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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Go, Cardinals!
distributed 4/8/05 - ©2005

This is the first week of the baseball season, and I'm rooting for the Cardinals. Not the St. Louis baseball team, through -- I'm cheering on the 117 guys in Rome who will elect the next Pope.

I hope and pray that those distinguished men will prayerfully reflect on the state of the world in 2005, consider where the powerful leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is most urgently needed, and -- guided and nudged by the Holy Spirit -- will elect a man whose ministry will be inspired by God's redemptive love for all of creation.

The honorable and remarkable ministry of the most recently deceased pontiff shows that the selection of the next Pope could have a truly dramatic impact, not only on the Roman Catholic Church, but on the whole world.

Through this last week, virtually every news source has given voluminous descriptions of the legacy of Pope John Paul II. In well-researched and carefully crafted reports -- documents that were first drafted years ago, and were frequently updated as the pontiff's influence grew and his health declined -- we have been reminded of the theological, cultural and political importance of this man.

Among the things often named:

  • The encouragement that the Polish Pope gave to the Solidarity Movement in Poland is credited with fueling the fires of resistance and reform that led to the breakup of communism and the transformation of Eastern Europe.
  • His strong stands on matters related to sexual and medical ethics, and his coining of the term "culture of death", profoundly impacted public policy and political debate, including major influences at the United Nations and in recent US politics.
  • His reprimand of politically engaged priests in Latin America shifted the course of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; he diminished the impact of liberation theology in that region, and throughout the church.
  • His strong and persistent calls for peace -- including sharp confrontations with the US over two Iraq wars -- and his critiques of materialism and consumerism were important moral stances, even though they were low on his "effectiveness" chart.
  • And, of course, his personal charisma, energy and faith, his frequent global travels, his service during the era when world-wide communications became the norm, and the simple fact of his many years in office all came together to position him as a powerful personality on the international stage.

An added note: 4/11/05 -- These "often named" impacts show the importance of John Paul II and the papacy in world affairs. On a personal level, I deeply appreciate some, but not all, of the stands taken by John Paul II -- especially his work for peace and his critiques of consumerism. As long-time readers of these commentaries might suspect, liberation theology has been important in shaping my own theology and ethics, and I regret the lessened impact of that perspective in the Roman Catholic church. In terms of sexual and medical ethics, I have tried to keep those important but highly controversial themes separate from the work of Eco-Justice Ministries. Let's just say that the former Pope and I didn't always see eye-to-eye.

Biographer Tad Szulc says that John Paul II was "the first modern pontiff to turn the Vatican into a full-fledged player in world affairs." During his tenure, others have observed, "the Holy See gained more political clout and diplomatic recognition than it had enjoyed since the Renaissance."

There's no guarantee that such a degree of papal prominence will continue in the years to come. But there is at least a reasonable potential for the next Pope to build on the legacy of John Paul II in shaping world events and cultural trends. It is that possibility that stirs my strong interest in the decision that the Cardinals will make in the next few days.

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The lifetime experiences of Karol Wojtyla shaped the man who became John Paul II. His passion and moral clarity came from his first-hand knowledge of the faults of communism, and of the evils of anti-Semitism. At a time when Eastern Europe was a central focus of world events, this Pope had experiences, perspectives, friendships and political connections that enabled him to exert dramatic and influential leadership.

If the next Pope were to come from Africa, for example, he could bring a corresponding experience with some of the central themes of our own day -- the effects of globalized capitalism, the impact of ecological disruption, and the sweeping calamity of the AIDS pandemic. (An African cardinal said this week, though, that "psychologically and spiritually, the West isn't ready to welcome a black pope." Perhaps we'll be surprised.)

A Pope from Latin America -- there are clergy from Brazil and Honduras who are considered contenders -- could bring similar life experiences and deep-seated perspectives. One who is grounded in a life and a culture outside of "first world" affluence and dominance could be a remarkable force in calling the world to address the eco-justice themes that are now so urgent.

As the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope oversees an international organization with a membership roughly equal to the population of China. The Catholic church maintains a diverse, but reasonably well-heeled network of capable and influential leaders that can coordinate programs and messages across national boundaries. The financial resources of the Catholic church are substantial, and an intentional "socially responsible" investment strategy could have a remarkable global impact.

What a thing it would be if the 265th Pope tapped into that power, and developed a legacy that connected human concerns with those of the rest of God's creation, which looked honestly at the vast gap between rich and poor within nations and across the world, and which sought sufficiency and sustainability as hallmarks of peace and justice.

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I'm rooting for the Cardinals in the coming weeks. I pray that the Holy Spirit will blow a persistent rushing wind of insight into the Sistine Chapel, unifying the princes of the Catholic Church in a choice for a strong, capable leader who will bring his personal grounding and strong passion to address the most pressing issues of today's world, and that those issues will include an abiding concern for all of God's creation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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