Pope Francis’ Encyclical: My New Book and a Lenten Program

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I must apologize for my absence from the blog site over the last couple of weeks. It’s that I’ve been putting the finishing touches on a new book I’ve written about Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I consider the most important public document of the present century.

The 150 page book is called Understanding Laudato Si’: A Discussion Guide. (It is featured along with a “Buy Now” button on the right hand side of my blog homepage. The price is $8.15 per copy.) The book is aimed at people of faith who’d like to start or participate in discussion groups about climate change as the moral issue Pope Francis calls it.

(By the way, an “encyclical” is a general letter to the church as a whole. It represents the highest most solemn form of papal teaching.)

Laudato Si’ is unique in that it comes from the pen of history’s first Global South pope. So it is shaped by the experience of the former colonies (Latin America, Africa, and South Asia). It is heavily influenced by colonial and neo-colonial exploitation.

More particularly, Laudato Si’ was written by a priest who comes from country victimized by the U.S.-supported “Dirty War” that the Argentinian Army waged against the pope’s homeland from 1976-1983. That war took the lives of at least 30,000 Argentinians – at least one bishop, many priests, nuns, and lay catechists along with union organizers, teachers, social workers and those suspected of supporting the democratic resistance.

No other pope has had such “Third World” experience of aggression at the hands of the United States. No other pope has been influenced directly by liberation theology – which has centralized the concept of “preferential option for the poor” that marks Francis’ papacy.

Read in that light, Laudato Si’ presents the world with understandings of climate change, economics (especially capitalism), history, theology, and church that are uniquely “Global South” rather than the European understandings that shaped the visions of Francis’ predecessors. All the other commentaries I’ve seen have overlooked those differences.

I’ve shared drafts of the book with friends. One wrote: “Your book should be in the hands of every bishop and priest and parish, as well as to the pundits we daily read and hear in the mass media.”

The great African-American feminist scholar, bell hooks, commented: “You make difficult concepts and theories accessible. The work itself embodies the spirit of inclusion you write about so eloquently. Bravo!!!”

A priest-activist working in the Appalachian region wrote:  “Congratulations, this is a winner! . . . You wrote an amazing book.  I read it and I remembered.  I thought about it and I learned.  I critiqued it, and I grew. . . Let’s see how we can spread the analysis.”

I’m hoping that my book will be used this Lent as a discussion guide in parishes throughout the United States.  It is currently under review by my own diocese of Lexington, Kentucky.

In my own parish, St. Clare’s here in Berea, we’ve made the following proposal for dealing with Pope Francis’ call to action. Perhaps readers of this blog might implement something similar in their own parishes:

Lenten Program, St. Clare Church, Berea, Kentucky (Wed. Feb. 10- Sat. Mar. 26, 2016)

The St. Clare Peace and Social Justice Committee proposes a Lenten adult education program that will centralize the Papal Encyclical, Laudato Si’. Participants in the six week program will pursue the following goals:

  • Acquaintance and familiarity with the content and historical background of Laudato Si’.
  • In the light of that encyclical:
    • Sharpening awareness of the environmental crisis itself and of capitalism’s role in that predicament, as well as the parts played by U.S. policy, Global South theology, and the Catholic Church.
    • Rethinking the elements of each person’s Catholic faith including understandings of God, Jesus, church, and salvation.
    • Re-evaluating the relationship between a reconsidered Catholic faith and the environmental crisis.
    • Identifying practical ways of coping with the environmental crisis in the personal, familial, parochial, national and global dimensions of life.

To achieve these goals, each participant will:

  1. Adopt as a Lent 2016 practice, participation in six 90 minute group sessions discussing issues raised by  Laudato Si’.
  2. Sign up in advance for program participation. (Non-obligatory “interest cards” will be found in each pew on Ash Wednesday and on the First Sunday of Lent.)
  3. Before each meeting, read and reflect on the discussion guide adopted by the group (either the one to be provided by the diocese or Rivage-Seul’s Understanding Laudato Si’: A Discussion Guide).
  4. Actively participate in the discussions.

Program Organization

Feb 14:  View the first half of “Time to Choose” followed by a disciplined discussion. (“Time to Choose is a new 90 minute film by Oscar winner, Charles Ferguson. The film makes the case that we can combat climate change; that we have the tools and the knowledge to begin doing so right now.) (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 1-30)

Feb 21: View second half of “Time to Choose.” Discuss in the light of the Discussion Guide’s summary of Laudato Si’.  (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 31-50)

Feb 28: View lecture by economist, Richard Wolff on capitalism and the environment. Discuss the pope’s approach to economy facilitated by Chapter Two of the Discussion Guide.   (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 51-82).

