Why Male Clerics Promote Papal Teaching on Abortion & Contraception But Not on Climate Change

Patriarchy climate change

Why is it that under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI Roman Catholics heard no end of sermons about the evils of contraception and abortion? And yet today we’ve heard hardly a pulpit peep about Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change – published fully nine months ago. On the contrary, chanceries throughout the country (including the Lexington diocese) have been scrambling to sweep Laudato Si’ under the sanctuary carpet.

Could it be that Pope Francis has touched on an issue that lays moral burdens on men, their businesses and pocketbooks, and not primarily on women? The latter, of course, bear the main burden of unwanted pregnancies. So the all-male clergy has found itself courageously outspoken in defending human life, the “personhood” of fetuses (based on medieval science), and in prohibiting contraception rationalized on a similarly grounded morality of “natural law.” So, papal pronouncements about such questions are definitive, infallible, and universally binding (on women!).

Meanwhile, Laudato Si’ challenges the patriarchal economic system of capitalism, the coal and oil industries, Wall Street, and the one percent. Good Catholic men are up to their necks in all of that. So are bishops and the clergy in general.

So, the “pro-life” hierarchy hastens to distance itself from its infallible leader. They do so even though Francis claims to defend life in ways that far surpass concerns about sperm, eggs, zygotes, fetuses, and stem cell research. He’s defending the future of the planet and the human race!

An example of such double-standard is provided by the Lexington diocese’s Discovering Laudato Si’: a Small Group Discussion Guide. It not only softens Pope Francis’ teaching about climate; it actually contradicts them. For instance:

  • Pope Francis says that the issue of human caused climate change has been settled by the vast majority of climate scientists. The diocesan guide says “The debate will probably not be resolved anytime soon.”
  • Pope Francis writes that addressing the issue is “urgent” and must be confronted “here and now.” The diocesan booklet affirms that we are not called to “rush headlong into the fray. . . We have been given time to reflect, to absorb, to be transformed.” The Church’s slow response, it says, has precedent and purpose.
  • Pope Francis spends the preponderance of his encyclical addressing the structural causes of climate chaos including the unbridled market, the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism, and even specific issues such as carbon trading. Yet the diocesan booklet says that it is not yet time for “larger responses.” In the meantime, we are told, “Pope Francis has given us many little tasks we can begin right away.” Basically they are to reduce, recycle, reuse.
  • Pope Francis celebrates climate change activists and their organizations. He quotes approvingly from their Earth Charter, recommends boycotts, and employs the language of “climate debt” borrowed from those resisting mining operations in Latin America. Yet Discovering Laudato Si’ discourages such organizing. “Fortunately,” it says, “the Pope is not calling us to ecological crusade.” Joining movements, it adds, is worse than doing nothing.

While all this hesitancy and caution in defense of LIFE writ large? Why the endless chatter about moral obligations primarily directed at women?

Might it be that a pope has finally said something that threatens patriarchy?

As they say, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be the eighth sacrament.

How Rush Limbaugh Hijacked the Pope’s Climate Encyclical — & Our Parish Lenten Study Group

pope francis limbaugh 3

It’s Lent. Traditionally it’s a time for adult education in our parish. This year we decided to study the pope’s landmark encyclical, Laudato Si’.

The first meeting drew a group of 16 parishioners – almost all over the age of 60.

Perhaps understandably, the opening discussion never got much beyond statements familiar to most of us. More specifically, during our conversation we heard opinions voiced that:

  • The 125 year old Catholic social justice tradition is indeed admirable.
  • While capitalism has its problems, communism is just as bad or even worse.
  • Little can be done about global warming or about any social justice issues for that matter; it’s all due to irreformably corrupt human nature.
  • None of us is personally willing to change our lives much in response to the pope’s summons.
  • However, we might stop using Styrofoam cups during the parish fellowship hour after Mass.
  • We’re all on the same page and are preaching to the choir.
  • Some within the group have already moved off the grid and are generating electricity from solar panels.

Of course, most of those statements are questionable and worth discussing.

In any case, participants weren’t entirely to blame for the conversation’s lack of urgency. After all, the dialog exactly mirrored the source the group decided to use to focus its discussion – Discovering Laudato Si’: A Small Group Study Guide published by the Lexington diocese. It disappointingly succeeds in defusing the pope’s radical document in a way that Rush Limbaugh or any climate-change-denier might endorse. In its selection of papal texts, but especially in its introduction and conclusion, the guide actually adopts an overall tone and specific argument that:

  • The climate change debate is unresolved (p.10).
  • In the meantime, there is no urgency. In fact the church’s slowness of response is wisely traditional and purposeful (p. 27).
  • So Catholics shouldn’t “rush into the fray” (27).
  • In fact, it is not yet time for “larger responses” (27).
  • Instead the pope’s immediate summons is to personal change which itself necessarily takes time (27).
  • This means concentrating on “many little tasks” that address our own “ecological bad habits” (26).
  • Proper response, then, to the pope’s encyclical is to reduce, reuse, and recycle (27).
  • Our tiny tasks also include “helping the poor,” even though they often ask more than we can give, and even though helping them can be “dirty and dangerous,” and the poor themselves can be “angry, violent, or erratic” (24).
  • “Fortunately” we are not called to become climate change crusaders (26).
  • Doing so would be as bad as doing nothing (27).
  • And by the way, Marxism insists that “all capital and property should be controlled by the government” (5-6).

In view of such gradualism, complacency, misinformation, and discouragement of concerted activity, who couldn’t understand the group’s bemused lack of urgency in dealing with climate change and related issues?

