Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Laudato Si" vs. Libido Dominandi

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on August 15 & 16, 2015 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I.; See Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58)

It is with joyful expectation that we await our Holy Father’s arrival in the United States in just a few short weeks.  Pope Francis is frequently in the news, and still being received in a favorable light from so many in the media and in popular opinion.  His most recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si, continues to generate many different responses and a great deal of attention.

Laudato Si, On Care For Our Common Home, is unique among papal teachings in that it is the first encyclical letter to be devoted to ecology, the environment and our care for the natural world.  It is concerned with such vital situations as climate change, pollution and the appropriate manner in which individuals and nations manage the earth’s natural resources.   These subjects are frequently featured already in the news and have been debated and discussed for years.  Our Holy Father reminds us how central these concerns are to the Christian Gospel.

While it may be true that there are dimensions of these important topics that require some level of professional competency, Pope Francis has also highlighted that some of the underlying causes for the problems we encounter today are actually quite common and basic.  At the root of so many of the ecological challenges we are facing is the age-old problem of human selfishness, sin and a blatant disregard for the Creator who made us and the world we live in:

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.
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si, # 2 

§  With an insatiable greed we turn to the earth’s natural resources without regard for the due measure or appropriate balance necessary to sustain new life. 

§  We pour out our garbage into the world however and wherever we please, so long as we do not get caught. 

§  We treat creation and our fellow creatures as if there were no Creator before whom we will one day render an account.

There is actually nothing really new here.   It is the age-old drama of our fallen world that stands in desperate need of redemption.  St. Augustine, in his amazing treatise City of God, contrasts two very different scenarios and ways of life.  The City of God, he insists, is one predicated and founded upon the love and mercy of God.    It is a city that recognizes and exalts in the dominion of God.   The City of God embraces the virtues God instills in hearts that are open to Divine grace.  It is a city that begins here in this world but will be fulfilled ultimately in eternal life. 

The City of Man, however, is quite different:

Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.
—St. Augustine, City of God, Book I

The actual phrase St. Augustine uses in the original Latin is quite striking.  He says that this earthly city is dominated by the libido dominandi, the lust for power, the lust for rule.   This is the lust that drives the human heart to seek more control over others and over every outside circumstance.  Unchecked, it will demand dominion even over God Himself.  This is one dangerous city, not only in the time of St. Augustine but perhaps even more so in our own day!

“Never has humanity had such power over itself,” writes Pope Francis, reflecting on the current state of affairs, “yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.” (Laudato Si, #104).  

There is nothing wrong with power in and of itself; in fact, power is a gift that can be used for the glory of God and the building of the City of God.  But when that same power is divorced from wisdom, the earth and those who inhabit it suffer.  Pope Francis names several circumstances where this libido dominandi can be found in contemporary society.

Firstly, Pope Francis mentions the power of technology, which can be a tremendous source for good in the world.  There is nothing wrong with owning an iPad, or a smartphone, and being able to text someone to say, “Running late for dinner.  Love you.”  To be able to send someone we care about an encouraging email halfway around the world or to post a homily online (even a relatively poor one) to proclaim the Gospel are all ways that technology can be used for good and for God.  Technology has been invaluable for individuals, corporations and nations in advancing society and culture in ways never before imaginable.  Thank God for that!

But Pope Francis also talks about the technological calamities of the twentieth century, from the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan to “the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people” (Laudato Si, #104), as a clear sign that technology can be used for great evil.  The libido dominandi is still in full force today in the manufacturing of chemical and biological weapons that destroy both human life and the environment future generations will depend on for survival (Laudato Si, #57).

Secondly, our Holy Father reflects on genetic modifications.  Scientists are able to develop crops of wheat and corn, for instance, which yield a more abundant harvest and can be used to feed a much greater population than ever before.  Those are great achievements!  Nonetheless, Pope Francis reminds us “we need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks” (Laudato Si, #131). 

A clear example would be the genetic manipulation and modification of human beings for the purpose of “enhancement.”  In other words, seeking to modify or alter the gene pool so that future generations will be of our own liking and specifications: taller rather than short; more agile or stronger instead of “just average.”  But human beings are not wheat.  Children are not corn.  The libido dominandi, that lust for rule and power, can cause great harm through scientific means in the name of “progress.”

Finally, Pope Francis also writes about animal experimentation.  Animals can teach us a great deal about the body, about diseases and the therapies that can address them.  To experiment on such animals as monkeys or mice, for instance, could be quite valuable and productive for society.  Yet, Pope Francis also points out, “The Catechism firmly states that human power has limits and that ‘it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly’” (Laudato Si, #130, quoting CCC, #2418). 

Furthermore, the Pope also highlights the inconsistency of those who would argue vehemently against this kind of experimentation on animals while at the same time having no problem at all with experimentation on human beings! 

He writes, “it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometime fail to apply those same principles to human life.  There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (Laudato Si, #136).

Adult stem cell research—which is ethically sound and makes use of cells from tissues donated freely by adults—has already yielded significant results and still remains the most viable and hopeful source for the healing of disease and illness.  Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, has yet to result in any such healing.  In fact, when stem cells are removed from a living human embryo, the human life is destroyed in every individual case.  Much more than monkeys and mice, as a culture we must learn to appreciate the overwhelming value and dignity of every human life.

While it is entirely possible that we may be ethically free from these negative realities that Pope Francis describes in Laudato Si, can we truly concede that the same “lust for power” is absent from our lives entirely?  If we search our consciences and look at our own experiences, is it not the case that we have sometimes insisted on having dominion and rule over the circumstances and people in our own lives? 

The libido dominandi is not only applicable to the Roman Empire in the time of St. Augustine or to Pope Francis’ cautions regarding ecology in 2015.  It can often wreak havoc in the family, in the workplace, and even in the Church!  It is not the way that God directs us to build up the City of God.  So what does God ask us to consider when it comes to building up that eternal Kingdom?

In the place of the lust for power and the thirst for rule and domination, the Scriptures this weekend direct us to hunger and thirst for God.  In our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, the very personification of that great divine attribute, invites us to her feast where we can drink deeply and be completely satisfied in the things of God.  We hear about how Wisdom “has built her house, she has set up her seven columns,” and she cries out to all who will listen:

Let whoever is simple turn in here…Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!
—Proverbs 9:4-5

Drinking deeply from the wisdom of God and growing in a personal relationship with Him is the greatest antidote to the libido dominandi.  Jesus Christ, in the Gospel this weekend, invites us into that personal relationship by revealing Himself as the food that alone sustains us for all eternity.  He proclaims:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
—John 6:51

Do we truly hunger for Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, above all other earthly things?  Are we able to admit that the lust for power, however “invigorating” or seductive it may be, is ultimately insatiable and never completely satisfying?  Do we dare to take God up on His offer this weekend and to seek the one necessary thing—indeed, the one Person, Jesus Christ—that alone satisfies and sustains us?

May the Bread of Life and the Blood of Christ strengthen us this week to work with passion and joy as we cooperate in building up the City of God, a city that begins here in this beautiful world, and that will culminate in an eternal life with God.