(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis Calls for a Global Catholic Climate Movement

Italy Pope Epiphany

Readings for 1st Sunday in Ordinary Time: I SAM 3: 3B-10, 19; PS 40: 4, 7-10; I COR 6: 13C-15A, 17-20; JN 35-42

Recently Pope Francis has come in for some hard criticism from the U.S. right wing. It’s not just because of his rejection of free market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and huge income disparities between the rich and poor. It’s not just his openness to gays and divorcees, and his refusal to obsess about abortion and contraception.

Yes, all of these have undermined what conservatives have seen as a close alliance between the Catholic Church and their pet causes and thinking modes.

However, the straw breaking the back of reactionaries is the pope’s unequivocal warnings about climate change. They’ve gone apoplectic about his intention to publish an encyclical on the matter, and his plans to convoke a conference of religious leaders to address it. The pope’s expressed intention is to influence this year’s U.N. Paris Conference on Climate Change. All of that has raised the specter of a global Catholic climate change movement potentially mobilizing the world’s 1.2 billion members. Think about that for a minute!

In such context, Francis visit this week to the Philippines is extremely significant. The Philippines is not only the home of 80% Asia’s Catholics – more than 100 million. It is also the poster child for the devastation that climate change wreaks on the principal victims of global warming, the world’s poor. In 2013 the archipelago was raked by Typhoon Yolanda whose winds and floods killed more than 7000.

So the world listened when on his way to Manila Pope Francis was asked if climate change is “mostly due to the work of man and his lack of care for nature?” In reply, the pope said:

(F)or the greater part, it is man who gives a slap to nature continually, and we have to some degree become the owners of nature, of sister earth, of mother earth. I recall, and you have heard, what an old peasant once told me: God always forgives, we men forgive sometimes, but nature never forgives. If you give her a slap, she will give you one. I believe that we have exploited nature too much, deforestation, for example.

With words like those, the pope’s critics charge he is speaking beyond his expertise, which involves matters of “faith and morals.” But that’s just the point. The pope is making climate change a moral issue, a matter of ethics even more important than more “traditional” Catholic moral concerns about sex which after all presume the survival of the human species and the planet.

The pope’s critics also ignore, of course, that Francis bases his judgments not only on the testimony of 97% of all climate scientists, but on the research of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Its membership roster features the names of the world’s most respected scientists. These include Nobel laureates such as Ernest Rutherford, Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Niels Bohr, and Charles Hard Townes. The Academy’s current president is Werner Arber, himself a Nobel laureate, and the first Protestant to head the group.

But why such right-wing fury? It’s because like Naomi Klein, conservatives see the (for them) disastrous implications of addressing the issue. As announced in the title of Klein’s book, they sense that This Changes Everything. That is, taking on climate change as a moral issue undermines the political right’s program of market deregulation and continued extraction of non-renewable resources.

So pundits like First Things blogger, Maureen Mullarkey have given up on lip sticking the pope and are now in full attack mode. According to Mullarkey Pope Francis is simply “an ideologue and a meddlesome egoist. His clumsy intrusion into the Middle East and covert collusion with Obama over Cuba makes that clear. Megalomania sends him galloping into geopolitical—and now meteorological—thickets, sacralizing politics and bending theology to premature, intemperate policy endorsements.”

For Mullarkey, Pope Francis pretty much stinks.

And that brings me to today’s gospel reading. It’s all about stink – about what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep.” Famously, you recall, the pontiff called on Catholic priests to live closer to the poor, to recognize them as God’s people and their welfare as the guideline for economic and social policy – to “take on,” he said, “the smell of the sheep.”

In other words, conservatives are suspicious of Pope Francis and are on the point of vilifying him because he smells too much like sheep — like the poor. He smells too much like Jesus.

Notice that in today’s gospel, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” To begin with, the phrase reminds us of the tribal, Bedouin origin of the biblical “People of God.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the great King David were all shepherds. They were primitive people close to the earth. They were tribalists. Jesus was a tribalist. According to John’s image, Jesus didn’t just smell like sheep; he was a sheep! He was in spades like his slave and Bedouin ancestors — like the poor people the pope is centralizing in his visit to the Philippines.

Pope Francis is a tribalist too. And he’s practicing what he preaches — both liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor,” and the traditionally Catholic principle of subsidiarity. Once again, that means endorsing economic and environmental policy not on the basis of market dictates, but according to human decisions about values like the common good. Humane policy, the pope implies, originates not on Wall Street, but in places like the Philippines’ Tacloban City which was leveled by Typhoon Yolanda. It’s there that the pope’s itinerary reportedly has him dining in the shack of a hurricane victim. (Can you imagine a humble Catholic housewife setting her family table to include the pope?)