Mar 6: View the first half of “This Changes Everything” (a new 90 minute film by Naomi Klein based on her book by the same name). Discuss in the light of Pope Francis’ “preferential option for the poor” as explained in Discussion Guide (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 83-100)

Mar 13: View second half of “This Changes Everything” in the light of liberation theology as explained in Discussion Guide. (Assignment: Read Discussion Guide, pages 101-140).

Mar 20: Discuss the Church as Caravan and practical responses to Laudato Si’.

Encouraging Signs that Capitalism is on Its Last Legs

End of Capitalism

Last week President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. His announcement caused huge celebration in the anti-fossil fuel resistance movement.  The victory made it clear that we’re living in revolutionary times. Powerful movements for social justice are springing up everywhere, not only on the climate change front, but more generally nationally and internationally.

Even more importantly, there is a red thread running through it all. The changes (and there are many as we’ll see) all represent the impending collapse of capitalism. We are likely standing on the brink of a transformation world-wide that parallels the fall of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago.

To begin with, think about what’s happening with the climate movement. Environmental activists are on a surprising roll in terms of their recent successes.

These include:

  • The September 2014 Great Climate March in New York City which brought out 400,000 people.
  • The subsequent rapid spread of the fossil fuel divestment movement.
  • The recent TransCanada Corporation’s decision to temporarily suspend the XL Pipeline project even before President’s Obama’s announcement.
  • The unexpected election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister on a platform highlighting commitment to Canada’s First Nations who are key players in the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
  • Shell Oil’s abandonment of its arctic drilling plans.
  • The expose of ExxonMobil’s cover-up of its own 1980s research identifying fossil fuel combustion as a major cause of global warming. (Despite its findings the company spent millions over a 27 year period promoting climate change denial.)
  • The prospect of a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for adopting that “cigarette strategy.”
  • Widespread outrage following the release of the Transpacific Partnership text which accords multinational corporations the power to override local environmental protection standards because they might impede corporate profit.
  • The resultant promise of huge demonstrations and citizen lobbying efforts against the treaty.
  • Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, legitimizing the positions of environmental activists previously called “extremists” for expressing the same ideas.
  • Next month’s Climate Conference in Paris which promises to yield further victories.

As Naomi Klein has pointed out, such changes – such widespread resistance throughout what she calls “Blockadia” – change everything. They signal a growing awareness that an economy based on fossil fuel consumption just cannot continue.

And that’s not all. Other mobilizations of people dissatisfied with the socio-economic status quo are sweeping our own nation and creating new socio-political configurations. Here I’m thinking of:

  • The success of the Occupy Movement in coining the “One Percent” watchword and making economic disparity a key political campaign issue.
  • The unexpected phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy. (After more than 50 years of subjecting Americans to the most intense anti-socialist propaganda, who would have thought that a self-identified socialist could gain such a following?)
  • The mobilization of the Black Lives Matter campaign as a 21st century resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The spread of the movement to campuses like Yale and the University of Missouri where students of color forced the resignation of Mizzou’s president and chancellor.
  • The invasion of our country (and of Europe) with refugees from the U.S.-led and/or supported wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. (In fact, refugees represent the most powerful and effective anti-war marchers in the history of our planet.)
  • The invasion of the U.S. with refugees from Mexico and Central America demonstrating the failure of the War on Drugs which has torn that country and region apart.
  • Ditto for immigrants manufactured by the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement and its Central American counterpart (CAFTA).

Yes, the chickens of Orwellian wars and of neo-liberal economic policies are coming home to roost with a vengeance.  It is now possible to speak openly (as Pope Francis has done) about the failures of unfettered capitalism. It not only destroys the environment. It creates massive wealth disparities and unemployment especially in communities of color. Government cut-backs in public services (including police training) wreak havoc everywhere. As a result people are out in the streets. They’re stopping traffic. Students are walking out of class. Even the Mizzou football team and its coach went on strike.

Finally, think about what’s happening internationally:

  • On June 17 th 2014, 133 of the world’s 196 countries met and declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by Western Empire.
  • Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts.
  • Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy aimed at and independence from U.S. Empire.
  • Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots often advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
  • Despite recent setbacks, Greece has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. SYRIZA’s original anti-austerity message has spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
  • Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
  • The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) representing at least half the planet’s population, are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
  • World-wide computer news sites have largely replaced a corporate-controlled mainstream media (MSM). People have awakened to the fact that the MSM can’t be trusted. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media are not even “alternative” any longer. Their mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Their message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more war, torture, rape or genocide.