And yet, the diocesan study guide flies exactly in the face of Laudato Si’ which adopts a strong position on the side of climate science. Its sense of urgency is unmistakable as is its overwhelming and specific focus on “the large issues.” According to Pope Francis, these call for abandonment of capitalism-as-we-know-it, for drastic structural change, joining world-wide movements, and restructuring economies according to a “preferential option for the poor.” Consider each of those elements.

First of all, the Pope unambiguously sides with climate science. Throughout the encyclical he endorses its findings:

  • “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climate system” (23).
  • The pope classifies climate change denial among what he calls obstructionist attitudes which range from a “denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions” (14).
  • In any case, the pope adopts what the 1992 Rio Declaration called “the Precautionary Principle.” It states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a pretext for postponing cost-effective measures which prevent environmental degradation” (186).
  • Laudato Si’ adds that “If objective information suggests that serious and irreversible damage may result, a project should be halted or modified, even in the absence of indisputable proof. Here the burden of proof is effectively reversed, since in such cases objective and conclusive demonstrations will have to be brought forward to demonstrate that the proposed activity will not cause serious harm to the environment or to those who inhabit it” (186).

Secondly, there is a sense of undeniable urgency in the pope’s words:

  • “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain” (161)
  • Humankind today finds itself in a state of global “crisis.” (The word appears nearly 30 times in the encyclical. According to Merriam Webster, “crisis” means an unstable situation of extreme difficulty or danger.”)
  • “Our contemporary lifestyle can only precipitate catastrophes” (161).
  • Consequences of inaction will be “dire” (161)
  • “Decisive action” is called for “here and now” (161)
  • “We urgently (emphasis added) need a humanism . . . in the service of a more integral and integrating vision” (141)

Thirdly, see how Pope Francis approves of “environmental crusades” and their actions. He says:

  • “Public pressure must be exerted in order to bring about decisive political action” (179).
  • “A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products . . . This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers.” (206)
  • “The Earth Charter asked us to leave behind a period of self-destruction and make a new start” (206). (TheEarth Charter – part of a worldwide environmental movement – is an international ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century.)
  • “The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges” (14)

Fourthly, the Pope centralizes the “larger issues” including re-evaluation of capitalism-as-we-know-it. His critique of the reigning economic system is found prominently in Laudato Si’  (LS), The Joy of the Gospel (JG), and elsewhere in his speeches and homilies. He has said:

  • Unfettered markets and their “trickle-down” ideologies are homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54), and unjust at their roots (59).
  • The right to private property should not be exercised primarily for personal gain (LS 93)
  • In fact, the unfettered pursuit of money is “the dung of the devil” (Speech Santa Cruz, Bolivia, 2015).
  • Instead “ownership” of private property is primarily an administrative responsibility to be exercised for the common good (LS 95, 129, 156, 159).
  • The earth’s wealth more rightly belongs to the poor than to the rich: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs” (JG 57).
  • The poor have been robbed of their resources and reparations need be made (LS 30, 51).
  • “If you were to read one of the sermons of the first fathers of the Church, from the second or third centuries, about how you should treat the poor, you’d say it was Maoist or Trotskyist.” (Pope Francis 2010 address)
  • “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm. (Speech in Cagliari, Sardinia 9/22/13).
  • “Enforceable international agreements are urgently needed” (LS 172)

Fifthly, according to Pope Francis all of these concerns belong to ordinary people who as moral agents,  must presumably educate themselves about their details:

  • The pope’s summons to address these issues is not directed towards the experts, but to “every person living on this planet . . . all people . . .” (LS 3).
  • In fact, the struggle for social justice and participation in political life is a “moral obligation” that is “inescapable” (JG 220, 258).

Sixthly, the pope offers an alternative to capitalism-as-we-know-it. The alternative is an economy structured according to a “preferential option for the poor.” This dictates:

  • Understanding Christian faith as essentially a call to prioritize the needs of the poor.” (In 2010 the future Pope Francis explained, “The option for the poor . . . is the Gospel itself.”)
  • An economy erected from the bottom-up. Its sponsoring question is how can we insure that farmers have land, that workers have jobs, and that everyone is decently housed?
  • Concern for all forms of life in the face of global warming, water and air pollution, massive extinctions, disappearance of rainforests, wasted food, waste in general, uncontrolled urbanization, rampant crime and loss of human meaning.
  • Drastic modification of market dynamics entailing at least the following: governments (1) intervening in the marketplace to insure the rights of all to jobs with living wages, housing, education, and health care, along with land for small farmers, (2) similarly regulating market forces to protect the global environment and all life forms from the most primitive to the highest, and (3) thereafter turning economies over to carefully monitored and controlled market forces under binding international agreements.

Finally, all of this – The Joy of the Gospel, Laudato Si’, the pope’s various speeches, and especially his address to the U.S. Congress raises specific questions about political activism and informed voting. For instance, does it mean voting:

  • Against climate-change deniers and for those who share the pope’s climate concerns?
  • Against champions of dirty fossil fuels and in favor of those supporting alternative, renewable energy sources?
  • Against those who would exclude refugees from finding shelter in the United States and in favor of those advocating sanctuary?
  • Against those who favor arms sales abroad and in favor of proponents of divestment from the arms industry?
  • Against champions of capital punishment and in favor of those calling for its abolition?
  • Against those proposing tax cuts for the richest 1% and in favor of increased redistributive taxes on their incomes?
  • Against those whose answer to global terrorism is war, bombing, and drone assassinations, and in favor of those who offer legal and diplomatic solutions to the problem of national security?
  • Against those who are selective in their “pro-life” advocacy, and for those who connect respect for life not just with abortion, but with providing care for unwanted children brought to term, with clean energy, environmental protection, universal health care, investment in public education, and opposition to capital punishment and war.
  • Conclusion

Pope Francis eco-encyclical is much more radical than the Lexington diocese pamphlet suggests. The study guide’s domestication of the pope’s urgent summons is not trivial. It fundamentally changes its message which is absolutely revolutionary (LS 114).

