Cardinal Pelagius warned the itinerant friar from Assisi against his attempt to meet Sultan Malik al-Kamil in Egypt 796 years ago about nowish. During the summer battles in the heat and humidity of the Nile delta, thousands of Crusaders and Muslims had been killed and the notion that two unarmed pious men would make it to the Sultan's camp alive was beyond the pale. According to most accounts, the fact that Francis of Assisi and his companion Illuminatio survived their capture before being brought through the conflict into Sultan al-Kamil's compound was miracle enough. The hospitality and dialogue that ensued over the subsequent week represents unimaginable kindness on the part of both great and pious men. And the fact that Francis returned to Europe with a muezzin's ivory horn which he used to call faithful Catholics to prayer as he'd heard Muslims similarly called indicates that the fraternity of this heretical visit transcended the sanctified, murderous zealotry of the 13th century.
I listened intently to Pope Francis' September 25, 2015 address to the United Nations and, together with millions of others, reflected on the humanity that his words and actions represent in a time when zealotry and conflict are grabbing headlines across the globe. And to be sure, Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato si' have fallen about as far from Pope Innocent III's murderous crusades and tyrannical usury as could be imagined. The historical irony - a 21st century pontiff bearing the name of a saint who's Order was recognized by Pope Innocent III (yes, the same pope that nullified the Magna Carta) - of overturning principles codified 800 years earlier is one that bears note. But as I listened to several speakers at the Climate Investing: Transition to a Low-Carbon World conference at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana over the past two days reference Pope Francis' many notable quotes about morality and justice, I found myself flooded with heretical thoughts worthy of the Inquisitor's wrack or pyre.
As with hundreds of conferences before, the conversation at this conference recited the tired apocalyptic catechism of degrees centigrade, meters of sea level, tons of carbon emissions, etc. Somber specters of human extinction were benignly accommodated punctuated by flashes of hope against the soot-blackened outlook on a humanity that is addicted to consumption, hypnotized under the 60Hz spell, and reflexively immune from pathos by presenting gargantuan scale obstacles to intimidate the most intrepid. In South Bend, we had our Cardinal Pelagius telling us of certain doom, our Innocent III praising the infallible utility gods, and a couple would be Francis and Illuminatios. But, missing from this conversation - as with so many other similar gatherings - was the recognition that we will not clear the skies or clean the waters until we kneel to humbly repent of a much blacker stain than any carbon could muster. We still hold onto the abusive notion that we are lords over the earth and we reinforce that illusion by our relentless fear that to contemplate a heresy that threatens the monetary malignancy that demands perpetual growth beyond all natural order is to step too far into the unknown.
So, while I know that the Vatican bank and the $150 billion a year juggernaut called the Catholic Church will turn to advisors like former Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig at Promontory Financial Group (the firm that was paid reportedly around $2 billion to help bail out their banking clients during the GFC) for their advice and strategic direction, I thought that it might behoove us to consider excerpts of a note I drafted for Pope Francis when I was put on stand-by to comment on his then-up-coming visit to the United States.
Dear Pope Francis,
Your words and actions since becoming the Bishop of Rome have been a fragrant nectar in a desert of moral decay. Together with millions of others, I deeply honor the courage you've exemplified in challenging the iconic expectations of your office. Were you and I able to meet one day, I would lean into my Anabaptist heritage and engage in the one lost sacrament that I believe we would both share: the washing of feet in service and humility. As a young boy, I spent my birthdays traveling through the missions of California and found myself constantly drawn to St. Francis as a model of the human ideal. So with your accession, I celebrated the reinvigoration of his memory and service.
However, across the years, I've found myself increasingly concerned with what can only be described as hypocrisy plaguing the very catholic and universal impulse that you steward. For while I can read your encyclicals and find in them profound coherence with my understanding of truth, I am blinded by the simultaneous objective insincerity that they represent when it comes to the ultimate seduction: monetary idolatry….
And let me be abundantly clear on where this idolatry is most poignant. In Laudato si' you correctly speak of our common home and our stewardship thereof. And while it is beyond the scope of this message, I would respectfully point out the vast land holdings your Church stole from Communities of Persistence (then labeled as "indigenous" or "heathen") across the globe in the name of Christ. These lands which include coastal plantations in the Pacific, mining concessions in the Americas and the source of energy reserves throughout the world are now at risk of sea level rise, toxic waste and degradation, and ruin and yet as Chief Steward, you've done nothing to repatriate and heal the very lands the Church took in its darkest hours. The gilded altars glisten with the gold and silver that came at the cost of the lives of millions in slavery and no reconciliation is proffered….
So, while we can recount the abuses of times past, allow me to offer a modest suggestion inspired by your regnal namesake. During the height of the Crusades, St. Francis traveled to North Africa in an effort to convince a Muslim Sultan of the merits of ending a war that his Pope sponsored. The fruits of his efforts were not realized in his life but they could be in yours. Then, as now, massive human dislocation is taking place in Syria, Jordan, Babylon, and North Africa. Then, as now, much of this dislocation is fueled by inequitable access to water and means of basic alimentation. Then, as now, most of the responses from the world's elite is to rain down warfare on the "infidel" regardless of the direction he or she bends the knee.
Let's do something different. We know that Syria's conflagration is caused, in large part, by the failure of rains that have made scarce water insufficient to support small farmers. This problem, expanded to scale, has inflamed old hatreds and has led to unimaginable horrors. We know that bombings have not worked any better than swords and pikes 796 years ago. So how about this. Why don't you place a tithe - one tenth of your bank's balance sheet - into the St. Francis Sultan Malik al-Kamil Fund for Humanity. Far from a "development bank", this fund would immediately offer a sukuk for water infrastructure development specifically owned by Syrian and Jordanian landowner / farmer cooperatives. The Vatican's obligation would merely be to stand as surety or collateral against the performance of the sharia compliant bond. The bond service would be paid from the agriculture produced by the arable land. And, at long last, the words of the Prophet Isaiah will come to fruition: "The desert shall rejoice and blossom as a rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing."
Truly Laudato si'