Friday, March 19, 2010

No Other Gods

In his first Papal Encyclical, Deus caritas est Joseph Ratzinger – then Pope Benedict XVI – spent considerable time discussing the role of the church in social justice. He stated:

“The direct duty to work for a just ordering of society, on the other hand, is proper to the lay faithful. As citizens of the State, they are called to take part in public life in a personal capacity. So they cannot relinquish their participation in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good.”

In an encyclical that is built around discussing the relationship between love and social justice, the Pope made concluding reference to St. Martin of Tours who is the iconic representation of justice and charity. In an act of profound (and capital) consequence as a Roman solider, he took the property of the State (his uniform’s cloak) and gave it to a beggar. This act of giving State property to a beggar was a violation of Roman law and could have cost St. Martin his life. Instead, it became the foundation of his canonization. Pope Benedict XVI makes a clear declaration that “service of neighbor” is inextricably part of the mandate of the faithful and of the church.

So as Europe was aflame with the church’s tireless abuse scandal over the past week, I was in East New Britain and New Ireland provinces in Papua New Guinea – the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Rabaul. Established in 1844 as the Apostolic Vicariate of Melanesia and promoted to Archdiocese in 1966, the church was established in its current incorporated state with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Rabaul Act of 1969. And, while I thought I was going to write this week’s blog about the horrific scourge on humanity’s legacy (once again, fully capitalized, aided and abetted by the Toronto Stock Exchange and its willing investors) – Simberi Mining Corporation (TSX-V: SAU) – where an entire village’s food supply has been jeopardized by a failed re-routing of a river, I find myself compelled to address a more insidious injustice. That is the violation of the Papal Encyclical referenced above.

For those of you who don’t travel to the Archdiocese of Rabaul, it is hard to appreciate the depth of injustice represented by the land holdings of the Catholic Church. In a land where property rights did not exist in our current understanding, the church’s land holdings are vast. Much of the productive agriculture supply is controlled by the church and offered to locals (original stewards of the land) for leases. In a land of abundance, in the name of God, the faithful are charged for access to the creation that has been the heritable land of millennia. The Pope’s reference to the “common good” in his first encyclical is constantly violated by the perpetuation of exerting “ownership” of land that was taken from those who had no knowledge of what land ownership meant. In Kokopo, the prime commercial real estate is owned by the church. On the coasts, fertile farmlands are owned by the church. If the Pope was serious about his encyclical, why doesn’t he put himself in line with the very saint he holds as iconic and return the land to those from whom it was taken? Rather than entering history as the Pope on whose watch the church foundered on more sexual abuse, why doesn’t he actually become the first Pope to explicitly evidence that the church’s God is not mammon?

And the Catholic’s are not the only ones displaying conflicted messages in East New Britain and New Ireland. No church has been more clearly evidenced in promoting family values and the importance of social order than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – the Mormons. I have been amazed at the church’s expansive presence throughout the Pacific and have been constantly impressed with the tireless efforts of the church to build communities which provide education, recreation and numerous other benefits.

However, this same church that has worked so hard to promote the highest and most laudable social values as an expression of a genuine belief, has two amazing contradictions which cannot conflict with the very values that they promote. First, Zions Bancorporation (NASDAQ: ZION), the bank founded by Brigham Young, and other asset management arms associated with the church have active presence in the global gold market. This church, which promotes the value of family and stewardship could use its presence in the Pacific to call for accountability in gold mining. In a part of the world where Barrick (ABX.CA), New Guinea Gold (NGG), Simberi (SAU), Lihir (LGL) and the oceanicidial Nautilus (NUS.TO) operate with lack of environmental, social, or legal transparency, where is the church’s voice to defend its faithful against loss of land, ecosystem, dignity, and wealth? Regrettably, it is largely silent. Apparently gold is more important than people.

And who can forget the fact that Brigham Young University has patented biodiversity and indigenous knowledge from Pacific Island healers without naming the providers of the information in their patents? Where is the church when violation of international intellectual property law is done in its name and held in its institutions? Regrettably, here too it is silent.

You see, a great prophet is quoted as having said that you cannot serve God and money. However, whether it is in the colonial annexation of lands held in trust and Commons for millennia, or in the coin of comfort in times of fiscal uncertainty, it seems that communities of faith seem to lose their prophetic voice when it comes to the wealth upon which they count their blessings. And this, in the final analysis, is a failing more insidious than those that grab the headlines. Because they undermine the very values that are promoted as divine.

It’s time for those who seek to shepherd those who live in the abundance of creation to actually genuinely care for those who have turned to faith as their guide. It’s time for morality and justice to go all the way to the bottom line. Otherwise, the world will see the true identity of the god that has been deemed supreme.



  1. May these words reach around the world, Dave. Vital content for those of faith and anyone else who cares about justice! Just linked you from my blog as well.

  2. Great post. The churches need to understand the need to marry their good words with appropriate deployment of their material assets, including those, as you point out, misappropriated.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave