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Newsflash: Santorum Out of Touch With Catholic Theology

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Does it make it better or worse that Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum -- who seems to want to impose his own religious view on the rest of us (or at least on women) -- is actually is out of touch with some central Catholic doctrines? I am not talking about his seemingly complete inability to honor Jesus' radical idea that we love our enemies or spend at least as much time thinking about our own sins as condemning others. From where I sit these simple, undoubtedly traditional, and enormously difficult Christian values don't enter into his thinking very much, if at all.

No, I'm talking about his recent attack on the values of environmentalism. After saying that President Obama was operating with a "phony, non-biblical theology," he explained what he meant by claiming that the Obama administration followed a "radical" theology in which "man" was meant to serve nature. The true, the biblical view, Santorum tells us, is that "the earth is here to serve man."

The big, glaring problem with these assertions for a self-proclaimed highly religious person is that for at least three decades countless religious leaders, theologians and ordinary people of faith have been talking, and acting, as serious environmentalists. (For details, and references to what follows, see my book A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and our Planet's Future.)

To begin with, religious environmentalists reject Santorum's (culturally male?) assumption that either we have to rule the earth or it has to rule us. Instead of thinking that in any relationship one party or the other has to be in charge, on top, or more important, religious environmentalists have talked of "partnership," "cooperation," "recognition," "reciprocity," "interdependence" and even "love." They have stressed that whatever is done to nature will ultimately rebound onto humans; and integrated issues of class and race into a concept of "eco-justice" which seeks, in the words of the World Council of Churches, to join a society of peace and justice with a human respect for and support of the "integrity of creation."

Let's be clear: the advent of religious environmentalism is not simply the province of the "usual suspects" of often politically progressive liberal Protestants, Reform Jews or Engaged Buddhists. Generally conservative Evangelical Christians in the U.S. have some vibrant and active environmental groups and environmentalism is now, as the saying goes, as Catholic as the Pope.

Consider how John Paul II virtually began his Papacy by naming St. Francis as the patron saint of those would seek to protect the environment; and soon after challenged the validity of an unquestioned faith in technology as something that increased the "threat of pollution of the natural environment." In this caution the Pope was not simply recognizing the negative impacts of pollution on people. He was also warning against a human alienation from nature, and asserting that God wanted people to be "guardians" as well as "masters" of the earth. That is why, he argued, our relations with nature are not simply a matter of human convenience, but are subject to moral laws -- just as our relations with other people. Morally our current treatment of the earth suffers from a "lack of respect" -- not just reckless and imprudent exploitation: "Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation, which is called to join man in praising God."

Finally, in a statement which seems to border on a mix of deep ecology or paganism - -remarkable for the leader of a religion which for centuries had violently persecuted indigenous spiritual traditions -- John Paul offered the hope that "If nature is not violated and humiliated, it returns to being the sister of humanity."

Comparable statements, with a variety of emphases and language, can be found in "Renewing the Earth," a U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops statement from 1991. Not content to simply rest with well-intentioned proclamations, the Council created resource kits for local parishes with names like "God's creation and our responsibility" and "Renewing the Face of the Earth," and included of material to enable theology to become part of the daily life of a local church: source material for sermons, precise and accessible summaries of the church's teachings, suggestions for prayer and worship, opportunities for environmental action, and examples of such action taken by other parishes. The kits, mailed three times to each of the nineteen thousand U.S. parishes, strongly emphasize that, as the Pope had stated clearly, justice for humans and justice for nature are intertwined.

Thus Santorum's virtual ignoring of environmental issues -- check his website for statements of environmental concern and if you find even one, let me know -- may be correct or incorrect, depending on your point of view. But it is not orthodox Catholicism -- at least not the morally, politically and spiritually serious Catholicism of 2012, one that has been reshaped by the reality of a global environmental crisis. It is as if Santorum might support kings over democracy because the Church did so in 1750 -- failing to notice that the Church had changed its thinking about the role of common people in political life.

If the devil, as it is said, can quote scripture to his own purpose, so can political candidates. Is it that hard to see what those purposes are? And which social forces (corporations) and destructive cultural forms (consumerism) are really the Master such candidates serve?

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