By Charlie Johnston
For several reasons, I stayed in my family’s home until I was almost 23. Actually, it went two years longer than that, for my Dad was transferred and I stayed in the house, paid the mortgage and sold it for them. That was no easy task during the terrible economy of the Carter years.
Since Dad and I have the same name, there was always some confusion with the mail. But we made it easy for the election clerks to identify us properly. He was Charlie Johnston the Democrat while I was Charlie Johnston the Republican. A friend of his once angrily commented that he wouldn’t have a son who voted different than him. My father hotly retorted, “I wouldn’t have a son who would let anyone, including me, tell him how to vote.” That was an oddly pleasing moment for both of us.
I always thought Dad had some shaky political ideas – and I reckon he thought the same of me. But I knew he wanted the best for all of us. He was a great Dad growing up…absolutely fearless, always had your back, completely devoted to his family. When I was in high school it was becoming clear that I was both interested in politics and was a strikingly talented young fellow. Dad sat down with me one afternoon and told me he didn’t care what I did with my life, whether I was a president or a garbage man. He did care that I always be honest and honorable with everyone, living with the knowledge that God always had His eye upon us. If I held a menial job that I handled honorably, Pops maintained he would always be pleased with me, but if I were president and used it to bully or cheat people, he would be ashamed of me.
I was the oldest of six kids, significantly older than most of the rest. My parents gave me some unique responsibilities and authority in the family. I even went to some of the teacher’s conferences for my brothers and sister. Dad always included me in his and Mom’s counsel on anything concerning the other kids…how to discipline them, various decisions, and most larger family decisions, as well. It was a signal grace on my parents’ part, though I think I lived up to their confidence. Sometimes, we did not end up in agreement and they did other than what I thought we should. But I always stood foursquare with them when a decision was made concerning the family, both because I knew Dad’s devotion to his wife and children and because of his generosity in always taking my concerns into serious consideration. But on matters outside of his family responsibilities, Dad and I would argue frequently, eagerly and vigorously with each other, much to the amusement of my siblings and to the occasional dismay of my Mother. Sometimes, Dad would say some wild things when he was arguing about something he did not have actual responsibility for.
Upon my first look at Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment, I was dismayed. Sure enough, it had all the usual leftist nostrums and buzzwords on climate change, sustainability, global action, evolutionary biology and such. It offered all the very approaches that historically (and particularly in the last hundred years) have centralized power in a small elite who enrich their cronies, impoverish little folks, and use that power to wage war on people of faith. It touted these tired nostrums as if they were fresh, new ideas that will solve the problem instead of the tried and true formula for misery, impoverishment and environmental degradation.
On second look, I noted that – unlike the loud functionaries at the Vatican these last few weeks – the Pope noted with humility that he lacked final authority on matters of science and public policy – that debate must be open and robust. It certainly nagged at me that those Vatican functionaries who have been behaving as thuggish enforcers in a protection racket answer to him – and that if the Pope truly means that debate on those issues should be open and robust, he probably ought to tell his functionaries to give a more nuanced contribution to that debate than contemptuously sneering at those who disagree with them to shut up. It might have been nice to invite a scientist who had a different view to participate instead of shutting them all out if you wanted an actual discussion rather than a pre-ordained conclusion. The behavior of Vatican officials in this matter has been scandalous.
On the third look, I noted that on the matters on which he has actual authority, the Pope was dead on. He spoke powerfully on the sanctity of life and the necessity to preserve the human ecology. I was consoled that on matters clearly within the purview of his authority, he was in unbroken solidarity with the teaching of all his predecessors – and even expressed that teaching in some intriguing new ways.
On fourth look, I realized that events of the next few years will resolve the scientific and policy matters. Whether the Pope is right or people like me are right on those matters he touched on that are not directly within the scope of his authority, we shall see soon enough and, in either case, the urgency of it will dissipate.