The earlier-mentioned Rush Limbaugh grasped that fact immediately. He said

“Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’. . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope. . .”

He added

“Essentially what this papal encyclical is saying is that every Catholic should vote for the Democrat Party. Well, no, that’s what it is! How else do you interpret it when the pope comes out and sounds like Al Gore on global warming and climate change? Or when the pope sounds like Clinton or when the pope sounds like any Democrat?”

Limbaugh, of course, is wrong. Plenty of Democrats (including the current president) shy away from the pope’s call for international control of pollution, for debt-forgiveness, colonial reparations, universal health care, abolition of capital punishment, cut-backs in military spending, and limiting “pro-life” concerns to the abortion issue.

Nonetheless, the diocesan study guide’s insistence on gradualism, avoiding big issues and rejecting international climate “crusades” renders it unlikely that diocesan discussion groups will ever move beyond timidity, caution, boredom and resistance to discussing the issues it raises both small and (especially) large.

After all, Cultural Revolution entails serious conversations about relevant cultural elements that Americans find difficult: economic systems, historic relations between the U.S. and the “Third World,” theological convictions, models of church, what group participants actually believe about God, Jesus and the Bible – as well as about significant practical responses to what is arguably the most important public document of the present century.

Becoming revolutionary means opening participants’ hearts and minds so all of us might move beyond pseudo-certainties, drop defenses, learn something new, and possibly endure personal transformation. Most of us are not much used to any of that.

Nonetheless those are the tasks before us in our Lenten study group – along with the questions appended below:

FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Is personal transformation desirable for you – personally, politically, and theologically? How might our discussion group stimulate such personal change?
  2. Are you willing to engage in serious reconsideration of the relationships between climate issues and economic systems, U.S. history, Global South realities, and reinterpretations of Christian faith?
  3. Is it really true that members of St. Clare parish are reluctant to respond positively and energetically to Laudato Si’?
  4. Would parishioners be willing to fund a solar energy project that would move the parish off the grid?
  5. What about petitioning Bishop Stowe to sponsor a similar project to move the entire diocese off the grid?
  6. What do you think is the most important issue raised by Laudato Si’?
  7. Is the pope correct in identifying climate change as a moral concern? Does it have the same importance, for instance, as abortion?
  8. What within you is the biggest obstacle to accepting Pope Francis’ message? Is it possible for you to provisionally remove or somehow suspend that blockage for purposes of discussing Laudato Si’? How would you do that?
  9. How would our Sunday liturgies change if our community recognized the truth and urgency of Laudato Si’?
  10. Do you agree that within our church there are many different ideas about matters of faith such as the identity of God, the status of Jesus, the authority of the Bible, the nature of salvation, and the connection between faith and issues such as climate change
  11. If so, how do we reconcile such fundamental differences with Catholic identity?
  12. Do you think it important to clarify what group participants actually believe about such matters?
  13. What should be done about theological and political differences – pastorally, liturgically, and in terms of community action?
  14. What practical steps might be taken to make the parish of St. Clare more vital, relevant, prophetic (like the pope) and effective in the world?

(Sunday Homily) The Pope’s Faith vs. The Donald’s

 

Fired

Readings for 2nd Sunday of Lent: Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps. 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Phil. 3:17-4:1; Lk. M9:28B-36.

Is faith more about what we say or what we do? And who is more Christian, Donald Trump or Pope Francis?

Those questions were sharpened yesterday, when Pope Francis implied that Donald Trump is not a Christian. Responding to a reporter’s question, the pontiff lit up the internet when he said about Trump, “Anyone, whoever he is, who only wants to build walls and not bridges is not a Christian.” In other words, the pope was saying that actions speak louder than words.

The pope’s comment came at the end of his six-day trip to Mexico, where he celebrated Mass with 300,000 faithful in attendance near the Mexican-U.S. border. He used the occasion to decry the “human tragedy” of worldwide migrations of people fleeing violence, war and the effects of climate change. That analysis, of course, conflicts with Mr. Trump’s who sees immigrants as rapists, drug-dealers, and terrorists.

It’s not surprising then that the pope’s words drew a quick response from The Donald. He called the pope’s charges “disgraceful” and accused him of being a pawn of the Mexican government. His sentiments were mirrored mildly in the comments of Mr. Trump’s competitors for the Republican presidential nomination. They seemed to agree that faith and Christianity is a private matter, between the believer and God. About that no one – not even the pope – can or should judge. For instance, Jeb Bush said, “Christianity is between he and his creator. I don’t think we need to discuss that.”

Today’s liturgy of the word disagrees. It wants us to discuss the relationship between words and actions – even between God’s words and God’s actions. In fact, according to readings for this Second Sunday of Lent, actions constitute demonstrable proof of faith claims. Specifically, the first reading from Genesis presents the God of Israel as one who is willing to stop being God – to butcher himself – if God’s word does not match with God’s deeds.

