Friday, March 9, 2012

From the illusory selfish gene to the cooperative nature of the human genome

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Times of systemic crisis such as those we are living in favor a review of concepts and the will to project other possible worlds that will make what Paulo Freire called the "untested feasibility" a reality.

It is known that the prevailing capitalist system in the world is consumerist, viscerally selfish and predatory of nature. It is carrying all humankind to an impasse as it has created a double injustice: ecological, because of having devastated nature, and social, because of having generated immense social inequality. To put it simply, though not so much, we might say that humanity is divided between the minority who eat their fill and the majority who are poorly fed. If at this point we wanted to universalize the type of consumption in rich countries to all humankind, we would need at least three Earths equal to the present one.

This system claims to find its scientific basis in the research of British zoologist Richard Dawkins who, thirty-six years ago, wrote his famous The Selfish Gene (1976). The new genetic biology has shown that that selfish gene is illusory, because genes do not exist in isolation; they constitute a system of interdependencies forming the human genome, which obeys three basic principles of biology: cooperation, communication and creativity. It is, therefore, the opposite of the selfish gene. This is what has been demonstrated by notable names in new biology such as Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, J. Bauer, C. Woese and others. Bauer reported that Dawkins' selfish gene theory "isn't based on any empirical data." And worse, "it served as biopsychological justification to legitimize the [individualistic and imperial] Anglo-American economic order." (Das kooperative Gen, 2008, p.153)

It follows that if we want to achieve a just and sustainable way of life for all people, those who consume much should drastically reduce their consumption levels. This will not be achieved without strong cooperation, solidarity and clear self-restraint.

Let's dwell on the latter, self-restraint, since it is one of the most difficult things to achieve due to the dominance of consumerism, spread across all social classes. Self-restraint implies necessary renunciation to respect Mother Earth, to protect the collective interests, and to promote a culture of voluntary simplicity. It is not about not eating, but eating in a sober, supportive and responsible way with our neighbors, with the whole community of life and future generations who must also consume.

Limitation is also an ecological and cosmological principle. The universe evolves from two forces that are always self-limiting: the forces of expansion and contraction. Without this internal boundary, creativity would cease and we would be crushed by contraction. In nature, the same principle operates. Bacteria, for example, if they are not limited among themselves or if one of them loses the limits, would very soon occupy the entire planet, unbalancing the biosphere. Ecosystems ensure their sustainability by limiting beings among them, allowing all to be able to coexist.

Well, to overcome the current crisis we need above all to strengthen the cooperation of all with all, communication between all cultures, and great creativity to design a new paradigm of civilization. We have to give a final farewell to the individualism that overstated the "self" to the detriment of "us", that includes not only human beings but the entire community of life, Earth and the universe itself.

Politics Before People: The Diocese of Sacramento v. Francis House

Francis House Center, a Sacramento, California nonprofit agency that provides a variety of services to the homeless, was born 42 years ago out of St. Francis of Assisi parish. It serves about 25,000 clients a year with an annual budget of around $500,000. Among the services it provides are legal assistance with obtaining benefits and replacing lost identification documents and driver's licenses, job development and employment support, and emergency housing assistance for homeless families. Hardly a controversial program and, for the last 20 years, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento has been funding St. Francis to the tune of $7,500-$10,000 a year.

Now the Diocese has announced that its collaboration with the agency will come to an end. The reason? Last year, Francis House hired Rev. Faith Whitmore as its new Executive Director. Rev. Whitmore, formerly the senior pastor of St. Mark's Methodist Church, brought considerable experience to the job. Before her ordination, she had lived in several Catholic Worker communities, working directly with the homeless. She had also served on the boards of several local nonprofit groups, including the American Leadership Forum, Habitat for Humanity, the Interfaith Service Bureau, Friends Outside, Planned Parenthood, and Sacramento Area Congregations Together.

In her previous capacity as pastor of St. Mark's, Rev. Whitmore had committed the unpardonable "sin" in the eyes of the local Catholic hierarchy of supporting -- and performing -- gay marriages. The Diocese also cited her support for Planned Parenthood and freedom of choice and the fact that she permitted the Catholic Church reform group Call To Action and supporters of women's ordination to meet at St. Mark's.

