder of the Missions in California.

In New York City, I participated in the evening prayer at which Pope Francis presided in the beautifully renovated St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in the Interfaith Memorial Celebration at the 9/11 Museum and at the Mass held in Madison Square Garden.

The sense of joy, enthusiasm and support for the Pope and his message were palpable at all of these events and his humility, sincerity, integrity and simplicity in tone and style came shining through.

I found the Memorial Service at the 9/11 Museum the most moving. It was held in the battered and scarred bowels of the former World Trade Center edifice and representatives from the Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian communities prayed for the employees, visitors and the first responders who were killed in this dastardly attack, the ripple effects of which continue to shape government policy and the national mood.

It was when the Pope exited this service that I had the opportunity to greet and thank him for his leadership on behalf of the poor and marginalized.

It should be noted that in addition to his civic and religious events, the Pope visited an inner city school, a  shelter for the homeless, a catholic charities agency serving the addicted, mentally ill and developmentally disabled, and prisoners at the largest Correctional Facility in the City of Brotherly Love.

This afternoon, I would like to reflect on two key issues that Pope Francis has addressed in his presentation in Washington and to the United Nations: Income inequality and Climate Change.

Speaking to the members of the House of Representatives and the US Senate, the Pope cited 4 American heroes: President Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, who engaged in interfaith activity, especially with the Buddhist community.

Dorothy Day stands as a symbol for Francis’ commitment to those suffering from poverty and income inequality.

She lived a bohemian lifestyle before converting to Catholicism where she became a staunch advocate for non-violence and a vocal critic of capitalism’s excesses. She co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement’s soup kitchens and its newspaper in 1933. She lived in voluntary poverty among the poor and practiced civil disobedience as a pacifist.

Pope Francis praised her for “her social activism, her passion for justice and for the cause of the oppressed which were inspired by the Gospel and her faith. Today, Catholic Worker Houses of hospitality which feed and shelter the poor number over 200 across the United States and about 30 abroad.

Her cause for canonization is presently being considered by the Church, which she would adamantly oppose.  “Don’t make me a saint” she used to say. She didn’t want to be put on a pedestal,  but rather to serve as an example of what each of us can do to make the world better.

Dorothy Day was highlighted by Pope Francis because her life is an antidote to the runaway capitalism, greed and income inequality that he spoke about both in Congress and the United Nations.

Francis clearly teaches that alleviating the grave evil of poverty must be at the heart of the church’s mission.  It is neither optional nor secondary.

Who are the poor today? They are many:  the 37 million of our fellow Americans who live below the federal poverty line; the 800 million people globally who suffer from persistent hunger and malnutrition, or those in places like Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Ukraine and the Holy Land, who are threatened daily by the wanton savagery of warfare and mindless terrorism.

In particular, I would mention the 12 million immigrants who are living in our country without documentation, hiding in the margins of society, often exploited by employers and others, and lacking a clear path to citizenship. They have become the scapegoats for our nation’s socio-economic woes, the focal point for our irrational fears, and the objects of our hatred and prejudice, when all they really want is a better life for their families  and themselves – just as our immigrant ancestors did.

And, of course, there are the growing number of refugees from the Mideast, Asia and Africa fleeting hunger, persecution and genocide, many drowning as the result of overcrowded and unsafe sea vessels or from the lack of food and shelter once they arrive on land,  finding themselves unwanted, shunned, vilified and rejected.

Further, Pope Francis not only speaks to the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative but calls all to look anew at the common good and how we are to achieve it.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Francis says, “I exhort you to generous solidarity with the poor and toward a return of economics and finances to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

Pope Francis asks, “Can we stand by while food is thrown away and people are starving? “Some people”, he notes, “continue to defend trickle down theories, which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, inevitably will succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness to the world. "This opinion”, Francis notes, “which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing system. Meanwhile, the excluded remain waiting.”

He notes “that domestic welfare and international aid projects that meet certain urgent needs should be considered merely temporary responses.  As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of the markets and financial speculation, and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solutions will be found for the world’s problems, or, for that matter, for any problems.  Inequality is the root of social ills.”

That is why in his exhortation Pope Francis rails against the growing gap in income inequality between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots, adding that “the culture of prosperity deadens us…thus, in the name of Christ the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.”