Then today’s Gospel reading (the account of Jesus’ transfiguration) indicates the type of action of which Israel’s God approves in his People.  It is not action motivated by fear, but by courage – even in the face of failure, personal harm, or death itself. In other words, the Gospel call is to put aside our fearful little selves who rank personal safety and security above everything else.

First of all, consider that very strange first reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s about Abram, an ancient sheik – the Founding Father of the Jewish nation. He originally lived in ancient Babylon but felt called to move off to the west, to start over, find a new homeland, and start a new independent tribe. He somehow felt that God was calling him to do all these things. Problem was, Abram was already advanced in years and his wife, Sarah, was beyond menopause. Still, he felt that God was promising him a large family – a tribe whose people would be as numerous as the stars of the heavens.

In today’s readings, Abram evidently feels time is running out on God’s promise. The sheik is looking for reassurance. It comes in the form of a dream. The dream answers his question: how trustworthy is God? Can God be trusted to have God’s actions and words conform?

Abram’s question makes this tribal pastoralist dream of the most solemn human covenant he knew of – the “Covenant of Pieces.” According to tribal practice, when an inferior made an important agreement with a patron – say to transfer property, do work, fight a battle, or repay a debt – he had to go through an extremely graphic pledge ritual. The ceremony involved sacrificing animals from the client’s flock (in today’s reading a mature heifer, she goat and a ram along with a turtle dove and a pigeon). The inferior was to split the animals in two, and align the carcasses in rows so that they formed a path with one half the heifer’s carcass on the left and the other on the right, and the same with the she goat and ram. Then with the patron holding his hand, the client was to solemnly walk between the carcasses taking note of their dead rotting state, their putrid smell, and of the vultures flying overhead.

All of this was a reminder of the power the client was handing over to his patron. He was saying in effect, if I don’t keep my pledge, I’m giving you permission to do this to me and to my family. You can butcher us all and leave us to rot in the sun. That’s a pretty serious commitment. Sheik Abram could think of nothing more solemn, reassuring or binding.

So his dream which at first glance seems so strange and confusing to us was extremely comforting to him as a tribal pastoralist. It had God (in the form of fire and smoke) playing the role of client to Abram. God was performing the “pieces” ritual in Abram’s presence by running the gauntlet formed by rotting meat. That is if God did not keep his word, God was willing to be butchered! This, of course, could never happen. So the dream meant God could never not keep God’s word. A God willing to be butchered rather than break his word? Reassuring indeed!

That tells us something about the biblical attitude towards word and deed – faith and works. God’s word is God’s bond. The same should be true of those who profess to be God’s people.

But what type of action are believers bonded to? Today’s reading from Luke answers that question. They are called to courageous action against those who oppress the poor (immigrants, victims of war and “scorched earth”) including religious “leaders” cooperating with empire. And they must do so even at the risk of their own lives.

That’s the implication of today’s gospel reading. There the young carpenter from Nazareth is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows something extremely risky is about to happen there. Yet he’s determined to be part of it. The risky action has to do with the temple and the collaboration of its leaders with the Roman Empire.

The temple has become worse than irrelevant to the situation of Jesus’ people living under Roman oppression. What happens there not only ignores Jewish political reality. The temple leadership has become the most important Jewish ally of the oppressing power. And Jesus has decided to address that intolerable situation.

Everyone knows that a big demonstration against the Romans is planned in Jerusalem for the weekend of Passover. There’ll be chanting mobs. The slogans are already set. “Hosanna, hosanna, in the highest” will be one chant. Another will be “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Hosanna” is the key word here. It means “save us!” The Romans won’t notice that the real meaning is “Save us from the Romans.” “Restore an independent Israel – like David’s kingdom!” It was all very political.

Jesus has heard that one of the main organizers of the demonstration is the guerrilla Zealot called Barabbas. Barabbas doesn’t call what’s planned a “demonstration.” He prefers the term “The Uprising” or “the Insurrection” (Mk. 15). Barabbas has a following as enthusiastic as that of Jesus. After all, Barabbas is a “sicarius” – a guerrilla whose solemn mission is to assassinate Roman soldiers. His courage has made him a hero to the crowds. (John Dominic Cross compares him to the Mel Gibson character in “The Patriot.”)

Jesus’ assigned part in the demonstration will be to attack the Temple and symbolically destroy it. He plans to enter the temple with his friends and disrupt business as usual. They’ll all shout at the money-changers whose business exploits the poor. They’ll turn over their tables. As a proponent of non-violence, they’re thinking not in Barabbas’ terms of “uprising,” but of forcing God’s hand to bring in the Lord’s “Kingdom” to replace Roman domination. Passover, the Jewish holiday of national independence could not be a more appropriate time for the planned event. Jesus is thinking in terms of “Exodus.”

And yet, this peasant from Galilee is troubled by it all. What if the plan doesn’t work and God’s Kingdom doesn’t dawn this Passover? What if the Romans succeed in doing what they’ve always done in response to uprisings and demonstrations? Pilate’s standing order to deal with lower class disturbances is simply to arrest everyone involved and crucify them all as terrorists. Why would it be different this time? Like Abram before him, Jesus has doubts.

So before setting out for Jerusalem, he takes his three closest friends and ascends a mountain for a long night of prayer. He’s seeking reassurance before the single most important act in his life. As usual, Peter, James and John soon fall fast asleep. True to form they are uncomprehending and dull.

However, while the lazy fall into unconsciousness, the ever-alert and thoughtful Jesus has a vision. Moses appears to him, and so does Elijah. (Together they represent the entire Jewish scriptural testament – the law and the prophets.) This means that on this mountain of prayer, Jesus considers his contemplated path in the light of his people’s entire tradition.

