January 10, 2014
By Wayne Slater
To start the year, let’s take a look ahead. What issue dealing with religion do you think Americans — or people around the world — will be talking about in a year that we are not discussing today?
Of course, there is some hoping and dreaming in all of this. But it is easy to get caught up in the rush of events and focus only on today. For a moment, let’s look over a longer horizon. We asked the Texas Faith panel this question:
What religious issue is likely to gain traction in 2014?
From health care, the gap between rich and poor, the Middle East, genetic medicine, Islam and the West, and most especially Pope Francis, our experts on religion and faith have predictions that are thoughtful, upbeat and diverse....
MATTHEW WILSON, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Southern Methodist University
One religious issue that will likely get more attention in 2014 and the years to come is the question of inequality, both within and between societies. It is a particular focus of Pope Francis, and I hope that he is able to motivate a thoughtful, global, theologically-informed reflection on the question—which is much more complicated than partisans on either the left or the right are often willing to admit.
The proper approach to global poverty and the growing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is neither simply to let unfettered capitalism “work its magic,” nor to demonize and impose confiscatory taxation on the prosperous. Moreover, it is not the role of religious leaders to prescribe specific fiscal policies or to advance macroeconomic theories. It is, however, very much their role to remind policy-makers and theorists—from the most capitalist to the most collectivist—of the human and moral dimensions of economic questions that can very easily become aggregated and abstracted.
In doing so, religious leaders and people will have to wrestle with some very difficult questions of social ethics themselves. For example, it seems clear that economic inequality per se is not morally problematic. No faith with which I am familiar teaches that it is inherently wrong for some people to have more material goods than others (though all teach that a certain level of detachment from those material possessions is desirable). At what point, then, does an unequal distribution of goods become morally problematic? Is it when some people have ten times more than others? A hundred times? A thousand times? A million times?
Alternatively, is it not really about ratios, but about whether the poorest have their basic needs met—and if so, how do we define “basic needs,” and do we evaluate this on a local, national, or global scale? Or, are both of these questions beside the point, because the morality or immorality of inequality depends fundamentally on its source—the extent to which it stems from “fair” and “open” economic systems (however we might choose to define those terms)? There are no easy answers to these questions, in my own Catholic tradition or any other. Catholic social teaching does provide moral and intellectual concepts that are useful in addressing them—solidarity, subsidiarity, the universal destination of goods, and the common good—but figuring out their implications in the face of very complex economic realities takes hard thinking, prayerful consideration, and a large dose of humility.
Despite the fact that such questions are hard, they cannot be ignored, and will likely received increasing attention from people of faith in the years to come. The very same forces of free trade, economic globalization, and trans-national capitalism that have undeniably lifted millions of people out of grinding poverty in the last several decades have also created social dislocations, resentments, and ever-increasing wealth disparities within nations all over the world. This complex reality defies the pat talking points of left and right, and demands sophisticated, nuanced moral reasoning from people of faith. I hope that we will in fact see such thoughtful theologizing—both from the Holy Father and from others—and their thoughts will be taken seriously by those who drive the engines of the world’s economy.
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean and Professor of American Church History, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
For most of us in America generally and in Texas particularly, it is likely that the religious issues on our horizon in 2014 may seem to be the domestic ones. Will the religious community become actively involved in discussions about immigration reform? Will Christian denominations face further fracturing over social issues such as sexual orientation? Will the rising number of persons who have no religious preference make more of an impact on the nation’s policies, practices, and politics?
But let’s take a larger perspective. Let’s look at religious affairs from a global perspective and consider their impact on the whole world and on the part of the world where we live in Texas.
First, Pope Francis will have his first full year as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church. A billion Christians belong to the community of faith that he leads all over the world. He has already demonstrated a pastoral agenda, a compassionate tone, and a reconciling spirit in his ministry. He has already appealed to people in his church to refrain from creating divisions on matters that are not central to Christian doctrine. During 2014, his vision will bring further changes to the Roman Catholic Church and will clearly have an important ecumenical impact.
Second, religious disputes in certain regions of the world will shape inter-religious dialogues beyond their own national boundaries. In Malaysia, for instance, 2014 marks the 500th year in which some of the translations of the Christian Bible have used the word “Allah” wherever the name of God appears in either Hebrew or Greek texts of the scriptures. A few decades ago, the Malaysian legislature passed a law that prohibits non-Muslims from using the word. Some extreme political activists (a kind of Malaysian Muslim tea party) are demanding that Christians cease using the term. But prominent leaders, including the daughter of a former Prime Minister, are challenging the extremists and are advocating a spirit of reconciliation rather than a spirit of animosity in the nation.
Will a pastoral compassionate approach to all persons of faith, like that of Pope Francis, have an impact during 2014? Will the spirit of reconciliation overcome the spirit of division in 2014?
The world is posing some questions that contain a message for people of faith in Texas....