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

Pope-in-Philippines

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.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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