Last week, we saw in the reading from Deuteronomy 26, that tradition centered on the Exodus. Fittingly then, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah “discuss” what is about to take place in Jerusalem. Or as Luke puts it, “And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus’ Exodus!

It is easy to imagine Moses’ part in the conversation. That would be to remind Jesus of the chances Moses took when he led the original Exodus from Egypt. That might have failed too. Elijah’s part was likely to recall for Jesus the “prophet script” that all prophets must follow. That script has God’s spokespersons speaking truth to power and suffering the inevitable consequences. Elijah reminds Jesus: So what if Barabbas and those following the path of violence are defeated again? So what if Jesus’ non-violent direct action in the temple fails to bring in the Kingdom? So what if Jesus is arrested and crucified? That’s just the cost of doing prophetic business. Despite appearances to the contrary, Abram’s faithful God will somehow triumph in the end.

Is there a message for us here as the pope and Donald Trump disagree over authentic Christian faith?

I think there is.

Today’s readings tell us that God’s People are not to be led by frightened little men who place security above compassion for the poor and oppressed. Faith is not primarily about words, thinking, written creeds, or feeling in one’s heart. Instead it’s about living God’s life – the One who before Abram was willing to self-immolate rather than “break faith.”

Being a follower of Jesus is not about “security above all.” Quite the opposite: it is about risk on behalf of God’s true people – the poor, immigrants, and victims of war, violence and scorched earth.

Yes, Mr. Trump, there are people who say they believe in God, but who cancel out that belief by their concern for self-preservation and fearful willingness to sacrifice others rather than themselves. Such people cannot claim to be followers of the prophetic Jesus of Nazareth.

Showdown in Buffalo Holler (Personal Reflections Pt. IV)

Holiness

As I said last week, while Peggy, our growing family and I were “homesteading” in Appalachia, I learned a lot from our neighbors who lived in a small trailer on a lot next to ours that used to be a garbage dump. Neither Jimmy Lee nor Letty got beyond sophomore status in high school. But they were in many ways far ahead of us. They could build a house as they did together from recycled lumber. Jimmy Lee could do plumbing, electrical work, roofing and auto repair including bodywork and painting. (He was roughly my age.) Family income came from all that, but also from disability checks, food stamps, and welfare payments.

Those neighbors and what I was learning from teaching “Issues and Values” at Berea College influenced us in more ways than I can tell. Our neighbors were very kind and tolerant of us stupid college professors who didn’t know nothin’.

At the time, “Issues and Values” had us reading Silent Spring, Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, The No-Growth Economy, Food First, World Hunger: Twelve Myths, Blaming the Victim, and Diet for a Small Planet. Peggy and I also read Mother Earth News every month, and the National Catholic Reporter every week. All of that radically changed our way of thinking and made us want to simplify our lives.

So we dug our own well, because there was no “city water” where we lived. We heated our house entirely from a “Baby Bear” wood stove. That had me spending a lot of time cutting wood, stacking it and splitting it to keep the house warm.  It also meant that our water pipes would freeze periodically. So winter had me crawling in the dirt under the house with torch and solder, repairing our pipes. (It took me a while to learn how to do that without leaving drips.) Inevitably, when we had guests from either side of our family, our water would run out and we’d end up hauling water from a nearby pond to flush toilets. (Our families thought we were completely nuts.)

We also built a solar addition to our house. It was South-facing; with its entire wall in that direction made from recycled sliding glass doors. The floors in the two new rooms were brick (to absorb and store heat). The brick came from the torn-down Sears Building on Berea’s campus. We had gathered it and hauled it home in our old red Ford truck. In front of the windows we stationed eight 50 gallon barrels filled with water – again to store and radiate solar heat. (The barrels by the way came from a nearby ice cream factory. They had been filled with chocolate. So at the bottom of each was a large circle of covering for Eskimo Pies. Of course we broke all of that out and stored it in our refrigerator. That kept us in chocolate for years it seemed.) Our addition also featured a solar chimney to keep the room cool in the summer.

One Saturday a study group from nearby Appalachia Science in the Public Interest came by to examine our “model home.” That was about 1980 – just before the Reagan administration came into office and worked so hard to combat, reverse and defeat the environmental movement.

Besides the solar addition, I also dug a basement for our entire house. It started out as a root cellar (like the one our neighbors had). But then (using a mattock, wheel barrow, and shovel) I just kept expanding the excavation till we had an entire basement. From time to time friends would come by and help me dig. Then we had a carpenter-friend from our church pour a floor, and finish the thing. So we ended up nearly doubling the size of our house. We now had an additional large bedroom, another bathroom and a family room. And besides, all of that kept me from getting fat on Peggy’s gourmet cooking.

We had the only phone in Buffalo Holler. So our neighbors were often in our kitchen making calls. At Thanksgiving and Christmas we celebrated in each other’s home. Jimmy Lee and Letty were the Appalachians Berea College was teaching me about.  That meant they had inherited a rich culture. It included music, food, language (with expressions directly from Shakespeare’s England) and Holiness religion. Jimmy Lee played the guitar.

Several times Letty invited Peggy and me to Holiness Church Saturday evening worship. It took place in a shack not 15 feet from a railroad track located about two miles from where we lived. When trains went by, the entire place shivered as if the Holy Spirit were descending upon us all. There was hymn singing, spiritual gyrating, speaking in tongues, and preaching that went on and on — no snake handling though. At one meeting Peggy and I were prayed over and anointed.

