Wow! Could This Be the Beginning of a Movement?

Shepard Smith works for Fox News but sometimes doesn’t sound like it.

It was still quite a surprise to see what he said about Pope Francis and President Obama today:

I don’t know — I think we are in a weird place in the world when the following things are considered political. Five things, I’m going to tick them off. These are the five things that were on his and our president’s agenda. Caring for the marginalized and the poor — that’s now political. Advancing economic opportunity for all. Political? Serving as good stewards of the environment. Protecting religious minorities and promoting religious freedom globally. Welcoming [and] integrating immigrants and refugees globally. And that’s political? I mean, I don’t know what we expect to hear from an organization’s leader like the Pope of the Catholic Church, other than protect those who need help, bring in refuges who have no place because of war and violence and terrorism. These seem like universal truths that we should be good to others who have less than we do, that we should give shelter to those who don’t have it. I think these were the teachings in the Bible of Jesus. They’re the words of the pope, they’re the feelings of the president. And people who find themselves on the other side of that message should consult a mirror, it seems like. Because I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as a people, whatever your religion. I mean, it seems to me and I think to probably, as Bill O’Reilly would put it, most clear-thinking Americans — that that’s how we’re supposed to roll.

Yes, that’s how we’re supposed to roll! 

The remarkable video in which Mr. Smith states the obvious (at around 0:36) is available here.

Who Knew the Pope Would Turn Out To Be a Christian?

And a Christian who believes in science!

Pope Francis is upsetting a lot of people, including the fools and knaves seeking the Republican nomination (you know, the make-believe Christians who won’t admit nine people were murdered by a racist in Charleston because that would imply racism is still a problem in America).

The Pope issued a message to the world this week. From The Guardian:

Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’, is the most astonishing and perhaps the most ambitious papal document of the past 100 years, since it is addressed not just to Catholics, or Christians, but to everyone on earth….

We need nature, he says, and we need each other….The care of nature and the care of the poor are aspects of the same ethical commandment, and if we neglect either one we cannot find peace….

Starting from that premise, he launches a ferocious attack on what he sees as the false and treacherous appetites of capitalism and on the consumerist view of human nature. For Francis, there is a vital distinction between human needs, which are limited but non-negotiable, and appetites, which are potentially unlimited, and which can always be traded for other satisfactions without ever quite giving us what we most deeply want. The poor, he says, have their needs denied, while the rich have their appetites indulged. The environmental crisis links these two aspects of the problem.

… The document is absolutely unequivocal in backing the overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic global warming is a clear and present danger. It blasts the use of fossil fuels and demands that these be phased out in favour of renewable energy. But it is also explicitly opposed to the idea that we can rely on purely technological solutions to ecological problems….There will never be a technological fix for the problem of unrestrained appetite, the pope claims, because this is a moral problem, which demands a moral solution, a turn towards sobriety and self-restraint and away from the intoxications of consumerism.

The New York Times offers this summary (followed by selected paragraphs from the encyclical with explanatory comments):

Pope Francis has written the first papal encyclical focused solely on the environment, attempting to reframe care of the earth as a moral and spiritual concern, and not just a matter of politics, science and economics. In the document, “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home,” he argues that the environment is in crisis … He emphasizes that the poor are most affected by damage from what he describes as economic systems that favor the wealthy, and political systems that lack the courage to look beyond short-term rewards….Its 184 pages are an urgent, accessible call to action, making a case that all is interconnected, including the solutions to the grave environmental crisis.

Perhaps we will do nothing about climate change until it’s too late. Last year was the warmest since records have been kept. This year is on track to be even warmer. But the climate isn’t changing fast enough to generate concerted global action. Short of a message from on high (from much higher than the sky), there may be nothing that will act as a sufficient catalyst. For now, however, Pope Francis has done his part.

Here are the first paragraphs of Laudato Si’:

1. “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.

2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.

The entire text is here.