Economist, Richard Wolff, is fond of saying that when social change happens, it often comes quickly. He says that for decades it might seem that nothing happens. Then in a matter of days, decades happen. That’s the Soviet Union story of a little over 25 years ago.

We’re now in one of those periods where pent-up frustration and zeal for change is being released with hurricane force. It’s a good time to be alive – and to get on the band wagon.

(Sunday Homily) Pope Francis’ Prophetic Warning on Climate Change: Repent or Else; the Time Is Short

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Readings for 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: JON 3: 1-5, 10; PS 25: 4-9; I COR 7: 29-31; MK 1: 4-20; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/012515.cfm

Last week, Pope Francis offered a preview of his eagerly anticipated encyclical on climate change – to be published next June or July. While visiting the Philippines, the country most devastated by climate chaos, it wasn’t that the pope merely joined the chorus of scientists, environmental activists, and those who heed them. He went much further, promising to transform the issue of climate change from a debate topic trivialized on Fox News into a matter of “faith and morals” (The phrase used by Catholics to define the area within which the pope has overriding authority.)

In doing so, Francis follows the traditions of prophets like Jonah and Jesus – each centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Both prophets called for repentance (change of thought and action). However, the repentance they summoned pales in comparison to what the pope evidently has in mind.

Yes, the pope is a contemporary prophet. At this moment in history, he is arguably the most powerful ever in terms of his consciousness, courage, credibility and constituency. He literally embodies our best hope for “saving the world.” So it’s incumbent on progressives to heed, highlight and support his efforts.

With that in mind, consider today’s readings about prophetic warnings and how to respond.

The first recalls the message of the Bible’s fictional character Jonah. He’s a reluctant ethnocentric prophet forced by God to call Israel’s mortal enemy, Nineveh, to repentance. “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed” Jonah proclaimed with some delight.

Ultimately though, Jonah’s ethno-centricity is frustrated when against his desires, the Ninevites quickly and unexpectedly take his message to heart, change their ways, and God repents “of the evil he had planned.” In this way, the Divine One showed God’s character as depicted in today’s responsorial. There the psalmist says that (unlike Jonah) God is compassionate, loving, kind, good, and upright. God guides humble sinners on the path of truth – i.e. reality as it is, not as humans would like it to be.

Jesus’ proclamation was similar to Jonah’s, but without that prophet’s nationalist limitations. As depicted in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ basic message was a call to profound change: “This is the time of fulfillment,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” That notion of fulfillment and the nearness of God’s Kingdom introduces a profound element of hope to complement Jesus’ summons to repentance.

Like the Ninevites in the Jonah story, Peter and Andrew, James and John take Jesus’ words to heart profoundly altering their lives. They leave their former employment as fishermen abandoning their nets, their fathers’ boats and hired men. They follow instead a penniless itinerant preacher and community organizer, adopting his life of complete dependence on others for daily sustenance.

In today’s second reading, Paul shows that the early church embraced Jesus’ message. “Time is running out,” Paul warns. It’s time to prioritize the Kingdom even before family, emotional ups and downs, attachment to property — and to the world as it is. Paul is uncompromising in his perception of the profundity of change “repentance” calls for.

However the apostle’s perception is nothing like the lack of compromise called for by the historically unprecedented crisis of climate change. And this brings me back to Pope Francis and the promise of his prophetic consciousness, courage, credibility, and constituency.

Begin with Francis’ consciousness. He alone among our elected thought “leaders” recognizes contemporary historical patterns – the links between climate change, capitalism, its neo-liberal order, corporate power, income inequality, poverty, colonialism, and a host of other problems (including absence of universal education and health care). For Francis, climate change is not merely one issue among many. It is the frame which makes evident the solutions to those other issues.

More than this, the pope has the uncommon courage to identify without equivocation the cause of such problems – neo-liberal capitalism. He says what politicians like President Obama and other heads of state (with the exception of Raul Castro of Cuba) find impossible to say. Their dependence for survival on billionaires and plutocrats render them impotent before the ideologies of unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” theories. By contrast Pope Francis terms the latter homicidal (53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). (Parenthetical numbers refer to sections of “The Joy of the Gospel.”)

Additionally while speaking the unspeakable, the pope enjoys tremendous credibility. With the exception of neo-liberalism’s intractable apologists, the world loves and embraces the man. His efforts to distance himself from the traditional luxurious papal lifestyle, his honesty in responding to difficult questions, his humility and genuine love for the poor make him our century’s most credible moral leader.