None of this is to idealize our neighbors or neighborhood. The road in front of our house was unpaved. So there were waves of dust in the summer time and mud that wouldn’t end in the winter. On those cold days we had to back up a hundred yards to “get a run” at the hill just to get out of the holler and drive to the college. Inevitably before the hill’s peak, the car would balk, struggle and swerve back and forth in the mud or snow and sometimes not make it. So it was back to the bottom of the hill; get another run going and try again. You should have seen the deep ruts in the mud near that hilltop.

One day we woke up to find our car up on blocks in front of our house with all of the wheels gone. On another occasion, during a snow storm (and to avoid the morning struggles up that hill), we parked our little Subaru at the bottom of the hill about a half-mile from our home. When we returned the next morning, the car was on its head. Evidently, some of “the boys” had come by and decided to play us a trick. They picked the car up and flipped it over. We never again left the car like that out of our sight.

There was lots of alcoholism in the holler. Cars would race up and down the unpaved road in front of our house raising waves of dust in the process. One day, when Patrick was still a baby, Peggy had enough of it. She went down to Letty and Jimmy Lee’s to complain. They agreed to do something about it.

Next morning, about 6:00 their son, Billy Jim did. He was in his early twenties at the time and had already been in and out of jail for burglaries and drugs.  On this particular occasion, Billy Jim had been “a-drinkin’” as his father always put it.

Billy Jim wanted to fight me. “Mock,” he called from the road.  “Mock, get your ass out here!”

I went out on the road still in my pajamas and slippers. “Mock,” Billy Jim slurred, “Yesterday, your woman come down to our trailer – on our property, mind you! And her a-complainin’ about me makin’ noise and raisin’ dust. I don’t like that! Who does she think she is? Now you and me can have it out here with guns or knives or bare fists. What’ll it be?”

Now at this point I realized the conversation was going to end badly.  I hadn’t thrown a punch at anyone since grade school. But thankfully, about then our six-month old Patrick started crying from inside our house.  I said, “Billy Jim, listen. Peggy was worried about our kids, and especially about the baby crying there. Do you hear him? You understand I’m sure: she’s a mother; she’s worried about her baby.”

At that, Billy Jim got more thoughtful. “Well, yeah . . .” he muttered after a moment or two; “I guess you’re right.”

“And anyway,” I continued, “I wouldn’t like to see you lose your driver’s license.”

That was exactly the wrong thing to say.

“What?!” Billy Jim shouted. “You gonna call the Law on me? You gonna call the Law on me!! You do that and I swear I’ll take my car and run right over the top of your’n – and you in it! Y’ear me?!”

I don’t remember what I said to that. But eventually things quieted down. We talked some more and parted “friends” – I guess.

In the midst of all that, Peggy finished her graduate studies. She received her doctorate in Education at UK and wrote an award-winning dissertation on Paulo Freire – the great Brazilian educator whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed had influenced literacy programs throughout the Third World. The American Education Research Association identified Peggy’s work as the “Outstanding Dissertation Award for Conceptual Research.” I was so proud of her! That was in 1986.

Freire’s method of teaching and learning was central to the methodology of liberation theology, which had increasingly seized my attention since I first encountered it in 1969. It also had connections with Letty and Jimmy Lee who had in some ways — I’m sure you can see — had become our teachers. (More about that next week . . .)

Give Up Devil-Worship for Lent:Reject U.S. Imperialism

Temptation

Readings for First Sunday of Lent: Dt. 26: 4-10; Ps. 91: 1-2; 10-15; Rom. 10: 8-13; Lk. 4: 1-13.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. Lent is a time of renewal – of getting back to basics – to asking questions about what we really believe and what God we truly worship. Today’s liturgy of the word helps us to do both. Deuteronomy 26 directs us to the authentic faith of Jesus – in the God who liberates the enslaved. Today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel calls us to worship that God rather than devil – the evil one that our culture and church (!) have been worshipping for centuries – ever since they first embraced imperialism in the 4th century C.E. Let me explain.

Start with that reading from Deuteronomy 26. It’s a key text if we want to understand the God in whom Jesus placed his faith. Jesus, remember, was a Jew, not a Christian. And Deuteronomy 26 provides us with the creedal statement that the Jewish Jesus accepted as did all Jews of his time. I mean, for them, Deuteronomy 26 functioned much like our Nicene Creed does for us each Sunday. It was a reminder of their basic belief. As such, it can be summarized in the passage’s seven points:

  1. Our father (Abraham) was a wandering Aramean (a Syrian).
    2. “Abraham” (i.e. his descendents) went down into Egypt.
    3. There we became a great people.
    4. But the Egyptians enslaved us.
    5. We cried out to our God, Yahweh, who raised up the rebel prophet, Moses.
    6. He led us out of Egypt, across the sea, through the desert, and to this land “flowing with milk and honey.”
    7. This land is our gift from Yahweh; Thanks be to God!

That’s it! That was the faith that Jesus, the Jewish prophet, inherited from his ancestors. It was a tribal faith centered on the ownership of a God-given piece of land (Palestine) which (despite its dryness and desert character) the descendents of Jacob saw as rich and productive (flowing with milk and honey).

Notice that this Jewish faith had nothing to do with an afterlife, heaven or hell. (In fact, belief in the afterlife was a very late development among the Jews; it didn’t emerge even for debate until about 200 years before Jesus’ birth.) Instead, as among all hunter-gatherers, herds people and agriculturalists, Jewish faith was centered on land. Obviously then, it had little tolerance for colonial military forces like the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks or Romans all of whom at various times occupied Palestine. Colonialism and foreign occupation contradicted Jewish faith in a fundamental way. It was intolerable.