Rev. Whitmore called the withdrawal of funding "surprising and disappointing" especially since she had "never represented any of those positions on behalf of Francis House." Michael Miller, a member of the Francis House corporate advicory board, expressed support for Whitmore, and added that the agency "really appreciates the diocese's support over the years. But the issues raised in their letter are not our issues....We serve the poor...We don't have a litmus test for homeless people when they come in. We don't ask them for their position on choice and gay marriage. We just help them. But for whatever reason, the diocese made those issues a higher priority than the mission."

Rev. Whitmore and Francis House are taking a position of being grateful for the Diocese's support to date and moving on. I'm not sure that's enough, and I would encourage those who feel outraged by this decision to do two things:

1. Make a donation to Francis House Center to support the great work they are doing. You can contribute online through their website at or send a check to Francis House Center, 1422 C Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-0916.

2. Contact Bishop Jaime Soto to politely express your disagreement with this decision:
Most. Rev. Jaime Soto, Bishop
Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento,
2110 Broadway,
Sacramento, CA 95818-2518
Tel: (916) 733-0100

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jesus' Anger

by José Antonio Pagola (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Eclesalia Informativo
March 7, 2012

John 2:13-25

Accompanied by His disciples, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for the first time to celebrate the Passover. Looking out over the grounds surrounding the Temple, He finds an unexpected sight. Sellers of oxen, sheep and doves offering the pilgrims the animals they need to sacrifice in honor of God. Money-changers settled at their tables, trafficking in the exchange of pagan coins for the sole official currency accepted by the priests.

Jesus is filled with anger. The narrator describes His reaction very graphically. With a whip, He chases the animals from the holy grounds, overturns the tables of the money-changers, throwing their money to the ground, and screams, "Don't make My Father's house into a marketplace."

Jesus feels like a stranger in that place. What His eyes are seeing has nothing to do with true worship of His Father. The Temple religion has become a business where the priests are looking for good incomes and where the pilgrims try to "buy" God with their offerings. Jesus surely recalls the words of the prophet Hosea that He would repeat more than once throughout His life: "Thus says God: I desire love, not sacrifice."

That Temple was not the house of a Father God where everyone greets each other as brothers and sisters. Jesus can't see in it that "family of God" which He wants to keep forming with His followers. It is nothing but a market where everyone seeks his own business deal.

Let's not think that Jesus is condemning a primitive, poorly evolved religion. His criticism is deeper. God can not be the protector and procuror of a religion woven from personal interest and selfishness. God is a Father who can only be worshipped by working for a more fraternal and supportive human community.

Almost without realizing it, today we can all turn into "merchants and money-changers" who don't know how to live except by looking out for our own interests. We are changing the world into a great market where everything is bought and sold, and we run the risk of even experiencing our relationship with the Mystery of God in a mercantile way.

We must make our Christian communities spaces where we can all feel that we are in "the Father's house". A warm and welcoming house where no one is shut out, where no one is excluded or discriminated against. A house where we learn to listen to the suffering of God's most helpless children and not our own self interest. A house where we can invoke God as Father because we feel like His children and seek to live together as brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ACT NOW: Sign the Catholic Bishops' Petition on Nuclear Disarmament

I'm happy when I can actually promote something worthwhile that our Catholic bishops are doing. In this case, it is a petition to President Obama in favor of nuclear disarmament. The letter we are signing on to reads as follows:

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you for supporting the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and for pledging to "put an end to outdated Cold War thinking." In the 21st century, nuclear weapons are a global security liability, not an asset. You must act now to reduce the nuclear danger and the role of nuclear weapons.

In the coming weeks, I urge you to end outdated U.S. nuclear war-fighting strategy, dramatically reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons and the number of submarines, missiles, and bombers that carry those weapons, and take U.S. nuclear weapons off high alert. Maintaining large numbers of nuclear forces on alert increases the risk of accident or miscalculation.

By taking these steps, you will facilitate reductions in Russia's nuclear arsenal, encourage other nuclear-armed countries to join in reductions, and move us closer to a world free of nuclear weapons.

If you want to add your name to this letter/petition, which closes on March 31, 2012, click here.