As our century’s most powerful illumined voice of conscience, Francis is using his bully pulpit to wake us up. We’re like Samuel in today’s first reading – fast asleep even before the Ark of the Covenant (a reminder of Israel’s enslaved and Bedouin past). But we fail to recognize the biblical tradition’s significance to our lives – its call to tribal values which unfailingly center on animals, human family, and Mother Earth. We fail to see the implications of Paul’s observation in today’s second reading that all human beings – especially the poor and outcast – are temples of God’s spirit. That’s our tradition! That same Spirit resides, the pope says, in the planet that he (like St. Francis himself) calls our Mother and Sister.

So what would a global Catholic climate movement look like? It would entail:

  • Waking up like the young prophet Samuel. Like him we’ve heard God’s call many times. But at last in Pope Francis, we have a thought-leader speaking in a voice the simplest of us can hear. It’s the voice of conscience. And like Eli it’s giving us the proper way to respond: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”

A global Catholic climate movement further entails:

  • Rejection of corporation-based globalization which has us (over)consuming imported necessities that could be home-grown. (This involves lobbying against the Trans-Pacific Partnership.)
  • Joining the fight against fracking and projects like the XL Pipeline
  • Voting accordingly.
  • Urging the institutions we can influence (churches, universities, hospitals . . .) to divest from fossil fuel industries.
  • Adopting a “zero waste” policy in our homes and places of work.
  • Cultivating home gardens.
  • Adopting a vegetarian diet.
  • Educating ourselves about “green burial” and including plans for that in our “living wills.”

The list, of course, goes on. But you get the idea.

This stinkin’ pope is waking us up. He’s showing us the way. Thank God!

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

10 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis Calls for a Global Catholic Climate Movement”

  1. Excellent, Mike. Really good. Puts so many issues in correct perspective. If we do not address the crucial issue of climate change soon — actually yesterday — all other items become moot, don’t they?


  2. I agree: excellent article. Have you submitted to the NCR? While it was time — yesterday — it better be time now. Thanks for your efforts to wake us up, too.


  3. I thought this blog is a little contrived,
    There must be two of Noami Klein.
    The Lamb and the pope was a well washed photo-op
    Your bullet points were spot on.
    I admit the onyh wrong-wing press I read/scan is the the Wash.Post , NY Times, BBC and their likes,
    I havent got to the Malarchy Lady yet….but will.


  4. About energy conservation and clean energy … according to this Pigeon Forge website, the town’s “Old Mill” provided their energy until 1935. http://www.old-mill.com/info/our-history

    Wonder if Berea didn’t have something like this — most Appalachian towns did have a water mill. On the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, I met a man who described his grandparent’s water mill that powered their refrigerator (and Christmas lights, which people came to see for miles around!)

    Just like some people have a thing for railroads (and old canals), I love the sound and sight of water mills. They require a certain amount of water and a LOT of maintenance.

    Berea has student labor. It would be an interesting project using several departments to build and maintain a water mill, and also to observe how much energy a water mill produces compared to how much is commonly consumed. Mills are also a tourist draw (as in Pigeon Forge).


    Just a thought….anyone else, feel free welcome to claim this idea if you can run with it!


  5. Pope Francis, by nature of his position as pope in a centralized hierarchy, probably doesn’t understand how decentralizing power is one of the keys to prosperity. When people are free in their own minds to make their own decisions, and to take charge of their own lives, better conditions tend to arise. Some things in life are better left not-controlled by authorities.

    For example in the Philippines: Church opposition to contraception and tubal ligation has promoted massive overpopulation, with attendant poverty. Enormous numbers of Filipinos have had to emigrate to survive, and all too often they land in working conditions where Pinoys are exploited and abused. Too many Filipino children beg and comb garbage heaps to survive, or are jailed to keep them out of public spaces.

    Couples should negotiate family planning between themselves, without the interference of faraway authorities who cannot possibly make the best decisions in such an intimate matter. I hope that Francis will have the practicality and courage to remove priests from decisions that should not be theirs to make.

    Priests cannot demand that couples marry — that is a decision and a vow that people make to each other. Similarly, priests, bishops and popes should not demand that couples reproduce where the will to do so is lacking. That decision is out of place for outsiders (even grandparents…you are so fortunate.. I get envious when I see your grandbaby photos)


    1. Agree — in spades!

      In the same subject area: refusing Eucharist to divorced, separated Catholics is another topic that belongs in the bedroom and not at the altar – our place of eternal food and sustenance

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I agree, Mary, decisions made at the local level are usually more enlightened than those made far away. That’s what the pope would call the “principle of subsidiarity.” While we’re waiting for that to be implemented, we need to realize that in this neo-liberal world order, the “far away” decision makers are usually not government bureaucracies, but corporate bureaucracies. As voters we have at least minimal control over the former, almost none over the latter.

      Liked by 1 person

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