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Federico Fellini's movie La Dolce Vita (in English The Sweet Life) begins with a statue of Jesus being transported beneath a helicopter. Suspended in mid-air, the statue first moves through some ruins of ancient Rome and then over a massive construction project. Next, the helicopter disturbs the quiet of some young women tanning themselves on an elegant Roman rooftop. "Where are you taking Jesus?" they ask. From the copter comes the response, "To the Pope." They wave goodbye, the women continue soaking in the sun.
Finally the statue is lowered in the plaza outside of St. Peter's Basilica. As the statue descends, the camera focuses in for one final close-up of Christ with arms extended. This scene halts if only for a moment as though those transporting the statue might want to ask themselves, "Are we sure this is really what we want to do?" But any hesitation eventually yields to their original intention as the statue lowers into the square.
When La Dolce Vita was released in 1960, Italy moved from the devastation of World War II through the cold war fears of the nuclear annihilation. Fellini witnessed elements of Italian society responding to this with a hedonistic escapism. As secularization advanced in Italy, La Dolce Vita became Fellini's commentary that confining faith within church walls only leads to doom. Commenting on this film, director Martin Scorsese describes remaining scenes as "moving from decadence to despair with nothing in between."Remove Jesus from daily life, and as spiritual decay advances, hope dissolves.
In our society today, expressions of religious faith are often considered unwelcomed intrusions of public life. Our society can move from atheistic secularism to fundamentalist or even fanatical religious expression. Both of these extremes serve to push legitimate and balanced religious faith to the sidelines of public discourse and dialogue. Keeping Christ confined within church walls limits the ability to transform society with transcendent truth.
Like the characters of Fellini's movie, we can drop Christ off within church walls and leave him there to pursue our own desires. Then we are in grave danger of moving from decadence to despair with nothing in between. In our own country and throughout the world, we witnessed this very reality in the economic collapse of 2008. Reckless lending and borrowing practices resulted in a bubble of opportunity that burst into chaos. The resulting collapse destroyed entire communities, devastated families, and pushed millions of people into unemployment and poverty.
Later civil and criminal investigations, along with investigative journalism, discovered a culture within banking and finance devoid of any moral or ethical behavior. While this culture did not define the entire banking system, its corruption damaged its integrity. While entire financial companies went bankrupt, leaving tens of thousands unemployed, a few at the top reaped huge financial gains. The remainder of society plunged into a deep recession.
Blessed John Paul II issued three major encyclicals on Catholic Social Teaching during his long papacy. Focusing on these issues with countless other writings, Catholic Social Teaching became the centerpiece of his papacy. In 1987, Blessed John Paul issued the encyclical On Social Concern. Within that authoritative teaching, he developed the concept of "structures of sin" (paragraphs 36-39).
Along with "personal sin" which he saw integrally related, he witnessed in the world at that time "negative factors working against a true awareness of the universal common good". These "structures of sin" develop from practices, attitudes, and cultural expectations arising from the personal sins of many living in those communities. Blessed John Paul named two such "structures of sin" dehumanizing the world at that time, "the all consuming desire for profit and the thirst for power". He does not condemn in any way the need for profit or even the desire for profit, but the "all consuming desire" to which he adds the words "at any price".
When profit is sought "at any price", it results in human exploitation and environmental degradation. Exploitation leads to the domination of one group over another and the breakdown of true human communities. This breakdown shatters trust, fosters hostility, and yields to violence.
But as more and more people buy into the "all consuming desire for profit at any price", a "structure of sin" emerges as a cultural norm seen as appropriate, moral, and expected. An "all consuming desire for profit" was one reason for this economic collapse and the deep recession that followed.
We would be mistaken however, to point the finger at secularization as the only source for such "structures of sin". For sure, secularization can contribute to this, but "structures of sin" did not develop because of secularization. On the contrary, these structures are present in the human condition and have existed and even thrived where Christian faith was dominant. The segregation culture of the South existed for generations from the end of the Civil War through the 1960's in our country even though Christianity was dominant in that region.
Often with "structures of sin", faith is not absent from the culture in general, but rather absent from a particular segment of cultural attitudes. For too many living in the Deep South, their Christian faith did not penetrate their racist segregationist attitudes. Christ, in a sense, was segregated from their attitudes about African Americans living in their region.For many, Christ was kept within church walls and away from any courageous challenge of these attitudes.
Racist attitudes and practices were not confined to the South, but were also entrenched in large Northern urban areas where Catholicism was dominant. A dominant Catholic culture should express itself in hospitality to all people, and assuring all have access to their just share of the common good. These are basic, unchanging, and non-negotiable foundations of Catholic faith.
But "structures of sin" prevented many Catholics from responding in this way. Within these "sinful structures" fear of strangers, fear of losing one's culture, fear of losing employment, fear of losing security bred a hostile and often-racist reaction. The truth of the Gospel found these "structures of sin" difficult to penetrate.
The heart of any Catholic culture is realized in the heart of the Eucharist. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, "So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma."
With the Lord, we are called to "hand ourselves over as a sacrificial offering to God". This handing over involves our entire humanity and our human life. Every aspect of our humanity from our desires and dreams, attitudes and expectations, physical, financial, sexual, emotional, spiritual and relational are handed over to God for complete transformation. This handing over finds fulfillment in the Eucharist, when we are one with the Lord's eternal sacrificial offering to God the Father.
The offering of one's life is not meant to benefit myself alone. Rather, as disciples of Jesus we are transformed by His sacrifice for the whole world. Most, if not all of us, are influenced by "structures of sin" so pervasive, we never think of questioning them. They are so prevalent in our lives, we accept them as normal and expected behavior. Called to transform our own broken and sinful humanity, we are then called to confront the "structures of sin" that wound and destroy the world at large.
These often are found no further away than our own homes and families, friends and acquaintances, workplaces, state and local political decisions, and gatherings in our very own parish. Sometimes we hear derogatory comments made about certain groups of people, or stereotypes in private settings that go unchallenged. We can witness harassment and bullying in workplaces and schools. We can know of practices that exclude certain groups of people, or efforts to deny them human rights or their just portion of the common good.
We can understand the power of fear dividing communities and fostering mutual hostility. In each of these instances and more, we need to be the one to challenge, console and transform hostility into hospitality. We need to view our political choices as something beyond "what's in it for me?" and "am I better off or worse off than the last election?" A wider moral horizon penetrates our political vision with a right to life from womb to tomb, and development of the common good welcoming everyone's access for their basic human needs.
The Catholic Church does not seek to impose her beliefs on anyone, or present specific solutions to the complex problems facing our world. Rather, the Catholic Church, through her social teachings, seeks to help shape a moral horizon. This horizon, shaped with basic moral truths, can hold the hopes and dreams of the people, and lead to the flourishing of the entire human community.
This moral horizon is born from the Lord's vision from Calvary as he shouldered the personal sins and "structures of sin" of the whole world. This moral horizon is released as power from the Resurrection and the rising of Christ's humanity fully transformed. This moral vision makes a claim on us every time we gather for Eucharist and approach the altar for the Lord's own Body and Blood.
Blessed John Paul sums this up again in his encyclical On Social Concern as he reflects on the
vocation Christ gives to The Church. "Through her commitment she desires, on
the one hand, to place herself at the service of the divine plan which is meant
to order all things to the fullness which dwells in Christ and which he
communicated to his body; and on the other hand she desires to respond to her fundamental
vocation of being a 'sacrament,' that is to say 'a sign and instrument of
intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race'." (#31)
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