Where is God today?: A Lent 2012 reflection by Jon Sobrino

by Jon Sobrino (English translation by Rebel Girl)
February 23, 2012

The ten years from Medellin (1968) to Puebla (1979) were unique in the modern era of the Catholic Church in Latin America. Then began a decline which Aparecida (2007) wanted to curb, though to this day there remains much to do.

In making this judgment, we are not looking at the church as the sociologists analyze it, but we are looking at "the passage of God." It is certainly more difficult to gauge, but it touches the deepest dimension of the Church, and at what service it should be -- briefly, what it brings to human beings and the world as a whole. And obviously one has to ask "which God" is passing through history at a given time.


It was a quantum leap. The poor irrupted, and God irrupted in them. It was a founding event that penetrated the faith of many and configured the Church.

Surprisingly, the priority for the assembled bishops was not the Church itself, but the world of poor and the victims, that is, God's creation. Their first words proclaim the reality of the continent: "massive poverty, the product of injustice." The bishops acted, above all, as human beings, and allowed the reality that cried to Heaven to speak. They are the cries God heard in Exodus; they made Him come out of himself and enter decidedly into history. Similarly, with Medellín, God entered Latin American history.

Starting from the irruption of the poor, and of God in them, Medellin thought about what it is to be church, what is its identity and core mission, and what should be its way of being in a world of poor people. The answer was "a church of the poor," similar to the dream that John XXIII and Cardinal Lercaro had. It did not succeed in the Council, but it did at Medellin. The Church felt compassion for the oppressed and decided to work for their liberation. For many, with more or less explicit awareness, it was hailed as a blessing. For others, it was perceived, rightly, as a serious danger.

Power soon reacted. In 1968, Nelson Rockefeller wrote a report about what was happening, and that that new and dangerous Church had to be weakened and curbed, and that is what happened at the beginning of the Reagan administration. Oligarchies with capital, armies, and death squads unleashed a persecution against the Church, unknown in the history of Latin America. The persecution, and standing firm in it, made it clear that something new and evangelical was happening: the Church of Medellin was with the poor and persecuted people, and incurred the same fate. Thousands were killed, including half a dozen bishops, dozens of priests, men and women religious, and many lay women and men. With limitations, errors and sins, it was a Church that was much more chaste than prostituted, much more evangelical than worldly.

Within the Catholic Church, Paul VI promoted and encouraged this new church, but high officials of the Roman Curia and other local curiae discredited it, treated its flagship representatives -- the bishops too -- poorly and unfairly, and designed an alternative church, different and even opposite, more devotional, intimistic, one of movements that were submissive to, and defenders of the hierarchy. And what had to be avoided was that the Church would get back into conflict with the powerful. The popular church, born around Medellin, faithful and lucid, one of base communities, that experienced the poverty of the continent, suffered double persecution from the oppressor world and, fairly frequently, from the Church itself.

Such a Church was a witness and follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnated, advocate for, and companion of the poor, it carried the cross and frequently died on it. It announced the Good News as Jesus did in the synagogue at Nazareth. It had its "twelve apostles", the Fathers of the Latin American church with Don Helder Camara, one of the pioneers, with Enrique Angelelli, Don Sergio Mendez Arceo, Leonidas Proaño, with Monsignor Romero, pastor and martyr of the continent, and others. It became ekklesia, in which women and men, religious and laity, Latin Americans and foreigners, came to form an ecclesial body, a great community of life and mission. Between those at home and those abroad a solidarity was generated that had never been seen before -- they lifted each other up. Hope and joy grew. And from the love of the martyrs was born a breath of resurrection, free from all alienation, which referred back again and again to history to live in it as risen ones.

In that Church, the Spirit blew, the spirit of Jesus and the spirit of the poor. That spirit inspired prayer, liturgy, music, and art. And it also inspired prophetic homilies, lucid pastoral letters, home-based theological writings, not just imported texts that had not been through the crucible of Medellin.

In the center of it all was the gospel of Jesus. Luke 4:16: "I have come to preach good news to the poor, to set the captives free." Matthew 25:36-41: "I was hungry and you fed me." John 15:13: "No one has greater love than to lay down one's life for the brethren." And Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One, Acts 2:23: "The One whom you killed, God has brought back to life."