Garry Wills on Who’s Afraid of the Pope

Garry Wills is one of America’s leading intellectuals. He’s now 80 years old and has had a brilliant career, but he’s still going strong. From the New York Review of Books blog:

Now, as the pope prepares a major encyclical on climate change, to be released this summer, the billionaires are spending a great deal of their money in a direct assault on him. They are calling in their chits, their kept scientists, their rigged conferences, their sycophantic beneficiaries, their bought publicists to discredit words of the pope that have not even been issued: “He would do his flock and the world a disservice by putting his moral authority behind the United Nations’ unscientific agenda on the climate,” they say. They do not know exactly what the pope is going to say in his forthcoming encyclical on preserving God’s creation, but they know what he will not say. He will not deny that the poor suffer from actions that despoil the earth. Everything he has said and done so far shows that Francis always stands for the poor.

Those who profit from what harms the earth have to keep the poor out of sight. They have trouble enough fighting off the scientific, economic, and political arguments against bastioned privilege. Bringing basic morality to the fore could be fatal to them. That is why they are mounting such a public pre-emptive strike against the encyclical before it even appears…..

The real issue here is not science vs. ignorance, or the UN vs. xenophobia, or my 97 percent of experts against your 3 percent. It is a case of the immensely rich few against the many deprived poor. The few are getting much of their wealth from interlocking interests that despoil the earth. The fact that the poor get poorer in this process is easily dismissed, denied, or derided. The poor have no voice. Till now. If the pope were not a plausible voice for the poor, his opponents would not be running so scared. Their fear is a testimony to him.

More here.

Why Hell Was Invented (Starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore)

Why was the idea of hell invented? Wouldn’t the promise of eternal happiness up in heaven be enough to get people to walk the straight and narrow? No, probably not.

As evidence, here’s a scene from Bedazzled, a terrific movie from 1967 that starred the English comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (sorry, couldn’t find a video). 

Both temporarily dressed as London traffic cops, Lucifer (Cook) is explaining to Stanley (Moore) why he got thrown out of heaven and is now stuck making trouble on Earth:

It was pride that got me into this. I used to be an angel, up in heaven.

Oh yeah, you used to be God’s favorite, didn’t you?

That’s right. “I Love Lucifer” it was in those days.

What was it like up in heaven?

Very nice, really. We used to sit around all day and adore him. Believe me, he was adorable, just about the most adorable thing you ever did see. 

Well, what went wrong then?

I’ll show you. (Approaches mail box.) Here we are. Give me a leg up, would you?

(Sitting on mailbox, legs crossed.)  I’m God. This is my throne, see? All around me are the cherubim, seraphim, continually crying “Holy, holy, holy.” The angels, archangels, that sort of thing. Now you be me, Lucifer, the loveliest angel of them all. 

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What do I do? 

Well, sort of dance around praising me really. 

What sort of things do I say? 

Anything that comes into your head that’s nice. How beautiful I am, how wise, how handsome, that sort of thing. Come on, start dancing! 

(Singing and dancing) You’re wise, you’re beautiful, you’re handsome. 

Thank you very much. 

The universe, what a wonderful idea, take my hat off to you. 

Thank you. 

Trees, terrific! Water, another good one. 

That was a good one. Yes.  

Sex, top marks! 

Now make it more personal. A bit more fulsome, please. Come on! 

Immortal, invisible. You’re handsome, you’re, uh, you’re glorious. 

Thank you. More!

You’re the most beautiful person in the world!

(Stops dancing) Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places? 

That’s exactly how I felt. I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!

I had no idea. It’s a very sad story. 

I suppose he had his reasons…. He moves in very mysterious ways, you know. 

I mean, apart from the way he moves, what’s God like, really? 

He’s all colors of the rainbow — many-hued. 

But he is English, isn’t he? 

Oh yes, very upper-class.

Peter Cook, who wrote the script, wasn’t the first to suggest that heaven would be boring. It’s hard to even imagine how it could be interesting for more than a while. How could bliss last forever? Would God be so wonderful that being nearby would be eternally pleasurable? It doesn’t seem all that appealing  to me. For one thing, we don’t even know what God is supposed to be like, so it’s hard to imagine why being in the divine presence would be so wonderful. It certainly doesn’t seem that singing God’s praises would be a good way to spend eternity.