That was true for Jesus too. As a prophet, his fundamental proclamation was not about himself or about a new religion. Much less was it about the after-life or “going to heaven.” Instead, Jesus proclaimed the “Kingdom of God.” That phrase referred to what the world would be like without empire – if Yahweh were king instead of Rome’s Caesar. In other words, “Kingdom of God” was a political image among a people unable and unwilling to distinguish between politics and religion.

In God’s Kingdom, everything would be reversed and guiding principles would be changed. The first would be last; the last would be first. The rich would weep, and the poor would laugh. Prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the Kingdom, while the priests and “holy people” – all of them collaborators with Rome – would find themselves excluded. The world would belong not to the powerful, but to the “meek,” i.e. to the gentle, humble and non-violent. It would be governed not by force and “power over” but by compassion and gift (i.e. sharing).

The creedal account of Deuteronomy 26 sets the stage for today’s gospel narrative about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. (And it’s here that the devil-worship connected with empire enters the picture. Listen closely.) In a context of Roman occupation, Luke’s account raises the question of whom to worship. The choice he presents is stark: one can worship the devil the author of empire or Yahweh, the opponent of imperial power of all types.

That clear choice becomes apparent in Luke’s version of Jesus’ second temptation. From a high vantage point, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the earth. Then he says,

“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

Notice what’s happening here. The devil shows Jesus an empire infinitely larger than Rome’s – “all the kingdoms of the world.” Such empire, the devil claims, belongs to him: “It has been handed over to me.” This means that those who exercise imperial power do so because the devil has chosen to share his possession with them: “I may give it to whomever I wish.” The implication here is that Rome (and whoever exercises empire) is the devil’s agent. Finally, the tempter underlines what all of this means: devil-worship is the single prerequisite for empire’s possession and exercise: “All this will be yours, if you worship me.”

But Jesus responds,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”

Here Jesus quotes the Mosaic tradition summarized in Deuteronomy 26 to insist that empire and worship of Yahweh are incompatible. Put otherwise, at the beginning of his public life, Jesus declares his anti-imperial position in the strongest possible (i.e. scriptural) terms.

Now fast forward to the 4th century – 381 CE to be exact. In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan had removed from Christianity the stigma of being a forbidden cult. From 313 on, it was legal. By 325 Constantine had become so involved in the life of the Christian church that he himself convoked the Council of Nicaea to determine the identity of Jesus. Who was Jesus after all – merely a man, or was he a God pretending to be a man, or perhaps a man who became a God? Was he equal to Yahweh or subordinate to him? If he was God, did he have to defecate and urinate? These were the questions.

However, my point is that by the early 4th century the emperor had a strong hand in determining the content of Christian theology. And as time passed, the imperial hand grew more influential by the day. In fact, by 381 under the emperor Theodosius Christianity had become not just legal, but the official religion of the Roman Empire. As such its job was to attest that God (not the devil) had given empire to Rome in exchange for worshipping him (not the devil)!

Do you get my point here? It’s the claim that in the 4th century, Rome presented church fathers with the same temptation that Jesus experienced in the desert. But whereas Jesus had refused empire as diabolical, the prevailing faction of 4th century church leadership embraced it as a gift from God. In so doing they also said “yes” to the devil worship as the necessary prerequisite to aspirations to control “all the kingdoms of the world.” Christians have been worshipping the devil ever since, while calling him “God.”

No, today’s readings insist: all the kingdoms of the world belong only to God. They are God’s Kingdom to be governed not by “power over,” not by dominion and taking, but by love and gift which leave people like the liberated daughters and sons of Abraham free to live in control of their own God-given piece of earth. Or in the words of Jesus, the earth is meant to belong to those “meek” I mentioned – the gentle, humble, and non-violent.

All of this has implications for us as would-be followers of Jesus and as citizens of a country whose “leaders” (supported by their “Christian” counterparts) increasingly embrace empire as the inevitable and fitting destiny of the United States.

In fact, in 2003, then vice-president, Dick Cheney sent out a Christmas card on which was inscribed the words, “And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Cheney’s implication was that the United States is God’s new chosen people. Empire as practiced by the United States represents God’s will.

Instead, today’s Liturgy of the Word tells us the opposite. Empires arise only with the devil’s aid.

Does this mean that faithful followers of Jesus must pray for the defeat of the United States in its imperial conquests? Must we discourage our sons and daughters from joining the military?
(Discussion follows)

My Move to Appalachia (Personal Reflections, Part III)

bereacover

There were, of course, many reasons (intellectual, spiritual, and personal) for my exit from the priesthood. I’ve already explained them here, and here, herehere, and here.

While I was deciding all of that, my request for a year of discernment brought me to Kentucky and the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP) where I mentored young volunteers from all over the States. The job entailed living with the legendary activist priest Monsignor Ralph Beiting. It exposed me not only to his direct influence, but to Appalachia, one of the poorest areas in the U.S. There my education about my own country continued.

After a year with CAP, my exit-decision was made. I resigned from the priesthood and took a job as a cutter in a Dayton, Ohio factory that made protective clothing for fire fighters. Meanwhile I sent out resumes in search of a job in post-secondary teaching, which I felt was my real vocation.

Several months later I landed a job teaching at Berea College in Kentucky. And there (to tell the truth) my own education took a quantum leap. Berea College, it turned out, was a school with a radical history. It had been founded by abolitionists before the Civil War. It was Christian but non-denominational. Berea was committed to racial equality and social justice. I became one of its first Catholic professors.