Indeed, Francis reminds us,” not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away from their livelihood.  It is not our goods we hold but theirs.”

Now some have severely criticized Pope Francis’ economic analysis calling it Marxist or disguised socialism.  But Pope Francis explains, “If anyone feels offended by my words, I would respond I speak them with affection and with the best intentions apart from any personal interest in political ideology.”

In other words, Pope Francis speaks to us not as an expert on economics, but with the firm conviction that God has created a world of abundance and that there are more than enough resources to insure that all can live a humane and fruitful life.  Therefore, we must make economic arrangements which enable everyone to benefit from the fruit of the earth and not just close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table.”

Hence, Francis has made clear that the present economic slowdown worldwide must lead to “a new stimulus for international activity on behalf of the poor, inspired by something more than mere goodwill, or worse yet by, promises which too often have not been kept.”

Bishop Robert McElroy, the newly appointed Bishop of San Diego, has suggested this exhortation of Pope Francis should lead us in the United States to address three false cultures we find within our society: the culture of comfort that makes us think only of ourselves; the culture of waste that seizes the gifts of the created order only to savor them for a moment and then discard them; and the culture of indifference that desensitizes us to the sufferings of others; no matter how intense, no matter how sustained.”

In Pope Francis own words “without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel, which itself is the prime form of charity risks being misunderstood or submerged by an ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass media.

In sum, Pope Francis posits that the globalized economy, where the 85 richest individuals in the world have more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest, is a gross injustice and is supported by a “throw away culture” where policies and social behaviors have made money, not people, the focus. 

A big part of the problem Francis is concerned about, is a loss of the social contract.  We so easily fall into lines that can view political and economic systems as mere mechanisms that operate without reference to values and morality.  Markets and public policies churn out and distribute benefits in ways that respond to power, talent, and perhaps luck.  But they need not serve ultimate ends.  There is no particular moral meaning to the taxes we pay or to the wages our corporations offer.  Ethical principles like progressive taxation and a living wage are nuisances at best, serious liabilities in international competition at worst.  In a world governed by nothing more enlightened than the bottom line, there is scant room for social concern.”

Unfortunately, today we often fail to understand and appreciate the central purpose of our economy,: namely, to meet the basic human needs of all the members of society.  Needs should take preference over wants, necessities over luxuries.  Insisting on a fairer sharing of social burdens and benefits may not be popular but it is the right thing to do.

Sadly, over the past 50 years we seem to have lost the words – and with them the ideas – to frame our situation appropriately.  Can we talk about this?”

Indeed we must!  For the new question needing to be asked, of the economy, specifically, and of political arrangements generally, is about the dispositions necessary for a healthy society, one in which everybody flourishes since the economy cannot be measured only by the maximization of profits but rather in accord with the common good.  Some call this the search for a “human ecology”.

This is the corporate contract we need in America and throughout the world.  We must seek to create a society and world in which hard-working people can be safe and prosper, and they in turn reinvest a fair share of that prosperity back into society for posterity.

I would emphasize that one of the most effective ways to address income inequality and to serve as an antidote to the powerful forces of capitalism is the promotion of unions and worker centers that can defend their rights.

During the last 30 years, the minimum wage in our country has fallen to a fifty year low.  It now pays a worker $15,000 a year, not nearly enough to keep a family of 4 above the official poverty level of $23,000.

Meanwhile union membership has been cut in half, falling to a new low of 12 percent of the overall workforce and only 7 percent of private sector workers.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, since the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in 1980, Americans have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline.  While the real gross domestic product has grown by nearly 150 percent and net productivity by 64 percent in this same period, more and more of the jobs Americans hold today come without reliable living wages or benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, training and job security.

Hence, I believe, Charles Wheelan, an economist from the University of Chicago, is right when he states, “we need some kind of labor relations 2.02 which calls for a model that tries to protect some of the leverage that comes from collective bargaining.”

During the present Supreme Court session, the Court will hear the challenge to the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.  For decades, public-sector unions have been allowed to charge non-members for the costs of collective bargaining on their behalf, but not fees for the unions’ political and lobbying activity, which are paid only by members.

This arrangement, upheld by the Supreme Court in 1977, strikes a reasonable balance — allowing workers to opt out of paying for political activities they may disagree with while avoiding the “free rider” problem, where non-members benefit from the higher wages and better working conditions achieved through collective bargaining without paying their fair share.

