I’m not aware of any theological principle that grants to popes a charism of coining pithy phrases that sum up profound issues in just a few words, but the three popes in my life as a Catholic have all had a knack for it.
When we think of our beloved St. John Paul II, phrases like “be not afraid!” and “Culture of Life” come instantly to mind.
Professorial Pope Benedict XVI, just before he was elected, gave us “dictatorship of relativism,” still one of the most apt descriptions of modern society you’re likely to find. The brilliant theologian also gave us “hermeneutic of continuity,” and while some might find that doesn’t trip off the tongue as easily as the others, it’s an indispensable principle for our faith.
These phrases are prophetic and remain meaningful and valid for us today.
And then there is Pope Francis, who is a font of pithy phrases and memorable images, like “to the margins.”
One that’s been on my mind a lot is “throwaway culture,” a phrase Pope Francis has used in reference to a whole host of issues, including abortion, euthanasia, immigration and the economy.
The idea Pope Francis is playing off of here is one of those strange things that’s at the same time widely known and widely ignored. It’s the consumer goods we buy so often that are disposable, meant to be used once and thrown in the trash, like bottled water. It’s the “planned obsolescence” — things deliberately designed to go out of fashion, break down, wear out, fall behind or otherwise become ready for the trash relatively quickly, creating the need to buy a replacement.
I suspect most of us feel a bit queasy about that reality, both because it doesn’t seem like it could possibly be a good thing and because changing it or even thinking about it seriously would require confronting some pretty basic ideas in our lives, both in the personal realm of our actual practice and in the realm of ideas and our economic orthodoxies.
It’s easier just to go with the flow.
Maybe that is partly why Pope Francis’ application has so much force behind it. Instead of applying it just to things, the pope says we’re applying it to persons too. When they become inconvenient or sick or costly or unproductive or otherwise unwelcome, we toss them out like that empty Coke bottle or that last-generation gadget.
If the pope is right, implicit in this mentality is a vision of the human person, one that is in direct conflict with the vision Christianity has proposed to the world for 2,000 years. Christianity views each person as an unrepeatable creation made in the image and likeness of God, loved by God all the way to the cross and sought by God for an unspeakably blessed eternity.
The opposing vision casts the human person as something akin to a product, a commodity, a thing.
Isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing, more and more, in the conflicts and challenges of our time? Aren’t little unborn babies treated as mere objects to be disposed of if they present a hardship to parents or, on the other hand, to be manufactured if they are desperately wanted or useful for medical research?
When someone gets too old or too sick or has to suffer in a way that makes the people around her uncomfortable and we argue for euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide as a response, aren’t we treating a person in the language of the spreadsheet, the cost-benefit analysis?
We have seen over the past months a conflict over race and appropriate use of force by police, with shocking scenes of violence and despair and the feeling that we’re coming apart at the seams. Did you notice the competing social media hashtags, #blacklivesmatter and #coplivesmatter? We don’t feel the need to make assertions like those unless we feel the value of those lives has been called into question.
The same sorts of things play a significant role in our debates over immigration, poverty, education, foreign policy and war. Isn’t it also behind the “hook-up culture” and our debates over just wages and in many other places we could name?
Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of Peace, highlighting human trafficking and modern day slavery, touches a similar theme, that in the light of Christ we are “no longer slaves, but brothers and sisters.”
Whatever the preferred phrasing, with the term “solidarity” used so often by St. John Paul II or the scriptural “fraternity” to which Pope Francis appeals here or Catholic social doctrine’s “preferential option for the poor,” this is the Christian view of social life, that we are all in it together, that absolutely no one is disposable or left behind, and that we have to pay particularly close attention to those who are most vulnerable, those most likely to be victims of the “throwaway culture.”
If we are to be peacemakers in the new year, that is the vision we have to reclaim.
Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.