And finally, there’s the pope’s constituency. Unlike prophets before him (including Jesus of Nazareth) sheer numbers give Pope Francis unprecedented power to change the world. Jonah’s potential respondents to his calls for repentance were only inhabitants of the city of Nineveh. In today’s gospel reading Jesus’ respondents were four simple fishermen: Peter, Andrew, James and John. Eventually, only a minority of poor Palestinian peasants took to heart Jesus’ words. By contrast, and in virtue of his office, this pope’s constituency is trans-national and world-wide. There are 1.2 billion Catholics on the planet the pope calls “Mother” and “Sister.”

Evidently Francis’ plan is to use his credibility to courageously spread his consciousness and widen his constituency. He plans to do so in five steps. He will (1) publish an encyclical (the most authoritative form of communication at his disposal), (2) convoke an ecumenical meeting of world religious leaders, (3) presumably secure from them a statement paralleling his encyclical’s conclusions, (4) present that statement in his speech to the United Nations in September, and (5) attempt in doing all of that to influence the conclusions of this year’s Climate Summit in Paris two months later.

That’s prophetic activism unparalleled in the recent history of the papacy.

And what specifically is entailed in the repentance necessary to save our Mother? Of course, to share the pope’s vision, we await details in the forthcoming encyclical. However, today’s liturgy of the word points us in the general direction. In the meantime, secular prophets like Naomi Klein fill in the challenging details.

General directions include (as Paul says in today’s second reading) transcending emotions like fear-inspired denial. They include willingness to cut family ties (i.e. narrow nationalism), re-examining our career paths, attachments to property and neo-liberal dreams of unlimited consumption and getting rich.

Specific repentance is more radical than any of our politicians dare articulate. According to Klein, author of This Changes Everything, that’s because our planet has reached “decade zero.” Denialists have led us to squander the leeway we had twenty-five years ago. If we don’t decisively alter within the next ten years our path of production and consumption, the planet’s temperature is bound to rise 4 to 6 degrees Celsius. However, according to climate scientists, any rise beyond 2 degrees will make disastrous climate change irreversible. And that will result in disastrous droughts, water shortages, typhoons, flooding, wildfires, and crop losses with whole cities under water and Islands swallowed by the sea.

To avoid such disasters, required repentance includes:

  • Rejecting the neo-liberal myth that has shaped our world over the last 35 years.
  • Replacing it (the pope will say) with the biblical vision of the Kingdom (proclaimed by Jesus in today’s gospel reading). God’s Kingdom is characterized not by competition and privatization, but by cooperation, sharing, prioritizing the needs of the poor and respecting the earth as commons.
  • Setting aside neo-liberalism’s fetish about regulation, and setting bold national policies guided by clear goals, a strictly imposed time table, and severe penalties for non-compliance.
  • Implementing corresponding policies to cut annual emissions in the industrialized world by 8- 10%.
  • Recognizing that exchange of myths means rejection of market-driven models of untargeted economic growth.
  • Redesigning our cities and redistributing population to eliminate long commutes between home and work.
  • Investing massively in light rail and other means of public transportation so that commuters might travel efficiently and free of cost.
  • Similarly subsidizing renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass.
  • Turning the roof of every available building into an energy plant.
  • Respecting the rights of indigenous people under whose lands so much carbon deposit remains.
  • Eliminating by law, controlling by strong regulation or penalizing by heavy taxation industries that are wasteful and/or destructive of the planet such as arms manufacturers, the fast-food industry, GMO firms, and middle-man industries like health insurance.
  • Dealing with climate impact and damage according to “the polluter pays” principle. This recognizes that the 500 million richest people on the planet are responsible for 50% of the world’s pollution and that the U.S. military is by some estimates the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world.
  • According to “the polluter pays” principle, withdrawing from foreign wars, cutting the military budget by at least 25% and making the rich 1% pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Tolerating as necessary increased taxes on everyone, except the poor.
  • Drastically reducing the amount of energy each of us consumes.

You get the idea. The agenda necessary to save our planet from “the evil Nature has planned” is challenging indeed. But it contains that surprising element of hope Jesus signaled when he termed “repentance” as “good news” and “fulfillment.”

After all, our destructive way of life is anything but fulfilling. On the other side of the repentance just described is a cleaner, healthier, less stressful life with full employment, more leisure, greater equality, and harmony with one another and our world.

That’s the vision behind the pope’s courageous prophetic work. It deserves our undivided attention and support.