The needful province of the clergy is to speak on First Things and Last Things; the meaning of life and what our proper ends should be. It is the responsibility of the laity to fashion proper means to seek those ends. Since Church officials are actually men, they have opinions on these transitional means; opinions which, like the rest of us, are political and ideological in nature – and are either well-formed or poorly formed. But those opinions are not necessary to their duty. If well-formed, they may enhance the credibility of the faith to non-believers and those on the margin. If ill-informed, they can bring the shadow of disrepute upon the faith among non-believers and the ill-informed, and even dishearten many of the faithful. But they are ancillary to the hierarchy’s mission.
Francis is not the first Pope to mix mere political opinions into Encyclicals that speak authoritatively on First and Last things. He is not even the fifth or the tenth. The most famous modern example was Pope Leo XIII’s discussion of the proper interplay of labor and capital in modern economies, Rerum Novarum, issued in 1891. It was the first major attempt to deal with the change in circumstances from feudal agrarianism to industrial capitalism. Some of the political ideas necessary for a proper exploration of the subject turned out, over time, to be a bit clunky and poorly focused. One hundred years later, Pope John Paul II refined the political thought when he issued Centesimus Annus. St. John Paul made clear he was building on the spiritual thought and authority of his predecessor, while modifying the merely political elements that had not stood up. I’m not sure it ever even occurred to St. John Paul to note that the political elements were transient, while those that spoke to First and Last Things are ever eternal. In fact, that is largely what Encyclicals and Magisterial teaching are for – to sharpen the clarity of our view of those things and fit them properly to the times. It is often necessary to reference political currents of the time to do so effectively, but the political currents, whether well or poorly cited, do not enhance or detract from the eternal truths incorporated in the documents. Like waves on a windy day, political opinions rise or fall in a frothy, curling churn and then are gone…usually forgotten in the mists of time. The articles of faith defined in Encyclicals, however, are the lifeblood of the Church, pulsing with the ever-present rhythm and unchanging power of the tides.
God is going to set all things right in His Church, but first it pleases Him to bring all things to light. In these confused times, we often confuse what an official – any official – actually is and is not responsible for. There was a moment during Hurricane Sandy when a part of lower New York was deeply threatened because officials had so neglected basic infrastructure repairs in the section. At the time, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg was busy deciding how large our soft drink cups could be and outlawing salt in restaurants. I thought it was the perfect archetype of the disease of modern times: keep so busy working on things that are not your concern that you completely neglect what actually is. Fortunately, the danger passed over the vulnerable section. The penchant to muddle actual responsibility has confused much of the public about what is and is not an official’s duty – including within the Church. Shallow newspaper editors and popular culture think that we Catholics have to obey and agree with everything a Pope or Bishop says about anything. Oddly, they studiously ignore what the Pope and Bishops collectively actually are dispositively authoritative on, while celebrating any political statement one makes that is not dispositive, but that they agree with.
I told you last December that the satan was spewing demons across the globe to spread confusion in this decisive year. On New Year’s Day, I wrote a piece going into as much detail as I care to, even now, on what would happen this year. I suspect that God may well have orchestrated a brilliant long-term gambit out of the satan’s efforts to confuse the faithful – and to further separate the sheep from the goats. If your faith is dependent on political agreement, you may find yourself fleeing into the arms of those from either the left or the right that call for you to abandon ship. When you dive into the boiling waters of this rising storm, you will not be going to safety – but if your faith depended on having your political and intellectual vanity stroked, it was not enough to last anyway. Best to either leave now or up your game. For those who are jumping in with both feet to support an Encyclical whose political sentiments are transiently amenable to your disposition, you might want to look closer at what you are embracing. Yes, Pope Francis makes what I think are clunky and ill-considered political, economic and scientific assertions, but on First and Last Things, he is completely in lockstep with two millennia of consistent Christian witness. He speaks of a “human ecology;” that the words family, marriage, and gender have specific, fixed meanings. They are not waxen concepts to be molded into whatever one wishes them to mean. While progressives are busy saying “black lives matter” (or whatever group is most useful to them for the moment), the Pope says, “Life Matters,” and that the taking of innocent life is always grave. It is something the progressives dare not say, lest it threaten their “right” to casually execute unborn infants.
We are a family of faith. My Papa sometimes says some crazy stuff that makes me shake my head and roll my eyes. But my Papa takes good care of his family. He loves us all with his tender Father’s heart.
I love my Papa.