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!