Now what?

Surveys, sociological and anthropological, economic and political studies offer data and provide explanations about the Catholic Church and other Christian churches. They tell us if we are going up or down in number and influence in society. From that perspective, I have nothing to add. And strictly speaking, the future of what we call "Church" is not my biggest concern, although I have lived and live in it, and I'm used to belonging to the family.

What interests me, and makes me happy, is that "God passes through this world." And the reason is simple. The world is "gravely ill", Ellacuria used to say -- "sick unto death," Jean Ziegler says. In other words, it needs salvation and healing. Therefore, as a believer and a human being, I wish that "God would pass through this world" because that passage always brings salvation to the people and the world as a whole. We had the blessing of feeling that passage of God with Medellin, with Monsignor Romero, with many popular communities. With many good people, mostly simple folk. With a host of martyrs. And also, although that can only be felt "in a difficult act of faith," as Ellacuría used to say to explain the salvation brought by the suffering servant of Isaiah, with the crucified people.

How are we today? Being simplistic in such serious matters would be committing a grave error. It would be unfair not to see the good which, in many ways, exists in the churches. And it would be arrogant not to try to find it, even though sometimes it hides behind a shell that doesn't clearly reflect Jesus of Nazareth. In any case, the passage of "God" will always be an inscrutable mystery, and only on tiptoe and with maximum respect for all human beings can we talk about it. But with all these precautions, something can be said. We will mention the realities of the faithful and their communities, but we have in mind above all the entities, high in the hierarchy, historically very responsible for what happens, and who can not be held to account effectively. With simplicity, I will give my personal view.

Pentecostalism in various forms abounds, as a kind of church that is distant from the real life and death problems of the majority, even though it brings encouragement and comfort to the poor, which is not be disdained when they have nothing to hold on to for their lives to be meaningful -- the situation in wealthier classes is different. A large number of movements proliferate, dozens of them, church media -- radio and television stations -- proliferate that are excessively submissive to the ideals and standards that come from the curiae, without giving a sense of freedom to take into their own hands a gospel that proclaims the good news to the poor, in the form of justice, and without hinting at the need for a reflective, minimally scientific, study of the Word of God, and in general the theology offered by Vatican II and Medellin. Devotions of all kinds proliferate, older ones and those of today. Jesus of Nazareth, the one who went about doing good and was crucified, is easily cast aside in favor of the Child Jesus, whether of Atocha, Prague, the Child God, this said with great respect. The mighty Jesus of Galilee, of the Jordan, the prophet of denunciations around the temple of Jerusalem, is easily diluted in favor of devotions based on apparitions with an excessively sentimental and mellifluous background. To put it simply, Divine Providence can become more attractive than the Father of Jesus, the Son who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy Spirit, who is Lord and giver of life, and the Father of the poor, as is sung in the Pentecost hymn.

Overall in the Church today it's hard to find the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, freedom in the face of power, that doesn't cease to be power because it's sacred. One notes excessive obsequiousness and submission to all that is hierarchy, which becomes paralyzing fear. From positions of ecclesial power, triumphalism appears, and what I have called the multitudinous mediagenic ministry of apotheosis. In many seminaries, discourse and thinking have been replaced by memorization. At meetings of the clergy, as we know, questions, discussions and debate have been replaced by silence. The pastoral letters of the seventies and eighties -- a real source of pride for the churches that occasionally regain freshness, in Guatemala for example -- have been replaced by short, demure and restrained messages, with arguments taken from the Pope's latest encyclicals. The institutional center no longer seems to be in Latin America, but in distant Rome. All this is said respectfully.

How God's passing through Latin America will be, and with whom He will pass, remains to be seen, and ultimately it belongs to God. But it is up to us yearn for it, work for it, and learn how it happened in the past around Medellin.

It's good to know and analyze the swings in membership and influence of the churches in society. According to the data, the Catholic Church is declining in both areas. But we must remember more the roots from whose sap we have experienced the passage of God. And water them humbly, with living water.