The anti-union movement, which this suit represents, wants to weaken and destroy public unions by shrinking their coffers. But the current law is sensible and has been repeatedly upheld by the court. There is no reason to overturn this principle in the California case.  This case should be a major focus for those concerned about labor rights.

So should wage theft, of which Rudy Lopez is well aware and discussed with President Obama recently.

The second issue I will mention is climate change.  The Pope’s pleas to our nation and the UN about Climate Change stem from his recent encyclical on the environment, entitled Laudato Si, the Care of Our Common Home.

The encyclical draws its title from “the Canticle of Creation” authored by the Pope’s namesake and role model, that renowned 13th century saint,. Francis of Assisi.

The timing of the Pope’s encyclical is crucial, as it comes before the United Nations climate change negotiations in Paris this coming December, in which world leaders will seek to set concrete goals to address the issue of climate change or global warming. 

Let me attempt to summarize the contents of this encyclical from a theological, scientific, moral and social perspective.

Theological perspective – Concept of Dominion

It has been at the heart of Judeo-Christian teaching that God created the universe and gave to Adam and Eve and to the members of the human family dominion over the earth.

Through the course of the centuries, the church’s eyes have been fixed primarily on the next world and the ethic of dominion which focuses little on non human creatures and the environment as a whole.  This seemed to give scriptural authority for human beings to take the earth for granted and to do with it what we pleased.

In more recent years, however, theologians have sought to replace this ethic of dominion with a new ethic of the caring stewardship of God’s creation.  Pope Francis has placed himself clearly in accord with this new line of thinking.  For example, he states emphatically, “Nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute dominion over creatures.”  In other words, in this encyclical Pope Francis places himself firmly in the tradition of Francis of Assisi, telling the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics and anyone who will listen, that the caring stewardship of creation, suddenly and dramatically is at the heart of the church’s mission and that we have a passionate reason to love the earth and respect it, now more than ever when it is being threatened so mortally.  Our planet is truly the work of our Creator and it is to be treasured accordingly.

In short, Pope Francis strongly rejects any interpretation of the Scriptures that would find men and women as “dominators” over nature.

Thus, in addressing previous interpretations of the Genesis stories that give full license for humans to be domineering and destructive, Pope Francis stresses, “this is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church.  Although it is true that we Christians at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures… In our time, Pope Francis says, “the Church does not simply state that other creatures are completely subordinated to the good of human beings as if they have no worth and can be treated as we wish.”

While Pope Francis’ predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, affirmed the intrinsic value of non human creatures and exhorted us to respect the grammar of creation, in his encyclical Pope Francis incorporates respect for and protection of the whole of creation into the core of a Catholic approach to ecology (236). 

b) Scientific Perspective

At over 37,000 words, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is one of the longest encyclicals in the church’s history. This encyclical covers a lot of ground. Among the topics addressed are: banking regulation, gender theory, urban planning, Sabbath observances, Trinitarian theology, and the saying of grace before meals.

But Laudato Si’ will be read and remembered primarily from a scientific perspective as Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical. The sentences everyone was looking for arrive near the beginning, carefully qualified but unambiguous: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.... It is true that there are other factors contributing to this phenomenon (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle, etc.), yet 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 other pollutants) released mainly as a result of human activity.”

With his exhortation, Francis officially puts himself on the side of the 97% of scientific consensus on climate change.

The research shows that virtually every piece of land ice on earth is melting, the sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, droughts and other weather extremes are intensifying, the global food system is showing signs of instability, and, if left unchecked the effects on agriculture, sea levels and the natural world will be devastating and impact on the poor disproportionately.

Third, for Francis, climate change is just one part of a larger ecological crisis that also involves the extinction of plant and animal species and the accumulation of waste. And this ecological crisis, he believes, is part of a larger ethical or moral failure that also involves the way we treat the poor, the disabled, and the future generations who will inherit the world we’re destroying. Extending a basic element of the church’s social teaching, Francis calls for “intergenerational solidarity,” as well as solidarity with other creatures. He calls on people in the developed world to put down their digital devices long enough to consider the effect of our choices—as consumers and citizens—on fellow creatures thousands of miles or hundreds of years away.”