Maybe it would help if one’s nearness to God fluctuated. That would introduce anticipation and contrast: “Now I’m further away. If only I were closer! Yes, like that. Excellent!” That way, the whole eternal experience would be pleasurable, but not always equally so. Changing one’s perspective like that would seem to cause emotional ups and downs, however, which sounds rather unheavenly. Plus, cycling between higher and lower pleasures for eternity might still be less than blissful (been there, done that, forever).

In addition, some of the greatest pleasures we know presumably wouldn’t have much of a role in heaven. Being reunited with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, for example. How often could you have the pleasure of seeing someone again? Would you miss them in the meantime (negative emotion again)? Or winning a competition. Are there losers in heaven? For that matter, are there really good discussions in heaven? Do you have to watch what you say, the way you do in church? Can you be yourself in heaven? And how about sex? Are there orgasms in heaven? 

The more I think about heaven, the less heavenly it sounds. And also the less feasible. Hell, on the other hand, is far easier to imagine. Ever see that Star Trek episode with the two guys who are colored black and white, but on opposite sides? They hate each others guts. To the point that when the show ends, they’re sent out into space to wrestle with each other forever. At least that’s the way I remember it. The ending is unsettling. Trapped forever in a very small space fighting someone who wants to destroy you. It sounds terrible.

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So do the various tortures supposedly popular in hell. Sitting in a pool of lava for eternity. Or being eaten alive forever, like Prometheus on his rock. 

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But maybe if you were tortured forever, you’d get used to it. Eventually get bored with the whole thing. Somehow, that doesn’t seem likely. Serious pain doesn’t lose its unpleasantness as time goes by. You can “learn to live with it”, but it still hurts like hell (my point exactly). And it’s so easier to imagine being in constant pain than being in constant pleasure. In fact, the phrase “being in constant pain” is quite common. Have you ever heard of someone “being in constant pleasure”, or, more grammatically, “enjoying constant pleasure”? Outside of heaven anyway, and we know how implausible that is.

As usual, there is probably some evolutionary reason why pain is more intense than pleasure. In order to stay alive and have children, it’s important to avoid painful injuries. Pain is great at getting our attention. Pleasure isn’t really required in order to survive, although mild pleasure helps in various ways and serious pleasure encourages procreation (which, due to the house rules, probably isn’t on the agenda in heaven anyway). 

If you doubt whether physical pain is generally more intense than physical pleasure, consider the greatest pleasure you could have and decide whether you would want that if it required enduring the most intense pain you could have. Most of us would decline the pleasure in order to avoid the pain.

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So that’s probably why the idea of hell was invented. Promising heaven is a good way to control behavior, but threatening hell is probably better, since being rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven is less imaginable and less appealing than avoiding eternal agony in hell. Which, when you think about it, is a disheartening commentary on what we actually have to deal with, life itself.

Note: Why some individuals are willing to endure horrible pain in order to achieve some goal or other is one of life’s mysteries. Giordano Bruno, for example, was burned alive by the Catholic Church in 1600 after refusing to disavow his beliefs. When sentenced to death, he is said to have replied: “Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it”. He preferred agony and death over telling a few convincing lies about his beliefs. And, of course, some people (mostly men) march off to war and some people (always women) endure natural childbirth. Pain may be more intense than pleasure, but some things are more important to some people than pain. Go figure.

The Sick Words of a Saint

St. Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, is a pillar of the Catholic Church. He’s best known as the author of the Summa Theologica, his classic summary of the church’s teachings.

Under Question 94, “The Relations of the Saints Toward the Damned”, he explains that:

Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

Furthermore:

Whoever pities another shares somewhat in his unhappiness. But the blessed cannot share in any unhappiness. Therefore they do not pity the afflictions of the damned.

Even in heaven we would be as children, and nasty children at that.