What will happen to our church and all churches has yet to be seen. My hope is that, whatever happens on the outside, it would be to put itself at the service of God's passage through this world, the God of Jesus, the compassionate and crucified prophet. And God, the giver of hope.

These are questions we can always ask. But perhaps it is good to ask them at the beginning of Lent. This time requires fortitude from us to walk to Jerusalem. And it offers us the hope of meeting the crucified and risen Jesus there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pedro Casaldaliga: Standing on the side of the outraged

This month, Pedro Casaldaliga, the 84-year old bishop emeritus of Sao Felix do Araguaia, gave a radio interview in Catalan to RAC1. The radio station selected some quotes from the interview to transcribe and we have translated these into English so non-Catalan speakers can get the gist of the interview. At the end of the interview, Casaldaliga is asked about a TV series that is being made about his life. The program will be titled "Descalç sobre la terra vermella" ("Barefoot on the red earth") and is based on a book about the bishop with the same title by Francesc Escribano. -- RG

Pedro Casaldàliga believes that the "outraged" ("indignados") are "the sign that things are changing," and that there is a conscience of struggling for the oppressed that he hasn't seen in years. The bishop emeritus of Sao Felix do Araguaia has taken a position in favor of the outraged and has recommended "fighting with hope." Speaking from Brazil, he commented that he is living with Parkinson's disease, that he feels old and growing closer to "the Father's house," but he still has ideas that are younger than ever. He believes that women should have a more prominent role in the Church, and that in Europe there are increasingly fewer vocations.

Pedro Casaldàliga, bishop emeritus of Sao Felix do Araguaia, also said:

- "I feel good, hopeful, with many reasons to thank God."

- "I carry Parkinson's like a brother known to abuse confidence, knowing that it limits movements, but doesn't hurt."

- "Right now, we are experiencing exclusions to the famous crisis. The little people, the ordinary people are going through it; the big people aren't going through it. It is used to strengthen economic power. But it is also serving to raise awareness. The outraged, even the United States, are a sign that things are changing, an important step, a unified global consciousness against the disparity."

- "I stand clearly on the side of the outraged. However, one has to fight with both indignation and hope. "

- "There are some in the church hierarchy who bring nothing. Instead of being open to dialogue and understanding, they ban and excommunicate. They give the impression of a judgmental God."

- "It is an injustice that women are relegated to second or third positions within the Church. The Church is now being sustained mainly by women. At the services, 70% are women. Wanting to marginalize women within the Church is immensely foolish. But this will pass."

- "Women will get into all ministries of the Church. There is no theological argument that shows that women can not be ministers of worship [ie. priests]. If they haven't been up to now, it's because society has been sexist."

- "Everyone deserves full respect for their identity. There has been a historical process that has marginalized homosexuals, who have been branded evil in society."

- About gay marriage: "The Church must consider human nature along with the specific conditions of each people, culture, and individual. We can't make generic definitions that don't take into consideration specific circumstances."

- "God can not be a motive for war, He must be a reason for peace. There have been too many wars for religious reasons."

- "When we die we will find God's embrace. It is our hope. They can take everything away from us, except hope."

- "Europe must recognize that it has a mission: to save Greece from the hands of those who want to save it while putting their interests first, and not the dignity of the Greek people."

- "As long as profit and the banks go on being the masters of life and human history, we will have crises -- economic crises and crises of dignity."

- "Europe will be saved by solidarity within Europe and throughout the world. You have to be vigilant against the temptation to exclude immigrants. It's a challenge: if we don't know how to receive outsiders, we won't know how to live with those in the house."

- "I have never left Catalonia. I'm still there. Being far away, we are close. I have a poem that says that the more we go away, the more we come back. The roots are there. I still eat bread with tomato every day."

- About the series that will honor him: "When they proposed it to me, I said no. I was afraid they would make a religious western. But I have confidence in those who are leading it, starting with Paco Escribano. I insisted on this idea: It's not my life; it's our causes."

- "They picked a good lead actor [Eduard Fernández]. We met here. I had seen him in "Pa Negre" ("Black Bread"). He seems a very sensitive man who has penetrated and is interested in the role."

- "[My daily life is] reading, praying, receiving visitors, answering e-mails, I hope, with much hope. I'm closer now to the Father's house."