My first year at Berea found me teaching a required freshman course called “Issues and Values.” I scrambled to learn our curriculum: black history, women’s liberation, Appalachian culture (so resistant to the mainstream), world religions, and the dawning environmental crisis. There in the 1970s we were reading and teaching the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, and books like E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man, and Frances Moore Lappe’s Food First. Those books were extremely prescient. They accurately predicted the climate chaos and resulting social unrest we are experiencing today. I find those books even more relevant to the contemporary world than they were then.

More importantly for my development, I took on at Berea another required course. This one was for sophomores – “Religious and Historical Perspectives,” a two-semester offering in the history of ideas.  It was a Great Books course dealing almost exclusively in primary sources. It took students from biblical times through the Greeks and Romans, the medieval period, renaissance, reformation, scientific revolution, enlightenment, industrial revolution, and ended up with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City.  Students (and I!) were reading directly authors like Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Luther, Galileo, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud. Faculty development had our interdisciplinary team of professors doing summer seminars over several years. Together we took month-long courses from specialists in the scientific revolution, Dante, Darwin, Marx and apocalyptic literature. At that point in my life it all seemed like a capstone course in my own process. Much more however was to come.

More importantly still, at Berea I met my beautiful bride. Ten years younger than me, Peggy also arrived at Berea in 1974. Two years later we were married. I was 36 then.

The two of us were strongly influenced by the environmental movement.  We imagined ourselves as real “back to nature” couple. For $8000, we bought an unfinished house in an Appalachian holler, finished it with our own hands and started raising a family.  Eventually we had three children, Maggie (’79), Brendan (’82), and Patrick (‘86). As citified outsiders, we lived in that holler learning lots from our Appalachian neighbors (all of them kin to one another). Our neighbor next-door taught me about things that had to that point escaped my education: roofing, car repair, plumbing, and about soldering pipes periodically ruptured by freezing winter temperatures. I watched him and his wife build a home next to ours. They made it completely from lumber salvaged from another house they had helped tear down in Berea. For all their problems, Jimmy Lee and Letty were smarter than many of us over-educated college professors.

Domesticating Laudato Si’: Our Milk Toast Diocesan Study Guide

Science-vs-BS

This week (Just in time for Lent) the Lexington Catholic diocese published a study guide for Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ outspoken encyclical on the problems resulting from climate change. The guide called Discovering Laudato Si: A Small Group Study Guide.

Following two introductions – one to the social teachings of the church, the other to the booklet itself – Discovering Laudato Si’ consists of eight two-page chapters and a “Final Reflection.”  In each “chapter,” one page is devoted to excerpts from the pope’s encyclical. The second page lays out three or four questions related to the chapter’s selections.

That plan is indeed helpful for small group discussions in the parish settings for which it is intended. It means participants can avoid homework. They can actually read an assigned chapter during the relevant meeting itself.

That seems, perhaps, a positive contribution.

The booklet’s liabilities however overwhelm that modest asset. That’s because Discovering Laudato Si’ does exactly what Pope Francis refused to do in his authoritative letter to the entire church. The diocesan guide bends over backward attempting not to offend.

In his encyclical, the pope might well have said “The topic of climate change is controversial. Some see it as caused by humans and threatening to the very existence of the human race. Others say that climate variability is cyclical and natural, and can be remedied by human technology. Of course, such matters are too complex for non-experts and even for the Church to decide. So while the experts are resolving that “big picture,” let’s be practical. Let’s all take a deep breath, slow down, and avoid environmental crusades. Let’s determine the ‘small tasks’ that little people can do to mitigate the environmental damage our lifestyles may be causing. Let’s reduce, reuse, and recycle. You see, environmental crusading might offend those with opposite opinions. And remember, Christians must be nice. On these matters, the faithful should ‘bend to the pastor’s direction’.”

The pope avoided all of that. But it’s the actual argument the diocesan discussion guide makes!

True: it lets the pope’s encyclical speak for itself on the first page of each chapter. But the question page often subtly retracts what the pope’s overall document says. For instance, the questions at the end of Chapter One create a false equivalency between the 97% of scientists who recognize that climate change is caused by humans, and the 3% who deny human causality. “This debate will not be resolved anytime soon,” the study guide sagely observes!

The pope however did nothing of the kind. He was not concerned with possible offense to the 3%. Instead, he called for “a bold cultural revolution” (114). He denounced capitalism-as-we-know-it (190). He called for “radical change” (171). He identified climate deniers as “obstructionists” (14) He demanded “reparations” (wealth redistribution) for global south countries wounded by the climate crimes committed by their rich colonizers (30, 51, 52). He suggested a form of world governance (53, 173-‘75}

All of these are “big picture” items that the diocesan guide recommends we leave to the experts. In fact they are the very stuff of elections, political campaigns – and wars. For that reason, Francis’ document has evoked the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and the entire Republican establishment.

Limbaugh said, “Pope Francis attacked unfettered capitalism as ‘a new tyranny’ and beseeched global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality . . . Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the ‘idolatry of money’ . . . This is just pure Marxism coming out of the mouth of the pope.”

Why did the pope avoid the milk toast approach of the Lexington diocese?  It’s because he knows that we’re on a train that is speeding 200 mph down a track and headed for a precipice just a mile away.

In the face of such impending calamity telling people of faith to take our time, be “deliberate,” avoid “rash actions,” “ecological crusades,” and “headlong rush into the fray,” is misleading in a real and tragic sense of the word.