The most important thing is to recognize the urgency of the problem, and to accept that the only way to solve it is “by our decisive action, here and now.” We cannot wait for the magic of markets or new machines to save us from our predicament. We will have to face it head on, by means of political engagement at every level—local, national, and international. Historically, democracies have been better at dealing with emergencies than with long-term problems like climate change. We must somehow correct that tendency, and learn to look beyond the next election, as well as the next profit report. Francis remains hopeful: human beings, he reminds us, are "capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.” That is all that is required, yet nothing less will be enough.

Hopefully, Pope Francis’ encyclical will be seen as an invitation to dialogue.  He is inviting economists, business people, public officials, environmentalists, inventors and religious leaders to come together for a conversation on how to protect the environment.  Anyone with a good idea is welcome.

The encyclical can also be a source of inspiration and ideas for activists, teachers, preachers, theologians and authors to echo, to critique and to develop the Pope’s urgent message.

Further, Pope Francis’ encyclical must be seen as a call to change in human behavior and human reason in a way that will require sacrifice from everyone, especially those who are benefitting from the fruits of the status quo: Big Business, Wall Street Financial Capitalism and The Industrial Complex dependent on fossil fuels: for example, car manufacturers, oil companies and coal-based electrical generation.

The Pope’s encyclical also demands personal sacrifices like cutting back on our own consumerism, recycling, using buses or car shares, turning off unnecessary lights, cutting back on heating and air conditioning, etc.

Doing what the Pope asks will require an extraordinary change in human vision and behavior to accomplish the peaceful resolution he calls for.  It will require sacrifice from everyone, especially those who are enjoying the fruits of the status quo.  Yes, doing what the Pope asks will not be easy but Francis encourages us to trust in a loving God and a powerful Spirit who can renew the face of the earth.

Let me cite 2 challenges involving climate change which we must monitor closely.  The first is at the Paris Conference.  Six years ago in Copenhagen, a promise of 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 was made to help the world’s poorest nations, especially, in places like Bangladesh and sub-Sahara Africa to adapt to the fallout from global warming.  But to date, as Christiana Figureres, the executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has noted, “there is no credible roadmap to the 100 billion.  Nations are having a hard time putting their money where their mouth is.

To be sure there is some progress.  France promised 5.6 billion by 2020 in climate-related assistance, up from 3.4 billion presently, and Britain has pledged to increase its budget for climate related development finance and the United States has contributed 12.8 billion between 2012-14.  So we’re at about 50 billion but something like 30-40 billion will still have to be realized between now and 2020.

There is also the danger that richer nations will repurpose or relabel other downpayment and assistance that happen to have climate related side effects.  But as a prominent UN official has pointed out, “while there is a lot of overlap in climate and development aid, they are not the same thing.  How will the 100 billion climate goal be reached!  This is something we must be prepared to monitor.

I would note in conclusion that Pope Francis has proclaimed September 1 to be an annual “World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation” – and has expressed the hope that this day would also involve other religious denominations – both ecumenical and interfaith – similar to the Days of Prayer for Peace at Assisi and last month’s Interfaith memorial Service at the 9/11 museum.  I would suggest this is something we could do locally or statewide as well.

Finally, as the Jesuit commentator Thomas Reese observes, “the Pope’s encyclical is remarkable in that it does not depend primarily on fear to motivate people to care for the earth.  Rather, Francis emphasizes love as a motivating force.  He invites everyone to get involved for the long haul.  Environmental change is not a sprint, it is a marathon.  It will require the participation of each of us,  motivated by the environmental crisis we embrace and our desire to protect future generations from an environmental catastrophe.

May all of us, then, in our own sphere of influence do what we can to insure that this potential devastating catastrophe never becomes a reality.  May it be so!

Bishop Howard Hubbard served as the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Albany, N.Y. until April 2014. He co-chairs the NY State Labor-Religion Coalition. He served in many parish and diocesan positions since his ordination in 1963. Bishop Hubbard also served in numerous national leadership roles, including Chairman of the U.S. Bishops Committee on Human Values, Marriage and the Family, the Catholic Campaign for Human Developmentthe Committee for International Justice and Peace and Chairperson of the Public Policy Committee of the N.Y.S. Catholic Conference.