Pope John Paul II, to be canonized on April 27 by Pope Francis, was one of many people who've decried a "culture of death" in recent decades. The description was warranted, but Catholics also believe that natural death is a part of life and can be beautiful and dignified.
So Pope Francis offers an alternative view, in which the problem isn't so much death as it is "a culture of waste," in which everything, even human beings, are treated as disposable commodities when they are no longer "useful." Pope Francis tied this mentality to throwing away excess food at his June 5 general audience and later on Twitter, saying that "throwing food away is like stealing it from the poor and hungry." He revisited the "throwaway culture" July 22, en route to Brazil for World Youth Day, this time using the term in reference to society's treatment of young people. He invoked it yet again on September 20, regarding abortion.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago brought together disparate voices in the Church by showing how our teachings fit together in one "seamless garment." Pope Francis offers the flip side, how the Church's teachings fit together even when the world ignores them. "Pope says wasting food is a sin" may make for entertaining headlines, but it misses the genius of the cohesive Catholic vision Pope Francis offers the world, of how much Catholic teaching can be encapsulated in this "disposable garment."
It applies to how we relate to:
- The poor, who have been a focus of Francis' pontificate, explicitly mentioned by the pope as those excluded from society at a local, national and global level.
- The unborn, whether they are destroyed in the name of convenience or personal freedom with abortion or in the name of scientific progress with embryonic stem cell research.
- The elderly, sick and disabled, when voices in our society suggest that physician assisted suicide ought to be the law of the land because some lives just aren't worth living.
- Immigrants, who have been treated as a convenient source of menial labor, but have not been recognized by society or rewarded for their contributions.
- Workers, who are not a means to an end, profit, but people deserving of a living wage and whose work deepens their sense of human worth.
- The imprisoned, who are easier to write off and forget, or even dispose of altogether, than to rehabilitate and restore. Pope Francis showed us, through the gesture of washing feet, that these people are still to be loved and supported.
- The environment, not a commodity to be used up as we please, but something precious, created by God and left in our care.
- Young people: as Pope Francis has explicitly pointed out, young people are the future, and yet society perpetuates circumstances in which they cannot find jobs and face crushing educational debt.
- Our relationships: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has spoken frequently of a vocations crisis, not just in the priesthood, but in marriage. Many people treat their marriages as disposable, not as lifelong commitments. Fewer people are bothering to get married at all. News stories profile "hook-up culture" on college campuses in place of young people pursuing lasting relationships.
- The Internet: Whether it's pornography, a news story or even a meme, the Internet provides endless opportunities to use people as disposable pleasure objects, laugh derisively at them, yell at them or otherwise dismiss them. Digital technology can build up human interconnectivity like never before. It also allows us to demean on a dizzying scale, whether by perpetuating the "rape culture" that trivializes violence toward women or through a political discourse built on demonizing people. Which brings us to...
- People who are different from us: whether it's unrest in places like Syria and Egypt, conflict between countries or our own discourse, people of different cultures, countries, religions and points of view deserve our respect, not acts of intolerance and violence that degrade or even eliminate them.
- Our vocations, both religious, personal and professional: Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, told members of the Catholic Press in 2012 that a new problem exists in the world today: "people have forgotten how to dream." People have lost the sense that God has a plan for every person. We are not here to waste time, but to pursue the vocation that makes us ever more the person that God intends us to be.
Bishop Wester is bishop of the Diocese of Salt Lake City and chairman of the Communications Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
(CNS Photo/Paul Haring)